A romance with the pitch: Ramachandra Guha’s latest is an intimate love letter for cricket

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January 17, 2021 3:00 AM

An aspiring cricketer-turned-historian, Guha pens a passionate ode to the game and his undimmed love for it

A file photo of boys playing cricket near the Taj Mahal in Agra (AP Image)A file photo of boys playing cricket near the Taj Mahal in Agra (AP Image)

Never before, and never since surely, will any book of mine so completely bring together my work and my life.” Ramachandra Guha wrote in his previous book on cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport.

These words perhaps can also be said about his new book, The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind, reflective of the many ways his life has been deeply entwined with the sport. So intimate is this book that Guha vividly records the moment he went home soon after his first child was born, his wife still in hospital, and read a particular chapter from Beyond a Boundary. Why does a father, whose only yearning for his first two decades was to be a cricketer, turn to a tragic episode about the unfulfilled promise of a cricket player at the birth of his son? Guha leaves it to readers to interpret.

The previous work was a sociological history of the sport in India; the latest one is a romance written by a historian who always carries a notebook, and locates connections and causalities in seemingly disparate incidents.

Karnataka’s victory over Bombay in the Ranji trophy semi-final in March 1974 is the watershed moment in Indian domestic cricket. It ended Bombay’s domination and led to the decentring of the sport. This was the year Guha joined college. Years later, when Sachin Tendulkar played his first Test match in November 1989, Guha published his first book in the same month. Let’s not spoil it by calling it a mere chance.

There are historians and there are autobiographers—and there are also lovers. But not all historians are in love with the language, and not many lovers write great letters. Guha can be read for the sheer joy of his stylistic prose alone. He weaves a novelistic narrative, marked by unexpected twists and turns. In a supremely crafted paragraph, for instance, he describes a cautious innings played by the Pakistani batsman Mudassar Nazar that he had been watching live in Bangalore. Guha then introduces his equally cautious father Nazar Mohammed into the narrative via the match commentator Lala Amarnath, before he suddenly turns to the “off the field” risks Nazar had taken when he courted the already married singer Nur Jehan. In a few delightful sentences Guha traverses a large territory—the joys of watching a match live, the cricketer father and the son, the adventures of the father and the memories of the commentator.

Obviously then, writing on cricket is a therapy for him. He slipped into deep depression after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and could overcome his block only after his keyboard began speaking the vocabulary of the sport. Perhaps it’s not without reason that after the two staggering and scholarly volumes on the Mahatma, his next book is an ode to a sport Gandhi had no love for.

The Commonwealth of Cricket begins with Guha remembering his birthplace, Dehradun, and the early years he spent in the city that sowed in him the love for cricket. Here we are introduced to his uncle and first hero N Duraiswami, before Guha and the memoir shifts to St Stephen’s in Delhi. For two full decades he pursued the dream of becoming a cricketer before realising his ineligibility for the big game. He began a scholarly life but the game followed him during his travels for professional assignments. The book records marvelous details of the matches he saw and wonderful sketches of the cricketers he met.

One chapter is on his favourite foreign cricketers, some of whom he remembers with great fondness, and a separate one on the Pakistanis. I find his description of Javed Miandad, considered to be a tough fighter, most insightful. Miandad had a running rivalry with his suave teammate Imran Khan. Khan in particular wasn’t always fair to his colleague; and yet Miandad did not seem annoyed when Khan in his pompous 1992 World Cup speech ignored his players. Instead, Miandad sympathised with his captain as it was only human to lose restraint in an “intense emotional moment”. Such empathy when a complaint would be perfectly understandable upends the image we have of the batsman; it is also reflective of the status the book accords to the values the greats are expected to embody.

The two chapters where Guha gets into a fierce argument with several cricketers, newspaper editors and BCCI men are about his tenure as a member with the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators. When he joined the COA, one of his friends was worried that he might lose the “romantic” in him. Guha thinks he did, a reader of this book might believe otherwise.

Youthful idealism, that rare blend of innocence and integrity, is infectious. Imagine if it pervades your writings in your sixties, a stage when people are allowed to harden. The book is full of instances the scholar came across as “a frothing, blabbering fan” when he met his cricket heroes. Who other than a romantic would propose that the heroes of one’s youth shall always be unapproachable, and would give such evocative titles to chapters—Handshakes with Heroes and Sightings of Sachin? Guha still remembers a “fried egg, sunny side up” he had seen on a Test cricketer’s plate in his teens; and he can hear rich resonance in the names of Sri Lankan players.

This book records an emotion that has not faded with age, a memory that has not gained wrinkles with time, a romance that has retained both its innocence and vulnerability. It was, then, perfectly plausible that at the age of 16 Guha would believe that since he “played with the lads who played with the men who played with the gods”, the road to Clive Lloyd “was but two and a half cricket steps” from him. It is this emotion that ensured that the only necktie he possesses is of his home state Karnataka’s Friends Union Cricket Club, the apparel he proudly wore at places like King’s College, Cambridge; All Soul’s College, Oxford; “and—with the greatest pleasure—in the pavilion of the Lord’s Cricket Ground”.

Guha elsewhere quotes Jane O’Reilly that the “one nice thing about sports is that they prove men do have emotions and are not afraid to show them”. One nice thing about books on sports is that they prove men do have romances and are not afraid to write about them.

Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, received the Atta Galatta Non-Fiction Book of the Year award

The Commonwealth of Cricket
Ramachandra Guha
Rs 699, Pp 360

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