Cricket Wallah June 28, 2008

From dullness, splendour

The tour was pure drudgery, but at least it produced one of the finest tour books written

Deliver me: Derek Underwood cries out at the crushing boredom of it all © Getty Images

The 1981-82 England series was probably one of the dullest played on Indian soil. Five of the six Tests were drawn; at one stage India let the over-rate slip to ten an hour and England retaliated by bowling slower still. India won the first Test and proceeded to sit on the lead. Yet it produced one of the finest tour books ever written - a work of research and imagination, of reportage and insight, of personalities, of the smells and sights of India.

To see in the defensive mindset of Indian cricket then the seeds of future world domination as both team and controlling body would have been difficult. Yet Scyld Berry asks in the book, "Was there a groundswell turning in favour of watching and playing the game which would come to alter the existing shape of the cricket map? While Australia was the most progressive Test-playing country, West Indies the strongest, and England still leading in the game's administration, was India soon to rival them?"

Berry, who arrived in India well before the tour party and visited Jamnagar to understand Ranji better, has always been a writer keen to look beneath the surface of events and beyond the façade of people. The result, in this book, is a stroll through a time and a place that is both enjoyable and instructive.

There was apartheid's shadow to begin with - neither Geoff Boycott nor Geoff Cook were, technically, welcome in India for having played in South Africa earlier. The classic Indian compromise was effected, the players made the right noises, or had these noises made for them, and the tour went ahead.

Yet at the end of it Boycott led a bunch of rebels to South Africa. Phil Edmonds, the England spinner, is quoted as saying in his biography that he was "certain a number of players went to South Africa not just for the money but because they were bored to the soul with Test cricket after that tour". Boycott, having gone past the world record aggregate on the tour, decided to play golf in the middle of a Test and was sent home - which may well have been his original intent.

Two defensive captains, Sunil Gavaskar and Keith Fletcher, must take the responsibility for the painful series. But Berry is not as keen on apportioning blame as he is on taking us on a tour of India with the magic of his writing. Cricket Wallah is a wonderful book about a great country; too bad about the cricket, though.

From the book
"(Indian umpires) have tended to be government bureaucrats with a legalistic turn of mind, specialising in abstruse regulations, in fact such masters of minutiae that they could rival medieval theologians discussing how many angels can fit on a pin head. If the genius of the Indian mind is its capacity for mastering detail, this is borne out to the full in India's umpiring examinations ... "

Cricket Wallah
by Scyld Berry

Hodder and Stoughton, 1982

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore