Saturday, Apr 01, 2023

Book Review: The Commonwealth Of Cricket By Ramachandra Guha

Book Review: The Commonwealth Of Cricket By Ramachandra Guha

Following the narrative of his life intertwined and in love with the sport, Ramachandra Guha captures the magic of bat and ball that has ensnared billions.

The Commonwealth of Cricket By Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is a historian of unquestioned merit and renowned. As a fan, player, writer, scholar, environmentalist and administrator, Ramachandra Guha has spent a life with cricket. Guha has also written quite a few books on cricket - A Corner of a Foreign Field, The Picador Book of Cricket, Spin and Other Turns, Wickets in the East. The Commonwealth of Cricket is the fourth book in which he offers both a charming memoir and a charter of the life of cricket in India.

He traces the game across every level at which it is played; school, college, club, state and country. He offers vivid portraits of local heroes, provincial icons and international stars. Following the narrative of his life intertwined and in love with the sport, Guha captures the magic of bat and ball that has ensnared billions.

Guha can write entertainingly on any topic and with even more authority on cricket, which he has played and followed with a special passion. Cast as a work of literature, The Commonwealth of Cricket is keenly informed by the author’s scholarly training, the stories and sketches narrated against a wider canvas of social and historical change. The book blends memoir, anecdote, reportage and political critique, providing a rich, insightful and rivetingly readable account of this greatest of games as played in the country that has most energetically made this sport its own.

The Commonwealth of Cricket is a first-person account of this astonishing transformation. The book traces the entire arc of cricket in India, across all levels at which the game is played; school, college, club, state, country. At some point the books paints a wider canvas as he talks about cricket history, his favourite cricketers, the cricketers he has met, about the matches he has watched. He also offers vivid portraits of local heroes, provincial icons and international stars. Later on, the book moves outwards.

The Commonwealth of Cricket starts as a cricketing memoir. Guha talks about how he started watching cricket, when he started playing, his school and college cricketing days. If you are into cricket books, you know exactly what this is – memoir, cricket history and culture, descriptions and anecdotes of great players and favourite players from school, club, state and national teams, commentary on contemporary cricketing issues.

It is indeed great to read chapters were the early ones which were autobiographical and the chapter on Guha's favourite Pakistani cricketers. There is a long section in it on Javed Miandad, which is amusing. The author also describes an anecdote in which he has a beautiful long conversation with a Pakistani cricket fan in Copenhagen (of all places). That conversation is captured brilliantly in the book. Other parts of the book are also fascinating in where he talks about cricketers from a bygone era who had retired before I was born.
The penultimate chapter is about his stint with the BCCI, and how this completely unlikely event of someone who is a fan and also a writer on the game — who has written a few books on the game, but essentially as a fan — being catapulted into the committee of administrators. It ends with a reflective chapter on what cricket means to him today when he is in his 60s. That is kind of the whole arc of the book.

It was heartening to read a chapter dedicated to Keith Miller, a legend. There was also one on Vijay Hazare which was very beautiful. It is a nostalgic, reflective book, but also has lots of portraits of individuals, recollections, incidents, characters, matches he watched, including sometimes club and college matches.

In the last chapter of the book, in which Guha gives a nod to philosopher William James by calling it “Varieties of Cricketing Chauvinism” (William James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience), he says this – “There are two fundamental axes of cricketing chauvinism: of nation and of generation. Every cricket fan almost without exception is born with them, and most cricket fans never outgrow them." It’s fascinating when you read that!

The book works at two levels – his “lifelong affair with the most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind” and his BCCI stint that lasted just five months but the pain it caused has led him to devote two of the book’s 11 chapters or some 80 of its 347 pages to this episode.

“There was no trace of ambivalence in how I saw the apex body of the game in India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India. I had long detested the control over the BCCI of scheming politicians and self-important ex-Maharajas. The shady nature of its financial operations stank. Then the Indian Premier League began, and the BCCI’s operations became even more dodgy,” Guha writes in The Commonwealth Of Cricket on his brief stint in the BCCI.

With amazing recall for events, details, personalities (large and small), and anecdotes (not always bound by facts), he weaves a wonderful narrative of his life as a cricket partisan, albeit a well-read and (apart from his state team of Karnataka) a non-parochial one.

"This was a super hard-sell of the product, making fantastic claims for its contributions to cricket and to society. Corporate boxes, those testimonies to greed and cronyism, were described gushingly as taking cricket watching to a higher level, through the ‘new and unique experience' they allegedly facilitated," Guha writes, adding: "Through this presentation the Board official looked largely at me, perhaps because of my reputation as an IPL baiter."
The narrative is as enchanting as the spin of Bishan Singh Bedi and EAS Prasanna, as charming as the batting of Gundappa Viswanath or Vijay Hazare; it transports us out of our present miseries into a magic world where on a lazy afternoon the willow meets leather, making the loveliest sound in the world.

Cricket has a rich body of literature compared to other sports, and cricket books have been around for more than a century and a half, longer than any other sport. Guha's newest book is a beautiful new addition to this vast, rich ocean. It is more conversational and anecdotal.
This book is, in a sense, complementary to A Corner of a Foreign Field, which is more scholarly and footnoted and so on. It is a beautiful book on being a cricket fan and of outgrowing this chauvinism and you would feel that Guha's own experience mirrored to you.
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price:Rs 559

(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is Bangalore-based management consultant, literary critic and advisor with Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be reached at [email protected] Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)