Close-lipped cricketers with scoop-tipped pens

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From three recent autobiographies from three eminent cricketing personalities, we come to realise that the only way to understanding the sport better is by hoping that each sportsman write a bare-all memoir.

Sachin Tendulkar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Sourav Ganguly know more truth about Indian cricket than we can handle. | V.V. Krishnan

In an era of frenzied flashbulbs, whirring cameras, zettabytes of daily digital content, we tend to believe that we know it all about our celebs. In India especially, cricketers are celebs who rarely escape the public glare. On the contrary, we also live in an era where a chunk of media inquiries meet with the captain’s “No comments” dismissal, piercing questions are tamed by coach-scripted broadbrush clichés, potential talking points nixed by the media manager’s impermeable protocols. As a result, celebrity cricketers may bask in the spotlight till kingdom come but we know or understand them very little for all that.

 

 

This tendency of professional cricketers to be close-lipped is summed up by the following admission by Sachin Tendulkar in his autobiography, Playing It My Way, “... [I]t is not always in my nature to say what I feel.” We who hero-worship our cricketers, follow them through their thick and thin, and shower them with copious amounts of our meagre attention, we deserve to know and understand them and the true state of Indian cricket better.

One way to pursue that end is to discover Indian cricket from cricketers’ memoirs and autobiographies. After all, they are supposed to reveal much about the writers’ personality, exclusive interpretation of events, and — most importantly — the culture of Indian cricket behind the scenes. Celebrity autobiographies are, however, not that common in Indian cricket. While there have been hundreds of cricketers representing India at the international level, only a few have documented their life in books. Three among them are recent and have created some buzz. After all, the Tendulkars, Manjrekars and Gangulys are the big names of Indian cricket. These three books are just not three cricketers’ life stories; they depict three different dimensions to life and Indian cricket.

The Captain’s Game

Prior to the Ganguly era, Indian cricket suffered from an imbalance in that it relied, over different periods, on either a great bowlers or great batsmen. Sourav Ganguly came in and made it a captain’s game. If autobiographies and memoirs are any sign of how the writer wishes to be remembered, Ganguly’s A Century is Not Enough depicts a revolutionary leader and a comeback man. Besides talking about his attitude as skipper, he dwells a lot on his expulsion from and comeback into the team. In Chappell-gate, who was wrong mattered but mattered less than the fact that it caused Ganguly loss of pride and esteem. His book could have been a pleasant recall of his childhood memories, on-field strategies, and life as a commentator and administrator. However, that contains a fair bit of the acrimonious side of his life suggests that even years after retirement, he is still in search of answers to unrequited queries. There are those who wonder if telling his side of the story years later would dampen his claims. It has not. Ganguly still yearns for your belief in him, like he believes in himself.

 

 

His out-of-the-box idea of spending off-season time on Australian shores to carry out a reconnaissance of the local grounds and pitches speaks of the unconventionality of his leadership. Such unorthodoxy though has not fetched him continuous acclaim, but instead brought him criticism and scrutiny for its perceived peculiarity. In matters like those or otherwise, in his own words, there were talks around his making the most (or worst, depending on which side one is) of his close acquaintance with the then BCCI Chief Jagmohan Dalmiya. The Ganguly story invokes the question whether the captain of the Indian cricket team must be treated as above suspicion a la Caesar’s wife. Contrary to what Ganguly had to go through, today’s BCCI is more forthcoming and accommodating to its present-day captains. Coaches, and not captains, make the sacrifice if one doesn’t get along well with the other. In the Dhonis and Kohlis, Indian cricket is more a captain’s game today than ever before.

The Keen Observer’s Game

If Ganguly’s ‘century’ is not enough, Sanjay Manjrekar scores a fascinating ton through his memoir, titled Imperfect. Manjrekar tells a rather ‘perfect’ story about how the sport is not only about an obsession over the right technique or being excessively analytical of one’s game. He almost concedes that the perfectionism and self-criticality have caused his game as much harm as improved it. But then, one’s cricketing career is just a short cameo in the innings of one’s life. Just when we begin to conclude that such technical and analytical preoccupation yielded few positives for Sanjay, the cricketer, we are compelled to unpack different deductions about Sanjay, the observer, the writer, and the commentator. Imperfect constantly reminds how incredibly plausible it is for one to outdo oneself by becoming more famous in a second innings (as Manjrekar, the articulate narrator and commentator) than in what one primarily set out to become famous as (Manjrekar, the Test cricketer). His departure from hackneyed writing with admissions of his ‘guilt’ (turning a tyrant to fellow Mumbai Ranji teammates) and frequent bouts of defeatism (“India discard”) tells us that there are ways to connect with the masses other than revelling in celeb-dom.

The Great Batsman’s Game

In storytelling, Tendulkar often spoon-feeds the reader with slapdash descriptions that reveal little about critical aspects of his life and game. The last few pages of each chapter are match statistics one can easily retrieve from ESPNCricinfo. One may argue that Sachin’s life undeniably had more spice and juice in it than what he dished out in his book. If one goes beyond critiquing the book, one notices that the unflinchingly lucid and rather unopinionated story-telling has something buried in it — that he perceived the game as a purist; that his life has been a batsman’s life and almost nothing else; that captaincy, administration, man management, and even family, were secondary to him.

 

Tendulkar has touched (in diverse ways) almost all Indian cricketers’ lives who have played the game in recent years. On the one hand, anecdotes involving Sachin comprise the most mesmeric pages of Ganguly’s book. On the other hand, that the term ‘Tendulkar’ appears on almost fifty sheets in Sanjay’s 200-page book suggests that Tendulkar was a go-to man for all. That he was a straight-thinking, unassuming and idyllic team man resonates well with Sachin’s own depiction of his personality in his book. His naivety was his strength; his reticence, his source of aggression. As much with his bat, his uncluttered mind helped him scale the run-mountain.

Mind the gap

“Re-creating the past is a necessary evil in autobiographical writing,” said British journalist and writer Ian Jack, though it is in selective re-kindling of the past that the problem may truly lie. In the case of cricketers, an action-packed life that thrusts them into a position of power also holds them back from making controversial admissions. Playing cricket and writing books are like chalk and cheese, and on that count, one must give the cricketer-turned-writer the benefit of the doubt; their memoir should not be judged merely on the literary value their pen produced. But this is where Manjrekar’s candour laudably exceeds expectations. From his no-holds-barred remarks about his teammates to the walkthroughs he provides within unchartered territories (match-fixing, commentary, the trouble and tranquil of dressing-room relationships), he enlightens the reader. He may not have won many matches singlehandedly with his willow, but his solo act with the pen wins him many hearts (and that too without a prodigious partnership with a professional writer or columnist).

 

On a different note, if holding the pen is tougher than wielding the bat, it seems to be even harder than rolling one’s arm over. Indian cricket has not had a single memoir or autobiographical account from a bowler yet. These three books under discussion, in the crossovers and parallels they contain, help us put together some pieces of the Indian cricket jigsaw puzzle. There’s more to fill the gap though. Think how much light a Rahul Dravid memoir could throw on Chappell-gate, or how revelatory Anil Kumble’s and Javagal Srinath’s could be if they were to tell their sides of the story of Indian cricket in the 90s and early 2000s.

Seeing ‘mute’ cricketers on TV and having insipid commentary regularly drilled into one’s ears, a fan knows very little of the game, and only what the powers that be permit to be narrativised. The key to conveying the subtler aspects of the game, to make it more compelling, is for the maestros of the game to exhaustively and intensively delve into and communicate the mental side of the game. One engaging way to do this is to use storytelling techniques that focus on the strategic and psychological aspects of play. A diligently crafted memoir is a fan’s delight, helping them decipher and discover the sport. In an age of commercially-driven biopics amid protocol-laden communication that borders on newspeak, there can be few things more edifying and stimulating than memoirs that bare the sport’s gloried and grotty details.

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