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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Magic on the field

A look at a new book that all Indian cricket lovers will enjoy.

PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

STAR OF THE SHOW: Vinoo Mankad being introduced to Queen Elizabeth II before the 1952 Lord's Test, which came to be known as "Mankad's Match".

I FIRST met Bill Ricquier 25 years ago, in Singapore, where he then taught at the Law Faculty. A lanky Englishman with a public-school education and glasses whose lenses were as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, Bill was a mild-mannered intellectual with one true passion — cricket. That made us kindred spirits. We would meet frequently in the expatriate social circles of Singapore, and inevitably the conversation would turn to cricket. When my then U.K.-resident brother-in-law sent me videotapes of the entire semi-finals and final of the 1983 World Cup the week after India's historic triumph, there was only person who would watch the 16 hours of unedited cricket with me in one marathon sitting — Bill.

Fifteen greats in the limelight

So it is with particular pleasure that I devoured Bill's new book, The Indian Masters, just published in the U.K. by Tempus (note to desi publishers: snap up the rights for an Indian edition!) It entertainingly profiles 15 Indian cricket greats from Ranji to Tendulkar, chosen both for their eminence and for the existence of an English connection ("There is no more complex relationship in world cricket — except that between India and Pakistan — than that between England and India," Bill writes.) And it does so with the objectivity one can expect from a non-Indian, leavened with a genuine passion for the game and its practitioners. The result is a volume both informative and insightful, richly anecdotal and well-researched — a book all Indian cricket lovers will enjoy.

Yes, much of the material is familiar, but each chapter is put together interestingly, and complemented with a page of essential statistics. So one can marvel at Vinoo Mankad's superlative display in "Mankad's Match" at Lord's in 1952, and then look at the statistics page to realise the man was 39 years old when he scored two double-centuries in a series against New Zealand and set the first-wicket world record with Pankaj Roy. (How on earth did we allow Ravi Shastri to retire at 31?) It's also the only book I know that usefully discusses the English county performances of Indian players, though oddly it omits Tendulkar's and Gavaskar's disappointing seasons with Yorkshire and Somerset respectively. There is, however, a lot that even the well-initiated may not be familiar with: Neil Hawke describing Farrokh Engineer as "the most Australian Indian"; David Boon saying that three balls from Kapil Dev in the Brisbane test of 1991-92 (two of which dismissed Allan Border and Dean Jones) "were the best three consecutive balls he had seen bowled in Test cricket"; an instructive analysis of whether and why Ranji and Duleep were English cricketers or Indian ones; and a chapter beginning with the exam question, "Dilip Doshi was an unlucky cricketer. Discuss."

Bill Ricquier is frank and free with his opinions, pointing out that while the Australians were quick to make "Mankaded" a term of art (for being run out while backing up, as Mankad did to Brown in 1948), there is no "Chappelled" (for bowling an underarm grubber to prevent a six being hit off the last ball of an ODI). He describes Abdul Qadir, rather than Shane Warne, as the greatest leg-spinner, and says bluntly of Shastri's post-playing career that he "shares his mentor Sunil Gavaskar's inability to recognise a conflict of interest when it stares him in the face." Bill ends the book with the startling assertion: "One day we may have another Bradman, another Holding, another Warne; we will, one fears, have more than one pseudo-Murali. But there will surely never be another Bishan Singh Bedi."

On Indian victories

PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

TO BATTLE: Openers Vinoo Mankad (left) and Pankaj Roy on their way to play during the First cricket match against Pakistan at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground.

A great deal to savour and to argue with; more important, the writing is delightful and often witty. "India had always lost games," Bill says of Pataudi's captaincy, "but under Tiger they lost them much more interestingly." Ranji's "timing was as perfect as a Shinkansen train arriving at the platform and his placement as expert as that of a Machiavellian patronage distributor." Or "the captaincy had been passing between Gavaskar and Kapil like a mystery virus". My own favourite: "Indian victories became like London buses: you had to wait forever, and then two came along at once."

For all my admiration of the book, there are a few things that need to be fixed in an Indian edition. Most egregiously, the bizarre ordering of the chapters, which seem to have been shuffled together by the British publishers after one too many beers in the clubhouse, so that instead of chronological order, or failing that listing the players in alphabetical order, you have 13 chapters organised under the Pakistani system (by first name) with two others breaking up the flow for no apparent reason (Vinoo Mankad comes after Anil Kumble and Bedi, despite his first name also beginning with B, brings up the rear). There are a dozen typos which a proof-reader should have caught, most of them harmless but some in the statistical tables (a cardinal sin: Doshi did not take 10 wickets in a Test match 10 times, for instance, and Engineer did not capture five wickets in a first-class innings ten times either, both instances of "0" being printed as "10"). And an Englishman can be forgiven for placing Rajkot, Doshi's birthplace, in Bengal, given the bespectacled spinner's long career in Kolkata; but an Indian publisher would certainly want to persuade him to add chapters on Dravid and Ganguly, two conspicuous omissions.

But all can be forgiven in exchange for gems like this: Pataudi making his Test debut against England in 1961-62 after losing the use of one eye in a car accident.

"Tiger, when did you first decide you could make runs with one eye?" Gubby Allen asked him. Pat came the reply: "When I saw the England bowling." A delight all around, this is a book that I hope will soon reach the Indian readership it richly deserves.

Visit the author at: www.shashitharoor.com

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