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Embracing the East

Coward's book played a significant part in demystifying the subcontinent for Australian cricketers and cricket watchers

Suresh Menon
Suresh Menon

The tied Test: Maninder Singh, "convinced he had hit the ball and in no mood to withdraw" © Wisden
It might be difficult to believe now, when cricketers are tripping over themselves to come to India, but not too long ago a tour to the subcontinent was seen as punishment. A generation ago, Geoff Boycott deigned to tour only so he could break the world record for the highest aggregate. England spinner Phil Tufnell was ready to pack it in early, saying he had "done the elephants, done the poverty".
In contrast, Allan Border came with every Australian team to the subcontinent - ten of them - played 19 Tests and averaged 57.63. Only the writer Mike Coward loved India more dearly, understood it better, and wrote about it with a charming mixture of warmth and humour. Steve Waugh's charity work and Brett Lee's commercial work have endeared them to Indians. Australia have traditionally paid India the compliment of sending their best teams, so a win against them was always real.
The Indian connection with Australia was established long before the first Test series between the two. Frank Tarrant, an allrounder for Victoria and Middlesex, had served as cricket aide to the Maharajahs of Cooch Behar and Patiala. "A canny adviser and an astute lobbyist with impeccable connections, Tarrant helped lay the foundations of Indian cricket," writes Coward. Tarrant also umpired the first Test on Indian soil, in Bombay in 1933-34, and his role in Indian cricket forms one of the most fascinating chapters of Coward's book, one full of fascinating chapters.
You will also find here the finest writing on the Tied Test in Madras.
Although he is too modest to say so, and it is unlikely that the thought would have even occurred to him anyway, Coward's writings probably played a role in demystifying the subcontinent to the Australian cricketer. It is unusual for a cricket writer to place the game simultaneously at the centre and the fringes of the human experience; just as it is for him to focus on the humanity. Coward leavens his sensitivity with humour, his concerns with the choices available, and places events in a historical and psychological context.
As he writes, "The Indian subcontinent provides a constant and strident reaffirmation of life and a stark reminder of our tenuous hold on it. The senses are never dulled and the sensibilities are often offended. The land is exhilarating and exhausting and always your master. You cannot be ambivalent about the subcontinent. You either reject it or rejoice in it."
Coward rejoices in it - and his book is a paean to that enjoyment. Had CLR James not appropriated it, well might Mike Coward have first asked the question: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"
In the following extract, from the chapter on the tied Test, we get a flavour of Coward: his attention to detail, awareness of the gesture that defines character, his sense of fairness, and gentle humour.
From the book:
"Transported by the euphoria of the moment, Matthews ran, head bobbing, towards the pavilion and into the arms of his mate, David Gilbert. Border, supervising from silly point, was so intent on fielding the ball he had not even appealed. Exhausted and brimful of mixed emotions his first reaction was to make safe the ball for a future presentation to Matthews... Shastri was paralysed with shock, his right hand raised in the manner of a traffic policeman to prevent Maninder from attempting a run. Maninder was convinced he had hit the ball and was in no mood to withdraw..."
Cricket Beyond the Bazaar
by Mike Coward

Allen and Unwin, 1990

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore