March 1, 2011

When MS met WG

We have a picture too

Another day, another book launch. Stumped, a book of caricatures of the Indian World Cup squad, for which young Malayali artist Shijo Varghese drew the pictures and I wrote the text, was unveiled for the world yesterday by MS Dhoni, aided by Harbhajan Singh, Virat Kohli and Piyush Chawla, who very generously gave their time to attend the launch at a Bangalore hotel.

As you can imagine, there was considerable excitement. Dhoni has wanted to meet me ever since hearing about my match-winning innings of 29 not out for Penshurst Park against Leigh in the titanic West Kent Village League local derby showdown of 1998 (“surely one of the finest knocks by a balding lapsed-Jewish redhead lefthander batting at No. 9 in the history of the West Kent Village League” - EW Swanton, Daily Telegraph). Harbhajan cannot sleep without someone first reading him my latest blog as a bedtime story. Chawla kept asking me for tips on legbreak bowling – in my experience, I told him, the slow, looping full-toss, landing full-pitch on top of middle stump is a very difficult ball to play, particularly if you are bowling down a slope with the sun behind the bowler’s arm. Kohli, meanwhile, took copious notes as I gave him detailed technical advice from my own illustrious batting career on how to score all of your runs behind square on the off side whilst still managing to maintain a steady 20 runs per 100 balls strike-rate against bowlers aged either more than 55 or less than 14.

This was my second book launch. The global unveiling of my first book, a hastily-written effort about the credit crunch in late 2008, involved me sitting at home, opening a package with a couple of copies in it, saying, “Oh good. That looks nice,” and telephoning my mother. There were rather more photographers at this one - when will the paparazzi let me live my own life? - as the local media snapped away feverishly. I stood next to the Indian skipper, feeling distinctly un-photogenic.

The players were charming and courteous with the small assembly at the launch, dutifully signing autographs, and seemed particularly amused by the caricature of Sreesanth. Or perhaps just by the idea of Sreesanth.

In the book, I described Ashish Nehra as being “arguably one of the best four billion fielders in the world”. I asked Dhoni if he agreed with the claim. He replied that it depended whether I meant before or after a six-over spell of bowling.

As you can see from the photograph at the top of this blog, I also introduced MS to another famously two-initialled cricketer, WG Grace. Two cricketing legends and commercial golden geese from very different eras came face to face for the first time.

With their common bond of being icons of their respective times, they seemed to hit it off straight away. They had a lively discussion about the pressures of celebrity, WG advised MS on how to keep playing international cricket up to the age of 50, and then seemed to try to persuade Dhoni to have a word with the Chennai Super Kings’ owners about wangling him an IPL contract. Although the good Doctor has been out of the first-class game for 103 years, so much of modern cricket is about branding, and the WG brand remains instantly recognisable and, potentially at least, financially explosive.

Thanks again, all four of them. And thank you to Graeme Swann for only scoring one run off the last ball of Sunday’s class run-glut, meaning that they were all in a rather chirpier mood than might have been the case. The book, a labour of non-profit-making love by its cricket-mad publisher, which will be available, at some point in the hopefully not too distant future, from

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer