Ramachandra Guha’s approach to cricket and cricket writing reveals more about the man than his myriad accomplishments in other fields. As historian, anthropologist, biographer, environmentalist, or social and political commentator, he tells us about the world—and ourselves. But it is through cricket that he reveals himself. “I write on history to make a living and on cricket to live,” he once said.
Thus, he is a romantic who knows there was no “uncontaminated past in which the playground was free of social pressure and social influence”. He is a fan only too acutely aware of some heroes’ feet of clay. He is immersed in the folklore and mythology of the game, but sees them for what they are. It is a rare mix of qualities existing comfortably between Pollyanna and Diogenes. Decades of writing about the game haven’t ruined for him its essential humanity.
For that is what connects everything Guha writes—humanity. Guha’s writings on the game are of a piece with his other work. The overarching humanity of his biography of Verrier Elwin (Savaging the Civilised), and the story of the evolution of modern India in A Corner of a Foreign Field make him not merely the accessible academic, but also a philosopher with a human face.
But this is no ivory tower philosopher. He responded professionally when the Supreme Court named him in the Committee of Administrators. His letter of resignation later exposed the cozy system of mutual accommodation that existed between the cricket board and its units. It was a fine piece of writing.
To write on cricket, Guha said, “One must also know how to fail and fail disastrously”. That explains why the best writers on the game are not the Bradmans or the Tendulkars. As a player, Guha saw himself as moderately skilled. But that turned out to be an advantage, for as he explains, “Had I been much better, I would not have had the necessary empathy; had I been much worse, I would not have had the necessary understanding”. Empathy and understanding run like a golden thread through all of Guha’s writings.
Provoked by sociologist Ashis Nandy’s procrustean approach to the game in The Tao of Cricket, Guha wrote Wickets in the East; thrown into depression over the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he sought solace in cricket, and dashed off Spin and Other Turns in a week’s furious writing. With these books Guha liberated cricket writing in India from the two poles it had been tethered to—the cynical-journalistic and the statistical-dogmatic. Cricket, he underlined in these anecdotal histories, is about the human stories, not just of the players but of the fans too; its humour is rich, its culture varied.
The Picador Book of Cricket, which he edited, is as much a tribute to the facets of the game and its personalities as it is to those who wrote about it. Guha brings to cricket writing the sheer joy of watching, of reading about it, of revelling in its traditions. He appreciates the chasm between the man who can spin a ball in his backyard and the genius who does it for a living on the world stage. Guha understood this and captured it in those early books. These were fans’ books, and it was no coincidence that on the title page of one was the line from Ian Peebles: “There are no cricketers like those seen through twelve-year-old eyes.”
Twelve-year-old eyes are—next to modest talent and passion—the most important attributes of the superior cricket writer. Cricket is a game but its heroes are gods, significant beyond its 22 yards. The writer needs to be aware of this paradox.
Commenting on books on 19th century England, a social history and a history of the common people, C.L.R. James said, “I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace”. Guha is unlikely to write a social history of India without mentioning Sachin Tendulkar or his own favourite cricketer, Gundappa Viswanath.
“I am a social historian by profession and a cricket writer by inclination,” Guha wrote, proud of keeping his work and leisure separate.
At the turn of the century, however, the scholar and the fan came together as Guha opened up a third field of cricket writing: the historical-interpretative with A Corner of a Foreign Field. It is as much a post-colonial text as revisionist history, which pastes a more nuanced Indian picture over the conqueror’s version of history. The question of Lord Harris being the father of Indian cricket, for instance, is handled firmly. “His contributions to the development of Indian cricket have been vastly exaggerated,” says Guha, adding, “Had he played more cricket with or against Indians he might have been less disliked”.
If James asked in Beyond A Boundary the most famous question in cricket literature: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”, Guha asks in this modern classic, ‘what do they know of history who only history know?’
“Cricket”, wrote Guha, “has always been a microcosm of the fissures and tensions within Indian society; fissures that it has both reflected and played upon, mitigated as well as intensified. The cricket lover might seek to keep his game pure, but the historian finds himself straying willy-nilly into those great overarching themes of Indian history: race, caste, religion and nation.” These are the themes he explores in the book, which won the MCC Cricket Society Award.
It introduces a personality important to both history and cricket, Palwankar Baloo, left-arm spinner and, in Guha’s words, the first great Indian cricketer. Baloo was a Dalit who could not sup at the same table as his teammates at the Hindu gymkhana when he started out. Through the course of his career, things changed. He became an insider, a candidate for captaincy. When he was dropped, it led to a public outcry. He was the hero of the young B.R. Ambedkar, later the voice of the Dalits.
Baloo toured England with an Indian team in 1911 (India became a Test-playing country only in 1932), and finished with 114 wickets. Only one other Indian, Vinoo Mankad, has claimed 100-plus wickets on an England tour, in 1946. The story of Baloo, whose talent helped him transcend caste, is riveting. As Guha dug deeper, he realised not just the symbolism it contained but the historical facts that had been neglected by historians. Guha wears his learning lightly; the research is extensive but not intrusive. Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability inspired the Palwankar brothers. Shivram, Vithal and Ganpat also played for the Hindus, with Vithal breaking another barrier by captaining the team. If cricket introduced Indians under British rule to the concept of fair play and justice, it also played a role in highlighting the ills and absurdities of the caste system.
In the section on ‘Nation’, Guha brings the story up to date, with race, caste and religion making way for nationhood. To use his own words from the Elwin biography, the interpretation is in the telling. A Corner of a Foreign Field is also valuable for the peep into the life and methods of a researcher. Guha is a magician who does not shrink from telling us how it is done.
Let me end with a favourite story. Some years ago, when my son was graduating, a professor told him of the choices ahead: pure science, technology, public service, media, or, he said, “Ramachandra Guha”. That was the first time I was hearing of Guha as a career option. The professor meant it as generic term for brilliance spread over a number of fields.
Luckily, cricket is one of them.
(Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack and Contributing Editor, The Hindu)