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Archive for February, 2019

I discovered this book when I was in a cafe sometime back, attending a book club meeting. I have never seen a biography of Roger Federer before and so I was excited. I asked the cafe manager whether I could borrow it and he was kind enough to lend it to me.

René Stauffer’sThe Roger Federer Story : Quest For Perfection‘ was probably the first Roger Federer biography to come out. I am sure there are more which have been published since. It was first published in German in 2006, as ‘Das Tennis Genie‘ (I love the German title!) and was later updated and translated into English in 2007. Stauffer starts the story with how Federer’s parents met, how the family lived when he was born, how he got into tennis, his junior days in tennis and how different people helped him, the support of the Swiss Tennis Federation during the early part of his career, how he turned professional and joined the ATP tour, how his initial years on the tennis tour were challenging and how it took him three years to win his first ATP title, his first grand slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, how things fell in place after that and how he started winning one grand slam after another, and how he became one of the greatest players as early as 2007. The book also describes the love and support he received from his family throughout and how that has been the bedrock of his life, how every coach of his starting from Peter Carter to Peter Lundgren to Tony Roche has influenced his tennis and helped him become a better player. The book also describes how Federer and Mirka Vavrinec first met and the big part she has played in his life. There is a second part to the book, a shorter one, in which Stauffer looks at Federer from different perspectives – as a person, a player, an opponent, an entrepreneur, a celebrity, an ambassador. The book ends with a timeline which describes the major milestones of Federer’s career and has quotes by prominent tennis persons on what they think about Federer.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Roger Federer Story’. I particularly enjoyed reading the first part which talks about his early days, his personality as a kid growing up, how he hated classes at school, how he hated practice but was wonderful during the big matches, how, though he was talented, the expected results were hard to come by on the tennis court. There was a lot of new information in that first part of the book that many tennis fans wouldn’t be aware of. It was interesting to know that Federer was introverted, he liked hanging out with his childhood friends, he was not really a reader or an intellectual type but loved playing games on his Playstation during his younger years. There were interesting comments in the book by his sister and his mother on his younger days. There were also interesting depictions of how he was his own independent man – the way he ignored his tennis coach from his younger years, Peter Carter, and went with a new coach Peter Lundgren, how he broke off his relationship with Peter Lundgren after he won his first grand slam and continued playing without a coach, a decision which puzzled many, how he broke off his close relationship with the Swiss Tennis Federation at one point and stuck it out on his own, how he broke his relationship with IMG and started handling his business affairs with the help of his own family. Some of these decisions look brave, some of them look surprising, but all of them look interesting.

One of the things which I learnt after reading the book was that Federer didn’t have it easy. Success on the ATP tour didn’t come easily for him. It took him three years to win his first ATP title. It took him five years to win his first grand slam. Many players – some of them established professionals and others from Federer’s own generation – seem to have had his number on court. Players like Lleyton Hewitt, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi, David Nalbandian. In the case of some of these players, Federer seems to have reversed the trend and started winning more matches against them, but in other cases, it looks like that player has continued to have Federer’s number. For example, Nalbandian seems to have continued winning against Federer, even after Federer started clocking all those grand slams. Nalbandian seems to have been the Nadal of his time. All this makes Federer’s achievements look even more impressive.

The book ends at the beginning of 2007. Lots of stuff has happened in Federer’s career since then – how Nadal chased him and caught up with him at Wimbledon and everywhere else, how Federer won his first French Open, how he crossed Sampras’ record of 14 grand slams, how he won seven Wimbledons and tied with William Earnshaw, how his career continued without any slams for the next five years, how Djokovic came up and had both Federer’s and Nadal’s numbers, how Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka came out as wonderful challengers to the three greats, Federer’s great renaissance in 2017 when he won two slams (and how he won his eighth Wimbledon and broke William Renshaw’s record) and how he defended one of them in 2018, and how his performances have dipped again since then – these are not covered in the book. I hope Stauffer updates this book and doubles its length or writes a second part to it.

The Roger Federer Story‘ is a treat to Federer and tennis fans. It is an old book by now, but it is still very readable. It is better written than ghosted biographies, but it is not like reading David Faster Wallace’s description of Federer’s tennis. It is a good, fast-paced read. I enjoyed reading it.

Have you read ‘The Roger Federer Story‘ by René Stauffer? What do you think about it?

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When I discovered that Moupia Basu’s second book, ‘The Queen’s Last Salute‘ was coming out this year, I was so excited and I couldn’t wait to read it.

The Queen’s Last Salute‘ is set during the period of the 1857 rebellion. We see the events unfolding through the eyes of Meera (who later becomes Chandraki). Meera’s mother is a courtesan at the zenana of the King of Jhansee. The king doesn’t have a heir and so he gets married again to a young woman who becomes the queen. This is Queen Lakshmibai about whom we read in history. At the time of this royal wedding, the new queen is fourteen years old while Meera is ten years old. The women in the zenana spend most of their days there, hoping and dreaming to be called by the king or invited for some royal celebration. One day, Meera’s mother is invited to sing at the court and she takes Meera with her, and by some accidental happenings and good fortune, the queen likes her, and takes her in as her companion, and names her Chandraki. What happens to Chandraki after that and how she plays her part in the great events of her age is the story told in the rest of the book.

I loved ‘The Queen’s Last Salute‘. Moupia Basu’s prose is spare and flows smoothly like a river and makes us sit back and contemplate when there is a description of a beautiful scene, while also making us want to turn the page to find out what happens next, when it moves the story at a fast-pace. There is not one single word wasted. There are beautiful descriptions of the cities and towns and architecture of that era, and the culture, festivals and music of that era, which are a pleasure to read. There are also descriptions of the food of that era, which I always look forward to in historical novels, and those descriptions made me want to try those delicious dishes. Moupia Basu has done her research wonderfully well and it shows in the book – especially when it talks about the political history of that era, especially, the Doctrine of Lapse. I learnt more about the Doctrine of Lapse from this book than from the history text that I read at school. I loved most of the characters in the book, especially, Chandraki, the beautiful, charming, brave heroine, her queen Maharani Lakshmibai, her friends at different times, Gauri, Mehr, Jhumroo, her mentor Taravati. I also found some of the other characters fascinating, especially Riyaz Khan, who comes to work in the court of Maharani Lakshmibai (the relationship between Riyaz and his wife Heera is so beautifully portrayed – it is one of my favourite parts of the book). Even the bad guys in the story are interestingly portrayed. We all know the story of the Rani of Jhansee. So I was expecting heartbreak in the end, and it did arrive, but not in the way I expected. There was also a huge surprise revealed towards the end, which I didn’t see coming. I loved the book’s cover too – it is so beautiful, isn’t it?

So, which book did I like more – Moupia Basu’s first book ‘Khoka‘ or her newest one ‘The Queen’s Last Salute‘? It is hard to say, because I loved both. ‘Khoka‘ is also in some ways a historical novel, because it is set during the time of the Independence movement, but it is also a coming-of-age memoir-ish novel which is based on actual events. ‘The Queen’s Last Salute‘ is a classic historical novel set in the middle of the 19th century and it shows us the greats historical events of the age through the eyes of a normal person. I loved both these books in different ways.

The Queen’s Last Salute‘ offers a new, fresh perspective into the great events of 1857, blending historical facts with wonderful imagination to create this engaging work of fiction. I loved it and now I can’t wait for Moupia Basu’s next book.

Have you read ‘The Queen’s Last Salute‘? What do you think about it?

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I have had this book for a while, and as I am in a sports book reading spree now, I thought it was time to read it.

Denis Compton was one of the greatest English cricketers. He played between 1937 and 1957. He was one of the two important batsmen in the English test team of his time. (The other was Len Hutton.) Denis Compton also played football professionally. He played for Arsenal in the English league, and he also played for the England team during the war years. He was a rare bird that way, because he played two sports equally well and he also played them both professionally. He was a double international. Such a thing is next to impossible today. This book is his authorized biography.

This book is a traditional sports biography and so it is a treat to cricket and sports fans. It looks at Denis Compton’s cricket and football careers closely, though I would say that the cricket coverage is more. The book talks about his family background, how he was born in a blue collar family (his father was a painter, decorator and a fence-mender and later when things became hard, he became a lorry driver), how he played street cricket with his friends and honed his skills, how his sports masters in school recognized his talent and helped him by nurturing his natural style, his matches for his school, how he ended up playing county cricket for Middlesex and football for Arsenal, his important innings in big matches, how he ended up playing for England, how the war interrupted his career, how he accomplished some of his greatest sporting deeds after the war, his relationship with famous players including teammate Len Hutton, wicketkeeper and best friend Godfrey Evans, his Australian rival and great friend Keith Miller, the great Don Bradman himself, his captains Robins, Gubby Allen, Peter May and others. There is also something about his relationship with John Arlott, which didn’t really go that well. The book also covers something about his personal life, his marriages, his family, but these parts play second fiddle to the cricket. The latter part of the book talks about his post-retirement life, some of the controversies he was involved in, and how he continued to be popular among new generations of fans till his last days.

This is the first time I am reading so much about Denis Compton. From the descriptions in the book and the pictures in it, he seems to have been a person, who looked incredibly handsome like James Bond (as someone said, every boy wanted to be like him and every girl wanted to be with him), and who played like a combination of Sehwag (because of his rapid scoring, amazing hitting and unconventional shots), and Mike Hussey (because he was brilliant at farming the strike with tailenders and having unbelievable partnerships). Who is this guy? Why haven’t I seen him play? Why wasn’t he born in my generation? Or why wasn’t I born in his generation? Looking at his pictures, it is hard to believe that he was from a working class background and he left school when he was 14 years old. He looks like a dashing, debonair aristocrat who went to Oxford or Cambridge. I would have loved to watch him play. It would have been a great experience. In 1947, two years after the war got over, when England was in bad shape, he singlehandedly uplifted the morale of his country with his exquisite batting. That was the year which was his Annus Mirabilis – he made 3816 runs with 18 hundreds, a record which has still not been equalled. But it was not about the numbers but about the way he played, the style, the dash he showed on the cricket field, the joy he brought to spectators. The great Neville Cardus describes that beautiful summer thus :

“Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as I was in this heavenly summer when I went to Lord’s to see a pale-faced crowd existing on rations, the rocket bomb still in the years of most folk – see this worn, dowdy crowd watching Compton. The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all hearts at the sight of Compton in full sail…There were no rations in an innings by Compton.”

I wish I had been around in 1947, as a schoolboy, watching Compton bat at Lord’s. That would have been one of the great experiences in life.

The book describes his legendary partnerships with tailenders – it is a rare skill which only very few batsmen have. Compton seems to have had that talent in ample measure. I can’t remember anyone other than Mike Hussey playing so well with the tail. (Hussey was so great that he once inspired Glenn McGrath to hang around and make a half century. McGrath, though he was one of the greatest bowlers of alltime, was a genuine No.11 and a proper mug with the bat.) Compton seems to have been even better. Another thing that I loved about Compton was the way he did very well when his team faced extreme adversity. Batting brilliantly with the tail was one example of that. During the 1948 Ashes, when the Australian team just walked over England, Compton was the only (or one of the few) English batsmen to have shown resistance and who counterattacked. In one match, during that Ashes series, he got hit by a ball, had to go to the hospital and get stitches, after which he came back and made a big hundred. It was the stuff of legend. I had read about that Ashes series only from an Australian perspective, in Bradman’s autobiography ‘Farewell to Cricket‘. So it was nice to read the English perspective here. I was also very surprised to discover through the book that Compton and a few other batsmen of his time scored runs at an extremely rapid pace, sometimes – like a hundred runs in an hour. It almost looks like a T20 rate of scoring! We tend to believe that cricket at those times was played at a relaxed, languid pace, but the book shows that that is not always the case. Compton’s rivalry with Miller on the cricket field and their great friendship off it, is also so beautifully described in the book. Miller was my boyhood sporting hero, and it is so nice that these two great handsome, dashing stars were great friends too.

One more thing that I have to say about the book is that it is an admirer’s, a fan’s biography. It doesn’t necessarily try to provide a balanced view of things. It mostly describes things from Compton’s perspective. So if a critic or a fan says something critical about Compton, then the book describes why Compton might be right on the issue. Sometimes this is convincing. At other times it is not.

I loved Denis Compton’s biography. Tim Heald has written it beautifully in accessible prose, done his research well, and included beautiful anecdotes – some well known, and some lesser known – which are a delight to read. Heald even asks the question that I did – on why Compton was never knighted – and nearly finds the answer to that. This book takes us to that beautiful era between the ’30s and ’50s, when cricket was a more laidback and probably a more beautiful game, and keeps us there. I wish I had read this book when I was a teenager – Compton would have become my sporting hero then, alongwith Miller. If you are like me – that is, your favourite cricketers had retired before you were born – you will love this book. Or alternatively, if you love cricket history, you will love this book.

Have you read ‘Denis Compton : The Life of a Sporting Hero‘ by Tim Heald? What do you think about it?

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Ever since I discovered that David Foster Wallace’s tennis articles have been compiled into one book, I have wanted to read it. What more can one want – one of the great contemporary writers writing on one of my favourite sports? What can be better? I finally got the book a few days back and read it.

String Theory‘ is a compilation of David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis. It is a slim book at 138 pages. (If we include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s introduction, it is 145 pages.) The book has five essays. The first one ‘Derivative Sport at Tornado Alley‘ is autobiographical. In that essay David Foster Wallace writes about how he got into tennis, how he was good at it at the junior level, how the tornado weather of his hometown in Illinois influenced his tennis game, and how his game didn’t improve as he got older and how he moved away from tennis to mathematics and creative writing.

The second essay ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart‘ is about Tracy Austin’s memoir ‘Beyond Center Court‘. In this essay, Wallace reviews Austin’s memoir. He is not impressed by it – he calls it ‘this breathtakingly insipid autobiography’ and quotes excerpts from it to prove his point. If it had ended there, it would have been just a negative review of a ghosted autobiography. What makes the essay great is what Wallace does after that. He asks why a genius player like Tracy Austin – who won her first professional event when she was 14, won her first grand slam when she was 16, and was World No.1 when she was 17 – why a player like this who played sublime tennis, can’t reproduce those tennis skills on the written page. He investigates this and it is incredibly beautiful and insightful to read. On the whole, the essay is a negative review of a book, but it is one of the finest, most beautiful negative reviews of a book ever written. David Foster Wallace has elevated book reviewing to an art form here and I was so thrilled and so jealous to read it. I wish I could write like this.

The third essay ‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness‘ (in addition to having a long title, it was also the longest essay in the book, at around 45 pages) is about Michael Joyce, the tennis player. Michael Joyce was a tennis player who was active in the 1990s. He later became Maria Sharapova’s coach. David Foster Wallace goes to watch the Canadian Open and spends time with Michael Joyce and follows his progress closely through the draw. He offers his thoughts on Joyce’s game, how it compares with other top tennis professionals of that time, and investigates what is the difference between the game of a top 100 player like Joyce, another player who has to routinely play in the qualifiers to reach the main draw, and a top ranked player like Agassi or Sampras. When I was younger, I mostly followed only the top players, but as I have got older, my favourite players have tended to be those who are not really top-ranked – I have tended to support the journeyman / journeywoman player more. Whenever my favourite player upsets a seeded player, I am thrilled and it feels like Christmas for me. So, when I read this essay, it resonated with me deeply.

The fourth essay, ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S.Open‘ is about what the title says. It was interesting, but it read more like a journalistic piece for the newspaper.

The fifth and last essay in the collection, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not‘, is David Foster Wallace’s most famous essay on tennis. In it, he waxes eloquent on Roger Federer, the Swiss great, and investigates what are the roots of his genius. One would expect a fan’s raving account, but this essay is definitely not that – Wallace elevates the gushing essay to art form, and it ends with one of my most favourite lines in the book. The book has an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan which is a beautiful essay on its own right.

I loved ‘String Theory‘. I have read excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s works before, but this was the first time I was reading a full-fledged book. Wallace is a master in the art of essay writing. He weaves together a delightful sport with exquisite prose and creates a beautiful work of art. His writing style is natural and not contrived, the beautiful passages are not artificially sculpted but flow naturally. I think this is how intelligent, non-pretensive writing looks like. Reading the essays in the book gave me a lot of pleasure and delight. I read my favourite, beautiful passages again and again. The earlier essays in the book have minimal footnotes, but the later essays have lots of footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes flow into more than half the page. If you find footnotes distracting, you will find those pages annoying, but if you are a footnote lover like me, you will love it. One of my friends said that she wished that David Foster Wallace had been around to comment on Roger Federer’s comeback during the 2017 Australian Open. That would have been a great essay. I also feel it would be interesting to read what he thought about Djokovic and Nadal. It is sad that we will never know.

String Theory‘ is one of the finest books written on tennis or on any sport. Tennis is famous for ghosted autobiographies that famous players come out with, which sell like hot cakes. That is the single, most popular genre in tennis writing. Occasionally, there might be a big tennis book, which has a lot of pictures, or a book which talks about one of the famous matches. Books like David Foster Wallace’s, are rare. I haven’t seen one before. So I am very happy and glad that this exists. I wish Wallace had written more tennis essays. I wish this book was 500 pages long. But we have to take what we get. And I will take this.

If you are a tennis fan, or even an essay fan, this book is a must read.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Beauty of Sport

“Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we…revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or the best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful : Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man…Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.”

What Might Have Been

“The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art – what the tragic-savvy Greeks would have called her technē, the state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves – was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit. This memoir could have been about both the seductive immortality of competitive success and the less seductive but way more significant fragility and impermanence of all the competitive venues in which mortal humans chase immortality.”

On Michael Joyce

“If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all. I know I didn’t. And television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do – how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with control and tactical imagination and artistry. I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-link fence away. This is a man, who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies.”

“Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and his self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art – something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.”

On Beauty in Sport

“Beauty is not a goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex and cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

On Roger Federer

“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform – and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

Have you read David Foster Wallace’sString Theory‘? What do you think about it?

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When I went to the bookshop a couple of weeks back and saw Mike Brearley’s newest book ‘On Cricket‘, I was very excited! The release of any new book by Brearley is an event and I couldn’t wait to read it. I dropped whatever I was reading then and started reading Brearley’s book. I didn’t want to rush and read it slowly, savouring every word and sentence, and reached the last page yesterday.

I am sure cricket fans here would have heard of Mike Brearley, but if you haven’t, here is a little bit about him. Brearley was one of the greatest English test captains. He made his debut for England when he was around 34 years old, and it happened probably by good fortune. He became the captain probably after a year, because of more good fortune and historical accidents – like the Kerry Packer series. But his real self flowered when he became captain. He was a brilliant leader, he knew how to inspire the team, he was wonderful strategically and tactically, and it all came together for him. After a wonderful stint as captain, he retired. England started a new Ashes series in 1981 against Australia and they were in a disastrous position, with their present captain Ian Botham having a bad year as captain, and during mid series, the selectors requested Brearley to come back and lead the team. He came back to just lead the team. He stood in the slips while fielding, he batted at No.9 or 10, and just captained.

(Brearley’s test batting average was 22.88. There is nothing much to say about it other than that there was no way he could have been picked for any international cricket team, as a batsman, with that batting average. One of the great things about Brearley is that he pokes fun at himself about it. There is a passage in the book which goes like this – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 😁)

Now back to the story of the 1981 Ashes. Brearley turned the series around with his amazing leadership, inspired Botham to get back his magical game, and won the series 3-1 for England. He then promptly went back and retired from the game. It is a story as fantastic as the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus, who had retired and was working as a farmer in his small farm when his country went into deep crisis because of enemy invasions. The people prayed to him to come back from retirement, and he did, and led his country’s army and defeated his country’s enemies. But once it was all done and dusted, when his fame and authority were at their highest, he handed over the reigns of the country to the civilian authorities and went back to his small farm and continued with his farming. It is a story which gives me goosebumps everytime I think about it. Brearley’s story during the 1981 Ashes is the sporting equivalent of that. After retiring from the game, Brearley became a psychoanalyst. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy‘, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest books on cricket captaincy or even leadership ever written. He also wrote the occasional cricket article for the newspaper. Now in the last two years, after a long hiatus, he has published two books in succession. It feels like Christmas.

On Cricket‘ is mostly a collection of short essays and articles that Brearley wrote across the years and some he wrote especially for this volume. I think half of the articles are modified versions of already published articles and half of them are new. The book is divided into many parts. The first part is very autobiographical and in that part Brearley talks about how he got into cricket during his childhood and how his father, being a club cricketer himself, inducted him into the game. He also talks about two of his favourite players Len Hutton and Denis Compton. If you like cricket history, especially post-Second World War cricket history, these two chapters are an absolute delight to read. There is a section on the Ashes (there is a good discussion of Douglas Jardine and the Bodyline series in one of the chapters), there is another where Brearley talks about his cricketing heroes (there are some usual suspects and there are some lesser known legends), there are two sections on cricket controversies, covering cricket and race, and cheating and corruption (the Basil d’Oliveira affair is covered in reasonable detail, there are also pieces which talk about the Zimbabwe affair involving Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, and another about how Frank Worrell became the first black captain of the West Indies), there is a section on the innovations which have happened in cricket (including thing like reverse swing and switch hits), there is a section on Indian batsmanship which will delight Indian cricket fans (Brearley reveals here that his wife is Indian, which is so cool). There is a section on commentators which is very beautiful – there are chapters which talk about the marvellous John Arlott, the great Harold Pinter, the wonderful Ian Chappell, and there is an overall chapter which discusses C.L.R.James’ famous question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?‘ There is a section on wicketkeepers and I was so happy to read that because there were chapters on two of my favourite keepers, Rod Marsh and Alan Knott. I wish Brearley had compared them both and revealed who he thought was the better among the two. Many former cricketers have said that Alan Knott was the greatest keeper ever, but Rod Marsh has the better keeping record in terms of catches and stumpings. Brearley praises them both, though I think he leans more towards one of them. I won’t tell you which one ☺️

One of the last sections in the book is about cricket and aesthetics. In my opinion it is the most beautiful section in the book and the section which is the most accessible to a reader who is not a cricket fan. There are two chapters in this section. In the first one, Brearley describes how cricket is the art of the masses. The second chapter is a conversation between Brearley and the art critic David Sylvester in which they compare cricket to art. This is the longest chapter in the book and probably the most beautiful. I think it is a must read for any reader who contemplates on beauty whether in its static or kinetic form.

I was so thrilled to read Brearley’s ‘On Cricket’. It is a pleasure to read for any Brearley fan and any cricket fan who likes intelligent writing. There are chapters in it which are fairly straightforward – like those in which Brearley raves about his favourite players. There are other chapters which bring cricket, art, philosophy, literature, beauty, music and psychoanalysis together and weave them into one beautiful whole. These chapters have passages which we will rarely find in a cricket book, passages like this –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

And this –

“When I hear the first movement of Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat, with its lyrical sweetness interspersed with growling rumbles from the lower depths, I think of John (Arlott).”

Mike Brearley says in his introduction to the book – “If a sufficient number of people enjoy the book, and if I live long enough, there may even be a sequel. You may take this as a warning or a promise.” I hope and pray that there is a sequel. Mike will be 77 this year (I can’t believe how fast the years pass), but I hope he lives long and writes not one but more sequels to this book. Mike Brearley is one of the greatest cricket writers in the last 50 years. I think he belongs up there with some of my other favourites, David Frith, Gideon Haigh, John Major (Yes! The former British Prime Minister wrote a cricket book! It is beautiful!), Ed Smith. He has a unique way of offering commentary on the overall state of the game which is very insightful, wise, aesthetic and a pleasure to read. I think the only contemporary cricket writer who can come close to him is Ed Smith. I hope more readers read this book and fall in love with it like I did.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Discipline Vs Flair

“We (all) need both discipline and flair.
We need to practise, to be trained, to think clearly, not to let ourselves off the hook into dishonesty and self-delusion. We need to learn from mistakes, keep control of our recklessness, rein in some of our emotions. We need to be realistic. Yet it is not realism to deny a further fact of human experience : that we also need to give up our desire to control everything; that we have to let go of our attachment to the will, and allow spontaneity, freedom and flair their place. We have to trust the parts of our minds over which we have no immediate control. Provided we have a sound basis of discipline and an ability to monitor what we produce, we need something other than, wider than, deeper than, discipline and convention.”

The Meaning of Life

“We are confronted in life by the reality that we are specks of dust in the vast aeons of space and time; that when we die we go (I believe) into nothingness; that our importance in the long run is nil; that we live always in the brink of ‘death’s dateless night’. But we believe that at the same time, or in the same breath, there are things (if one is lucky) that make life fascinating and well worth living. Literature, love, family closeness, art – all these and others may do so. Even sport quickens the apprehension, lifts the spirits, engages and challenges the whole being physically, psychologically, emotionally.
And cricket – a rare team game each of whose dramatic moments is a contest between individual protagonists, the only game that goes on seven hours a day for the best part of a week, and at the end of which neither side may be much nearer winning or losing than they were five days before – cricket has (for me) the capacity to enthrall, bore, enchant and also evoke argument to a greater extent than any other.”

The Essence of Sport

“…it is of the essence of sport that, unlike much music and theatre, the course and outcome are not ordained before the event, however predictable it might be that the favourite will win. The drama of sport lies partly in the way things turn out on the day. There is always the chance of a shock result. The result is not, then, ‘fixed’ in the other sense; that is, there is no script or score (as in theatre or music) : cricket matches are open to the vagaries of form, morale and luck. In normal circumstances we naturally take it as given that both sides are striving to succeed.”

On Beauty in Sport

“It is a nice question how far beauty lies in the outcome of an action. Is salvation achieved by works or by faith, by successful actions in the world, or by right attitudes? When David Gower, the languid genius of left-handed batsmanship, caressed the balls through the covers with effortless ease, and impeccable timing and placement, was his stroke any different from the one where the ball deviated a few centimetres, found the edge, and was caught at slip? Had elegant beauty degenerated into a careless waft? Would we have been right to bemoan and castigate his ‘carelessness’, his not going on? Yet both strokes were identical, both balls pitched in the same place, at the same speed, perhaps from the same bowler. Had these unpredictable centimetres turned virtue into vice, beauty into ugliness (the ‘waft’)? If we ignored the fate of the ball, we have exactly the same movements of the batsman. Phidias could have constructed his sculpture on the basis of either.”

Sport and Life

“Sport and art have something else in common. They are set aside from the absolute necessities, the bare necessities of life. And they have a frame around them. The painting with its frame, or the cricket ground with its boundary, or the boxing ring, or whatever. They are framed and set off from ordinary life. This wouldn’t be true of everything, of architecture for instance, but it’s true of many forms of art and sport. And yet within that frame, there’s a possibility of finding many of the qualities in life that we admire or lack in concentrated form. What fascinates us is a moral dimension, in a broad sense of ‘moral’ : the dimension of the revelation of human qualities.”

Have you read Mike Brearley’sOn Cricket‘? What do you think about it? Have you read any other Mike Brearley book?

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