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Coffee-table scholarship

The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket Boria Majumdar (Tempus Publishing, 256pp) £8.99

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it has been sourced and selected as exquisitely as those in Boria Majumdar's superb 256-page magnum opus, The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket. This is an extraordinary work of scholarship masquerading as a coffee-table flick-book. A sticky-dog century condensed to a ten-over slog, yet somehow retaining the virtues of each.

A Rhodes Scholar and fellow of Latrobe University, Melbourne, Majumdar is a man with a doctorate in cricket, a fact that must place him among the most envied men in the subcontinent. He has already published a much weightier tome on his specialist subject, the Social History of Indian Cricket, but this time he has decided to convey the same gravitas as succinctly as possible. His fellow dons might sniff at such a populist approach and accuse him of dumbing down, but not a bit of it. What is cricket, after all, if it is not, first and foremost, a game to be enjoyed?

Well, in fact, it is several things, as a billion people know and proclaim loudly every time India takes the field of play. It is a quasi-religion and an instrument of social change. It is secularism and tolerance, a voice for the voiceless, and an inspiration to a vast and diverse nation in search of an identity. It's not a topic to be addressed lightly, in other words. The paradox of this erudite yet accessible book mirrors the paradox of the Indian game, and in doing so, helps in some small way to demystify it.

"The land of contrasts" is how India tends to be described in glib travel-agent's blurbs, and in the wrong hands, The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket could have ended up as something similar - a colourful jumble of unrelated events, cynically compiled to sell a certain viewpoint. But Majumdar avoids such traps with a thrilling array of photographs, some of which have never before been seen in print, underscored by a prose style that is patient but never patronising.

Decade by decade, he traces the development of the Indian game, from its earliest colonial origins right up until the end of England's Test tour this March. A fascinating match report from 1845, just one of a plethora of original documents that Majumdar has unearthed, tells of a scratch game involving Bengali sepoys in the garrisons of Sylhet - "The most enthusiastic European cricketers could not have played with more energy and cheerfulness," waxes an enraptured scribe, unwittingly capturing the origins of a modern-day obsession.

The source documents are arguably the book's most compelling feature, as the book's glossy lay-out lends itself to private investigation of historical gems, such as the bewildered newspaper cuttings from All-India's maiden tour of England in 1932, when Holmes, Sutcliffe and Woolley were skittled on the first morning of the Lord's Test, or Thomas Moult's whimsical bulletin four years later, lamenting India's collapse to 147 - "What miserable news it must have been to the cricket-lovers in Bombay and Calcutta who are taking Indian cricket so much to heart".

Understandably, India's love-hate relationship with the British is a principle theme of the book, but this is more than just a rags to riches, Lagaan-style awakening. The highs and lows are faithfully documented throughout, from the factions that ripped through the 1946 tour of England (reported first-hand by Mushtaq Ali in a fascinating handwritten letter to his mentor CK Nayudu), to the conquering of Lord's in the 1983 World Cup finaland again, 19 years later, in a memorable NatWest Series final.

A picture really is worth a thousand words. By the end of the book, it is entrancing simply to flick from the earliest sepia stills to the latest logo-emblazoned photoshoots and marvel at the scale of this transformation. Majumdar's narrative joins the dots as he describes the power-shift that has turned South Asia into the powerhouse of the game, acknowledging that corruption, politics and dirty-money deals are sadly a part of the process. The match-fixing scandal, he concedes, has left "a dark doubt ... fester[ing] in some corner of the Indian cricket fan's mind". And yet, "Indians buy more motorcycles and soft drinks and widgets than any other population on the planet just because their cricketers tell them to."

"No hyperbole is sufficient to capture the importance of cricket in country's national life," he concludes. And the evidence he presents in support of this statement is overwhelming.

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