An insider’s history

Over more than a decade, Boria Majumdar has been a constant presence within the Indian cricket caravan. He is often on television dishing out strong opinions laced with a shrill voice, or the sports-analyst in him springs to life through columns across mainstream media.

Majumdar’s tone is always nationalistic. Besides that, he is often construed as the shadow-voice of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and he did write the former’s book Playing It My Way. When Tendulkar scored his 100th international 100 (an artificial-construct that married his tons in Tests and ODIs) at Dhaka in 2012, it was Majumdar who helped the travelling Indian media contingent gain exclusive access to the maestro.

Ashish Nandy had once written: “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” Majumdar delves into this realm and the result is his book Eleven Gods And A Billion Indians. Being a quintessential insider, it was surely an unenviable task for Majumdar to don the hat of a cricket-historian and dig up the game’s Indian roots.

Being a historian means that you acquire a veneer of neutrality and shed your biases and prejudices. It is a difficult proposition and Majumdar makes no bones about the fact that he will tell the truth the way he sees it. The nuance may go missing, but it’s his perspective. If the reader can accept that, then this fat book, spread over 400-plus pages, has its rewards.

Basically Majumdar attempts to chronicle Indian cricket’s exhaustive narrative. All the elements are present — those baby steps when princes and the proletariat jostled for a place in the playing eleven; the acquisition of a spine in the 1970s; the significant miracles of 1983 (World Cup triumph) and 2001 (India’s improbable victory over Australia at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens); the ensuing commercial muscle and gargantuan television rights; dressing room rifts right from the bad old days to the more recent Ganguly-Greg Chappell fiasco or the Virat Kohli-Anil Kumble split; and finally the present predicament of dealing with a performing squad and a BCCI struggling for control while the Supreme Court dishes out diktats.

That Indian cricket is schizophrenic and caught between its performing arm — the cricketers, and its scheming heart — and its administrators, is driven home early by Majumdar when he writes: “What is played off the field is equally important and fascinating.”

In the initial parts, the constant dichotomy between elegance on the field and the skirmishes off it is hinted at when Majumdar mentions about how India’s former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, while donning the garb of a television expert, struggled to get match tickets at the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy in England. Exonerated off match-fixing charges in India, Azharuddin still has to contend with International Cricket Council’s scepticism.   

Majumdar’s approach towards understanding cricketing history follows diverse methods. It could be oral, chatting with Ganguly over biryani at the latter’s home at Behala in Kolkata or it is the ancient way of paying his respects to musty old newspaper files in dusty libraries, be it in India or in England. The insider in him gains access to this millennium’s history as viewed by Tendulkar, Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Kohli, to name a few. It has a share of pitfalls as at diverse points Chappell and Kumble are boxed into corners from where they cannot defend their much-scrutinised moves as coaches.

The author is always known for his opinions and not for any purple prose, but despite that, the writing does get better and effusive, especially while dealing with Tendulkar, who remains Indian cricket’s luminous icon. “Tendulkar was the presiding deity of a nationally-unifying religion called cricket,” Majumdar observes while describing the legend’s final innings.

Having rubbed shoulders with the glitterati of Indian cricket, Majumdar mines their memories. Plus he unearths nuggets too from academic papers stowed away in England. That Ranjitsinhji, known for his wrists of oriental flair, was also an obsessive lover given to poetic flourishes and was a prince saddled with an empty wallet, are highlighted. These pen-portraits humanise the cricketer.  

And on the way, he goads players to bare their minds and in one expansive moment, Kohli tells Majumdar: “I try to be like a monk living in a civil society, you know, and I don’t have any regrets.” Just as the tome winds to a close, Majumdar shifts his gaze towards women’s cricket and the sacrifices that stars like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami have made to cut through a patriarchal society.   

Majumdar’s endeavour doesn’t have the gravitas of similar exercises undertaken by Ramachandra Guha, but he does offer more than a peep into India’s riveting cricketing story, an evolving one at that. After a largely lacklustre Tendulkar memoir, which Majumdar co-authored, his latest offering atones for that disappointment.

 

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