“There is no delivery off which a run could not be scored”— – Lala Amarnath in 1973
Historian Ramachandra Guha is a cricket connoisseur and if you had any doubt about that then his latest book, The Commonwealth of Cricket, will dispel it.
The book takes us on a journey from Dehradun, where his father worked, to Delhi, where he played college cricket for St Stephen’s, before making its way to Bangalore and ends with Guha, as part of the Committee of Administrators, making his way to the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Particularly delightful are the interactions he has with cricketers past and present. From Lala Amarnath to Vijay Hazare, from Bishan Singh Bedi to Arun Lal, from Javagal Srinath to Sachin Tendulkar. The book will transport you back to a simpler era.
It is a memoir of everything cricket – playing it, following the stars, meeting the heroes, the struggle for tickets, watching the game and soaking it all up as only a die-hard fan can.
Here are excerpts from Scroll.in’s free-wheeling conversation with Guha about his book and more:
Early in the book, you speak about Dehradun and local cricket matches being played. And it all has a very amateurish sort of feel to it. Do you feel the game is losing that now?
First of all, in those days, you did not have a television in your house, let alone smartphones, right. So there was a lot of time to play, to replay, to read, to listen to commentary, to listen to the seniors, compared to today. Of course, it was also unprofessional. We had no coaches to learn from or no Youtube to watch and learn from either. A lot of trial and error, a lot of fun. Now, perhaps, we just have too many options. We don’t know what to absorb any more.
The book also offers a look at college cricket in Delhi while you were a student. The rivalries were important then. University cricket was important then. What do you make of the college cricket scene in India today?
The concept of the student-athlete was alive then. Maybe because sport wasn’t looked at as a career. University cricket was important then because it could get you into the Ranji Trophy team or the Zonal team or even the India team. The Rohinton Baria Trophy was very, very competitive those days. You would even have visiting international teams playing against Combined University XIs in their tour games. Things have changed now, obviously, they’re also given to become much more commercialised. If you’re a talented 15-17 old, you don’t want to waste your time going to college. You’d rather hone your craft rather than miss the bus. How many of our current cricketers have pursued a higher education? Dravid, Srinath, Kumble did that but not too many in the current team have.
But at the same time, it also means that if you don’t get spotted early, breaking into the top tier becomes that much more difficult.
Test matches in the olden days were few and far between. So fans of the game would end up following state teams or even clubs which is what you did as well...
The thrill of getting a ticket in those days was immense because your city got a match only once every few years and there was nothing in between. I talked in the book about how I was desperate to become a member of KSCA and gave lectures all over America to pay the membership fee so that my son wasn’t deprived of tickets.
Now, you can watch the game on television in the comfort of your home and the ordinary fan may not even want to go to the ground. But in those days, the only way to watch a game of high quality cricket was to be there. There were so many incidents that I haven’t talked about in the book. For example, watching a young Brijesh Patel score 105 not out (out of a total of 175) for Mysore against Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy semi-final. Our joy was to watch a cricketer before he made it big – in Ranji Trophy or even in club cricket.
At one point in the book, you talk about, Brijesh Patel’s reluctance to name stands after players at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru. The incident left a sour taste in your mouth. Now he, too, is a former cricketer. So what are your thoughts on former cricketers in administration, many people have called for it for a very long time...
It did (leave a sour taste in the mouth). Patel had played with many of these cricketers and for him to say that naming after one cricketer would have all the others lining up was not right. Mumbai has done it. No reason why it could not have been done.
But then again – some cricketers can make a difference in administration. For example, I firmly believe Javagal Srinath was one of those people. In his time in the KSCA, he tried to go out to the districts, give them computers and equipment. He was fully focussed on the job at hand and he had no ulterior motives. Also, he was able to work with a committee.
[Bishen Singh] Bedi, on the other hand, is a lot like me. He can’t work with multiple individuals and he has a temper.
Patel also chose to promote his son Udit into the Ranji team. He averaged some 16-odd with the bat and 42 with the ball in 35 matches for the state team. The numbers just didn’t stack up. We saw Niranjan Shah do the same with his son in Saurashtra.
So do cricketers make good administrators? There is no clear cut answer there. It cuts both ways. You need the right balance of competence and focus.
You’ve written quite a few books on the history of cricket. Does it pain you to see that we have no museum in India where young fans can learn about Amarnath, Merchant, Hazare, Mankad and more such greats?
We are without question, the most important country in the world when it comes to cricket. The game wouldn’t survive without India. But to not have a place that pays homage to our heroes is a big miss. There have been some private efforts to do this but surely the BCCI can do better if this is high on their priority list. They’ll probably get some big politician to lay the foundation stone and then this will go nowhere because, maybe, it won’t be a money-spinner. They are so focussed on the cash cow that is the IPL that they can’t look at the bigger picture. Maybe in 10 years they will.
In the book, there is a wonderful quote by Bedi where he says that he will go anywhere for cricket and not anywhere for money. But the BCCI, which is a trust, doesn’t see things in the same way. How can one explain the difference between how they treat men’s and women’s cricket?
A Trust should be just about promoting the sport. Not just women’s cricket but also cricket in the North East where there is interest but no real push. I said this about the IPL, when I was on the CoA, I said have a match in Guwahati. Let Kolkata play a match there. It is about the will too. If you look at the last 10-15 years, we have become really competitive in women’s cricket and truly, they have done it on their own. Truth be told, we have become so IPL-centered that other aspects of the game are being short-changed.
Srinath tells you how he has never played Sachin Tendulkar in a Ranji match. He has bowled at Sachin in the nets but never in a competitive match. Feels like a travesty of sorts. These days we see even fewer internationals playing Ranji Trophy. Where does that leave the tournament?
Australia does this. They still do it. They never schedule a one-day series or a Test series during the last 2-3 matches of the Sheffield Shield. So we should have done something similar. Ensure that for the semi-final and final there is no clash with an international game. Allow everyone in India to focus on the Ranji Trophy. I mean, imagine watching Tendulkar batting, with Srinath at one end and Kumble at the other. It would’ve been a joy to watch that. I relayed what Srinath told me but I would imagine that is one of Tendulkar’s regrets as well.
So one of the things that we’ve always had in Indian cricket is the influence of politics. Do you feel that influence growing? Do you feel it’s just what it is and something we need to live with?
I think what’s working now, particularly with Amit Shah, as Home Minister, and Jay Shah, as Board Secretary, is something more insidious; some more centralised. In days past, you have had five board presidents who were politicians but they were from different parties. So there was relative equality. But now the whole game is going to be, whenever the next World Cup is, Gujarat must host the final and that must be a kind of coming out for Jay Shah or Amit Shah or whatever. So now all the power is concentrated in one particular place. In the old days, the Pawars, the Jaitleys, the Scindias were sharing the spoils of war, so to say. It is clearly damaging. You see Pawar, Jaitley, Scindia were never as powerful in Indian politics as Amit Shah is. It is almost like Nehru or Vajpayee wanting to run Indian cricket.
Also, India were never as powerful earlier. Australia or England always had more of a say. But running the Board now clearly means different things; it is being the head of an all-powerful world-leading organisation and that clearly has more prestige in the current scenario.
The Kohli phenomenon is quite something...
The Indian Test team of today has one great batsman, Virat Kohli, and one great blocker, Cheteshwar Pujara. We also have perhaps the best pace bowling attack in Indian history and marshaling this era is Kohli. He is a force of nature. In terms of just the greatness of his batsmanship and his force of personality, I don’t think there has been a greater cricketer than Kohli in India. Tendulkar was a great batsman but he didn’t have that force of personality.
You mention BCCI’s monopoly of cricket commentary in your book. As a fan, what do you make of this sort of thing?
This is sad and it also makes commentary very dull. One of the reasons I don’t watch T20 cricket is because the commentators are screaming all the time and you can’t watch cricket on mute. All the shrieking, the jingoism, the unnecessary hyping of stuff makes me not want to watch India play as I get older. Bhogle, is more or less, our only reasonable commentator. He is also better suited to radio. In my view, he is a better radio commentator than a television commentator. Now, one is so nervous that if you cross Dhoni once you will lose your post for two years. It is like state-controlled media. This is what it would sound like.
Test cricket still affords me enormous pleasure particularly when there is good commentary which means India is not playing. [Shane] Warne, [Mike] Atherton, [Michael] Holding, [Nasser] Hussain add to one’s enjoyment of the game by saying what they want to without any fear or bias. It does help greatly.
The latter part of your book speaks of your time as a BCCI insider. Is the BCCI, the one we see now, what the CoA has in mind?
It is certainly not what the Lodha Committee has in mind. It is certainly not what the CoA had in mind. We have gone back to the sons and daughters of the old guard. Clearly, the whole thing was a waste of time and there has been no meaningful change of any kind.
Did being an insider kill the fan in you?
I think for a while it did but now I am back to being a fan. The epithet at the start of the book by Jack Fingleton says, ‘The longer I live, I am pleased to say, the less nationalistic I become.’ And for me, that is what now the cricket fan is, not necessarily watching only India play. I really enjoy Test cricket in different countries. I enjoy India too, particularly overseas. So I will be watching [Mitch] Starc trying to get through Pujara’s defence. So that excites me but I am not that invested in Indian cricket anymore. I like to think of myself as being a non-partisan fan.