Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket - a review

[Did this for Cricinfo Magazine. This is an example of why I prefer, where possible, to make my own decisions about whether or not to review a book. I wouldn't have volunteered to write about The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket – my reaction to the book was lukewarm, I didn’t feel strongly about it either way, and I think that comes across in this workmanlike piece. But Cricinfo asked me to do the review and as it happened I’d already read most of the thing – so it felt like a waste to say no.]

A quick warning first: if you're looking for anything like a comprehensive study of Indian cricket over the years, this isn't it. In Boria Majumdar's The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket, the emphasis is on the "illustrated" rather than the "history". As a collection of photographs, this is a more than passable effort. As a study of the development of the game in India, it falls short.

In fact, as it turns out, very little of the book is actually written by Majumdar – he plays more of an anchoring role, allowing lengthy newspaper reports and quotes to tell most of the tale. Sandipan Deb's Introduction is arguably juicier than any of the other original material; Deb starts by averring that "cricket is the greatest game invented by man and nothing else comes even close", and then builds a decent little innings by dissecting the nature of India's complex relationship with the sport: "The story of Indian cricket is the story of a society, a tapestry woven as a permanent work in progress by a nation in search of definition."

This is pretty much where the personal insight ends though, with the remaining text portions of the book covering territory that has been explored before, and explored with greater depth (including in Majumdar's own Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket). Even a cursory look at some of the subheads here will show you that this isn't meant to be more than a snapshot of milestones. The "Match-fixing" section, for instance, takes up barely a couple of pages; after supplying exactly two sentences about the Hansie Cronje imbroglio of 2000, Majumdar devotes the rest of this space to informing us, via extracts from S M Toyne's The Early History of Cricket, that match-fixing existed as far back as the 1740s.

Elsewhere, too, the writing is very basic: the summarising opening sentences of chapters run along the lines "The 1940s was a decade of struggle for Indian cricket" and "The 1950s saw India win its first Test match and then its first Test rubber". What follows these sentences isn't exactly full of acumen either, and the series-by-series descriptions are as mundane as the hurriedly typed, cliche-filled match reports one gets to see in newspapers.

All of which means that as a "history" this book isn't likely to be of much use to a cricket fan who really knows about the game. It's best treated as a schoolboy primer, a source of information for laypersons and trivia-seekers (though even in this context, it would have helped if more scorecards of key Test matches and ODIs had been included in an appendix; as it is, there are just a few scattered obligatorily through the text).

Nor is The Illustrated History... quite picturesque enough to be a high-quality coffee-table book. But ultimately, whatever value it has rests on the rarer photographs and these do, to an extent, save the book. Here, for example, is Vijay Hazare, that most elegant of batsmen, caught in a decidedly inelegant pose (something of a cross between Kapil Dev's Nataraj shot and a tailender about to be bowled behind the legs). Here's Ranji in full regalia, as effete an Indian maharajah as you could wish to see; and here are scans of the love letters he wrote to a lady named Mary Holmes.

Then there's the Indian team at Victoria station during the 1932 tour, a caption reminding us that "the 18 players spoke eight to ten languages between them, belonged to four or five different castes…but these things are forgotten in the quest for cricketing success". A British newspaper's caricature of the same squad. Vijay Merchant huddled inside his overcoat in the pavilion on a chilly day on the 1946 tour. The Nawab of Pataudi Jr standing contemplatively on a balcony, looking like the dashing hero of a French nouvelle wave film of the 1960s.

And then, of course, we come to the better known, more widely circulated photographs, from the post-1980s period...but by this point, unless you're the most enthusiastic Kapil or Sachin fan, your eyes will be glazing over.

1 comment:

  1. Sandipan is pedestrian. I prefer Ramchandra Guha -- remember the famous analysis where he summarises that the two threads which make India a true nation-state are cricket and Bollywood; he turns a seemingly silly sport into a sociological phenemenon with so much ease and logic. His pieces on the willow are an outpouring of the soul, not dud statistics. btw, he himself donned the whites while studying in St Stephen's