Historian and cricket “fan” Ramachandra Guha is back to what he loves the most — talking and writing about the sport that has earned him many an accolade and award in the world of sports literature.
In the run up to the launch of his newest book, The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind, at the Tata Literature Live Mumbai Litfest this year — where he will also be in conversation with journalist Rajdeep Sardesai — Firstpost caught up with the scholar to learn about his reflections on the sport, his belief that cricket has trumped Bollywood in the popularity race, and why the best cricket commentators are not “remotely Indian”.
In your new book, The Commonwealth of Cricket, it seems that you examine the sport’s history in India through a fairly personal lens. Now, if I remember correctly, one of your earlier books on cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport (2014), also had a chapter by the same name. How is your new book different from A Corner of a Foreign Field, and your other books on cricket, like Wickets in the East: An Anecdotal History (1992)?
It is examined through an entirely personal lens, not just a fairly personal lens — it is a memoir, unlike A Corner of a Foreign Field, which was a work of social history. Also, it is not only about cricket in India, but is about cricket in other countries too. This is also not a history, but a personal life journey through that person’s principle passion. I am a historian by profession, and I write scholarly books. I am now in my 60s, and from the time I was four of five, I have had a deep interest — and for a large period of time — obsession with cricket.
So what this (book) does, is to convey this obsession/interest/passion through my old life. The first cricket I watched in Dehradun, which is a small town I grew up in, was club cricket played largely for fun. Then, moving on to school and playing for the school team, and travelling to Bangalore, where of course cricket is much more competitive. Then moving on to college, where I played for St Stephen’s (Delhi) with two future test cricketers and many Ranji Trophy players.
After that, here was a period when I decided that this is all frivolous sport, and I went to do a PhD in Calcutta, so I became a Marxist and stopped following the game. Then I was a recovering Marxist and I rediscovered cricket.
Another theme that runs through this book is my love for Karnataka. I say, and I mean this absolutely sincerely — I don’t care if India wins or loses, but Karnataka must win. And if India is playing a test match, (Rahul) Dravid must get a 100, and (Anil) Kumble must get the wicket. So, it’s at all these levels.
The Commonwealth of Cricket — the name because it’s cricket in school, college, university, small town, large towns, state of Karnataka, India. Later on, the book moves outwards.
There is a chapter on my favourite Pakistani cricketers, and I think it is called ‘My favourite Pakistanis’, so that is without the ‘cricketer’. The penultimate chapter is about my 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 me today when I am in my 60s. That is kind of the whole arc of the book.
There is only one standalone chapter on a cricketer, who is Sachin Tendulkar, whom I never met. The whole chapter is just on him not necessarily because he is my favourite cricketer — my favourite cricketer would be from Karnataka. And he is not even probably the greatest cricketer — because I think Vinoo Mankad was the greatest Indian cricketer ever — but because he sort of defined cricket in this country, and was a young boy playing at the time of the Mandal-Masjid controversy in a country just emerging out of the shadows of the license permit control raj. He symbolised all that. And of course, I write about what kind of a batsman he was.
It is a nostalgic, reflective book, but also has lots of portraits of individuals, recollections, incidents, characters, matches I watched, including sometimes club matches and college matches.
Something else that also caught my attention was the subtitle of your book — ‘A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind’. Now, as readers of your books some of us know by now about your love for the sport, but what I find interesting is your commentary on the temperament and aesthetic of cricket. What do these traits of the sport reveal about it, and how much of that do you talk about in your book?
So the first part of the subtitle — ‘a lifelong love affair’ — is simply a factual statement. The second part — ‘the most subtle and sophisticated game’ — is meant to tease my friends who watch English Premier League football, or Nadal vs Federer. So that’s just to harass them a little bit – a mischievous tease [laughs].
But of course, there is a lot about aesthetics. However, it is gone over in a very subtle and sophisticated way, and those are the two words in the subtitle. Essentially, the argument running through the book and emphasised on in the last chapter is that the most ‘subtle and sophisticated’ form of cricket is test cricket, and the rest is really rubbish from a pure connoisseur’s point of view. I have an analogy where I say test cricket is single malt whiskey, 50-50 cricket is Indian-made foreign liquor, and IPL is local hooch down the road — you know you can get drunk, you’re an addict so you go get drunk, but you don’t remember anything.
The most ‘subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind’ is also to partly get a rise out of football lovers, and boxing fans and golf fans [laughs].
If I may again go back to A Corner of a Foreign Field for a moment, we see that in that book you expounded quite a bit on how colonial vestiges of the sport were culturally subverted in the subcontinent, especially at the turn of the decade in the 1990s with economic liberalisation and satellite television coming to India. This appropriately concluded the arc that the book followed, beginning with how the sport was emulated and domesticated here. How differently is this graph examined this time, in your new book? Are there first-person accounts of your trysts with cricket that lend a better, more flesh-and-blood insight into these milestones that you wrote about more academically in the past?
Yes, that’s what it is. It is first person, but also includes stories I have learned, so it is generational as well. The book is dedicated to my father and my son, so it is about playing cricket with my father, with my uncle — who still runs one of Bangalore’s best cricket clubs — and hearing stories. Later on, as I grew older, I went with my son to matches — so there are stories that are conveyed across generations, and also arguments with fans of other countries, apart from what I have watched. 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.
But the chapter on the BCCI does have a little bit of the history of the colonial game being indigenised. It talks about the three superpowers — first there was England through the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). From the late 19th century till about the 1960s or ’70s, they determined and shaped how the game was played, they scheduled the tours, decided on the administration, laws… all World Cups were played in England.
Then Australia came later on with (Kerry) Packer, and with Packer came outstanding television work, night cricket, coloured cricket and the white ball. Australia was a fantastic team in the ’80s and ’90s, and then they determined the schedule. Australia would never tour in India in the winter because we had to go there and get beaten by (Steve) Waugh and (Ricky) Ponting and (Glenn) McGrath and all.
Then there is the third phase, where India emerges as a superpower, and what does this mean. I also do some reflection on should we go the same way as England and Australia when they were the cricketing superpowers and roughshod over everyone, disregarding the interests and concerns of lesser cricket playing countries, which is what we seem to be doing now. So that chapter has a little bit of political history in it. But otherwise, this is a very personal book.
You mentioned your stint with the BCCI a couple of times in your previous answers, and how you resigned as an administrator within six months of your appointment in 2017. Back then, you had been very vocal about your disapproval of the ‘superstar system’ in Indian cricket, which you said gave rise to conflict of interest, and got in the way of judicially running teams or conducting games. You have touched upon this critical subject several times before in your writings. How much deeper do you delve into the issue in The Commonwealth of Cricket?
Much more. Back then, I essentially wrote a resignation letter, which I shared with the press. But this book has two chapters on my BCCI stint, with a lot more about the BCCI and how it functions inside, what are the pressures on it, what the Lodha Committee recommended, what the committee of administrators was supposed to do, what it failed to do, how it might have been able to do it better.
One of the things that was not picked up in my resignation letter by the press — the ‘superstar culture’ stuff was picked up — was the absence of a senior male cricketer in our committee. I talk about how in the first meeting I said that you have Diana Edulji, who is a female cricketer, but you also need a senior male cricketer, because otherwise you just have a banker, a civil servant and a historian telling people what to do. I know some senior outstanding male cricketers, who are retired, and are deeply knowledgable and upright, and I talk about why my committee members, Mr (Vinod) Rai in particular, did not want to share the limelight with a senior male cricketer. I talk about how that could have lent much more impact.
There is also the conflict of interest controversy and how it played out. There is stuff on some of the people I talked about in the conflict of interest controversy — I knew about them, and they knew me. In fact, I talk about how this affected my relationships with these people, whom I had to in the interest of the truth, criticise. So it has got much more than just that (resignation) letter.
It has also got lots of emails from fans — what they wrote to me, what they expected. They were coming in and telling me why it is that the fans wanted a senior male cricketer (in the board of administrators), and very rightly so. I mean, there are some male cricketers who have conflict of interest, but not everyone. I talk about the people who should have been in our committee — cricketers of intelligence, of real world-class achievement, and also with a deep knowledge of the game and its administration, who could have really brought about the reforms that the Lodha Committee required, and would have supplemented what the rest of us were doing. So, in a sense, it delves much deeper into all of this.
We know that cricket and cinema, especially Bollywood, are the biggest star-makers in India. As a historian and cultural commentator, what do you think this says about ‘Indian culture’ and society? What does it reveal about a system that idolises people, who perhaps do not always sign up to be worshipped, and do not necessarily want to have moralities attached to them or their craft?
Yes, I think particularly with cricketers. I believe it is fair to say that in the last 20 years cricket has outstripped cinema in the imagination of the people of India. It is striking that right before the pandemic, if you look at 2019, ’18, ’17, ’16 — no film by Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir or Hrithik Roshan would be released in IPL season. So they have conceded that space to IPL. It is also striking that the one national speech the prime minister made during the IPL season was at 6 pm, and well before the IPL match started. So even he, the greatest superstar here, recognised that he is no match to the cricketers [laughs].
It was probably in the 1996 World Cup, when Pepsi was sponsoring it, that Tendulkar and Shah Rukh were roped in for the commercials. So Tendulkar became equal to Shah Rukh, and in fact it was only Tendulkar. (Sourav) Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble were not equal to Shah Rukh, and Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna were much greater than Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. Now I think (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni and (Virat) Kohli are bigger than any film star.
This is an observation, and I have not studied it; some younger cultural historian must study this transition, and how is it that from the second greatest popular passion, cricket became indisputably the most popular passion in India.
And I think it is more than cricketers — conflict of interest is not a concept that Indians understand, and I see it in our professional world too. Many years ago, a historian stole some of my work. He took my published research in a foreign journal, and published it in a well-known Indian journal as if it was his. I was outraged, and I happened to have a conversation with a very close friend of mine, film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir. She said that Indians don’t understand copyright, and a Bollywood film director told her that the definition of copyright, at least in Bollywood, is the right to copy [laughs]. We don’t really have an ethical compass, so it’s not just cricketers.
I think that this is a real flaw in our society, which (Mahatma) Gandhi tried to correct. You could be the coach of the Indian cricket team and the coach of an IPL team at the same time, which is certainly a conflict of interest; or you could be a broadcaster and a player manager, which is also something I talk about in my book. These are institutional wrongs, and this is true of the central government, the civil services, and our judiciary. You find that Gandhi was an exception; he was very clear about this kind of institutional morality, and we lack that. Cricket is no exception.
Cricket has been a very important tool of nationalism and politics in India, and the subcontinent in general, through the decades. What I feel is much like how cinema and the arts get shaped by the society and the times they belong to, sports too follow a similar path. At the moment, the ‘Indian’ idea of nationalism and patriotism is of an uber-masculine, chest thumping and jingoistic brand. In my observation, cricket in India too has transformed accordingly, assuming the colours of its sociopolitical surroundings. Would you agree? Do you think this in anyway impacts the potential or quality of the game being played?
This is a very interesting question — I would say yes. In A Corner of a Foreign Field, I certainly talk about the rising jingoism among Indian cricket fans, particularly when you play Pakistan. Maybe, the IPL has changed that a little bit. I am not a fan of the IPL, and by the way, I have never watched a single IPL match, even though I am a member of the KSCA, which means I have a free ticket for every match played in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, and I have never gone for certain aesthetic reasons which I explain in my book.
But probably one of the good things that IPL may have done is to moderate this jingoism, because you have (Chris) Gayle playing with Kohli, you have (Lasith) Malinga playing with Tendulkar, and they are in the same dressing room, and the scouts can also see it.
By the way, this jingoism was never there among the players. Imran Khan and Sunil Gavaskar were great friends, so were Bishan Bedi and Mushtaq Mohammad. I remember a lovely personal cameo, which I briefly describe in the book, where I was watching a match in South Africa. India was playing Pakistan in a Champion’s Trophy match. Wasim Akram came down — he was doing commentary — and Zahir Khan was injured, so he was sitting out. Zahir just ran to where his hero was, and he looked adoringly at Wasim, and Wasim took him aside and must have asked him how his injury was, how it was healing. It was just a wonderful moment.
Again, I remember Shane Warne would ask Bishan Singh Bedi, who was a fellow spinner, for advice. It was the same craft guild that they belonged to, regardless of nationality. So cricketers have never had it, even well before IPL. IPL may have moderated the jingoism among Indian cricket fans, and this may be one of its beneficial aspects.
One last thing: unfortunately, our commentators have remained totally jingoistic…
…My next question was actually on commentators, especially in India, where commentary has largely been bereft of linguistic nuance, while being boisterous and partisan on most occasions. We even saw Sunil Gavaskar land in a bit of a soup recently, as he made a comment on Anushka Sharma while commentating on a match where Virat Kohli was playing. You have been following the sport since its radio days, when the transistor was the only way a common person could access a cricket match. Has the quality of commentary changed for the better or worse in India since then? What does poor, unsubtle commentary take away from a game, or even the sport?
Let me think through this, because this is a very important question. First of all, to add to what you said, the commentators here also do not convey technical nuance. When you listen to Gavaskar, you don’t get the same insight that you will get when you listen to Michael Atherton, even though Gavaskar was a greater cricketer. They don’t even educate you about the game. So what you said is absolutely true.
Of course at the time of radio, it mattered much more because you could not see what was happening, and you depended on the skill and the art of the voice you were hearing. When it comes to our Indian radio commentators — from the ’60s to the ’90s, for 30 years I’ve listened to radio — the only two moderately okay ones were Anant Setalvad from Bombay, and later on Harsha Bhogle — the young Harsha Bhogle. But on television, Harsha talks too much and so does everybody else. He was actually a much better radio commentator because his love, enthusiasm and passion for the sport was communicated. There were just these two, and they were okay.
The really great commentators were John Arlott, Trevor Bailey, Tony Cozier who was outstanding on radio and television. And in Australia there were Alan McGilvray, Lindsay Hassett and Jim Maxwell.
But television is different; on television, you don’t need someone to talk all the time, and even if the commentator is bad, you can see what’s happening, and you can ignore the chatter and hype.
None of the best commentators on television are Indian, or remotely Indian. So I’d say Michael Atherton, Michael Holding, even Shane Warne, who has such flair, personality and eccentricity. There are a few others as well like Ian Bishop, who is quite wise and solid, and Nasser Hussain.
So in my book, in the chapter on my favourite Pakistanis — as cricket lovers do, I pick my all-time favourite Pakistani team, and then I pick my all-time favourite Indian team, and I say if there would be a dream match, and the ICC would have to appoint neutral umpires, I would’ve picked as commentators Michael Atherton and Shane Warne. I certainly don’t want any Indian or Pakistani commentators, not just because they are jingoistic, but because they are so useless and so bad. They don’t illuminate and enrich your understanding in any way.
Why wouldn’t you expect cricketers who have achieved as much as Gavaskar and (Ravi) Shastri have, to tell you at least something about the game? You don’t really learn from them. But when Warne or Holding are speaking about fast bowling, you learn something that you don’t know otherwise. Their great experience and understanding are brought to bear, apart from the fact that they have a sense of humour, which Indian cricketers don’t. They don’t speak unless it is necessary. So there is this matter of technical nuance, and not just linguistic nuance — technical nuance is what the best commentators bring, which is why I enjoy Warne, Holding and Atherton so much.
This brings me to my final question — what are some of your fondest memories of cricket and cricketers down the years, and how have these moments influenced your perception of the sport and the way you consume it today?
I am someone who enjoys all kinds of cricket. So why ‘commonwealth of cricket’? Because I have epic memories of test matches I have watched, or the World Cup matches, or the India-Pakistan match in Bangalore in 1996 for which I was at the stadium; or even the India-Pakistan match in Manchester when the Kargil War was going on. There’s also Ranji Trophy matches, club cricket and college cricket.
In many ways, the most remarkable cricketer I have met in terms of character, courage, integrity, is Bishan Singh Bedi. I am privileged to count him as my friend. I tell a story in my book about one of my conversations with him — in 2009, I’d gone to Kabul on a professional meeting of historians and our ambassador there said that the Afghan cricketers would love to have an Indian cricketer come and mentor them. He asked me to ask Dravid. I said Dravid would be tough because he is still playing and there are terror threats, so let me ask Bishan. I called him, and I said Bishan, if an invitation comes, will you go and coach these young lads in Kabul? He said, “Of course! Anywhere for cricket.” Unfortunately, the invitation did not fructify. However, the motto of many of our cricketers is “anywhere for money”.
Bishan is a difficult guy, he makes enemies. But it’s also sometimes through a sport, through cricketers like Bishan, and through coaches like my uncle that you meet individuals who embody the best attributes that cricket can convey.
‘The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind’ by Ramachandra Guha has been published by HarperCollins India.