A historian resigned to the decline of cricket writing

Sankhya Krishnan

May 31, 2001

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Ramachandra Guha spoke to CricInfo on Tuesday on his most recent preoccupation, 'The Picador Book of Cricket' in which he has anthologised some of the most enduring pieces in cricket writing. An accomplished writer himself, Guha whose last work was a history of global environmentalism, talks about the perils of carrying out a task of this nature involving, as it does, much agonising about which ones to leave out. He seems resigned to the decline of cricket writing over the last few decades but sounds upbeat about his next work, a deeply researched tome about the influence of society on the game in India and vice versa. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

On whether he agonised about omitting any piece

Many, many things because any anthology has to be ruthlessly selective. This covered the entire globe and almost the entire span of cricketing history, so it was enormously difficult. Certainly there were many pieces which I would have liked to include if only I had 1000 pages, in which case it would have been absurdly overpriced and no one would have been able to afford it.

On not including any of his own pieces

I made it a principle not to. The idea of this anthology came 4-5 years ago when a certain British broadcaster and journalist did an anthology in which he included seven of his own pieces and only one of CLR James. One of the things I'm truly sorry about is that I don't have a piece on Indian slow bowlers - particularly Bishen Bedi - but Indian slow bowling in general. If I could have had something on Bedi, who was one of my great heroes, a really poetic bowler, or Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Prasanna, I'd have had a sense of satisfaction. I looked very hard and there were only two pieces on Bedi I could have included, one in a competing anthology. Tony Lewis wrote a good piece which is there in Alan Ross' book (A Cricketer's Companion) and I'd written a piece on Bedi which I liked. But I felt that I didn't want to include any of my own pieces because it sends the wrong message. One shouldn't be vain and put your own pieces in an anthology. I think that's mistaken.

On the decline in the quality of writing

I think it's the structural context that's important. It's not that the quality of writers have gone down, it's the opportunity that writers now have. With TV and one-dayers dominating the game so dramatically and comprehensively, writers of today do not have the opportunity to exercise their skill and imagination they may have had 30 years ago. On TV you see minute replays from 46 different angles, that's the viewer you're writing for. Since the viewer has seen everything, what you're focusing on is some kind of absurd, irrelevant, non-cricketing detail. TV encourages frivolity and gossip rather than focusing on cricket and the cricketers. One-day cricket is to my mind equally damaging. The recent series versus Australia shows that there is much more poetry and drama in Test cricket. You could write a great essay on the Kolkata Test. But if you take the 1983 World Cup final, there's not a single piece that has stood the test of time. That's not the fault of the writers, it's the fault of that wretched game.

On whether he has been influenced by his favourite writers

I've admired them and learnt from all of them but I've tried to evolve my own style which is based on my own experience, my own understanding, my own work outside cricket. In my opinion, there are four great cricket writers who stand apart from the rest and I'd divide them into two categories of two each. Cardus and James are in one class, they were writers first and cricket writers second. Cardus also wrote on music; James also wrote on history and politics and biography. Their skills as writers, as narrators, could be applied to cricket but it could be applied to something else. Fingleton and Ray Robinson, who are my other two great writers, are basically craftsmen who are much more acquainted with the technical side of the game, they are specialists.

On the new book he is working on

The book is a story of the ways in which cricket is influenced by and influences, in turn, the society in which we live in. So it starts in the early 19th century with the British bringing in the game, moves to the Parsis who were the real pioneers of cricket in India and to matches between native and British cricketers and the tension which arose when the whites lost and what it meant to colonial prestige. Then it moves on to a story of a remarkable forgotten family of Dalit cricketers, particularly Palwankar Baloo who was our first great slow bowler and to religion and Hindu-Muslim tension on the field in the 30s and 40s. The last part talks of the spread of the game after 1947. How Indian cricket is the greatest national passion in the world. I mean, Brazilians are as crazy about football but there are 80 million Brazilians and a billion Indians. I've tried to explain how this has happened, how this British game has become ours and how in this process, ugly features have come in - not just match-fixing - but more particularly nationalism and jingoism. It talks about match-fixing but the last chapter at the moment is the India-Pakistan World Cup match during the Kargil war and some of its more unhappy effects.

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