Archive for the ‘Cricket’ Category

I discovered Ramachandra Guha’s new book ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ when I was browsing a few days back. The subtitle of the book read ‘A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind‘. I thought I’ll get it for my dad, as Guha writes about cricketers from the ’70s and sometimes goes back to old times, the cricketers whom my dad is fond off. But when the book arrived, I read the blurb and the first page, and before long I was deep into the book. I immersed myself into the book, for the past few days, and when I came up for breath after I finished the book, it was the wee hours of today morning.

The Commonwealth of Cricket‘ starts as a cricketing memoir. Guha talks about how he started watching cricket, when he started playing, his school and college cricketing days. At some point the books paints a wider canvas as Guha talks about cricket history, his favourite cricketers, the cricketers he has met, about the matches he has watched. Then he comes down to almost today, and spends some time on his brief stint as a cricket administrator and the interesting things that happened and the controversies that ensued.

If you are into cricket books, you know exactly what this is – memoir, cricket history and culture, descriptions and anecdotes of great players and favourite players from school, club, state and national teams, commentary on contemporary cricketing issues – this is exactly what C.L.R.James writes about in his masterpiece ‘Beyond a Boundary‘. Many Indian cricket writers, especially the good ones, are obsessed with C.L.R.James’ book. Some of them have tried writing their own versions of it. Rajan Bala did, Mukul Kesavan did. This is Guha’s version, his nod to the master. Most of the other books are interesting reads, but that’s it. But Guha’s book, it is better than that. It is amazing. Every page is beautiful. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure. I even took delight in finding mistakes in a couple of cricket statistics that Guha quotes 😁 The chapter on Sachin Tendulkar dragged on a bit, but outside of that, the book was beautiful and perfect.

My favourite chapters were the early ones which were autobiographical and the chapter on Guha’s favourite Pakistani cricketers. There is a long section in it on Javed Miandad, which I loved, and which made me smile. Guha also describes a anecdote in which he has a beautiful long conversation with a Pakistani cricket fan in Copenhagen (of all places). That was one of my favourite parts of the book. I also loved the parts of the book in which Guha talks about cricketers from a bygone era who had retired before I was born. I was delighted when I read a section dedicated to Keith Miller, one of my favourites. There was also one on Vijay Hazare which was very beautiful.

In the last chapter of the book, in which Guha gives a nod to philosopher William James by calling it ‘Varieties of Cricketing Chauvinism‘ (William James wrote a book called ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’), he says this –

“There are two fundamental axes of cricketing chauvinism : of nation and of generation. Every cricket fan almost without exception is born with them, and most cricket fans never outgrow them.”

I smiled when I read that. It is a beautiful chapter on being a cricket fan and of outgrowing this chauvinism and I felt that Guha’s own experience mirrored mine.

I loved ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title. It could have been better. Guha has written four cricket books and edited a fifth one, and surprisingly this is the first cricket book of his that I have read. I don’t know how this compares to his masterpiece ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field‘, because I haven’t read that yet, but when I compare this to other cricket books I’ve read, I can say that this is one of my favourites. Cricket has a rich body of literature compared to other sports, and cricket books have been around for more than a century and a half, longer than any other sport. Guha’s newest book is a beautiful new addition to this vast, rich ocean. The master, C.L.R.James, would have been proud.

Guha’s last cricket book came out in 2004. After a long hiatus he has published his new one. I hope this is not his swansong and there is more left in the tank.

Have you read ‘The Commonwealth of Cricket‘? What do you think about it?

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Today’s post for ‘Black History Month‘ is about Viv Richards.

Viv Richards is my alltime favourite cricketer and my boyhood hero. For many boys from my generation, he was a hero, he was the cricketer we all wanted to be. Young people played with tennis balls and rubber balls, on the streets and in the rice fields, and dreamed of batting like Richards. Viv Richards was not tall for a West Indian cricketer, but he was dark and handsome. The sight of Viv striding into the ground at the fall of a wicket, twirling his bat, chewing gum, with his maroon cap on, with an expressionless face, was a majestic sight to behold. He was cool and style personified. Then he went to the crease and took guard – it was nearly always a leg stump guard, a middle stump guard was for chickens – and looked at the bowler. Some fans say that he glared at the bowler, but I don’t remember ever seeing him do that. By that time, the bowler had given up hope (atleast from the point of view of us, fans) and the magic began.

Cricket fans from across the world loved watching Viv play – the great love that fans had for him transcended national boundaries. He was adored by his fans from his hometown of Antigua of course, an island which has a population of around 96,000 people, and the cricket stadium there is named after him, but his international fans outnumbered the fans from his own island – he was like Pele or Federer.

Viv was an attacking batsman, one of the best that there ever was. Watching him play was like watching a master at work on his art. When he was playing his natural, flamboyant, stylish game, playing the ondrive, or his famous, majestic hook, or his legendary inside-out shot in which he stepped outside the leg stump and drove the ball over long off for a six (he played that shot off the final ball in the 1979 World Cup final), it was thrilling to watch. When he played a defensive game – yes, he could rein in his attacking instincts and do that too, his innings on square turning pitches were legendary – it was amazing to see how he adapted to the situation and to his team’s needs. Whether he was attacking or defending, he did that with style, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Featured in the first picture below is the cover of Viv Richards’ autobiography. It is beautiful to read. Featured in the fourth picture is Viv and his great friend Ian Botham – it is so hard to believe that these two played for the same team. Envy those Somerset fans so much!

Viv started playing for the West Indies cricket team in the middle ’70s and he retired in the early ’90s. He won every award and every trophy there is, and was highly respected and admired by his contemporaries. He held many world records. As his great contemporary Michael Holding once said, if Viv had wanted and if he had been selfish, he could have set many more records which would have been beyond the reach of players of the next few generations. But he was a person who didn’t care about records and statistics and always played for his team. He captained his team with distinction and he retired with an unbeaten test record. After he retired he was awarded every honour there is and he was knighted. It is appropriate to call him Sir Vivian now. But to old fans like me, he’ll always be Viv, the Master Blaster.

These days, Viv is in his sixties, and and is enjoying a second innings as a cricket commentator. He is funny and humorous as a commentator and is a pleasure to listen to. He also mentors T20 teams and is active on Instagram sharing his thoughts with old and new fans.

There have been many great cricketers who have come on the scene since the great Viv retired. But in my opinion, he was the greatest. That majesty, that style, that cool, that intensity – we will never see the likes of him again. For me, he was the one and only.

Frank Keating once wrote about his favourite boyhood hero, Tom Graveney –

“The batsmanship of Our Tom, was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine. Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory.”

I can’t write beautifully like this, and I think I’m still not old enough to talk about the winters of memory, but I hope that one day, when my hair is fully grey, and I am sitting in front of the fire, on a winter evening, with my dog sitting next to me, I’ll remember Keating’s lines and I’ll think about my favourite Viv playing those majestic pulls and hooks and inside-out shots, and I hope my old wrinkled face will beam with pleasure.

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February is ‘Black History Month‘ and I thought that as part of the celebrations, I’ll write about some of my favourite books, writers and people. Today, it is about C.L.R.James‘ classic ‘Beyond a Boundary‘.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is a book which is a memoir, a social history and a sporting history, all rolled into one. This style of writing was unusual when the book first came out and so it was unique and the book broke new ground. In the book, James talks about his own life and how he started playing cricket, and then covers West Indian cricket history from the beginning of the 20th century till around the 1960s. He also looks at West Indian society and culture through a cricketing lens. The book asks the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That question has acquired a legendary status since James’ first posed it, and has the same kind of significance that Camus question in the first passage of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus‘ has. Many have pondered on what that question meant, and what could be its potential answers. Whether the book answers that question or not, you have to read it to find out.

Beyond a Boundary‘ had a mythical status in my life, because I had heard many older cricket fans talking about it in revered tones, and I had dreamt of reading it since I was young, but the book was out-of-print and was hard to find. Then, one day I discovered that there was an edition in print by Duke University Press. It was ironic, because cricket is not an American sport, but this book, which was one of the greatest cricket books ever written, was out-of-print in cricket playing countries, but an American university press kept the flame burning, by keeping the book alive, keeping it in print. I paid a king’s ransom to get that edition. When a few years later, the book came back widely in print, I got two more copies 😁 The book on the left in the picture is the Duke University Press edition, while the one on the right is the newer one.

After I got the book, I read it in one breath and it gave me goosebumps throughout. There is a reason it is revered by older cricket fans. It is a beautiful love letter to West Indian cricket, and cricket in general, the best there is. James’ prose is beautiful and gorgeous, and it feels like he is an intellectual from the 19th century, because he doesn’t shy away from difficult words – one chapter is called ‘George Headley : Nascitur Non Fit‘, another is called ‘Alma Mater : Lars and Penates‘. We take it in our stride, of course, and we continue reading, and we feel that we are in the presence of a master. James thoughts on the great Learie Constantine, on how the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team was appointed, and on the great Frank Worrell, are a pleasure to read. James also shares his love for books and reading and places them in a cricketing and cultural context. It is not often that we find discussions on William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray in a book on sport.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is one of the greatest books on sport, society and culture ever written. It is a love letter to the West Indies and to the game of cricket. It deserves to be more widely read.

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I was watching the Champions League cricket semifinal between New South Wales and Victoria today. The first wicket fell – David Warner who was playing brilliantly, unfortunately, got run out – and I was waiting for one of my favourite players, Simon Katich, the captain of the New South Wales team, who was all padded up, to walk in. But Katich decided otherwise. He sent one of his younger players, Daniel Smith, who was the wicket keeper, to go in and express himself. Katich disappointed fans like me, but he was merely doing something that he had done during the previous few matches. 

Katich’s puzzling  move

Watching Katich’s captaincy in this tournament, made me think about a few things. In his team’s first match, when the opponents and the conditions were uncertain, he came in to bat at No.3, after the loss of the first wicket. He was the best batsman in his team, and this is the position that the best batsman of a cricket team typically plays in. In that match, he changed the momentum of the game with a few strokes. He created gaps where none existed and teased the ball around for runs. When he was around, the pitch looked different and the bowling looked average. Then, after having nearly done his job, he got out to a loose shot. A Katich fan like me, felt disappointed, because the innings was primed up for the frenzied hittings of the last overs. Fortunately, New South Wales’ bowling attack was world-class (they had four bowlers who played for the Australian team) and so they won the match. I waited for the next match to watch Katich bat again. But in the next match against Sussex, Katich sent the younger players in to bat, to give them an opportunity to prove themselves in foreign conditions, while he enjoyed their displays from his team’s dugout. He continued doing this in subsequent matches – except for playing a brief cameo in the match against Somerset to take his team past the finishing line. Today’s match was a big game for his team. It was the semifinal of the tournament, and so though he sent one of his team members above the order, he himself came in after that and delighted fans like me by playing a beautiful cameo.

Some precedents

Katich was doing something, which managers do all the time in the corporate world. He was trying to be a team player. He was trying to reduce his team’s dependency on himself and make his team run on autopilot mode, by giving the young players more opportunities and exposure, getting them into the limelight, empowering his players and building their confidence while he himself stayed in the background. However, he chipped in with crucial runs and made crucial decisions when his team needed them. I have seen a few other cricket captains do it – Viv Richards who used to bat at No.3 till he became captain, promoted younger players after he became captain and continued doing that till he retired. There were matches where he batted as low as No.7, while greenhorns batted above him. When the going got tough, he opted to come in earlier and blasted the bowling of the opposition. Another captain who did this was Imran Khan. Many times he gave the ball to the rookies or the younger players, while he fielded at slip or at midon and watched the proceedings quietly. When the going was not good for Pakistan, he took the ball from the youngsters, bowled at a blistering pace, fired out a few of the best opposition batsmen and then handed back the ball to the rookies and went back to his perch at midon. It made for interesting viewing.

The question

The question is this : Is what Katich did or what Viv Richards and Imran Khan did in the olden days, the right thing to do? Is it a good idea to take the back seat, when one is the best player in the team, and give opportunities to the young guns? Is it really a good idea to be a ‘team player’? It is an interesting question.

In the corporate world

If one puts the above question to a corporate manager, the answer that would come back would probably be ‘Yes’. The manager’s job is probably to reduce the dependency on himself / herself and make the team run on autopilot mode. That way the manager can take on new responsibilities and move up the ladder. It will help his / her teammates move up the ladder too, when they learn how to delegate responsibilites themselves.

It is quite interesting to look at the other side of the equation too. What happens to the manager’s skills when he / she delegates most of the core work? After this happens, the manager probably makes plans with deadlines and keeps track of the deadlines. The manager allows his / her teammates to do most of the work. After sometime the manager loses touch with the core technical part of his / her field. The manager’s skills in his / her area becomes rusty and after some point of time they become useless. The only thing that the manager can do is negotiate, make and track project plans and assign tasks to teammates. This might even have negative repercussions on the manager’s resume value in the job market. It might also increase the risk to the project, because the core of the project will be managed by people down the line, while the manager plays the role of a figurehead. The COO of the company that I used to work for, thought on these lines, and decided that if things continued in this way, the potential risks to projects were too high. He decided to introduce technical tests for middle and senior managers in the company. It was no surprise when a significant proportion of middle and senior managers failed in this test.

In cricket

If we apply this reasoning to cricket we can say this : if Katich (or Viv Richards or Imran Khan) keeps following this strategy, his cricket skills might rust while his players will love him for giving them more opportunities. There might come a time when he might owe his place in the team more to his team’s loyalty rather than to his performance. Then a day will come when he will be ejected out of the team. This has happened many times before. (Imran Khan retired before his skills rusted, but Viv Richards was rusty in his last few matches and the West Indian selectors couldn’t wait for him to retire. It happened to Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh too). Is that a good state of affairs? Another way to look at it would be from a fan’s perspective. As a Katich fan, I was looking forward to watching him bat in every match. But because he wanted to give more exposure to the young guns, I could watch him in just a couple of matches. Isn’t that unfair to a fan like me?

A personal experience

I had an interesting experience on this front, when I was working with a team on a project once (this was during my study days). Our team had around six to seven members, it didn’t have stars, one of our teammates was a dissident, but the others bonded well. I did most of the organizing, always came prepared for meetings, bunked classes so that I could research and get information from the library for our project meetings, performed all the chores that teamwork demands and offered the limelight to other teammates. One of my  teammates was shy to get on stage. We groomed him for a few weeks and built up his confidence. He did a good job when our final presentation had to be made. There were other teams which made flamboyant presentations, but our team came first. I think the reason for that was that we jelled as a team and brought the power of teamwork to the stage. Was what I did – being selfless and doing the grunt work and leaving the limelight to the others – the right thing? Was it good being a ‘team player’? It definitely was good for the team. It definitely helped my team’s performance. Was it good for me? I am not sure. I definitely missed an opportunity by giving the limelight to my other team members. The exercise showed me in good light as a team member, but it didn’t improve my presentation skills. My professor even asked me why I wasn’t part of the group which presented the team’s findings in public.

Finding the balance

So, what is the answer to the question – in cricket and in life? I think, looking at both sides of the equation, reducing the team’s dependency on stars and making the team run on autopilot mode, where everyone stands on his / her own legs knows his / her responsibilities and the team runs like a well-oiled machine, does seem to be a good thing, because it reduces the dependency of the team on an individual. On the other hand, it should probably be done without sacrificing individual brilliance or without allowing any individual player’s skills to become rusty. If this happens then the concerned individual player doesn’t add value to the team. I think sacrificing one’s individual interest for the team is like using a knife which cuts both ways. It should be done with care.

So, how does one find the balance between mitigating risk and encouraging individual flair and brilliance? That is a very interesting and a million-dollar question 🙂 It is a question for cricket team captains and managers to ponder.

What do you think?


Postscript : For the record, Katich’s batting doesn’t look like it is going to get rusty in the near future 🙂 He is one of the best batsmen in the world, going by his present form and is a breathtaking fielder (the best in the world, if you ask me!) and an interesting unconventional bowler. He is also a brilliant captain. How the Australian selectors missed giving him a longer run and elevating him to the Australian captaincy (after Ponting) remains a mystery. How can the selectors allow such breathtaking talent to not flower to its potential? It boggles the mind!

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