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When Swiss great Roger Federer was once asked about the essay that David Foster Wallace wrote about him, Federer said that he enjoyed reading it and it was beautiful and he loved David Foster Wallace’s writing. Or he said something like that. Roger Federer’s fans, many of whom were nerds, were ecstatic when they heard what he said. Among tennis players, a significant proportion of Federer’s fans seem to be nerds. When nerd fans heard Federer gushing about David Foster Wallace, they probably fantasized that Federer has read Wallace’s epic book ‘Infinite Jest’, and maybe he has read Jonathan Franzen and William Gaddis too. Being from Switzerland, he probably has thoughts on his fellow countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s memoirs and his philosophy, and maybe he has one or two insights to share on Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Something similar happened when the great Serena Williams read Maya Angelou’s famous poem, ‘Still I Rise’. (You can find the video here . It is beautiful and inspiring.) Serena’s fans were ecstatic. They fantasized that Serena has probably read the rest of Maya Angelou’s work including her famous memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Maybe Serena has also read the works of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and James Baldwin and she has one or two insights to share on the differences between Paul Laurence Dunbar’s and Langston Hughes’ poetry and the common themes in Jacqueline Woodson’s and Jesmyn Ward’s fiction.

Nerds have this fantasy about their favourite sportspersons – that their favourite sportsperson reads like them, and thinks deeply about intellectual issues like them, and has insights to offer on the finer points of philosophical debates. This is all just pure fantasy, of course. Successful sportspersons don’t have time to read, because reading demands long uninterrupted time. A successful sportsperson’s life is filled with training, keeping their fitness level up, playing matches and lots of travelling. When they are not doing these things, their lives are filled with interrupts, as they have to give interviews, make media appearances, satisfy their sponsors’ requests, go for ad shootings and other such things. There is no time for reading and deep contemplation. They probably have a nerd in their team who tells them in five minutes about David Foster Wallace or Maya Angelou and they probably work this into their conversations or any kind of public speaking they do. The logical part of our mind knows this, but the tennis-fan-plus-nerd part of our mind fantasizes that Federer or Serena or another favourite sportsperson is also a nerd and reads serious books and contemplates on the meaning of life and the fate of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If Federer or Serena spent their time reading, they wouldn’t be legends in their sport. Their sport demands action and that is what they are great at and that is what they do everyday. Reading and contemplating is for mundane people like the rest of us, who have the uninterrupted time and the patience to indulge in it.

Like everything else in life, there are, of course, exceptions to this. For some reason, there used to be nerds in cricket. The English batsman, Chris Tavaré, after retiring from cricket, went back to high school to teach biology. It is hard to imagine something like this happening today, but it did then. Another English batsman, John Crawley, also went back to high school to teach, and became a headmaster. I am not sure which subject he taught.

Mike Brearley, the great English captain, became a psychologist and therapist after he retired from cricket. Brearley was one of those odd cricketers. He mainly played as a batsman throughout his career but he was not great at it. To put it mildly, he was below average. Someone like him should have never made it into an international team. Brearley himself jokes about it in one of his books – “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!” By a series of extremely unlikely circumstances, Mike Brearley, who was a below-par batsman, became the English team captain. And that is where he realized his potential. He was a great leader, he inspired his team, and led them to great heights. He was still a bad batsman, but he became one of the greatest captains that the cricketing world had ever seen. After he retired, the English team got a new, young captain. But then things started going badly for them. The selectors invited Brearley back into the team. He came back. His hair was prematurely grey, he couldn’t bat or bowl or field, he came low down in the batting order because he couldn’t buy a run, and he stood in the slips, because he didn’t have to run around and field the ball. But he inspired his team with his direction and leadership and his smart decisions on the field and his clear communication, that within a short span of a few weeks, they performed some amazing deeds and went back to being world beaters again. When Brearley retired a second time, he became a psychologist and a therapist. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’ which is a nerd’s delight. These days Brearley continues coming out with the occasional book and they are unlike most other cricket books – they are intelligent, smart, have beautiful prose and are nerdy. Frequently, Brearley writes about sport and music and art and philosophy in the same breath. He is well read and well informed and clearly looks like the contemplative type – an oddball among sportspersons. He is the one sportsperson with whom you feel you can discuss Kant’s philosophy and Rembrandt’s art and Mozart’s music. Brearley cannot hold a candle to Federer as a sportsperson. But as a nerd, he is in a different league. If you are a Brearley fan and you dreamed that he was a nerd, you got exactly that.

Another nerd from cricket was Ed Smith. Smith was a reasonably successful county cricketer. He even got a couple of opportunities to play test cricket and he didn’t do badly, but he didn’t get picked for the English team again and ended up retiring as a county cricketer. But during his time as a county cricketer, he wrote a diary which he published called ‘On and Off the Field’. It was beautiful, intelligent, smart. It was almost like reading a Brearley book. He backed it up with more books including one comparing cricket and baseball. They were all wonderful, written by someone who was clearly a nerd. Ed Smith went on to become the Chairman of MCC, like Mike Brearley, and even served for sometime as the Chief Selector of the English team. It has been a while since he published his last book. Fans are expecting a new book from him anytime now.

In Indian cricketing circles, Rahul Dravid is regarded as a nerd, as someone who reads a lot and who contemplates on things. There was also an interesting incident which happened sometime back – Indian cricketer Mithali Raj was once caught reading a collection of Rumi’s poetry while she was waiting for her turn to bat in a World Cup match. There was a lot of buzz in social media at that time, as that picture went viral.

But even in cricket, nerds are rare. The above are exceptions.

In tennis, nerds are non-existent. Tennis players start playing by the time they are ten years old, and they continue playing till their middle thirties, that is for nearly twenty-five years. Many of them don’t finish high school, or probably they do homeschooling and most don’t go to college, because of the demands of the game. Tennis is a game of action and there is no time to be a nerd. Atleast that is what I thought. Till I discovered Mihaela Buzarnescu.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is a Romanian tennis player. She is around thirty three years old, so that means she has been around for a while. She is a left hander and she has the leftie’s natural elegance. Her game is so beautiful that I can sit and watch her serve and play her forehand for the whole day. She can also hit all the other beautiful shots, the drop shot and the lob and even the moonshot. She played Serena Williams in the recent French Open and took a set off Serena. There were many beautiful points in that match and at some point Mihaela and Serena were laughing at the way things were going. As luck would have it, Mihaela was drawn to play Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon. She gave a good account of herself and the match went into three sets, and Mihaela brought her beautiful all-round game to the court, and in my opinion, at one point she was in command of the match, but it was still not enough against a legend like Venus, and Venus’ power game prevailed in the end. Mihaela Buzarnescu’s beautiful game is good enough for one to become her fan. But that is not the only beautiful thing about her. There is more to her than meets the eye.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is ranked around 190 in tennis now. There is no connection between her beautiful, competitive game and her low ranking. I wondered why she was ranked so low. I discovered that she had been beset by frequent injuries in the past and sometimes those injuries led to long breaks from the game. But Mihaela was not one to be fazed by that. Once, when she was forced by injuries into one of her long breaks from the game, she told herself – “Okay, I’m going to do something fun. I’m not going to just sit and mope around. Let me go to university and study something. And while I’m at it, let me go all the way.” And she went and did that. When Roger Federer took a long break from tennis because of injury, he told himself – “I’ll get fit again, I’ll practise hard, I’ll get competitive, I want to play Wimbledon again.” And he did just that. When Mihaela Buzarnescu took a long break from tennis because of injury, she went to university and got herself a Ph.D degree. Yes, you are reading it right. She got herself a Ph.D. That is how she became a nerd. It is appropriate to call her Dr. Mihaela Buzarnescu now.

I don’t know any other tennis player who has a Ph.D degree. Forget tennis, I don’t know any sportsperson who has got a Ph.D degree. There are Indian universities which dole out Ph.D degrees to celebrities like candy. I’m not talking about that kind of Ph.D. I’m talking about the real academic kind in which you attend classes and study and build your expertise in a particular field and then research on a particular topic, extend the frontiers of your field, write a dissertation about it, and defend it in front of an evaluating committee – I’m talking about that kind of Ph.D. Mihaela Buzarnescu did exactly that. As a tennis nerd, Mihaela Buzarnescu hit the ball out of the park. I am a certified nerd, and even I don’t have a Ph.D. When I read about Mihaela’s Ph.D, I got goosebumps.

I don’t know how long Mihaela will continue playing tennis. She is thirty three now. And she looks pretty fit. I hope she continues playing for atleast a few more years. She has the game to reach the second week of a grand slam. I would like to see her play in the semifinals or the final of a grand slam one day. She will delight many other tennis fans with her beautiful aesthetic game as she has delighted me. She is waiting to be discovered by mainstream tennis fans. But I am more interested in finding out what she will do after she retires from tennis. Will she become the Fed cup team captain? Will she get into tennis administration? Will she coach kids to play tennis? Or will she nurture her nerdy side and become a professor at university? I hope all these are in the distant future, but I can’t wait to find out!

Mihaela Buzarnescu with the trophy after she won her first title

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I got Emma John’s cricket memoir ‘Following On : A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket‘ a few years back. I finally got around to reading it.

Emma John and her sister visit their parents during a holiday. During the post lunch family chat, her dad goes to the basement and brings a big package. It contains cricket posters that Emma made when she was a teenager in the ’90s. It makes her nostalgic about the ’90s and about the English cricket team of that time. That team was regarded as a bunch of losers, because they lost a lot of matches. Emma wonders why she was obsessed with that team and followed their matches passionately. She decides to investigate. She also talks to some of the players from that era. The result is this book.

Following On‘ is a beautiful love letter to cricket, to a cricket team, to being a cricket fan. It is also a beautiful book about being a teenager, about growing up, about coming-of-age. I loved Emma John’s descriptions of the players and the matches. I also loved the interviews at the present time that she did with some of the players and the contrasts she discovered between how she imagined they would be and how they actually are. I was happy that many of the players I admired were featured – Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Jack Russell, Andy Caddick. I was happy that the maverick Phil Tufnell was featured. Even Alan Mullally was there. It was nice to know that John Crawley is now a teacher in school and Jack Russell is now a painter. It made me think of Chris Tavaré, who after his cricketing days were over, went back to teaching biology in high school. There is something charming about that – cricketers going on to do completely unrelated things, after their cricketing career is over. I remember Evan Chatfield became a taxi driver and Colin Croft became a pilot and Mike Brearley became a therapist and Kirmani became a banker. I would have loved to meet Chris Tavaré, the biology teacher, and attend his class 😊

The book also talks about how Emma’s mom introduced her to cricket, and how they watched cricket matches together and shared the highs and the lows, and how they continue doing it to this day, going to Lord’s or the Oval and watching a match and making a picnic out of it. I loved this part of the book.

Emma’s favourite cricketer from that time was Michael Atherton and the first thought that crossed my mind was whether she has covered the two most important things that happened during Atherton’s captaincy – his legendary 185 (not out) against Donald and company, and the time he declared the England innings when Graeme Hick was batting on 98. Emma covers them in detail and it was wonderful to read that.

I think Emma John’s book is cricket’s answer to Nick Hornby’sFever Pitch‘. It is beautifully written and it wonderfully evokes that particular era. I loved it. This book is also unique because there are not many contemporary books written by women writers on cricket (I know of only Sharda Ugra and Tanya Aldred who write on cricket) and so Emma John is breaking new ground here.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“I’ve always preferred watching my teams bowl to watching them bat. When your team are batting, your instinct is to maintain the status quo, and you don’t really want to see anything dramatic happen. At least, I don’t. I certainly didn’t in the 1990s, when England’s middle order carried a hairline fracture that could snap at any second, and I would watch an entire batting session through my fingers, praying desperately for nothing exciting or noteworthy to take place. When your team are in the field, however, you’re willing the action on. Perhaps even more so when things are going badly. Sure, your bowling attack may be getting thrashed around the park right now, but it only takes a single ball to get a batsman out. Nothing can rob you of that tiny moment of hope when the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. Every delivery is a miniature grenade of possibility.”

“It is fatal for a sportsman to start doubting himself, or his ability to win. By contrast, sports fans have to come to terms with the fact that we are, by and large, losers. Unless we win the lottery of life…we know that at any time the spectre of defeat is likely to cross our paths and ruin our day, our week, our year. We hazard ourselves, again and again, and we aren’t even doing it for the exercise. We’re not gaining physical benefits, or a social life, or status in the eyes of our peers. We’re doing it solely for the hope of a hit of victory, and a vicarious one at that. It’s a strange choice we make, to stake our emotions so wholeheartedly upon such meaningless outcomes. Sport is, by its nature, utterly trivial; a team’s success or failure doesn’t matter anywhere outside of its own universe. I suspect that this is why, paradoxically, we overinvest ourselves. We go all in, like a goldrush victim spying a fleck of something glittery in the ground. When our team win, we’re an instant millionaire; when they lose, we’re bankrupts. That’s the only way I can explain why fans like me keep supporting teams that keep letting us down. We’ve given so much of ourselves to this fictitious universe that we can’t withdraw from it until it has paid us back in good feelings. We become trapped in that gambler’s mentality. No matter what trophies our team win, or how far down the league we fall, we can never get out. As long as there’s another fixture, as long as there’s a revenge match, our sporting narrative goes on.”

Have you read Emma John’sFollowing On‘? What do you think about it?

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I was in the mood for more cricket books and I decided to read Neville Cardus’ autobiography.

Neville Cardus was one of the greatest cricket writers – of his time and of all-time. Old-timers will probably say that he was THE one. He elevated cricket reporting and sports journalism to art. His prose was the very definition of purple. In addition to cricket writing, he was also a music critic, something which is less talked about.

Cardus’ autobiography is divided into three parts. In the first part called ‘Struggle’, Cardus describes his life from his birth through his teens and twenties, when things were really hard for him. In the second part ‘My Summers’, he describes his cricket experiences. In the third part ‘My Winters’ he describes his experiences as a music critic. Throughout the book, especially the third part, he talks about mentors and friends who influenced his life deeply.

My favourite part of the book was the first. The bare facts of the story are these. Cardus lived his early years in a joint family kind of situation with his mom, grandparents and aunts. His mom was a prostitute. So was his favourite aunt who brought him up. Cardus never knew who his dad was. He had just four years of formal schooling and hated it. He left school when he was 13. At some point his grandparents died, the family broke up, his favourite aunt took him to live with her but then she died too, and he was literally on the streets. From these surroundings filled with extreme poverty and with no future in sight, how Cardus managed to acquire the knowledge and education he had and how he became one of the greatest prose stylists of his time, is the stuff of dreams, it is the stuff of legend. It is nothing short of a miracle. I got goosebumps reading that story.

I enjoyed reading the second part of the book too because it was about cricket. I especially liked what Cardus wrote about Archie MacLaren. For a long time, Archie MacLaren’s name was the answer to the quiz question – “Who scored the last quadruple century in county cricket?” It was nice to see the real Archie MacLaren come alive through the pages of this book. It was also wonderful to read Cardus’ thoughts on Victor Trumper and his descriptions of Lancashire cricket.

The third part of the book was interesting, but I also felt that it was very specific to classical music of that period. I love classical music, but I don’t think I can read a lot about specific concerts, composers, conductors at one time. Classical music fans will probably love that part of the book. But I loved some of the things that Cardus said about classical music.

The book ends at around the eve of the Second World War. Cardus was around till 1975, and so we don’t know what happened in his second innings. I also read somewhere that Cardus was married, but he doesn’t breathe about it in the book. It is as if his wife never existed. I don’t know why. His readers would have liked to see the family-man side of him and would have liked to get acquainted with his wife.

I enjoyed reading Cardus’ autobiography. The first part was very inspiring and it gave me goosebumps. If a guy who came from extreme poverty with four years of formal schooling can become one of the greatest prose stylists, there is some hope for us all.

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

“Music, I say again, came to me by grace. A man is not boasting when he claims to have received grace. The things that we are praised for in this world, our “successes,” are exactly the things for which we do not deserve credit; successes are easy, they come by grace. It is our failures that go sadly by without recognition of the effort and talent we have put into them; single-handed we hammered them out, but inspiration left us in the lurch.”

“In his last few years he helped me, less by any precise instruction than by his company. For hours we sat in cafés in Manchester, deep under the earth on winter afternoons; his talk was a fire; not a crackling one but as a glowing hearth, steady and warm without obvious combustion. Once in June, after sunset, very late and still, he leaned over the gate of his garden and talked to me of Shakespeare’s lyrics and of the fragility of loveliness in life. The air was full of the scent of his own flowers; and the wisdom of his speech, genial yet deep, seemed part of the beauty of the summer night.”

“Stendhal said that for him a landscape needed to possess some history or human interest. For me a place must have a genius in the air, a sort of distillation of years, a pathos of perspective, a mist of distance. In a word, it must have ghosts of lost wandering life, now forgotten by the extrovert and contemporary world. Historical and archæological interest is prosaic for me; I do not particularly wish to see the house in which the greatest poet was born; but to walk from Grinzing down to Vienna on a September evening, as twilight deepens and the lights of the city begin to twinkle, and to feel the sense of the past, almost to hear the vanished beauty and song whispering in rustle of leaf or wind, and in some hurrying footfalls on the roadside; to feel an awareness to all the hearts that have beaten here, the hopes and the strivings in these old houses, huddled in deserted gardens; birth and marriage and death; the comings-home at the day’s end, the glow of candlelight and wine and fellowship that surely seemed perennial and everlasting; the security of life at the crest, and now not only dead but lost to a world that must for ever be up and doing—this for me, is to live and to “go places.” Every great city is a palimpsest not of facts and events but of atmosphere and feeling, shaped by the irony of transition. That means I cannot enter into an unexplored land, a new land, where nature has not acquired an æsthetic and a pathos. Mountains and grand canyons and plains and mighty rivers are only so much geography in my eyes; mere contour-maps built on a large scale. A sunset in the Indian Ocean once bowled me over because it was like the closing scene of Götterdämmerung. I suppose I am a far-gone case of the Ruskinian “pathetic” fallacy; the external universe must appeal to me as a theatre or as a series of dissolving views, with the lantern turned inwards to my own soul.”

Have you read Cardus’ autobiography? What do you think about it?

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After reading Gideon Haigh’s book on Victor Trumper, I was in the mood to read another cricket book. I was wondering whether I should read a book which will make me happy, have nice cricket anecdotes, or whether I should read one which was heartbreaking, which will make me wallow in misery. I decided to read the second one. I don’t know why I keep doing this.

I have wanted to read ‘Silence of the Heart : Cricket Suicides‘ by David Frith for a long time. It was hard to find. But I finally got to read it. The title of the book is inspired by Albert Camus’ line – “Suicide is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art.

In this book, David Frith looks at all the cricketers who committed suicide, looks at their careers, their highs and lows, their personal lives, and tries to investigate why they did what they did. He also compares cricket’s suicide rates with other sports, and asks the question on whether the game might be responsible for what these cricketers did.

The cricket part of the book is very beautiful. I learnt about so many new cricketers about whom I didn’t know anything. One of my favourite anecdotes was about the South African cricketer Aubrey Faulkner, who as a teenager once saw his dad assaulting his mom and he went and defended his mom and beat up his dad. There are some good sons still out there. Not everyone is patriarchal.

One of my favourite cricket anecdotes was about Tommy Cook who played county cricket in the 1920s and ’30s. This is how it goes.

“Among those 169 catches was one at Hastings in 1926 that might have tested today’s television technology. Arthur Carr of Nottinghamshire, England’s captain against Australia that summer and a mighty hitter, straight-drove Bowley and had the crowd applauding a certain six – until Cook, fielding in front of the sightscreen, leaped up and parried the ball goalkeeper-fashion before catching it in an outstretched right hand. Dudley Carew wrote that he would never forget ‘the almost comical look of anxiety upon Cook’s face as he judged the flight of the ball before jumping for it’.”

This is the kind of catch is amazing today, nearly a hundred years later. I have seen a few contemporary fielders take such amazing catches. To discover that it has all been done a hundred years back – it gave me goosebumps!

It was amazing to read about the cricketing exploits of 19th century greats, A.E.Stoddart, Arthur Shrewsbury and Albert Trott. It was so hard to believe that all these greats took their own lives. So heartbreaking. It was interesting to discover that the great cricket writer, R.C.Robertson-Glasgow, was a good player himself, and it was wonderful to read that he was a great person and made people laugh. It was also heartbreaking to read that he went through years of depression and one day he took his own life. I knew that David Bairstow (father of current English cricketer Jonny Bairstow) committed suicide,  and so did Harold Gimblett (because there was a book written about him), but I was surprised to discover that great players like Jack Iverson and Sid Barnes (who played for Bradman’s 1948 invincibles) also did that. The unbelievable case was that of Stan McCabe who fell from the top floor of his building. There were rumours for years that it was suicide (why would one of Australia’s greatest, Stan McCabe, do that?), but the coroner returned a verdict of accident. Some people are still not convinced with the official report. The most heartbreaking story was that of little known South African cricketer Siegfried Regenstein, who, one day, when he was just 28 years old, called his girlfriend and told her that things were getting very hard for him, and while his girlfriend was trying to comfort him on the phone and make him feel better, he took a gun and shot himself. I can’t imagine what kind of trauma his girlfriend would have gone through at the other end of the phone line, when she heard the shot.

Silence of the Heart‘ is an important book. It is a heartbreaking book. It is very different from David Frith’s other books, which are mostly filled with cricket. The cricket part of the book was very enjoyable, the suicide part of it was heartbreaking, the analysis part of it was inconclusive. I would like to say that I loved it, but how can I do that when a book is filled with devastating, tragic stories? But I will say this – I am glad I read it.

My mom was a very positive person. She always believed that the world was filled with beautiful, happy things and if there were bad things, they were few and far between. My dad on the other hand was the opposite – he believed that the world was filled with bad things and happy and beautiful things were few and far between and if something looked beautiful and happy, it should be regarded with suspicion as it was too good to be true. I believed in my mom’s vision. It has sustained me through life till now. But after reading this book, I am wondering whether my dad’s vision is closer to the truth. Because happiness seems to be elusive, while depression seems to be ever present.

Well, to uplift my mood, it is time to pick a sunny book to reflect the sunny weather outside.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Cricket is only superficially a team game. Essentially it is a lonely game, one for the keen individual, with multiple odds stacked against him. In this it is a fairly faithful reflection of life. And it offers regular opportunities to achieve sporting heroism. In addition, the fellowship that reaches well beyond the boundary and beyond the confined period of one’s own playing days is a great force for good. These are elements in tempting cricketers to play on and on. One county cricketer, playing for his third county club, did not mind the fact that the grounds on which he kept wicket and batted were usually almost empty. His name was in all the newspapers almost every day and in the annuals which will line the bookshelves. His life had meaning. He shared an attitude with Vin Diesel, one of the stars of the movie Saving Private Ryan, who said, ‘I like film-making so much more than theatre. I like the immortality.’”

Have you read ‘Silence of the Heart‘? What do you think about it?

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I have always wanted to sneak in a cricket book into a reading challenge, and so I was excited to read Gideon Haigh’sStroke of Genius : Victor Trumper and the shot that changed cricket‘ for ‘April in Australia’.

Gideon Haigh is Australia’s premier cricket writer and cricket historian today. This is my first book of his. In this book, Haigh gives us a biography of Victor Trumper, one of Australia’s greatest cricketers, who played before the First World War. Haigh also focuses on the photo which appears on this book’s cover, which is one of the most iconic cricket photos. Through this photo, Haigh explores the early history of cricket photography. Haigh also shines the light on the growth of the Trumper myth and legend across the decades, after his death.

Victor Trumper was one of Australia’s greatest cricketers. He played during what is sometimes described as the golden age of cricket, which ended with the advent of the First World War. He was one of the first Australian sportspersons to be loved outside his country. Since his time, there have been many great Australian cricketers who have come on the scene, especially the great Donald Bradman, who was frequently compared to him. But Trumper’s life story has assumed the state of a legendary myth filled with magical feats which seem to be beyond compare. This book describes some of those feats, some of those stories. There was a particular description that Gideon Haigh quotes from Arthur Mailey’s book – I cried when I read that.

Stroke of Genius‘ is a beautiful love letter to the great Victor Trumper. It is also a fascinating introduction to the history of cricket photography. I loved it and I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘Stroke of Genius‘? What do you think about it?

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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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