The schoolboy professor
Of the five Indians who chose for Wisden Asia Cricket's issue on the best of modern cricket writing, two picked Indian writers. In any group of 100 Indian cricket lovers (or more accurately, cricket-writing lovers) if 40 chose Indian writers, that would be a surprise. This is not because Indian writers are inferior, but simply because they do not have a body of work comparable to the rest.
Most of our imaginary 40 would go for the Carduses and Arlotts, the CLR Jameses and Robertson-Glasgows, the Fingletons and Ray Robinsons. The younger ones would probably plump for Peter Roebuck and David Frith. If the choice were to be narrowed to Indian writers, most would probably pick KN Prabhu, by reputation and repetition the doyen of them all, with Ramachandra Guha perhaps the favourite of the younger generation even when he writes about history rather than current politics in the game.
Part of modernism is the temptation to rank professionals, whether actors or batsmen or writers. I shall avoid that trap here because I want to keep my friends.
Prabhu wrote for the country's most widely circulated newspaper, the Times of India, in India's cricketing nursery, Mumbai, in prose that sometimes verged on poetry, and with an authority that came from both knowledge and longevity. In other parts of India, other writers, perhaps not so prolific, wrote with felicity too, but with less renown. In the south there was NS Ramaswami, whose books were light affairs but whose essays and newspaper columns had a quirkiness that stood out sharply against the backdrop of a smooth style, wide-ranging references and understated humour.
In the same group as Prabhu and Ramaswami, both writers who happened to be newspapermen, was Sujit Mukherjee, a writer who was also a teacher, publisher, historian, translator and critic. Ronald Mason, whose biographies of Walter Hammond and Jack Hobbs have become classics, once pointed out to Mukherjee how he and Mukherjee were unique as both wrote literary criticism and on cricket.
In an essay written over a quarter of a century ago Mukherjee said, "I think I write mainly in order to rediscover Indian cricket. In the act of writing, our cricket past becomes clear and real to me. Born to a race of idol-worshippers I am very conscious of the fact that it is the worshipper who lends life to the idol, which would cease to exist if he ceased to worship."
|I think I write mainly in order to rediscover Indian cricket. In the act of writing, our cricket past becomes clear and real to me. Born to a race of idol-worshippers I am very conscious of the fact that it is the worshipper who lends life to the idol, which would cease to exist if he ceased to worshipSujit Mukherjee|
When I first read that, I assumed that the intellectual was apologising for dabbling in sport. True, Mukherjee had played first-class cricket (Ranji Trophy for Bihar), but he was a formidable figure in literary circles, having published a book on Rabindranath Tagore's visit to America, and Directory of Dissertations in English and American Literature by Indian Scholars. He was a Fulbright Scholar, and turned out for a club in Philadelphia some years after his first-class career had ended.
Mukherjee continued to write - both cricket and literary criticism - and some years later I had matured enough to understand that far from being an apology, that paragraph was an attempt to nail down a passion to a rational board. His Romance of Indian Cricket (1968) was followed four years later by Playing for India. In the former he "laid his tribute at the buckskin shod feet" of his boyhood heroes. Mason said the latter book was written "with a shrewd eye for character and irony as clearly as for addition and subtraction". It is, as Guha has pointed out in his introduction to the writings of Mukherjee, a tome of "methodical reconstruction" of individual careers and their place in the overall history of Indian cricket.
Mukherjee's Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer must rank as the best autobiography by an Indian cricketer, streets ahead of the ghost-written disasters by better cricketers who were poorer writers. "As with every fat man inside whom is a thin man struggling to come out, there is a Test player struggling for emergence inside every cricket enthusiast," wrote Mukherjee.
He was 73 when he died in January 2003. There were, and will be, better cricketers than him, but few better writers on the game he wrote on with a mixture of schoolboy enthusiasm and professorial precision.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2004