How do you summarise, let alone critique, a love letter? That is the problem which faces the reviewer of Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket. The subtitle is clear enough — “a lifelong love affair with the most subtle and sophisticated game known to humankind” — though not quite as blunt as Guha’s description of himself as a “frothing, blabbering fan.”
An earlier book, the masterly A Corner of a Foreign Field, used the development of cricket to reveal a history of India. His latest book, by exploring Guha’s lifelong love of cricket, becomes a kind of autobiography.
Guha is a distinguished historian, biographer of Gandhi, a courageous political activist — and also an absolute cricket nut. But the way these different strands of a rich, interesting life intersect isn’t quite teased out. At times, you sense Guha is almost trying to protect the fan from the historian, to ringfence his own innocence. Perhaps inevitably, however, Guha’s boyish adoration hardens in adulthood into a restless conscience, always holding the game to a higher account.
Guha’s family lived in the foothills of the Himalayas at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, with three cricket grounds set among old beech trees and Lutyens-style bungalows. Guha is captured by the ambience as well as the action of the game, and aged eight he is already a dedicated scorer, Quink ink at the ready. The arc of his love affair is timely. The cricketing scene of 1960s India gains a kind of retrospective glamour because of what we know now: that Indian cricket is destined to become pre-eminent. It is like hearing about Italian manufacturing of the early 1950s — Fiat the car isn’t yet Fiat the brand, but you know it’s coming.
Inspired by his talented uncle, Guha becomes a determined cricketer at school and college, rushing off to the nets as soon as lectures are finished. Though he quickly realises he isn’t going to make it as a player, Guha never loses his fanatical fervour as a fan, and the first half of the book is a collage of vignettes about watching cricket and fleeting brushes with his heroes.
Over time, Guha’s academic and intellectual distinction brings him closer to the protagonists he’s watched from the boundary edge. When Rahul Dravid — whose superb batsmanship is matched by a restless and enquiring mind — was captaining India, Guha fired off a letter objecting to the slip cordon. Dravid replied two days later, explaining that he was reading Guha’s book on the history of independent India: “I finished about 180 pages so a fair way to go,” Dravid signs off, “would love to talk about it and much more”. Guha reflects: “The put down was decisive; and yet so delicately worded. I was told, in the kindest possible manner, to shut up about strategy in cricket and go back to writing history books.”
Increasingly, there is an edge to Guha’s encounters with players. Guha, through his fiercely independent voice as a commentator on the game, now has the capacity to hold those he loves to account. And that’s the tension within the book: the faultline between lifelong fan and the intellectual statesman. It is stretched to the limit when Guha himself becomes a powerful figure in cricket politics when he is appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the Indian game. Five months later, frustrated at every level, he quits the field of cricket politics.
Watching a serious intellectual grapple with his own relationship with sport is always revealing. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould notably collected his writings on baseball in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville (2004). Gould’s book alternated between forensic rational inquiry and besotted evangelism: the scientist and the believer were both present, but I didn’t sense they collaborated much.
For Guha, another professor-fanatic, the mystical and the heroic often take precedence in his analysis of the game. He will not have his rainbow unwoven. When a scientist attempts to decode Shane Warne’s dip and spin, Guha counters that we should savour the leg-spinner’s “curving arc to his flight”. But the science and the beauty here are one and the same: it is the number of revolutions on the ball that causes the “curving arc” of its flight. Understanding how things work needn’t make us love them less.
He also tends to see the shorter Twenty20 game as a despoliation, with classical technique under threat. But the technical mastery required to find the middle of the bat very often — as the best short format players must — actually creates a kind of convergence between tradition and innovation. The purest ball-strikers usually rely on superior basic techniques.
But Guha is right that cricket also relies on the continuity of inherited truths, and there are pockets of the cricketing conversation where mastery of the game is especially respected and nurtured. Mumbai, for example, has produced a rich sequence of world-class batsmen, headed by Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Vasu Paranjpe, the gentle and wise cricket coach who inspired many of those greats, is lovingly depicted.
One fascinating strand of Indian cricket today is how this reverence for technical mastery and tradition has cross-pollinated with the evolving demands of the modern game. Hitting the ball to all parts of the ground, as T20 and one day international cricket demands, rests on skill and poise as well as muscle. The most elegant of all Paranjpe’s students, Rohit Sharma, is also the only player ever to have scored three double hundreds in shorter-format cricket.
There are aspects of this passionate, unique book I don’t quite agree with, or would emphasise differently. But any cavils feel like fact-checking after a besotted bridegroom’s speech. Guha’s totally in love, that’s the thing — and it’s the love that shines through on every page.
The Commonwealth of Cricket: A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Subtle and Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind, by Ramachandra Guha, William Collins, RRP£20, 336 pages
Ed Smith is national selector for England cricket
Letter in response to this article:
Bowled over by a book review / From Peter Thomas, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia