Early in this collection of essays that chart a fan's journey through his sport, the author*, a professor of philosophy in Brooklyn, tells us: "I often wish I could stop writing on cricket; it takes up a great deal of time and emotional and psychic energy…" It is the cry of the truly obsessed who writes not because he can, but because he has to.
All fans have their own stories of using well-known figures in the game such as 8032 or 9994 or 1990 as passwords; or of reacting spontaneously when they see a car with 4187 as the licence plate or commenting to a friend when 774 or 15,921 comes up in a calculation.
Fans recognise these figures, but it takes an articulate one to construct essays around them. Others acknowledge and move on, the cricket-obsessed writer "can only stop writing about cricket if (he) stops watching it or thinking about it," explains Samir Chopra, adding with great insight, "Perhaps if I'd stayed in India, I might have grown apart from cricket. I might have been seduced by India's newer attractions; perhaps the English Premier League, Formula One…"
Cricket literature owes much to the passionate amateur, the professional in another field who brings to his writings on the game a perspective that is a nice mixture of the fan's, the intellectual's, the romantic's and that of the sporting obsessive steeped in the game's legend and lore.
Eye on Cricket brings these elements together. "No game," says Chopra, "can survive or be sustainable if held aloft only by the efforts of those most proficient at it." Likewise, writing on the game. Cricket writing is a large and welcoming church, easily accommodating scientists, novelists, actors, economists, sociologists, historians, professionals from various fields united by a love for the game and its idiosyncrasies.
Philosophers have been attracted to the game before. Wittgenstein, in his Cambridge days, watched cricket; AJ Ayer, a soccer fan (Tottenham Hotspurs), also followed cricket. David Papineau, philosopher of physics at King's College, writes a popular blog on how philosophy can illuminate sport and vice versa.
Although this is a book on the game as seen through the eyes of a fan, not philosopher, yet, not surprisingly, the day job keeps seeping in, which is just as well. Essays on the moral aspects of the game ("the spirit of cricket"), why the notion of a visit to war memorials as a "bonding exercise" for sportsmen is deeply problematic, coping with a thrashing in Test series are only some of the issues that have been informed by the philosopher's training.
The internet has brought Indian cricket to those living outside the game's charmed circle (geographically), and simultaneously given a platform to those immersed in the game. This collection is a wonderful reconciliation of the past with the present as nostalgia and current events mingle in the mind of the creative commentator to emphasise the past in the present and vice versa.
In such intensely personal writing there is the danger of sinking into self-indulgence, of extending the anecdote just that bit longer. Chopra finishes the chapter on his own batting prowess as a youngster (highest score: 38) with, "In writing these words, I feel faintly ridiculous and pompous: so much talk about such incompetent batting…."
Self-awareness trumps self-consciousness, and that is a strength of the book, apart, of course, from the passion that shines through.
*Samir Chopra is a contributor to ESPNcricinfo's blog section, The Cordon
Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game
By Samir Chopra
Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack