May 30, 2001

'Epitaph' to the great writers

The Picador Book of Cricket, edited by Ramachandra Guha and published by Picador

Historian Ramachandra Guha flits seamlessly and with distinction between the far removed worlds of environmentalism and cricket. His latest production, `The Picador Book of Cricket', is an anthology that brings together in one volume the distilled essence of some of the game's most insightful writings. In his own words, it is 'both homage and epitaph, a tribute to the finest writers on the game and an acknowledgement that the great days of cricket literature are behind us.'

Guha blames the modern preoccupation with pyjama cricket for marking the death knell of the golden age of writing. 'Watching a one-day match is like smoking a cigar, fine while it lasts' but incapable of spawning a canonical literature. The other baleful influence, Guha suggests, is television which strips the game bare so that there are no secrets left between writer and reader. It's true that Cardus-style profiles which fondly recount the idiosyncrasies of players are better appreciated without an already formed visual impact since it is the process of recreating the picture in one's mind which makes them so enjoyable. The challenge before the writer now is to look between the scenes and fill the gaps in the viewer's consciousness; to express what the reader feels but is unable to articulate himself.

Oscar Wilde once said that the difference between journalism and literature was that 'journalism is unreadable and literature not read'. Sometimes literature is not read simply because it is not accessible enough. The signal service of this book is to showcase some of the classics, notably obscure ones, within the confines of a teeming but not too ponderous volume. Although Guha says he has 'preferred literature to journalism', there are a number of journalistic pieces written originally for newspapers, mostly in the last twenty years. He obviously believes literary value exists in the timelessness of their appeal, although judgement must be reserved since these are contemporary.

The opening two sections are on the big names from Grace down to Tendulkar (on whom the best is doubtless still unwritten), followed by a paean to their journeymen compatriots or 'little heroes'. A brief interlude on great matches intervenes before a final miscellany of 'styles and themes' ranging from the Brilliance of Left-Handers to the Pleasures of Reading Wisden. All the masters are present with Cardus, CLR James, Jack Fingleton, Ray Robinson and John Arlott being the most heavily represented. Alan Gibson once noted that "it was fortunate for cricket that Bradman and Cardus existed at the same time: fortunate for them too, since the best of batsmen was recorded by the best of critics." Cardus makes seven contributions but, conspicuously, none on Bradman; his 1930 appreciation of the Don has been passed up. Also on the cutting floor falls Mailey's classic account of his first encounter with Trumper, the author preferring to go with separate pieces on either player.

'Little Heroes' is briefer but arguably as fascinating as the space given to the popular favourites. CLR James' poignant memoir of Wilton St. Hill, a gifted player who was a terrible failure on his only tour to England in 1928 is present. Hill does not merit one reference in Michael Manley's monumental `History of West Indies Cricket' but James remarkably declares that in his gallery, Hill is present with Bradman, Sobers and the rest. There are no fictional narratives in the book but an account by Rowland Ryder on his correspondence with PG Wodehouse nails the link between Bertie Wooster's inimitable valet and an obscure Warwickshire cricketer, Percy Jeeves.

For all his disdain of one-day cricket, Guha has managed to sneak in Mike Marqusee's account of Sri Lanka's triumph in the 1996 World Cup final. Hardly a great match and hardly even a surprise result but presented as a concession to his avowed intention of showcasing 'writers and subjects chosen from across the great and growing territory of the game'. While the subjects have a wider sweep, the authors are skewed towards the traditional strongholds of the game. Of the 76 contributions, four are by Asians (all Indian). Sujit Mukherjee, the doyen of living Indian writers, is here through his account of a Jesuit schoolmaster in Patna from 'The Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer' but his 'Romance of Indian Cricket' which offers endearing sketches of some of India's early greats unfortunately goes unrepresented.

Indeed this is the second such work edited by Guha, the first entitled `An Indian Cricket Omnibus', was devoted to Indian cricket, although not restricted to Indian authors; curiously enough no selection from that work makes it here. Guha has written two books on the game himself: 'Wickets in the East' and 'Spin and Other Turns', both following a racy style depending heavily on a bottomless trove of anecdotes, some authentic, others apocryphal, fondly recalled with a raconteur's zeal. Most anthologists are sorely tempted to insert one of their own pieces but he has resisted manfully. The book's epilogue sees Guha carry out a perilous exercise in tightrope walking by picking out his 50 favourite books on the game.

This, then, is an unabashed celebration of the game, skirting clear of the discordant notes: only a brief hint of Bodyline, no mention of Packer and certainly none of match-fixing, nothing that threatens the pristine splendour of the game. But Guha promises to take a more critical look at the game's flaws in his next work, to which he is lending a more active participation by writing it himself. A sociological history of cricket in India, titled 'A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport', the book will hit the stands to coincide with India's tour of England next summer. It could well be Guha's tour de force.

The Picador Book of Cricket, edited by Ramachandra Guha and published by Picador. Pages: 476. Price: Rs 395. England price: 20 pounds