Bringing the love back
In a year when Kevin Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar released their autobiographies at the tail-end of their glittering international careers came Mid-wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar, an anthology of cricket writing.
In comparison with those stories of heightened emotions, dressing-room bust-ups, off-field conspiracies and outbursts of vulnerability, Mid-wicket Tales stands no chance of making a blip anywhere. It is a collection of essays, columns and blogs written by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, amateur cricketers of a few decades ago - and old friends. They are regular people, not famous, nor on TV, quite far from being celebrities or two-legged "brands".
Mid-wicket Tales opens proceedings with: "This is a love story." It most certainly is, and indeed it is from that declaration that the writers can draw all sorts in. It won't shake KP and SRT off the bestsellers charts, but it's a collection that will fight for a place in any cricket fan's affections.
Giridhar and Raghunath are separated by age and the levels at which they played amateur cricket: Giridhar in schools and city cricket and Raghunath alongside Test stars in first-division club cricket in Madras and Bombay. What they are united by is their love for Test cricket and what in some parts of India is called "days cricket" (three- or four-day cricket, club or first-class). The essays in the book cover the entire range of skills: bowling, batting, fielding, wicketkeeping and captaincy. They question preconceived notions and stand a few clichés on their heads with a lightness of touch and much finesse.
The book works on several levels. For everyone who remembers an age when "days cricket" of all forms was central, it is a dip into nostalgia combined with an acceptance and appreciation of the modern. All that the writers ask the game's contemporary audience is to take in this fact: a "humbling realisation" that in 135 years of Test history there have been only a few thousand Test cricketers, and "how special these few men must be".
Their first steps into cricket writing began when Giridhar met the cricket hero of his youth, allrounder Salim Drrani, at the Delhi airport six years ago. Take Durani's name and it makes fathers, grandfathers and uncles (and no doubt a few aunts too) of a particular age smile.
The book contains terrific vignettes of yesterday's venerated and worshipped. A personal favourite comes from a snippet about Kripal Singh of Madras. "When he came down the steps of the Presidency College pavilion, the cheers could be heard all over Triplicane." In a club match between Parry and State Bank, Kripal Singh hit a winning straight six off VV Kumar - "the ball cleared the ground and bounced off the top of a Route no 13 bus on Pycrofts road!" The exclamation mark in that sentence contains everything: the cheers of the crowd and our own delight.
In the figure of Kripal Singh lies a piece of folklore that could only belong to Indian cricket. Son of a Madras-based Sikh cricketer Ram Singh, who ran a sports shop in Chepauk, Kripal's full and formal name is AG Kripal Singh: Amritstar Govindsingh Kripal Singh. Like they do in the south, everyone's name must be preceded by the name of his/her home town and father. In a slightly whimsical segue there comes another thought: who knows if there are any familial connections between the AG Singhs of Madras and a young Jammu & Kashmir batsman called Ian Dev Singh? He who is named after the two great allrounders of the '80s: Ian Botham and Kapil Dev. At the grass roots, Indian cricket continues to move in charming ways.
Mid-wicket Tales also reaches out to an audience with a short attention span, those who love their contemporary stars with such fervent passion that it leads to many slanging matches on the internet. For them, the writers offer a few sobering truths about the churns of history and 21st-century cricket in the larger context of the sport. Who is the best batsman with the ability to turn the strike over or manipulate the field to nudge the scoreboard along and annoy bowlers? MS Dhoni? No, it's Kapil Dev.
Think the modern game is fast and action-packed? The fastest Test century, in terms of time, was scored by JM Gregory in 70 minutes in 1921-22. Gilbert Jessop, who played cricket at the turn of the 20th century, scored his first-class runs at a super-Sehwagesque rate: 80 an hour, 20,000 of them! He was, as Richie Benaud said, "Perhaps the best one-day player to have ever lived and never have played that form of cricket." These facts are not merely tossed with derision at the modern cricket watcher. In an essay titled "Big Hitting is Not New", the writers tell you the who, the how and the why of it all.
The tone of the entire collection is, in fact, to appreciate the great diversity of the game and its development across the world, to restore balance and dignity in contemporary argument. The authors comment that there was "something extremely seedy" about the farewell accorded to India's "Fab Four" middle-order batsmen in the 2000s. Compare this, they ask, to a time when we "peacefully bid adieu to the other Fab Four 30 years ago", referring to the spin quartet of Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan.
In September 2014, commentator and columnist Harsha Bhogle, who has written the foreword to Mid- wicket Tales, said that the "art of storytelling in cricket needs to be revived". He asked whether all that was being propagated today was the "science and the scandal of the game? Or indeed its commerce?" It is true that contemporary cricket writing has changed over the last quarter of a century because cricket has changed too. Journalists have, as is their professional duty and instinctive habit, "followed the story". The commerce has written over the storytelling, the philosophy and more. It has generated every scandal that the game has witnessed over the last decade.
Reading Mid-wicket Tales helps illuminate why sticking a torch into the scandal and the commerce is more necessary than it has ever been. It is a mandatory requirement in order to do what Giridhar and Raghunath so passionately talk about - win cricket back from the commerce and the spin and put it back into the heart of the game again.
Mid-wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar
By S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
Sage Publications India, 322 pages
This review was first published in Biblio
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo