That subcontinental summer
Cricket, wrote Robert Winder, "is as much as anything, a form of travel". This was in Hell for Leather, one of the two finest books written on a World Cup. The other, by Mike Marqusee, War Minus the Shooting is about the same World Cup, the one in the subcontinent in 1996. There is something about the tournament being held in South Asia - the travel, the guaranteed range of experiences, the peoples so much alike yet so different, the passion, the frustration - that is tempting to the writer looking for patterns and untold stories.
The cricket stands for itself, of course; but it is also a symbol of something larger. "Everywhere it seems," wrote Marqusee, "people want to harness cricket to nation."
As a World Cup travelogue, Triumph in Bombay lacks the ambition of the two earlier books to which it will be compared, although other cricket-focused books on India's 2011 World Cup win have been in the market for a couple of years now.
The enormous work put in by the author is impressive. He watched cricket in 12 of the 13 venues, explaining, "I would no longer see the tournament through the sole lens of television. I was hitting the road to see what I might find."
Like India's progress in the tournament, the book begins sluggishly before gaining in confidence and finding its feet. The vignettes around the periphery of the tournament are delightful. Thus we are told that the attitude of policemen in Delhi "flips from needlessly abrasive to pathetically deferential, depending on who they are dealing with". Better editing would have changed that "who" into "whom". It is a recurring problem through the book, where some fine passages are ruined by clumsy editing.
The bright-eyed objectivity of the young author is both the strength and the weakness of the book. On the one hand it allows him to assess results dispassionately, to smile at the media's lack of objectivity at MS Dhoni's press conferences. On the other, this same lack of passion diminishes the energy that personal involvement can bring to a book on sport. So, while we have descriptions of matches and individual performances, we get to know precious little of the author's feelings. A hint into his world is provided in the prologue, but that merely whets the appetite. The plan is an excellent one: to "write of a sport and simultaneously illuminate an entire culture, hold a mirror to an entire age", and also to "understand my own childhood, of months and years consumed by cricket".
Sport is about passion, and while Vats is able to draw us into his world of travel, especially in the latter part of the book, we are not given a similar ride into his cricket or his own mind. Thus, better than the cricket is the travel, and better than the travel are the portraits of the characters he meets, the friends he makes, and cricket people around the country, including a teacher at his journalism college.
Vats has the talent - enough to suggest he is a writer to be watched. After all, even Sachin Tendulkar had to wait till his 79th match for his first one-day century.
Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup
by Vaibhav Vats
240 pages, Rs 399
Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack