[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.