Standing their ground: review of 'Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story'

A journalist sums up the evolution of Indian cricket from diffidence to dominance through a hand-picked team straddling different eras

November 04, 2017 08:30 pm | Updated 08:30 pm IST

Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story
Rajdeep Sardesai

Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story Rajdeep Sardesai Juggernaut ₹599

Cricket, like any team sport, lends itself to lists. For connoisseurs, drawing up an all-time eleven is an exercise seasoned with nostalgia and strong views. Television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has taken that initiative a step further in his book Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story .

A news-scribe anchored to political reportage, Sardesai’s previous book was 2014: The Election That Changed India . Yet, as evident in his tweets, Sardesai is also fond of philosophical musings, old Hindi songs and cricket. His links to the willow-game mixes genetics — his late father Dilip Sardesai was a former India cricketer — with a fan’s obsession for the game. Sardesai Junior has played too and he has a profile page on Cricinfo with the numbers: seven matches for Oxford University in 1987, yielding 222 runs averaging 27.75. Candidly, Sardesai admits that he finally preferred the ‘less strenuous world of journalism’.

Rewarding merit

Democracy’s XI isn’t entirely based on pure-performance and staggering statistics, though legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar are intrinsic to the 371-page tome. Sardesai’s eleven is essentially a socio-anthropological dive into different eras, varied geographies and fluctuating economic conditions that threw up players, who reflected a nation on the move, its democratic credentials largely evinced through cricket. It is a subjective list entirely driven by Sardesai’s desire to show the game’s far-flung roots and it being a barometer for rewarding merit. “Seventy years after Indian Independence, we could well argue that cricket is one of the few largely meritocratic activities,” he writes.

The author’s eleven features Dilip Sardesai, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Bishan Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.

Since nepotism is an oft-used word these days, there could be the odd query on why Sardesai’s father is on the list, but there is no denying that Sardesai Senior was a fine player and more importantly as a cricketer hailing from Margao, he proved that there is more to Goa than just football. In that sense, Dilip Sardesai fits into the book, and additionally his tale reveals the amateur spirit around cricket in the 1960s and the obvious lack of money, far removed from the crores that garland Kohli and company.

In his introduction, Sardesai describes his book as an effort to paint “anecdotal mini-portraits of eleven cricketers who in their own unique way represent the universal and pluralistic appeal of the sport.” Sardesai has stuck to that benchmark and it helps that being a journalist with an experience of close to three decades, he has at varying points interacted with these players. The guard is lowered and cricketers open up to him and it makes for a good read.

Sardesai even got the reticent Dhoni to speak about his bond with the former BCCI and ICC supremo N. Srinivasan. An interview with the legend from Ranchi is a mirage for cricket writers, but a persistent Sardesai nails it and Dhoni says: “Nothing has come easy to me, so I learnt to appreciate whatever little I got.” The quote is a pointer to the former India captain’s equanimity.

Ties that bind

It isn’t easy to highlight fresh nuances of famous players, but Sardesai teases out their human side, reveals their vulnerabilities and the common threads that bind them together — a fierce desire to fight the odds, their essential oxygen — support from family and friends, the ‘guru-shishya’ tradition where their selfless coaches inspired them to do the hard yards and above all their innate self-confidence. At different points in the book, Dravid and Kohli speak about trying to ‘be the best’ they could be.

No cricketer comes out of a vacuum and Sardesai rightly juxtaposes these players into the eras from which they emerged, and hence there are links with the early days of independence, Mandal reservations, the abolition of the princely-purse, communal strife, liberalisation and an India shedding its diffidence and striding forward.

The book isn’t entirely about evocative prose but there is a lot of heart in the words that Sardesai employs; he is the quintessential cricket-tragic, a romantic who looks at cricket operating on a higher moral plane. Yet, he doesn’t look at life and cricket as just black and white. Sardesai accepts the greys too and in a non-judgemental way he probes about match-fixing allegations with Azharuddin. At one stage, Azharuddin tells Sardesai: “Thank you for coming, kuch achha likhna (write something nice).”

The book throws light on various facets of these cricketers, including their friendships, at times strong, at times frayed. There is this poignant moment when Vinod Kambli calls Sardesai and says: “Don’t forget to tell Sachin when you meet him I still love him very much!”

Sardesai aptly sums up Indian cricket’s evolution: “In the 1970s, Gavaskar had given Indian cricket self-esteem, in the 1980s, Kapil Dev gave it excitement, in the 1990s Sachin gave it stature; now the Kohli millennium generation has added a new word to the lexicon: dominance.”

This book is a valuable addition to the earlier ones written by Ramachandra Guha and Mukul Kesavan; it melds a fan’s love and a journalist’s detachment. But there is a quibble, V.V.S. Laxman’s iconic 281 against Australia in the Eden Gardens Test during 2001 is wrongly mentioned as 287 and the editing perhaps could have been tighter — blips in a fine book.

Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story ; Rajdeep Sardesai, Juggernaut, ₹599.

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