How do you make a book about a cricket World Cup interesting two years after India won it — especially when the team slid spectacularly downhill soon after that victory? This must have been the challenge that confronted Vaibhav Vats, the young author of Triumph in Bombay: Travels during the Cricket World Cup. Live telecasts have made even the daily news report a confusing and demanding task for journalists whose readers already have their heads filled with the collective wisdom of an army of former Test cricketers. In this electronic era, when a book of this kind can become redundant before it is written, the small matter of India’s success in the 2011 edition of the competition must indeed have been the book’s saving grace. Still, it was a brave decision to go ahead and publish it knowing that the average fan of limited overs cricket may be no bibliophile.
Vats has overcome this handicap by the — perhaps unintended — subterfuge of writing around the cricket rather than on it. As the title clearly states, the book is a travelogue with a cricket world cup attached to it — by a romantic who seems to try to conceal that fact, with an occasionally assumed air of scepticism. He straightway endears himself to the reader by telling him that he travelled to Dhaka by train to cover the inauguration and early games, that he often left the press box to join the aam aadmi outside, that he stayed at down-market rather than expensive lodgings, that he is an absent minded wanderer in the chaotic wonderland of subcontinental cricket, not a hardened veteran.
A student of literature and journalism at premier institutions, the young writer exhibits a sense of history, cricketing and social, with a keen understanding of the tragic geopolitics of the subcontinent: one nation is an exile in its own backyard, the citizens of another find solace and pride in organising the Cup, not in their cricketers, and a third is ravaged by its decades-old ethnic war. Only Big Brother marches inexorably towards the title, everyone’s favourite, and capable of playing clever cricket at every crucial juncture.
The author’s reading, to judge from his numerous references to writers, is impressive. From CLR James, Simon Barnes and Mike Marqusee to Amitav Ghosh, Sunil Khilnani and Ramachandra Guha, his influences transcend sport to seek answers to complex questions on the vaulting ambition, noble impulses, dreams, disasters, and greed that shape the destinies of whole nations. Yet, the book’s cricket core is sound, well informed.
Triumph in Bombay — is the title a nostalgic refusal to acknowledge the city’s present avatar? — is made enjoyable by its many detours and the characters that inhabit these side streets. Examples are the journalist friend in Bangalore who confidently dismisses the weatherman’s forecast of rain, the diehard Bangladesh fan who is crushed by his team’s abject surrender, the Sri Lankan supporter who hates India and Pakistan in equal measure, the coach who dreams of one of his Jaffna boys playing for Sri Lanka in the next World Cup, and the two heads of state who play the card of cricket diplomacy in a cynical attempt to give the world the impression that peace between India and Pakistan is their mission.
Dhoni, Gambhir, Tendulkar, Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Kohli … each of them played a part in India’s success, but Yuvraj was indubitably the man of the series. Vats has been able to flesh out each of the dramatis personae accurately and affectionately. While he does take a tongue-in-cheek swipe at some of their frailties and failures, and doffs his hat to their successes, he is never hysterical in either praise or criticism.
Still, for all his avowed objectivity, the author cannot help revealing a propensity for pipedreams — like that of an improbable West Indies revival, for instance. And though, he is at pains to deny — after his Caribbean dream is dashed — that he is an India partisan, he cannot hide his euphoria when the deed is done after a gap of 28 years and he can celebrate with the rest of Mumbai, going round the city in a daze with his friends.
My one complaint against the book, apart from mild criticism I would direct at the occasional lapse in syntax, is that it is silent about the whispers surrounding the India-Pakistan semifinal and the final — specifically about the curious ineptitude of the Pakistanis, and the sweeping changes in Sri Lanka’s playing eleven. The author would have done the game a service had he addressed this issue, if only to argue that the World Cup was played in the best spirit of the game.
Finally, this account of the World Cup is a good first book. It is not clear if Vats continues to write on cricket. Given his somewhat eclectic background, he is probably already seeking other pastures. With the promise he has shown so far, however, a sequel by him on the 2015 World Cup should be interesting to anticipate.
TRIUMPH IN BOMBAY: Vaibhav Vats; Viking/Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 399.