A year in the life
This must rank as the best book written by an Indian Test cricketer. It is candid and takes you into the mind of the player. Most books by Indian players are ghost-written autobiographies with tedious details of matches played, the odd anecdote, and very few insights into the game in India.
Aakash Chopra has written a book that has both immediacy and perspective. He uses a single incident or personality to comment on a system and the inevitability of it producing the kind of players India produces.
An autobiography is to be trusted only if it reveals something disgraceful, wrote George Orwell. Diaries, although these may be seen as slices of autobiography, are under no such obligation; but when they are written by sportsmen they must provide the dots that the reader can join together to form a picture that may be disgraceful or depressing or elevating or inspiring. But above all it must be honest, and Chopra's diary of the 2007-08 season is written from the heart.
After 10 Test matches, including a crucial series in Australia five years ago, Chopra at 31 is in a wonderful position to tell the story of Indian cricket through the frustrations, foibles and fantasies of one season. Remarkably for a player who continues to be successful just below the Test level but seems to suggest that there are no second acts in some sportsmen's lives, Chopra shows no rancour. The narrative is straightforward. Where chest-beating might be expected, there is acceptance; where finger-pointing would be natural, there is humour instead.
"Being an India cricketer is hell in many ways because of the intense scrutiny you are subjected to by a billion people," says Chopra, and then puts it into perspective by adding, "But not being an India player is worse."
In Australia, Chopra's sound defence and long occupation of the crease allowed the Sehwags and Gangulys, the Tendulkars and Dravids and Laxmans to make runs by the bagful. Yet what worked for the team didn't work for the individual, leaving Chopra puzzled. He writes: "The job that I had been entrusted with in Australia - seeing off the new ball and making sure the middle order wasn't exposed to it, and runs be damned - suddenly became sure proof that I couldn't score. The people who had told me not to worry about the runs, just do the job I had been roped in for, disappeared into the fissures that abound in that constantly changing entity called the Great Indian Cricketing Opinion."
Chopra emerged from this well of confusion after reconnecting with his original reason for playing the game - for the sheer joy of it.
The best parts of the diary concern the travails of the average Indian first class cricketer - the wars with officialdom, the terrible travel arrangements, the miserable hotel accommodation, and the ridiculous umpiring. "If you appeal for bad light," he writes, "you are asked to play for one over before the umpires consult the light meter. Invariably they will offer the light to the batsman at the end of the over… perhaps it allows the umpires to show their authority."
Officials get more stick. We are told of a vice-president of a state unit who steals all the caps meant for players. Or 37 officials accompanying a Ranji team. Here's how you deal with it: "In Indian cricket when you ask for something politely, people tend to ignore the request or run roughshod over you. If you demand an explanation or raise a stink, they give in. Bully the bully - it works."
Chopra writes with a light touch, which considering his disappointments, is a remarkable achievement. Not picked in the squad of 24 for the last Australia tour, he says, "If I play for India again, it will be forgotten as an unfortunate incident which just delayed my comeback. And if I don't play for India again, it will be forgotten as if it never happened." He says with startling self-awareness, "For players like me there aren't too many comebacks."
On the evidence here, Chopra has two careers ahead of him after his playing days. Already a popular columnist, he will bring a maturity and lustre to the media, which can do with all the maturity and lustre it can get. There is, too, a slot in administration, perhaps as national coach.
His book is that rare thing - a must-read for the budding player, the established star and everybody in administration. Those who believe cricketers are a spoilt lot will look at them with greater understanding and empathy.
Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other
by Aakash Chopra
HarperCollins Rs 295
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore