May 17, 2009

Where are the Indians?

English and Australian players have not been shy when it comes to writing their life stories; not so the Indians

All these years later, Gavaskar is still probably the best Indian player-writer © Getty Images

Twenty-odd years ago during a cricket tour, Mohinder Amarnath bought me lunch and asked me a question: would I be willing to ghost his autobiography? I was in my twenties, a relative newcomer to cricket writing, and the plan excited me for two reasons. One, the opportunity to write a book, even if it would appear under Amarnath's name, and two, the possibility of spending long hours with Lala Amarnath, and perhaps of writing a biography of that great player later.

But Mohinder seldom had the time to sit down to it and the project never took off. I had neither the imagination of Kenneth Wheeler nor the background of Rajan Bala. The former wrote Tiger's Tale, the Nawab of Pataudi's autobiography, after four interviews with Pataudi; the latter spent six days with Erapalli Prasanna before sitting down to write One More Over. Both books were popular successes, Tiger's in 1969, Prasanna's in 1977.

Just over a dozen or so Indian players have written books, and those have ranged from the depressingly banal to the merely adequate. Sunil Gavaskar's Sunny Days, written without the aid of a ghost, and a pioneering effort in some ways, still remains one of the best books by an Indian player. The first edition sold out in three days, while the second took some weeks to do so. That was in 1976, and Gavaskar, who had already shown he was en route to becoming one of the all-time greats of the game, opened the doors to similar efforts. Suddenly there was a market for cricket books, but it was journalists rather than players who tapped it.

Where have all the ghosts gone? In recent years such literary figures as Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag have written ghosted newspaper columns, but the ghosted autobiography has not attracted them. Perhaps no publisher has had the courage that Rupa did in the old days.

One recent exception is Aakash Chopra's Beyond the Blues - easily the best cricket book written by an Indian international. It is a diary of a single cricket season, but Chopra's vision is broad and he mixes the straight and narrow with a range of strokes - intimate thoughts on the game and its players, the depressing stories of the game's officials, anecdotes, and much more - that in cricketing terms makes it a VVS Laxman of a book: stylish, gentle and effective.

A couple of years earlier, there was John Wright's Indian Summers, the story of the New Zealander's stint as India's coach. It caused a mild sensation when it appeared, thanks to the stories of selectorial compromises and player behaviour beyond the television cameras. It wasn't a tell-all book so much as a tell-some book, yet without being vicious or unduly harsh, it painted a picture of Indian cricket that was fascinating. Like the story of how when the Indian team won, the coach was guaranteed a limousine and a reception committee at the airport, but when they did badly he had to find his own way, looking for taxis.

Cricketers from England and Australia haven't been reticent about sharing with us details of such historic events as their first love, school prizes for French, and even their cooking abilities

Cricketers from England and Australia haven't been reticent about sharing with us (through their ghosts) details of such historic events as their first love, school prizes for French, and even their cooking abilities - both Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hayden have written cookbooks, demonstrating once again that to the winners go the spoils.

But as the Vaughans and Strausses and Flintoffs and Pietersens and Symondses and Warnes achieve authorial status, the question remains: where in all this is the Indian player? In 10 years from 1976, Gavaskar wrote four books. Dilip Doshi's Spin Punch appeared in 1991, and then, till Chopra, nothing. Except for so-called coaching manuals, which either bear a suspicious resemblance to the MCC's or to nothing at all.

If Jack Fingleton is the best player-writer Australia has produced, and Ian Peebles perhaps the best from England (although a case could be made for Trevor Bailey), who would it be from India? In a decade from now, the answer might be Rahul Dravid. He has the background and the interest in the language that are the starting points. But till then my vote will go to the late Rusi Modi, the elegant batsman who wrote charmingly about the game and its players. Modi's Cricket Forever appeared in 1964, but his best efforts were the shorter pieces he wrote.

When the Australian Services team toured India in 1945, a rising young bowler named Keith Miller made his mark. Modi, the batting success of that tour, wrote some fine studies of Miller and Mushtaq Ali, as he did later of the senior Nawab of Pataudi.

The best writers are romantics. That is why Gavaskar, who has written more, provoked more, and been involved more in the game than most Indians, somehow falls short. He is no romantic. I have the same problem with Richie Benaud. Good writers both, but lacking in poetry and the flights of imagination that bring the ordinary alive.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore