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Books

The Many Histories of Indian Cricket

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Power and glory


The Nine Waves | Mihir Bose | Aleph | 563 Pages | Rs 999
Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All India Team | Prashant Kidambi | Viking | 453 Pages | Rs 699
The Barefoot Coach | Paddy Upton | Westland | 377 Pages | Rs 799

IT DOESN’T TAKE a genius to figure that Indian cricket has history. But a quick check on the narrative would present a quandary—just where does one start?

How about the time from centuries ago, when the basics of the game were grasped through keen observation from beyond the boundary ropes? Or when the Parsis took the lead to eventually rub shoulders with the seasoned Britishers? Or perhaps, when the West Indies pacers wreaked havoc on the Indian batting order—under the Caribbean sun?

It’s hardly surprising that everyone has an opinion on Indian cricket, but when it comes to the finer details, the confidence hits the lows of the Indian side under Sachin Tendulkar—the skipper that is.

Then, there couldn’t be a better way to catch up on the past than these three engaging reads this World Cup month.

Though a niche subject on the whole, Cricket Country delves into the early struggles of cricket in India, at a time when it was hard to arrive at the definition of, well, ‘Indian cricket’. These early characters, who are now relegated to a passing mention in most books, show just what the game meant to the Indian populace even back then. Their progress comes with the fine print that this was a time when Indians were struggling to find an identity in their own country.

Where Cricket Country tapers off, what with the first ‘all-Indian’ team finally making their presence felt in the motherland of the sport, England, The Nine Waves picks up. It sails along through the years when the Indians fought a battle with few resources, enduring whitewashes while being bossed around, until finally finding their place as the big boss of world cricket.

Finally, The Barefoot Coach presents the journey of Paddy Upton—a South African, mental coach and a relative outsider to Indian cricket—who opens up on his own struggles alongside just what made the Indians a class apart during his journey with them, en route the 2011 World Cup triumph in Mumbai.

FOR ANYONE WHO has the faintest idea on the progress that Indian cricket has made over the decades, the cast is quite clear. A few key moments are likely to be embedded in some part of the memory as well. The fans, of course, would have no such problems, choosing to pick on the nitty-gritty of that innings or perhaps, that missed opportunity on the field.

Mihir Bose’s The Nine Waves then makes for the perfect narration for folks across this spectrum.

The entire plot that is Indian cricket has been divided, as the title suggests, into nine epochs in its significance to the progress of the sport in the country. After breezing through the origins of the game in India and the early contests against English sides, there starts an era of struggle when the first recognised Indian team visited England. It was a time when a few among the privileged lot were already plying their trade for English counties, enduring conflict when it came to the question of turning out for the country of their origin.

But the root of the obsession that was to be Indian cricket was obvious even back then, when freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu signed an autograph for a little boy, only to be told that she was the wife of another revolutionary in his own right on the cricket field, CK Nayudu.

And gems like these is where Bose makes the entire journey worth a read all over again.

From the travails of the initial Fab Four comprising Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath, Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad, at a time when Indian cricket was still finding its feet, to the exploits of the next generation featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, Bose weaves the highs and lows across time in depth, which includes two epic World Cup triumphs.

A few waves also encapsulate in-house rivalries between the likes of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, and Chandu Borde and Salim Durani, or Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, while also transcending generations when analysing the performance of Gavaskar and Tendulkar, or Tendulkar and what most believe is his next-in-line, Virat Kohli.

Off the field, the insights come from how the Indian board realised the commercial gains to be made through television rights and the subsequent role of the big bully that the Board of Control for Cricket in India continues to play till date. At the same time, the venal ways of cricket have been dealt with in depth—right from the fiasco in 2000 to the embarrassment during the Indian Premier League in 2013.

Where Bose’s account stands out is his insight from being at the heart of all the action. His earliest memory is as a five-year-old, hanging by the window of his aunt’s home in order to watch Hazare take on England at the Brabourne Stadium. Then, as a full-time journalist based out of England, he had the opportunity to mingle with the biggies of Indian cricket during their tours, pick a fight with Bishan Singh Bedi and sit across Tendulkar at his in-law’s home in Mumbai.

Enlightening for some and a refresher for others, the book compensates for its minute print with its fine words.

LIKE ALL SPORTS, there was a time when cricket didn’t have the manic following it has today in India. Cricket Country by Prashant Kidambi talks about this period that goes back to over a century. And this was an era, when cricket perhaps didn’t come under the purview of sport, as it is perceived today.

In the middle of the 19th century, cricket firmly took root in Bombay (Mumbai today), which has also earned the reputation of the cradle of Indian cricket. Though the last male Parsi cricketer to turn out for the national team was Farokh Engineer when he played his final ODI in 1975, young boys from the community were imitating the British soldiers at play as early as the 1830s. It then comes as little surprise that the first Parsi cricket club, Oriental Cricket Club, was set up in Bombay in 1848.

It resulted in a wave of clubs cropping up around the city and soon, the Hindus and Muslims too set up shop to try their hand at a sport that the Britishers dominated at that point by a mile. Once the first game between Parsis and the Britishers was hosted at the Bombay Gymkhana ground on August 7, 1877, it triggered aspirations of beating the British at, what was then, their own game.

Though a Parsi team toured Britain in 1886 and 1888, while the first English side arrived in India to a rousing welcome in 1889, the dream was to have an ‘all-Indian’ cricket team visit the home of their colonial rulers to prove their worth. By this time, the Hindus and Muslims were well-versed with the game, which had also spread to other parts of the country, and the Quadrangular Trophy in Bombay became a prominent feature on the calendar. Soon, the Indian teams, were beating English teams who had made the subcontinent their home. For the onlookers, it was the start of something big.

It was only towards the turn of the century that the proposal was first realistically considered. While India struggled with the friction among its own populace and while dealing with the caste-based systems prevalent across the country, the visit was to serve manifold purposes. On the surface, the idea was to give Indian players an exposure on just how the game was played in the land of its birth.

But among the subplots, were a few elites who wanted recognition from the British, and another lot, who looked to make their voices heard against the foreign rulers, making the potential visit a heady mix of sport on the field and politics off it.

It all came to a head in 1911, when a team of Hindus, Parsis and Muslims representing ‘India’ landed in Dover after a two week voyage. The majority were from Bombay, but what stood out was the barriers that the team had transcended to have royalty, the bourgeois, and different religions and classes of Indians, present a united front against the colonial rulers.

Their arrival coincided with a momentous summer, when King George V was to be coronated. Leaders of the world united at a global event and world class sporting events unfolded in England to hand each one a fix of their dose. For this team to just be in England at the time was momentous, given just what it had taken to finally get there. Results then, were secondary on this first tour.

The book is a well-researched effort by Kidambi that dissects the birth of cricket, in a place which can now be considered its new home, India. At times, the narration gets insipid as it grinds out a foregone conclusion. But reliving the days of the past and the characters who shaped the game during those early years makes it an engaging read, besides highlighting just what it took to make cricket the religion it is in India today.

IN ALL THE roles of a coach that he’s played so far, Paddy Upton has never really coached in the true sense. Neither does his book, The Barefoot Coach have key insights on just what it takes to make a good cricketer.

On the contrary, Upton chooses to focus more on human nature and the key practices that can be implemented to bring out the best in each individual— on the cricket field or otherwise.

It’s what the South African has practiced, ever since he first found himself as the first full-time fitness trainer of the Proteas cricket team in the mid 90s. The stint didn’t last long and in fact, led to a few years of introspection, in order to realise just what was missing beyond the glamour world of international cricket. And along the way, he set about understanding the role of a coach and what led to a player under-performing in the larger picture, despite having enough avenues to hone his skills.

In the process, Upton learnt more about people’s skills as a holistic approach to coaching and management, as compared to the well-known methods of science and data analysis that are used today.

The crux of the book is performance through awareness, a practice he first experimented with a few South African cricketers, who were looking for some answers during their lows. One of them was Gary Kirsten, alongside whom, he took on the challenge of inspiring the Indian cricket team in 2007, and who by his own admission, had experienced a rather torrid time under their previous coach, Greg Chappell.

Two glaring firsts stood out from that assignment. Upton was to double up as a physical conditioning coach, as well as look into aspects of strategic leadership— the latter, a relatively non-existent entity at the time in world cricket. Besides, Kirsten had never taken on a coaching assignment before that stint.

How the two freshers set about dealing with the egos of a high-profile cricket team in order to keep them rooted, which eventually led to the 2011 Cricket World Cup triumph at home in India is perhaps the most gripping aspect of the narration.

Some of the concepts that he’s introduced are both unique and intriguing in their own way, such as the idea of optional training or getting the best batting skills out of the tail-enders to wreak havoc on the opposition. His methods of preparation too are special to say the least, at the heart of which is the onus of arriving at a solution through a player’s own insight.

Being a South African, Upton shares great camaraderie with the Proteas. He documents their unique progress to becoming the first international cricket team in history to hold the No. 1 spot in all three formats of the game in 2012, which makes for great reading.

This could well have been a management book, given that most concepts on the individual and the team are relevant to professional life outside the sporting world. At times, Upton seems to be stating the obvious that has been hardcoded in the human psyche over the years. But at the same time, he presents unique concepts that he’s gathered from experimentation, and through his strong relationships with folks from different spheres of life. And through an insatiable thirst for knowledge, that has given the Upton way credibility over the years.

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