If a more honest book about Indian cricket is released this year, please turn up at ESPNcricinfo's Bangalore office. Drinks are on me.
When the title of Sanjay Manjrekar's book was first revealed, it did sound a little intriguingly precious. Like Imperfect was aiming to be Andre Agassi's Open, but with pads on. A few pages in, you don't care: about the title, about the unremarkable photograph of Manjrekar on the cover, because it's the stuff inside that rings through, grabs attention, and tells a story worth listening to.
The disclaimer: Manjrekar happens to be the first of many cricketers to have been annoyed with something I wrote. The year was 1990, and he was the most accomplished of Indian top-order batsmen. His first Test century had come in Barbados, against Marshall, Ambrose, Bishop and Walsh. He was just off a drawn series against Pakistan, with more than 550 runs in four Tests against Imran, Waqar, Wasim and Qadir at 94; two centuries (one a double), three fifties. In an interview I did for Mid-Day, the first newspaper I worked for, not even six months into the profession, I asked Manjrekar if he had contemplated opening the batting. At the team's pre-departure press conference before the England tour, Manjrekar voiced his unhappiness over getting into trouble with the selectors over his answer. A few months later, he'd forgotten all about it and I could go to him when explanation or clarity was sought about one or more of Indian cricket's complicated tangles.
Following his first few luminous seasons with India, the struggles that followed were discussed in low tones by the Mumbai faithful. As a "senior" during his second stint as Mumbai captain, he was always fun to be around at the end of the day's play. Generous with his time, toothy grin and acerbic humour intact, tolerant of reporters' questions. In Imperfect, you rediscover Manjrekar and that time again, but in greater, far more finely drawn detail.
He sets out with an unsparing portrait of his father, the great Vijay Manjrekar ("it took me a long time to realise he was an exceptional cricketer"), and through the book we hear Manjrekar talk frankly, without self-censorship, like he might to a friend or a therapist. Flaws are admitted, personal vulnerabilities uncovered - not just his own but of those around him. Imperfect is at once a discovery of the inner Manjrekar and a sharing of Indian cricket's outer world in the 1980s and 1990s.
On the way, we run into grace from the most unexpected sources: The West Indians, who were fearsome but gentlemen competitors, encouraging and supportive of a young Indian batsman; the Pakistanis under the generous dictatorship of the Imran Khan captaincy. This was at a time when there was a comparative lack of such leadership among the Indians.
India had their individual titans in the '80s and '90s, but there was little guidance or support for younger players. We had heard about the dark corners in the Indian dressing room, the chasm between senior players and the younger ones, and the bad blood between players from different parts of the country. All true, and Manjrekar spells it all out so dispassionately that you wonder how India won anything. The amateurishness of it will astonish every young reader used to the Indian team travelling around with a support staff that's about the size of a rugby team.
The book is full of details and stories - why you'd try to be the first to the Podar College nets; why Ajay Jadeja thought Rahul Dravid wouldn't make it; why Ravi Shastri tried to convince Manjrekar not to retire (because an inter-city league was being talked about); the advice an unnamed South African gave Manjrekar about sorting out his grip when playing in South Africa, and so on.
There are memorable character sketches of Manjrekar's family, particularly of his mother, and his colleagues (Mohammad Azharuddin, for one, is crying out for a more honest book and movie about his life), written with a mix of frankness and compassion.
There is fine recounting of the Mumbai cricket scene, and its buzz about what was around the corner. "Scores of people talking about upcoming talent in Mumbai. When they met each other, that's all they talked about… in essence, this community was the marketing team of Mumbai's talent."
There are also Manjrekar's admissions about himself as a young man - his cocksureness, arrogance, uncertainty, regret, and tendency to take technical perfection over run-scoring. It's all there. Well, almost.
Now the quibbles. Mostly about how the material is structured, and the book's unevenness near the finish line. The final chapter, 25 pages long, is called "Commentary", but unlike the rest of the book, the approach here is of an unsatisfactory broadbrushing. While it is hardly expected that Manjrekar would dish the dirt on his colleagues while still in the commentary box, a more clear-eyed examination of its environment (without naming names even) would have been insightful. The commentary scene is not all camaraderie and chortling. At one point, the Big Dads of Indian cricket commentary nicknamed Manjrekar and another of his Indian colleagues "Anna" and "Kejriwal" in mocking tribute to their desire to speak a few plain truths about Indian cricket.
What we do get are a few lines about the "changing" role of a commentator, where once "grievances about the game were freely expressed". Today it is more, Manjrekar writes, about "enhancing the viewer's experience". He says, "If you are a keen, opinionated observer of the game, it's probably a good idea to express all your passionate views on the game on other platforms, not in the commentary box". That's a damn pity, Sanjay, don't you think? Thinking, after all, is Manjrekar's thing, and he laughs about a question Shoaib Akhtar once put to him: "Give your mind a rest. How much will you think? How much will you analyse?"
Imperfect ends abruptly, like a wicket against the run of play, in the wrong place, as if someone just tacked the last chapter about commentators on and sent the manuscript to the printers. It does not do justice to the rest of the book, which is a cut above the usual dish-the-dirt-burn-up-the-cash-register kind of memoir.
Is Imperfect the most honest book to come out from an Indian cricketer over the last four-five years? Possibly. But this much is certain: in truth and in tenor it is most certainly the kind of book you wish every Indian cricketer would write.