Monday, July 02, 2007

Intellectual meets fanboy in Men in White

[Did a version of this review for Cricinfo magazine]

A few months ago, in the wake of the hysterical public reaction to the Indian team's early World Cup exit, Mukul Kesavan wrote an editorial for a daily newspaper, denouncing the average Indian cricket follower as a "lazy, pampered know-nothing" with an unreasonable sense of entitlement. The piece drew some strong negative reactions. Accusing Kesavan of being an armchair intellectual, blind to the tribulations and feelings of the average fan, one blogger asked rhetorically if he had ever been inside a stadium in a non-journalistic (hence non-privileged) capacity.

Calling a sports writer an armchair intellectual is another way of saying he lacks genuine passion for the game – the kind of passion that makes you forego all pretence to refined objectivity, turns you into an atavistic chest-thumper each time the fortunes of a favourite team or player are at stake. But Kesavan's love for cricket, Test cricket in particular, is there to see on every page of Men in White, a compilation of pieces that were first printed in this magazine and in other publications. The answer to the stadium question can be found here too, in the Introduction, where he recalls a run-in with police brutality at the Ferozshah Kotla when he was just nine. The point is, the experience didn’t end his relationship with cricket. He went back again. And yet again.

Like most cricket lovers, Kesavan is very opinionated (in fact, he expressly states the value of subjectivity in a short piece on Don Bradman's World XI) and he holds forth here on a variety of topics. He makes a persuasive case for doing away with the match referee ("a bureaucrat, removed from the action, his decisions opaque to authority") and some of the special rules created for ODIs ("one-day cricket is crying out to be deregulated. Currently it's a kind of licence Raj where inefficient batsmen flourish"). He recounts helping India win a Test against the Aussies in 2001 (by the simple expedient of keeping his eyes shut in the final half-hour so that no more Indian wickets fell). He discusses favourite players (the likening of Kapil Dev to Br'er Rabbit is one of the neatest throwaway descriptions I've read), the culture of cricket in Chennai and the implications of a racist remark by commentator Dean Jones. Other highlights include his childhood memories –playing the "Lutyens Variant" of cricket in a neighbourhood park, something most of us can relate to, and listening to radio commentary. And in one of the most perceptive essays in this collection, he discusses the role “anecdotage” – the treating of period gossip as undisputed fact – has played in the creation of cricket’s mythology (was Bedi really a better bowler than Chandrasekhar?).

But the most compelling thing about this book is Kesavan’s recognition of the conflict between fair-minded sports analysis and that visceral feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when a cherished team does badly. And equally, the recognition that both qualities co-exist in himself. At one point, while discussing the “non-paying and non-playing” spectator who treats defeat as a personal betrayal, he complains that for the typical Indian cricket fan, no real-world match can compare with the fictional one in Lagaan, where Aamir Khan's Bhuvan hits a six off the last ball to take a village team to victory against British colonialists. But in the very next paragraph, he restrains himself. “That’s a cheap shot,” he writes. “After 40 years or more of rooting for India, I may not contain multitudes but I know that I have to make room for at least two people: that middle-aged, freeloading, non-playing slob on the sofa and the child on the concrete terraces for whom the sight of Farokh Engineer swaggering down the steps of Willingdon Pavilion to open the Indian innings was a doorway to heaven. Separately and sometimes together, both of them wrote this book.”

Later, in a tongue-in-cheek essay on a "Super Test", played between Australia and a World XI, he observes that watching Sehwag and Dravid playing for a non-Indian team purged him of "tamasik patriotism and other base feelings". When Shane Warne takes Sehwag's wicket in this match, he can coolly write, "You had to give it to the great man, he'd out-thought Sehwag by bowling leg-and-middle..." But if it had been an Australia-vs-India tie, he admits, the sentence might have read: "Luck on that scale was the only way that rutting, peroxided pig was likely to take an Indian wicket."

This self-awareness is what makes Men in White so readable. Essays collections of this sort don’t always hold together, but the pieces here form a body of work that tells us as much about the nature of a cricket lover’s evolving relationship with the sport as it does about the sport itself. They reflect the ambivalences and inconsistencies of our opinions (commenting on his adulatory piece about Rahul Dravid, Kesavan says, “I set out to write a hard-nosed assessment of an overrated batsman, and look what emerged”) and the role that irrational perceptions play in shaping our feelings towards teams and players. (Just by the by, I strongly disagree with Kesavan's view of the Aussies as a graceless bunch, incapable of appreciating the talents of opposition players.)

For those disillusioned by poor administration and the increasing mediocrity of the one-day game, Men in White is a reminder of what cricket can be at its best. But it’s also a reminder of what our reaction to sporting victories and defeats tells us about ourselves.


  1. I was waiting for Men in white to come out , Mukul Kesavan in my opinion is an absorbing cricket reviewer. Reading his blog on Cricinfo one gets a feeling that the man is objective and forthright in his criticism as well as analysis. I liked his article when he chided somebody like Andrew Miller about the latter's remarks on India's commercial stranglehold in cricket.

    The strange part was Miller's puerile and opinionated defense of himself ,after that article. It leaves me to Ponder over one thing."Do people take themselves so seriously that they can't take any criticism in their stride". Although this is not the topic of discussion here but I have found people reacting negatively to any sort of criticism. I personally have little respect for such people, listening to criticism makes one richer and his or her writing or opinions only blossom further.

    Anyway Mr.Kesavan definitely mixes an ornate sense of humour in his writing most of the time. We also have to consider that he is writing about India's national obsession so it is all the more praiseworthy.

    One more thing I totally 'agree' with his assessment that the Australians are Graceless ,rude losers. I don't understand why you always protect the Australians whenever there behaviour is questioned. In your articles on cricket you have always defended this moronic ability of the Australians to be Rude and abusive conquerers. One more thing i would like to state, the Australians are good today because the others are really bad . Pit this australian team against the mighty pace battery of the early 80's West Indies and see the consequences. I am speaking with pure data , look what Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff did to Australians in 2005. Their recipe was reverse swing delivered at high pace and the mighty aussies crumbled.

    Its a Shame that we do not have somebody like Wasim and waqar anywhere in world cricket. Pakistan has stopped producing these thoroughbred quick bowlers,India has never had a tradition of doing so and less said about the rest the better.

    Anyways when Glenn Mcgrath can sledge Sarwan "How does Brain Lara's D**k
    taste". Then you probably understand why nobody likes these arrogant and foulmouthed "Champions".

  2. J, Thanks for the review. I have a half-baked theory about Mukul Kesavan which goes something like this: Oral history is different from written history, just like one-day games are different from Tests. Written history is bookish, boring, high-minded, bound by institutional rules and rituals. Oral history keeps alive small traditions, links personal and collective memories, it is about the taste of chanachoor and not a five-course meal. The intelligent charm of Kesavan's writing is that you see on the page what you expect to get only in conversation. (P.S. All of what I've said above Mukul would say is "bullshit." But to hell with that. The point is, he always prods me into thinking more about ordinary stuff.) Chalo, aur baad mein.

  3. Nice review, Jai. I read a part of this book while browsing and have put it on my to-read list.

  4. Very interesting. I normally don't follow sports but this has made me want to read the book.

  5. Shwet,your idea about putting Australian against the Windies of 80s to prove them incompetent is wrong.That is not how sports works.

    Here is another from another sport,Formula 1.Some time ago,a team called Ferrari dominated the sport winning race after race and championship after championship.In fact,their domination is quite comparable to the australian cricket team.They won 15 of the 19 races held in 2004.And they bagged all the titles(2 for every year) from 2000-2004.

    A lot of theories came about this.Some people said that the rules favored them and did not favour the other teams.Some thought it was luck.But the truth was the rest of the teams did not perform the way they should have.You see,Ferrari were so good that they made the other teams look bad.It was not just about Ferrari but it was a combination of events and intelligence.Ferrari was the complete package(car,driver and tyres) and that is what made them so good.

    Sometimes,some people argue that if it were not for Ferrari,Schumacher would not be so succesful.He should be put in a bad car,blah blah.

    So here comes my point.What are you trying to achieve?The other teams are bad,so the Australians are good.It is what happening at this moment in time,that matters.They are the greats of this time,it does not matter what team was good two decades ago.Would you draw a comparison between the Lagaan 11 and the current england team?By the way,didn't Aussies retain the ashes like a year later?

    On the racist part,I still clearly remember Yujraj Singh saying on Extraa Innings(when they showed a replay of the 2003 WC),that he told one of the other cricketers to speak swear words in Hindi,just to avoid being caught.Surely that was something involving mothers and sisters.So is it justified if an indian passes lewd remarks and laughs about it on national TV while an australian gets deemed a racist?The match Yujraj was talking about was against England or New Zealand.

  6. Abhinav: First of all I am glad that someone has raised the topic of racism while reacting to my comment. If you read closely ,I have never suggested that what Mcgrath said was racist. It was just an abusive sledge at another sportsman ,also I have not suggested that the Aussies are racist;my viewpoint centers around their arrogant and bull headed sledging.

    Also as far as the greatness of the aussies is concerned , there is no doubt that in the present era they are certainly a great team. It would help though to look at the mediocrity surrounding them. Just take a look at other major international teams, it is a known cliche that fast bowlers win matches. Tell me of one great fast bowler today ,I mean the word "great" and you are left with nobody. Glenn Mcgrath has retired and he was Australian ,so we have one great fast bowler and he played for Australia.

    Why I compared this team with the Windies of the 80's was due to that battery of battering quick bowlers they had. I still remember vividly as a child there used to be a genuine sense of fear when one used to see the West Indian opening attack. I don't see Kids being amazed at Brett lee or Shaun tait ,who are fast but also go for plenty,in other words 'wayward'.

    I would have been a fan of the Australian team if they had really conquered the art of playing quality swing. This is an area they seriously lag in ,this happened in Ashes 2005 and also in the present world series in the beginning of the year when Plunkett and Mahmood were able to snuffle the Aussies with quality swing. It is now when you put things in perspective , two good quick bowlers with ability to swing the ball and I stress swing not seam, which the aussies are used to from their childhood. It is the deviation in the air which does the trick ,anybody with good pace and ability to swing the cherry can plot their downfall.

    Sadly this is easier said than done and till that time we will see the arrogant 'smirk' of the Aussies continue. By the way just to illustrate, an incident from the 80's comes to my mind. David Hookes got his Jaw shattered while playing against the West Indians while taunting them that he can swig their bouncers like he swigs beer. Word has it that after having his Jaw shattered by Roberts , the 'cocky' Australian lost his composure and never played the hook again. He became so paranoid that his nickname was "can't" an obvious reference to his last name and its connection with the particular shot.

  7. Ah ok,my bad.But then what about the point I made about Yujraj Singh?Isn't he doing the same thing?

    I guess I cannot counter your second point.Indeed,no "great" comes to my mind but on the the topic of swing,isn't that something Irfan Pathan used to do some years ago?But you have the upper hand on the swing,so I don't see any point in debating it further.

    About the illustration:"word has it"?What is that supposed to mean?Is this a fact or a rumour?

  8. Abhinav: David Hookes always denied that he had lost the courage to play the hook ,stating instead that he "eliminated" it for more percentage cricket. Allan Border however disclosed this in an interview that Hookes lost the courage to play the hook even against medium pacers. That is the reason why he was nicknamed 'can't'. As obviously his last name is 'Hookes'.

    I agree that some amount of sledging always goes on in cricket but the Australians always cross the line at will. On your comment against Yuvraj, I would say that the Pakistanis are the worst when it comes to using Hindi/Urdu obscenities. Shahid Afridi immediately comes to mind .

    Sledging is an art and some usage of colourful langauge only enriches the game , however I do not see this as a reason for increasingly boorish and sadistic sledging that the Australians indulge in.

  9. First, I enjoyed the ping-pong between Shwet and Abhinav more than the 'original post'. Two, sadly, I have little to add to the debate. Kesavan to me is as Jai put it, an opinionated writer. It is another matter that a lot of his opinions make good common sense (with reference to Secular Common Sense). Yet, there are points which I and a few others may never agree to. The fact remains that he has pretty often has an interesting angle to matches (and that works for print media in the days of live performances), which makes him a successful writer. Frankly I have seen a similar spark in Shamya (pronounced as Shaamo) of Headlines Today (no, no, this is not a plug for this friend; he truly almost always has an interesting take on most things sports). Forgive me, Shamya, for giving it out so blatantly.

  10. Shwet,

    You claim that Austalia is considered a great team only because the other teams playing right now aren't good enough. But look how you defend your stand:

    "Also as far as the greatness of the aussies is concerned , there is no doubt that in the present era they are certainly a great team. It would help though to look at the mediocrity surrounding them. Just take a look at other major international teams, it is a known cliche that fast bowlers win matches." And then you base your argument on this cliche. Pray explain why/how it is fast bowlers that win matches. (One very good counterexample being -- it is Muttiah who's been winning Sri Lanka its matches these past five years.)

    Also, you smoothly avoid the charge against Yuvraj and denounce the Pakistanis. Maybe the Pakis are abusive but so is Yuvraj. And if one wants to make a case against Australia's it shouldn't be based on McGrath's words to Sarwan (which aren't all that bad really).

  11. Pankaj: but young Shamya isn't opinionated in the real sense of that word. As Ajitha and I often discuss, he keeps revising his views on different subjects from one day to the next - first saying something very assertively, then contradicting himself the next day. This is malleability of opinion at its very best, and something I genuinely admire. Of course, when he speaks on TV, he has to make definite observations - that's just the nature of the medium...

    I don't understand why you always protect the Australians whenever there behaviour is questioned. In your articles on cricket you have always defended this moronic ability of the Australians to be Rude and abusive conquerers.

    Shwet: I don't think I've done all that much defending of the Aussies (partly because I think their reputation as rude and abusive is at least somewhat exaggerated). Also, w.r.t. your observation that "nobody likes these arrogant and foulmouthed Champions", well, that ain't quite true. I love them (or used to back when Steve Waugh and Shane Warne were in the side) and many others do too.

    Also, I'm completely with Abhinav's observation about the pointlessness of comparing teams/players from different eras. A statement like "so-and-so is good because the others in this era are really bad" betrays a lack of understanding of how sport works, and of the basic tenet that a team does the best it can given the playing conditions/opposition of its own time.

    Besides, this business of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses is always a dangerous one. The Windies under Richards' captaincy had some shocking moments of gamesmanship - Richards himself bullying umpires into giving bad decisions, for instance. Another example: the extolling of Gavaskar over modern batsmen because he scored 13 Test centuries against the "fearsome four-pronged battery of West Indian fast bowlers", without checking the record books and realising that at least 8 of those centuries were made against Packer-depleted teams or (in the case of his debut series) against bowlers that were nowhere near as fearsome as the four-pronged attacks in Lloyd's teams.

    In this context, I also think of how some people are under the impression that the men's field in tennis isn't so deep today, just because Federer is so dominant. That simply amounts to taking credit away from the level at which Federer has played in the last few years. Look at matches between some of the other players - Djokovic, Hewitt, Davydenko for instance - and you'll see how good they really are, and would have been in any other era.

  12. Jai: Yes, I understand that there is no point in comparing teams from different teams. My only grudge is that the skill level in cricket is going down. Just take a look at most teams records today and you will find that most teams today post big totals on flat tracks and the moment you give them a greentop ,the scores are downright embarrassing. I beleive that the administrators have made the game cheap by standardising flat tracks throughout the world. It is precisely the reason why there is a decline in the standards of fast bowling and hence an almost unfair tilt in the favour of batsmen.

  13. I completely against sledging in cricket, it might be from any form. Recently England coach Peter Moores wants to remove the mike in the Stumps for players to sledge independently, it is not fair at all.
    Clay Desiccant

  14. jabber: nice review. I'm a bit of a fan of Mukul myself, and wrote this review a while back. I regret the catty remarks about CI's crew - completely uncalled for.