An ode to cricket, taken with a pinch of salt
The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind (HarperCollins India, 2020) is Ramachandra Guha's latest book on cricket. It is his ode to a game his mother introduced him to at the age of four, and his father told him stories of.
In this memoir, Guha narrates his personal journey in cricket, covering an almost six decade, "lifelong affair". The book offers us the partisan, though honest, view of an Indian cricket fan (not necessarily a fan of Indian cricket) who has seen and experienced the game at multiple levels. The book also describes the evolution of Indian cricket from its infancy to its current status as a powerhouse of the sport and host of the world's most lucrative cricket franchise.
There are eleven chapters designed to represent a cricket team. Except for chapters nine and ten, the memoir is written from memory. Only one cricketer commands a single chapter—national icon, Sachin Tendulkar—in chapter six. This is not only a tribute to one of India's greatest cricketers, but also a portrayal of the transformation of Indian cricket into a global power during Tendulkar's era, and the craze it continues to generate in a country of 1.3 billion where cricket is "the" only sport.
Guha pens a personal vision of the whole gamut of cricket in India, which he either personally experienced, observed, or heard from his father and mother. It ranges from school cricket, college cricket, university cricket, club cricket, the Ranjit Trophy, and international cricket. It also includes cricketers outside India with a special chapter on "Some favourite Pakistanis" (Chapter 8), where we see the mutual love and admiration cricketers have for one another, regardless of the fans who view the game as warfare.
Guha captures established cricketers and also those who never made the "big time", or played the game just for the love of it, as he himself often did, recreationally. This is typical Guha at his best, digging out lesser giants who tend to get overshadowed by larger giants. In A Corner of a Foreign Field (Penguin, 2014) Guha portrayed Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit, who, in his eyes, was the first great Indian cricketer, though one who has been historically overlooked given India's caste system.
Guha's love for cricket is as undying as it is stringent. It is based on the notion of ethics and fairness the historied sport was built on. So it was fate that he, in January of 2017, found himself as an administrator of the BCCI—the highest cricket body in India. Chapters nine and ten narrate insights from his diary on the IPL, and the many conflicts of interest that arose. He soon found that he could no longer turn a blind eye to the corruption within the system. In less than six months, Guha quit his role as administrator.
In spite of the pinch of salt from the BCCI and the IPL, the book shines with its love for cricket and for cricketers of integrity, as exemplified by the likes of Bisen Singh Bedi, Durai, and others. Guha was present at the quarter-final of the 1996 World Cup, a match between India and Pakistan at Bangalore. After Miandad was run out for 38, he was one of the few in the stadium who stood and saluted Miandad's last international innings. The rest of the stadium jeered. This jingoism in cricket is something that Guha worries about.
In his young days, all Guha wanted to see was an Indian victory. As he turns 63 on the day this review is published (Apr 29, 2021), he finds himself becoming "less nationalistic". Like legendary batsman, Jack Fingleton, he looks forward to any good performance so he can say "with joy in his voice, I saw that performance".
The Commonwealth of Cricket is a beautiful love-letter that captures cricket from its many different angles. It may well stand the test of time and earn itself a place beside Beyond a Boundary (Hutchinson, 1963) by CLR James.
Ramachandra Guha's The Commonwealth of Cricket is available at Omni Books, Dhanmondi. Orders can be placed at fb.com/omnibooksbd.
Asrar Chowdhury is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University and a lover of Test Cricket. Email: [email protected]