"Death penalty to those who have raped Indian cricket." No, this is not CMJ in the Times but graffiti in Kolkata after India's moderate start to the 2003 World Cup. In terms of hype, hoopla and howling obsession, Indian cricket makes the Premiership look like crown-green bowls.
This intense love affair is explored here with a devotee's enthusiasm by Soumya Bhattacharya. A Kolkata journalist, he began his courtship as a boy listening to TMS in a Bengali backwater and ended up as a man who, when asked his daughter's birthday, replies, "Um, well ... she was born the year India beat Australia after following on."
The book mixes personal reminiscence and wider analysis - Fever Pitch for Indian cricket, right down to the obscure musical references and the self-loathing that is the flipside of addiction. In exploring his own micro-obsession Bhattacharya hopes to throw light on the macro-obsession of world cricket's most powerful nation, a place where Sachin Tendulkar bats and an audience the size of Europe watches. He succeeds best when the real world gets a look-in alongside the 24/7 cricket. Only then do we get a true sense of what Matthew Engel called the game's "importance and unimportance". Most movingly he explains the shame and anger his parents felt after India's disastrous 1974 tour of England. They were on a working trip to the UK and never again spoke to English people about cricket.
Moments when the author takes a step back from the boundary are fascinating. Some mouldering clichés are chucked out. Cricket is not like a religion in India ("Religion has led to some of the deepest scars that India carries in its heart. Cricket is the balm that heals.") And there are warnings of the amount of cricket even an obsessive can stomach. "The surfeit," writes Bhattacharya, "has killed the sharpness of our memories." The fan's-eye enthusiasm is the book's great strength but can also be a weakness. The breathless observations never quite congeal into a thesis. And the long stretches detailing the minutiae of one-day games amply demonstrate that the man in Kolkata is far more interested in onedayers than the man in Corby, without ever quite explaining why.
The book is lovingly written and often entertaining but in the end Bhattacharya, like a man with his nose to a skyscraper, is perhaps a little too close to his subject to be able fully to explain it to others. That is the nature of obsession.
This article was first published in the October 2006 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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