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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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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 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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I discovered ‘The Wit of Cricket’ last month, when I went to the bookshop to get another book that I had ordered. I picked this and a few more and suddenly my resolution of not buying any book during that month, evaporated into thin smoke. But this was a book that I couldn’t resist, because though I have read many cricket anecdotes forwarded to me by friends by email and also have read anecdotes in different books, I haven’t read any books which had many of the anecdotes compiled in one place. So when I saw this book, I got quite excited and got it. I started reading it during the read-a-thon and finished it a few days later. Here are the review (short) and the excerpts (long) 🙂
 
What I think
 
The book is a collection of humorous anecdotes told by various interesting characters, some of whom have played cricket, and others who were cricket commentators. It has many of the famous anecdotes and many less known ones. It is anglo-centric with some Australian flavour – humour from other countries like India, South Africa, West Indies and others is nearly absent. Inspite of this limitation, this book is excellent. It makes one laugh. Many of the anecdotes are very funny and I nearly got a bellyache laughing 🙂 Many of the anecdotes are not politically correct, which adds to the humour. If you are a cricket fan, you will love this book.
 
Excerpts
 
It was a difficult choice for me to select a few anecdotes to give here, because I had many favourites. However I have tried giving a few below, to give you a flavour of the book. I have also posted a couple of anecdotes from this book on my blog here. I have given the anecdotes under two categories – legendary ones and the no-so-famous ones. Though I have categorized them thus, both of them are equally enjoyable reads. I also hope that the anecdotes which are not politically correct don’t annoy you.
 
Even if you are not a cricket fan, I hope that these anecdotes make you laugh and brighten up your day. (more…)

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