Thursday, July 07, 2011

Pitch Reports

It was a John Updike moment when VVS Laxman was about to catch the ball that deflected from Wasim Akram’s bat, which would complete Anil Kumble’s achievement of 10 wickets in an innings: “It was in the books while it was still in the air.” The latest book to chronicle that world record is journalist Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Cricket’s Greatest Spin Bowlers. But there’s a twist of schadenfreude to the tale here: Englishman Tony Lock was giving his team-mate Jim Laker no easy route to the 10 wickets that he would eventually take against Australia at Old Trafford in 1959. Cut to Delhi. “By the time Kumble was on his ninth, Javagal Srinath was bowling wide long hops at the other end”.

It’s anecdotes like these that give Twirlymen a brio of Eurostar. Rajan’s borderline Darwinian approach to spin bowling is the missing link between Wisden Almanacs and websites like Cricinfo. The writer charts out the history of spin bowling and how it keeps evolving with an armory of deliveries that keep befuddling the most experienced batsmen. Rajan is easily at home while discussing Clarrie Grimmett’s flipper as well as Graeme Swann’s shenanigans in the days prior to his current level-headed disposition. Be it Shane Warne’s ball of the century or Muralitharan’s helicopter twist or Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra or Ajantha Mendis’ carrom ball, Rajan combines his journalistic chops and easy-going prose with élan. He gets down to some serious myth-busting as well: googly wasn’t invented by Englishman Bernard Bosanquet and nor was Saqlain the progenitor of doosra (England’s Jack Potter is the answer you are looking at if asked at a pub quiz). At the end of each chapter there are illustrations of how famous spin deliveries are to be delivered. Here’s a 21-gun salute to spin bowling. Lately, there has been a minor explosion of sorts in the representation of cricket in the field of arts: fiction, non-fiction and documentary.

Fire In Babylon is a delightful amble into the annals of West Indies cricket from 1975 to 1994. Circa 1975, West Indies still had the yoke of colonialism attached to its neck, and when its cricket team toured Australia, it was treated with utter disdain by the hosts. With lilting reggae soundtrack in the background, Steven Riley goes about telling the tale of the most dominating reign of a team in the history of team sports. Initially, Clive Lloyd drew first blood and then Viv Richards took over. At their peak, the pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner (Malcolm Marshall is to come later) have sent so many chills down batsmen spine. What used to make batsmen balk even more was the lack of protective equipment and no one-bouncer-per-over rule. With no respite coming from any end, this small clutch of islands was ruling roost over cricketing world’s imagination. Add to this the punishing blade of Richards and Gordon Greenidge. Roberts, christened as “Hit Man” in his heydays barely managed a chuckle on the field but speaks his heart out before Riley’s camera: “The sympathy is there (for the batsman) but I can’t show to the batsman.” There are more such confessions one from Greenidge, who took a long time to understand the spectre of racism during his childhood in England. It’s a fatal error to push Fire In Babylon into the facile sinkhole of sports documentary when it deals with multiple issues: racism, country politics and exorcising past ghosts.

* * *

Just like the West Indian team, Pradeep Mathew could have been the toast of Sri Lanka in the fictional tale of Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. Here’s someone who defied conventional spin bowling techniques and went on to build up his own armory that till date remains unmatched: chinaman, googly, top spinner and an amazing arm ball. It remains uncertain whether its diffidence or arrogance but Mathew never plays his cards the way they ought to be. His open defiance of his seniors’ diktats, a chronic womaniser who doesn’t mind bit of hanky-panky in between match days, a blithe ignorance of his talent makes him an enigma. With his life never well fleshed out for public perusal, an aging sports journalist W G Karunasena, takes up the mantle of resurrecting the image of the greatest cricketer Sri Lanka never had.

Karunatilaka’s sparing prose is an unsparing take on the obstacles that have been besaddling Sri Lanka: LTTE, Tamil discrimination and xenophobia. While his liver threatens to die any moment (massive alcohol abuse does that, you know), a recalcitrant Karunasena wants to give that patina of respect to Mathew. While Rajan never gives much credence to the spinners who never made it big, Karunatilaka’s novel is a tribute to bowlers like Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Narendra Hirwani. The former had three six-wicket hauls in his first three innings and the latter hogged 16 wickets on his debut but their careers never ascended any further peaks.

Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer is an unapologetic critique of the 20-20 version of cricket, which makes Kerry Packer’s World Series look like a conservative affair. Hamilton is one of those sticklers who prefer to slug it out for five days to get their cricketing kicks rather than fall for the ‘razzmatazz’. Speaking about the version’s “incalculable harm to the wider game”, Hamilton laments the “technical ability needed to bowl a long spell or vary their bowling, for example, or bat for hours, or adapt successfully to different types of pitches and conditions”. This is Hamilton’s way of doffing his hat for a game that is increasingly being perceived to be going to dogs. He travels the length and breadth of England to capture the beauty of the game: MCC v Durham fixture at Lord’s, Ashes series, Lancashire League and other local matches.

The grand-daddy of recent cricketing literature has to be Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland which was longlisted for Man Booker 2008. Hans ven den Broek, a Dutch banker, living in London and in harmony with his erstwhile briefly estranged wife and son, reminisces his past in New York when he was re-introduced to cricket through Chuck Ramkissoon, his erstwhile friend and “business associate”. O’Neill wades through some really choppy waters: the New York of 9/11, the powercut and the neo-conservativism in the air. To O’Neill’s credit, he comes up trumps and part of the credit should go to the novel’s leitmotif: cricket. In a passage he compares cricket to baseball: “…the art of batting is directed at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes a skilful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve: the glance, the hook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull and all those offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field.” Clearly, O’Neill did for cricket in US whhich ICC couldn’t do: make it look like art.


Post a Comment

<< Home