Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer March 22, 2008

Notes from the middle

A memoir that gives the game the time, attention and moral seriousness it calls for
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The cover of Sujit Mukherjee's Autobiography Of An Unknown Cricketer shows an everyday game in progress, the particular instant chosen being between deliveries. The anonymous striker is gathering his thoughts while the unknown bowler returns head-down to the end of his mark. The unidentified umpire has his hands in his pockets, while the nameless fielders may be wondering about whether they should move the goat at mid-off a little deeper.

Well, yeah: as surely everyone knows, it is the first law of passing by any low-level game of cricket that nothing will be happening. You tense as you approach to see a flashing drive or a flying stump ... and, when you're close enough to see, the batsman's fiddling with his protector, or they're having drinks. As, indeed, it should be. For cricket doesn't surrender easily to the wandering eye: it needs some time, some attention and a little moral seriousness to get to the bottom of. Plus - and it's a big plus - it's a game to be played, rather than simply to be watched or pontificated over.

Okay, so that's the cover - and it sets the tone. For this unprepossessing 168-page memoir punches way above its apparently insubstantial weight. Mukherjee justifies his book with the first of many memorable apercus: that cricket involves a "heady mix of memory and desire", and that "no memory can be more vivid, no desire more enduring, than those embodying the cricket one has seen and known and played oneself". This is not, however, a larkish Rain Men or even Yakking Around the World: Mukherjee was an earnest cricketer with some talent, but not a great deal, who wanted to be better, but perhaps not quite enough. Attending state trials at 21 "certainly cured me permanently of any higher ambitions in the game, because it taught me beyond doubt that this was about the most I was meant to achieve, hence I should have no regrets that I did not go further". His loss became cricket's gain, for the great can miss of the game what the ordinary discover.

Autobiography undersells Mukherjee's book, because it is endlessly companionable, filled with characters like the cricket coach Father Cleary, who the narrator convinced himself must be India's premier allrounder: "Happily, this belief has never been tested and, since it was never disproved, I may as well hold it till my dying day. More than actuality, it was the imagination that he filled for me, and there is no place in such realms for judgement."

Growing up in the Raj's last days, Mukherjee brushes past the departing English while playing cricket against the sahibs of the "wholly reactionary and imperial" Patna Cricket Club: "In later life, whenever I met an Englishman not interested in cricket, it has caused unreasonable disappointment with the man." His experience of playing with Hemu Adhikari while at the National Defence Academy is still more vivid, and deliciously evoked:

Somebody pointed him out to me at a squadron party and I couldn't believe that this short, average-looking man sitting quietly in a corner could be a cricketer who had toured Australia with the India team and only a couple of years ago was vice-captain of India's tour of England. I sometimes thought Test cricketers could be identified off-field by a halo around their heads or some other kind of effulgence and would certainly be the centre of conversation at a party. Later, when I got to know Hemu, I realised that no matter how many Tests he played or cricket tours he made, he never sought or would seek any social limelight. His wife Kamal was a perfect match for him in modesty and friendliness. Had she ever taken to playing cricket, I am sure her batting and bowling would have been the same as Hemu's. Maybe her fielding would have been less spectacular.

That it takes all sorts is verified by the likes of Scotty, the cricketer-as-misanthrope, with whom Mukherjee plays for Fairmount CC in Pennsylvania while on a Fulbright Scholarship:

Scotty did not get along either with his fellow countrymen or with us - which was a pity, because he was obviously crazy about cricket. This made him simply hog the batting and bowling whenever he got an opportunity to do so, and this naturally did not win him any friends. Now that I am older I can understand his situation better. He must have been 50 years old then and, in return for a day's labour in the field, sought to make the best of whatever was available, dreading perhaps that day in the future when he would no longer be able to play. As a bowler he didn't get many wickets but neither did he give away many runs. Whenever an opposing pair of batsmen looking like settling down, Scotty would practically demand to be put on - and once put on wouldn't easily let go. An inveterate smoker, he chain-smoked even while fielding. When his turn to bowl came, he would hand over a half-burnt cigarette to the umpire and take it back after completing his over. The only time he did not smoke was while batting, for which he employed a very effective range of prods and pushes which produced a single off the fifth or sixth ball of the over, which enabled him to retain the strike for several overs at a stretch.

At the time, Mukherjee was completing his PhD dissertation, on the fluctuating literary reputation of Rabindrinath Tagore, the first significant work in a career that would make him India's most formidable literary critic and scholarly publisher. In the last chapter here Mukherjee reveals the breadth and sweep that paradoxically makes him such a convincing interpreter of the small and local, with an expansive meditation on cricket's various directions - including a view of cricket on television as severe as it is perceptive:

Unavoidably a sense of loss persists. The telecast shows me only what the cameraman wants to show; the telecommentary tells me only what the commentator is capable of telling, much of it pointless. Large chunks of the match, and not only of play, are left out completely; small chips of play are shown magnified beyond proportion of their significance. Neither seems acceptable to me. I belong to a generation for whom going to a Test match was a pilgrimage. You paid homage to and appeased your white-clad gods, and at the same time acquired some redemption for yourself.

Stylish and thoughtful cricket writing is pouring out of India at present, but the country's literature has long been distinctive, and Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer was one of the standard setters when published 15 years ago. They say you can't judge a book by its cover - but look hard enough at this cover and you can.

Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer
by Sujit Mukherjee
Ravi Dayal, 1993

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer