RAMACHANDRA GUHA The Commonwealth of Cricket. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
Subtitled ‘A lifelong love affair with the most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind’ Ramachandra Guha’s memoir explores one man’s multiple connections with cricket, from boyhood fandom to clear-eyed assessments of the state of the game.
Timing matters, and I finished reading this book on the morning of 19 January, just hours before India’s measured and then spectacular chase of 328 runs for victory in the fourth Test at Brisbane’s Woolloongabba ground – perhaps their greatest victory of all.
I first encountered Ram Guha’s writing when we were both contributors to the brilliant English cricket history magazine Cricket Lore (1991–2006), and shortly after reading his superb social history of Indian cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (2004).
Guha has written seven other cricket books and much cricket journalism. However, he has carved a much bigger international reputation with his writing on environmental, social, economic and political matters, and particularly for his two-volume biography of MK Gandhi.
This book begins with family influences (especially his uncle Durai), extends through his schooldays, his associations with leading players, his talking, reading and writing about the game, to finally undertaking a brief role in national cricket administration.
It unfolds (like a great innings) from a firm base. Writing in his first chapter of being Durai’s ‘favourite nephew’, Guha says it was not surprising that he was the object of his uncle’s fantasies, for he was already ‘cricket mad’ such that by the age of seven he had acquired his first Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
By the time I was eight, I was scoring for the FRI [Forest Research Institute – his father’s employer] in their matches. In the winter sunshine I sat on a bench outside the pavilion; a table in front of me, the instruments of my trade spread out on it – the scoring book, several pens, and an open bottle of Quink’s Royal Blue Ink.
This image, lucidly rendered, is typical of many flourishing strokes (of the pen) to come.
The greatest writers on sport are frequently those who are limited as players. Guha is a reasonable off-spinner and poor batsman, but the man who swapped stories of post-war cricket star Vinoo Mankad for the theories of Marx, Weber and Durkheim during his training as a sociologist in his twenties never quite loses the sense of cricket’s importance in his formative years.
In opening the chapter ‘Handshakes with Heroes’ Guha tells a wonderful tale (against himself) of a second meeting with his boyhood hero Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, former Indian captain and one-time Nawab of Pataudi. Pataudi had sought a meeting with the 46-year-old academic after being approached by the BBC to do an interview for a social history of Indian cricket. Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field had only recently been published and he describes visiting Pataudi’s Delhi home, his host’s immaculate manners, and his egregious error when being escorted to the gate on his departure.
‘It was a real pleasure meeting you, Professor Guha, I hope we meet again,’ Pataudi says, not realising that his guest would reply with, ‘Actually we have met before’, and then proceed to recount how as a teenager he had attempted to acquire a complimentary ticket to the 1974 Delhi Test match from Indian wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani. Kirmani had been sharing breakfast at the Maidens Hotel with Abid Ali and Pataudi, who had been ‘eating a fried egg, sunny side up’.
This was true. I can see that egg on the plate still. True, but spectacularly foolish as well. As I reached the last line of my extensive recollection, the look on my host’s face turned from confusion to contempt. The visiting scholar and expert, Professor Guha, so highly recommended … had turned out to be a frothing, blabbering fan.
As a writer, of course, Guha is anything but a blabbering fan. In his closing chapter he discusses what he calls ‘two fundamental axes of cricketing chauvinism: of nation and of generation’ and argues that ‘most cricket fans never outgrow them’. He certainly has. When he was a boy he wanted India to win every match against every opponent: in his maturity he still wants India to win but wants a good match. Quoting Australian cricketer/writer Jack Fingleton that ‘there are no cricketers like those seen with twelve-year-old eyes’, he nevertheless admits to replacing Viswanath with Kohli and Prasanna with Ashwin in an All-Time Indian Eleven.
The conclusion draws together a vision that has expanded beyond the Friends Union Cricket Club, Karnataka and Indian heroes, to include outstanding players in all the major cricketing nations. Of the many sharp analyses offered two examples will suffice.
One of the best sections of the book is his criticism of the conservative Australian selection policy in not picking leg-spinner Stuart MacGill to partner Shane Warne during the Ashes series of 2005. In presenting a three-page appreciation of MacGill, he also turns his attention to Michael Holding’s commentary in the Super Test played in Sydney later the same year in which the West Indian remarked that MacGill bowled an off-stump line because he ‘turns the ball much less than Warne’. In a most forthright manner Guha explains, ‘When I heard Holding say what he did, I was tempted to get up and chuck the sofa at the screen.’ Fortunately, he didn’t have to because sitting alongside Holding in the commentary box was Richie Benaud, who emphasised with typical economy that ‘MacGill is a HUGE spinner of the ball’. Summarising his overall argument, Guha then notes:
In a long interview the day this Super Test ended, Anil Kumble expressed his surprise at MacGill sitting out the Ashes summer in England. ‘He is a very fine bowler,’ said Anil. ‘And very different from Warne. If he had played the Tests in England, the Ashes would still have been with Australia.’ This was not mere trade union chummery, but the honest appreciation of a fellow artist.
A second major player appreciation is of Karachi street fighter Javed Miandad in the chapter ‘Some Favourite Pakistanis’. Guha’s first televised view of Javed was his shock at seeing him strike star leg-spinner Chandrasekhar out of the ground at Lahore in 1978, and in 1996, attending a one-day international match with his uncle Durai in Bangalore, he became aware of experiencing different feelings from the spectators around him.
He, [Durai] like countless others, would not forget Miandad’s last-ball six against India in Sharjah, which won his side the match. When that shot was played, back in 1986, I was living in Connecticut. Everyone around me had seen the shot on television or heard it on the radio; I had only read about it when the Indian papers arrived at my university two weeks later. And where I now saw the man, ageing, they saw the myth, who would hit the last ball of this match also for six. But I could see that Miandad was playing from memory, without the power to even reach the boundary along the ground. Nine an over were required when he was run out by a direct hit. When he walked off the ground I stood up to applaud him. ‘Why are you clapping’ asked an obnoxious fellow from a row behind. ‘You should clap him too,’ I answered recklessly. ‘This is the last time any of us will see him bat.’ ‘Thank God I shall never see the bastard again,’ came the reply. How did I ever think that an uncertain internationalism would be equal to a single-minded patriotism?
It might be said that Guha’s thinking represents the right sort of internationalism and that a mind such as his could be well utilised in sporting administration.
It was nevertheless a surprise that as an ‘anti-Establishment’ man he found himself in 2017 appointed as a member of a Committee of Administrators asked to reform the Board of Control for Cricket in India following a Supreme Court investigation of corrupt practices and conflicts of interest within the national body. What wasn’t a surprise was that his tenure was brief; his resignation owing to the failure of the COA to address conflict of interest issues and stem the power of the superstar culture. From four months with the BCCI he reached the melancholy conclusion that ‘were the game better administered in India, the Indian team would never lose a cricket match’.
Cricket in India was the greatest, the most intense, popular passion in the history of the human race. There was a colossal fanbase some several hundred million strong. There were ten times as many cricket-crazy Indians as there were football-mad Brazilians. The BCCI had huge cash reserves. With this demographic and financial base, India should always and perennially have been the top team in all formats of the game. If we still lost matches and series, then surely the fault lay with how the game was (mis)managed in our country.
Guha adds that he knew Indian cricket administrators were ‘venal and corrupt’ before taking on his role, but ‘what surprised and shocked me more was how amoral India’s top cricketers were’. After leaving the COA, in a letter to a friend he itemised four categories of cricket superstars in India, and shares these with his readers:
- Crooks who consort with and pimp for bigger non-cricket playing crooks.
- Those who are willing and keen to practise conflict of interest explicitly.
- Those who will try to be on the right side of the law but stay absolutely silent on … those in categories 1 and 2.
- Those who are themselves clean and also question those in categories 1 and 2.
Guha has been described as a ‘cricket romantic’ but he is no woolly-headed dreamer. The Commonwealth of Cricket is an essential read for the intelligent cricket watcher wary of the game’s crude excesses.
Ramachandra Guha The Commonwealth of Cricket: A lifelong love affair with the most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind HarperCollins 2020 PB 336pp $34.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is George Giffen: A Biography.
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