Behind the Rajasthan fairy tale
It was a story that needed to be told; we are lucky that it has been told by an insider who is as comfortable with his square cuts as he is with the smooth metaphor, and one who appreciates the passion, humour and the myriad human stories contained in victory and defeat.
Rajasthan, bottom of the lower division of the Ranji Trophy in 2009-10, finished national champions the following season. The fairy tale has all the implausibility of Cinderella and others in the genre, and Aakash Chopra describes it with warmth and attention to detail.
In this case, of course, every bit is true. The creativity lies in the telling. "When you are Rajasthan," says Chopra in the prologue, "last in the Plate Division, never having won the title, never even coming close to a final in over three decades, you don't play to win the honour, you play to save what you can of yours."
How did Rajasthan get it so right after a season when they had got it so wrong? For one, they hired the right professionals. Two of them, Chopra and Hrishikesh Kanitkar , had international experience, and more importantly, were bristling to make a point after being treated poorly by their original teams, Delhi and Maharashtra respectively. For a professional, that is usually motivation enough.
Then there was the attitude of the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), which was both professional and understanding of player needs. Officials cut through red tape when it was warranted, players were given the confidence they would be looked after (despite the usual politics), and loyalty was earned rather than demanded.
Chopra pays due tributes are paid to the RCA, but ultimately the book is about the real heroes, men like the opening batsman Vineet Saxena, who in a three-month period lost his father, his daughter and his job. As Chopra says, "Cricket was no longer about scoring runs, it was the only way to keep his family going. Failure was no longer an option." Hours after burying his daughter, Saxena was in Jaipur to play a match.
It is about Deepak Chahar, who was told by Greg Chappell that he was "not cut out for cricket", but began the season with figures of 7.3-2-10-8 to dismiss Hyderabad for 21. Cricket to him was a means to enabling his father to pay off his loans.
It is about Vivek Yadav, who ran away from home because of opposition to his playing cricket; Pankaj Singh, who travelled ticketless on a 30-hour train ride; and a host of others, each with a unique story. Men like these form the backbone of the domestic game in India - mildly feted in small circles, forced to make huge sacrifices to keep playing, but somehow managing to keep their vision alive. A world away from the Tendulkars and the Dravids.
There is a romance about the underdogs coming good which is the essence of sport. Rajasthan might have been languishing in the boondocks of Indian cricket, but with every victory (discussed in detail, with scorecards, here), self-belief grew, and the improbable toppled into the realm of the inevitable.
Chopra, who made a mark as a writer and thinker of substance with his first book, Beyond the Blues brings to his task a deep knowledge of the game and an empathy for the players. Out of the Blue is the story of a classic journey, with ups and downs and unexpected beauty in strange places. It is also the story of the mindset of a professional cricketer in a team of amateurs almost too used to being treated as men who don't matter in the larger scheme of things.
The author's honesty and generosity are summed up in this description of team-mate Rashmi Ranjan Parida: "He is one of the best players of spin bowling I have come across... it looks like he is trying not to hurt the ball while hitting it. When I see someone like that at the top of his game I count my blessings. I may not be half as good as him, but I am the proud owner of an India cap."
Aakash Chopra played ten Tests for India, but his best days in the service of the national team might be ahead of him.
Out of the Blue: Rajasthan's Road to the Ranji Trophy
by Aakash Chopra
Harper Sport, Rs 299, 262pp
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore