Review: The Great Indian Cricket Circus - Hindustan Times

Review: The Great Indian Cricket Circus

Nov 11, 2023 06:42 AM IST

Not simply a compendium of information, this is a chronicle of memories around the game that evokes joy, sadness, longing, anger, despair, and hope

“Where does cricket end and the rest of life begin? In India, you never know,” writes Indian cricketer R Ashwin in his foreword to The Great Indian Cricket Circus. People who do not follow cricket might think that he is exaggerating but those who have been ardently following the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup would fully agree. This year’s tournament is particularly exciting for Indian cricket fans since India is the sole host.

Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami celebrate the wicket of New Zealand's Mitchell Santner during the ICC Men's World Cup ODI cricket match between India and New Zealand at the HPCA Stadium, Dharamshala on October 22, 2023. (Manvender Vashist Lav/PTI)
Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami celebrate the wicket of New Zealand's Mitchell Santner during the ICC Men's World Cup ODI cricket match between India and New Zealand at the HPCA Stadium, Dharamshala on October 22, 2023. (Manvender Vashist Lav/PTI)

A book that promises to be “an unabashed celebration of this incredible sport” is a smart idea because success in cricket as well as publishing often depends on good timing. It has 52 short, crisp chapters. Each one can be read in a few minutes. The emphasis here is on supplying readers with trivia that is humorous, astonishing, and sometimes even bizarre.

456pp, ₹599; HarperCollins
456pp, ₹599; HarperCollins

The authors’ expertise brings heft to this delightful volume. They live and breathe cricket, and have served the sport in multiple capacities. Mukherjee, who won the Anandji Dossa Award for the Cricket Statistician of the Year in 2019/20, is the content head at Wisden India. Bhattacharjya, who was ESPN Star Sports’ first Indian head of production, and has been the team director for the Kolkata Knight Riders, is a cricket analyst with the online platform Cricbuzz. They have combined their experiences and networks to write a memorable book.

The book opens with a chapter that is ideal for people who are equally devoted to fiction and cricket. Following the format of a listicle, it spots references to real-life cricketers in book such as RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends (1935), Jeffrey Archer’s A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980), Ruskin Bond’s Cricket for the Crocodile (1986), Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life (2008) and Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor (2008), among others.

Another endearing chapter tracks down things and places named after Indian cricketers. Sachin Tendulkar has a hybrid mango variety – “a cross between gudshah and chausa” named after him thanks to horticulturist Haji Kaleemullah Khan of Malihabad in Uttar Pradesh. A cricket stadium in Zanzibar (Tanzania), a ground in Leicester (England), and a cricket field in Louisville (Kentucky, USA) are named after Sunil Gavaskar. The Tihar Jail in Delhi used to have a block named after Manoj Prabhakar but “the authorities changed the name of the block in 2001 after Prabhakar was named in the match-fixing scandals the year before”.

The writing seems effortless but it must have taken a lot of research and fact-checking. The chapter on religion and Indian cricket is a case in point. It throws light on the history of a less known interfaith cricket tournament called the Bombay Pentangular that was played between the Parsees-only Zoroastrian Gymkhana, the Europeans-only Bombay Gymkhana, the Hindu Gymkhana, the Mohammedan Gymkhana, and fifth team added later to include “Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Indian Christians, other Indian communities and even the Ceylonese”. Unfortunately, this tournament was discontinued in 1945/46 because of communal riots.

What has continued though is the practice of having Indian teams with players of different faiths. The authors note that there have been several instances of Indian teams featuring at least five religions. “This is in stark contrast with most other Test-playing nations, whose early XIs were dominated by one religion,” they add. This chapter also draws attention to a press conference wherein Virat Kohli stood up for Mohammed Shami – then the only Muslim in Team India – who was labelled a traitor because India lost to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup in 2021. Upset that Shami was being trolled, Kohli said that targeting someone for their religion was “the lowest level of human potential that one can operate at”.

Amidst all this unpleasantness, there is a lighter moment in the same chapter on religion and Indian cricket. In 1971, when India and England were playing a Test match at The Oval, the fourth day coincided with Ganesh Chaturthi. Mukherjee and Bhattacharjya write, “Local Indian fans arranged for Bella, a three-year-old elephant from Chessington Zoo to parade around the ground at lunch.” The elephant proved to be a lucky charm for the Indian team.

In fact, there is a wonderful chapter dedicated to fauna and Indian cricket. Various kinds of creatures make an appearance here – monkeys, dogs, elephants, snakes, bees, horses, and even a mongoose, a rat, a kite, a sparrow, and a seagull. When Kapil Dev was batting during a test match in Adelaide, Australia, one of his shots ended up killing a seagull. The authors write, “A visibly upset Kapil asked for a glass of water to recover but Australian captain Allan Border turned down his request.” On another occasion, during a local match in Lalru near Chandigarh, a batsman (not named in the book) hit a six that claimed the life of a horse.

The chapter also documents stories where human beings have been on the receiving end. The authors note, “Bees invaded an India-Pakistan ODI at Visakhapatnam in 2005, an India-Australia Test match at Delhi in 2008 and a match between India A and England Lions at Thiruvananthapuram in 2018/19.” During the match in Thiruvananthapuram, Rahul Dravid made a narrow escape by running for safety but five members of the audience were stung.

The most shocking anecdote in this chapter has to do with threats from a political party that wanted to use reptiles to scare away cricketers. Mukherjee and Bhattacharjya write, “When Pakistan were supposed to play India in 1998/99, the Shiv Sena threatened to release venomous snakes in the outfield during the Test match at Feroz Shah Kotla.” The organizers in Delhi placed snake charmers at strategic points but “the threat was never made good on.”

Thankfully, most Indians are wise enough to see a match with Pakistan as a game to be played and not a battle to be fought. The chapter on unusual cricket contests refers to a match in Colombo between a Commonwealth XI, led by Jock Livingston, against a Ceylon, India and Pakistan Combined XI in 1949/50. The latter had Vinoo Mankad and Dattu Phadkar from India playing along with Munawwar Ali Khan and Rusi Dinshaw from Pakistan as well as Stanley Jayasinghe and Mahadevan Sathasivan from Sri Lanka – all on the same side.

Co-author Joy Bhattacharjya (Courtesy the publisher)
Co-author Joy Bhattacharjya (Courtesy the publisher)

In 1996, when West Indies and Australia cited security concerns and refused to tour Sri Lanka for the World Cup, co-hosts India and Pakistan offered their solidarity. Because of the cross-border conflict, they had not played a bilateral series since 1989/90 but, in order to stand up for Sri Lanka, they came up with an India and Pakistan Combined XI. This team, playing in a 40-over warm-up match against Sri Lanka, had Mohammed Azharuddin at the helm.

It is not uncommon for cricket enthusiasts to speculate about the kind of cricketing history that would have been made if the Partition had not taken place in 1947. The India and Pakistan Combined XI in 1996 was an opportunity to watch them shine together. The nostalgia about an undivided subcontinent offers comfort in times of division and hate but it is equally important that we give ourselves a reality check and recognize ground realities.

One of the chapters in the book focuses on cricketers who were forced to leave their birthplaces and ancestral homes at Partition or just before. The authors note, “Of the 31 Pakistan Test cricketers born in what became India after Partition, most were – not surprisingly – from Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, all of which share borders with Pakistan.”

Co-author Abhishek Mukherjee (Courtesy the publisher)
Co-author Abhishek Mukherjee (Courtesy the publisher)

Clearly, this volume is not simply a compendium of information. It is a chronicle of memories, which evoke a range of emotions – joy, sadness, longing, anger, despair, and hope. There are many other notable chapters to relish about famous bats, iconic sixes, cricketers who acted in movies, non-Indians playing in domestic cricket, and more. It is refreshing to see that, unlike many other books on Indian cricket, this one makes an effort to include cricketers who have played for the Indian women’s cricket team.

Apart from cricket enthusiasts, this book would appeal to sports researchers and people who might be preparing for competitive examinations and quiz contests with multiple choice questions. It also has enough masala and drama to spice up a long train journey.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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