Books on cricket | 11 for the pitch happy

From essays and tour books to those that convey “the real flavour of cricket”, this selection is for the die-hard fan

Updated - November 08, 2023 12:05 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2023 11:05 am IST

Children play cricket in India Gate Park

Children play cricket in India Gate Park | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There has to be a cut-off, or we will spend all our time discussing Cardus and Arlott, Fingleton and Robinson and the incomparable C.L.R. James.

It will leave out books by Ian Peebles, Arthur Mailey, Robertson-Glasgow, Bill O’Reilly, Don Bradman, J.M. Kilburn, Ronald Mason, Alan Ross, Jim Laker, all of whom have written with wit and passion. But it will include books that are accessible and biased towards India, the nerve centre of the game.

And so to the cut-off. This is the Packer revolution 45 years ago. The definitive volume is written by the contemporary great Gideon Haigh, who combines the best qualities of the writers named above and adds to them his own. Let’s start with Cricket War, therefore, Haigh’s exploration of “the end of cricket as we knew it — and the beginning of cricket as we know it”.

Lights, white balls, coloured clothes might not all have been Kerry Packer’s invention, but his World Series Cricket, for which he signed up the world’s top players for a rebel series in Australia, popularised them. The World Cup first used coloured clothing in 1992; three decades later it might shock fans if players turned out in anything but.

Did writing on cricket change with Packer? Perhaps not immediately, but context and colour, quirkiness and humour seemed to make way for a more pragmatic, immediate, result-above-all style. The best books bucked this, some combining the traditional subjects — history, tour report, technique, travelogue, social commentary — into something exciting and unclassifiable.

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Here too, the best is from Haigh whose Stroke of Genius, ostensibly about the iconic photograph of Australian great Victor Trumper stepping out to drive, is equally a commentary on modernism, the evolution of the fan, and the manner in which the game is consumed. “Cricket was devised to be played, not watched,” begins the book. In fact, cricket is a game not just to be played or watched, but to be read about, too.

Here’s a short list of personal favourites for the fan.

1. A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha: When research and originality meet passion we get this book, which can fit into several different shelves in a library. The evolution of a people is told through the story of one man, Palwankar Baloo, whose cricket aided social mobility. Guha sees the game from the angles of race, religion and nation as well as caste, and the cricket field as “both a theatre of imperial power and of Indian resistance”.

2. It Never Rains by Peter Roebuck: The diary of a county season by the late lamented cricketer and writer. The experience of having to “sleep, dine, drink, play and travel with the same fellows, always sharing the same dressing room and always relying on each other on the field” is a mix of the companionable and the claustrophobic. The daily measure of capability in the score books provides a steady drumbeat, sometimes inspiriting, occasionally dirge-like.

3. Cricket Beyond theBazaar by Michael Coward: The Australian author and Indophile demystifies India and the subcontinent, and gives us the finest writing on the tied Test in Chennai. “It conveys the real flavour of cricket in our part of the world,” in Sunil Gavaskar’s words.

4. War Minus the Shooting by Mike Marqusee: In 1996, Marqusee reported the World Cup in India, and like V.S. Naipaul earlier, detected a new spirit as well as some old biases. “Sub-continental cricket [is] not a quaint legacy of the Raj,” he wrote, “but something new and vital... now unrivalled as the national sport in all three countries.”

5. The Willow Wand by Derek Birley: An antidote to the books that make absurd claims for the game. Cricket, as the author points out, is not an ethical religion nor is it a natural source of sportsmanlike winners of wars or builders of empires. The essays here focus on the gap between the game’s myths and reality.

6. Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya: A tour book (Pakistan 2004), written by a lad in his 20s then who understood the wider context. The gifted writer displays a felicitous turn of phrase while recognising the underlying humour of an India-Pakistan encounter.

7. The Slow Men by David Frith: A superb, anecdote-rich overview of those who spin, a companion volume to the earlier paean to those who toil, The Fast Men.

8. An Island’s XI by Nicholas Brookes: “Cricket is a fuller, funner, more enchanting game when Sri Lanka are firing,” writes the author, adding, “and the island is a happier place too.” Brookes brings to his history the fervour of the insider and the objectivity of the outsider.

9. The Unquiet Ones by Osman Samiuddin: The story of Pakistan cricket told by its leading writer. “When a country is in the process of hurtling violently and furiously towards its definition, retrospection is an unnecessary pit stop,” says the writer, before launching into retrospection with authority (and empathy).

10. Cricketwallah by Scyld Berry: The 1981-82 series against England was the dullest played on Indian soil. Five of six Tests were drawn. Yet it produced one of the finest tour books — a work of research and reportage giving us the smells and sights of India. Berry asks, “Was there a groundswell turning in favour of watching and playing the game which would come to alter the existing shape of the cricket map?”

11. The Art of Captaincy by Mike Brearley: The definitive book, by a man who was credited with having a “degree in people”. To be read along with the author’s later On Form, which gives a rounded view and includes the story of a tree-cutter. “I have long been troubled by the mutual scorn between sportsmen and intellectuals,” writes Brearley who was both.

To round it off with works of fiction: Wodehouse at the Wicket (ed: Murray Hedgcock), Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilakaand Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. For those who prefer shorter reads, there are collections by Frith, Haigh, Mike Atherton, Brearley, and anthologies such as those edited by Guha.

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