Friday, August 1, 2014

The Covers are Off - Rajan Bala

I read this book in 2007 when I first met Mr. Rajan Bala. He was the resident editor of The Asian Age in Bangalore and had reviewed my first novel favorably - he is not one to do no undue favors - he genuinely liked the book and in time I had reason to believe that he genuinely liked me too. 'Novel writing is all about organisation of thought,' he said.

When I did a book launch event in Bangalore that year, I requested him to be my Chief Guest. Charu Sharma agreed to be the Guest of Honour and novelist Anita Nair graciously agreed to be my special invitee. The day I went to Bangalore I met Mr. Bala at his office. After a short discussion he told me to go and get myself a copy of 'The Covers are off'. He felt it was a part of my education as a cricketer and a writer to read the socio-historical study of Indian cricket in the period between 1932-2003. 'I have written all that needs to be written about in this period. Now all someone needs to do is write from 2003 onwards to take the story forward,' he told me once gleefully. He signed it for me and in words that are far too flattering for me.

I read the book during the week I was there and I gave him my first impressions. Most of what I read was new to me despite the fact that I followed as much cricket as I could have when I grew up. But I did not know much nor thought too much about all the issues he addressed so meticulously in the book, so my questions must have been naive and superficial. But now when I read the book a second time, I feel the need to ask many questions, stuff only he could answer. But Mr. Bala is no more and I feel the gap many more times magnified because he had knowledge not merely of the game but of so many things about life. However I must say that my appreciation of the book is far more than the first time and I can now see his ability to see what's behind the action, the word. His wonder at what might have happened and his curiosity to provoke some thought in that direction. I am glad he wrote this book and this is one book that all Cricket Associations must store in their libraries.

He quotes Voltaire and nothing less would suffice for this man - "One owes respect to the living, but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth." And truth he tried to write, from his experiences and interviews, vision and hearsay, and stayed as close tot it as he could.

Rajan Bala starts with a bang - by recounting the plight of countless Indian cricketers before the commercialisation of the game - who suffered for lack of financial aid, and in relative anonymity. He recounts the deaths of Gulabrai Ramchand who led the country and won a match against Australia too, and that of Dattu Phadkar. He shows the irony of how the excise duty on Sachin's Ferrari was waived off in comparison, in modern day cricket. Rajan Bala ponders over the obvious differences in attitudes, performances, lifestyles and expectations when he straddles both periods, the beginning and the now, of the cricketing story in India.

He begins at the very beginning, with Anthony De Mello, the first Secretary of the BCCI (who wrote in his book 'Portrait of Indian Sport' that he along with a Grant Govan had formed the BCCI). Interestingly a meeting, presided over by the Maharaja of Patiala in 1927, and attended by representatives of Delhi, Bengal, UP, Rajputana, Alwar, Bhopal, Baroda, Gwalior, Central India, Kathiawar, Punjab and Sind seems to have been the starting point. There is no precise date recorded as to when the BCCI was actually formed says Bala. The Ranji Trophy came into existence in one such meeting and the Cup itself was sponsored by the Maharaja of Patiala who requested that it should be named the Ranji Trophy, in memory of the great Ranji.

Expectedly, Bombay won the first championship and continues to do so with metronomic regularity. (Hyderabad won the second!) From the Ranji Trophy to the construction of the Brabourne stadium, to merging the communal elements, the energetic Anthony De Mello laid the foundations of what we see of cricket in India today. I am surprised why there is no celebration of Mr. De Mello in any tournament, stadium if he was the founder of the BCCI. Why is he so forgotten? Or have I missed something here?

Rajan Bala recounts the way in which the establishment was run in those early years. He also takes the route of examining the game and its evolution through the decades and the many captains India had had. The first captain of India was the Maharaja of Porbander. Initially it looked like only Princes were to be captains. But then the Maharaja withdrew and asked the larger than life Cottari Kanakiya Nayudu or more famously C.K. Nayudu (of Andhra!) to captain India in the first Test against England in 1932. CK, after whom we have a Under 19 tournament named, conducted himself well as a captain and as a player and was respected by one and all. Though there are indications that he was a domineering personality CK was the man. CK was known to be an attacking player and captain and gave England a tough time with his bunch. CK was thirty five when he played his first test and played on for well after.

In 1935-36 the Maharaja of Vizianagaram (another from Andhra!) or Vizzy as he was popularly known, was made captain. He was another Telugu like CK though he lived in Banaras! Vizzy, after whom the All India Zonal Universities Championship is named today, came with a doubtful cricketing prowess but unbounded enthusiasm - his highest Test score was 19 and he batted at number 9. The 1936 tour was famous for sending Lala Amarnath back for indiscipline, a reason hotly contested by Lala who was an outstanding performer, without trial. It appeared that petty differences were the cause for such a unsporting act. One story is that Vizzy asked Lala to run Merchant out! Overall however they felt that the English influences could have made that decision. Anyway, Vizzy was awarded a knighthood during that tour, which he was happy to receive, but which he returned to the British at the time of Independence.

In 1946, the team was led by the Nawab of Pataudi and it had a well balanced 'communal' side to it with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis. The Nawab was followed by the enigmatic Vijay Merchant as skipper, but only in the unofficial tests. Rajan Bala found him to be a quiet and teciturn man who was  a great batsman. The highly talented and energetic Lala Amarnath led India in 15 tests. A man, who it appears followed his heart, Lala was a player and leader most admired. Rajan Bala recounts his many meetings with the man including Lala's touching words when Bala lost his mother - now I am your father and mother he said.

Lala was followed by Vijay Samuel Hazare who led in 14 tests, Vinoo Mnakad, who was a professional, in six tests. Bala recounts a meeting with Vinoo Mankad at his Bombay flat. Hyderabad's Ghulam Ahmed led in in three tests, Polly Umrigar in eight tests (he quit captaincy in a selection related matter going against the diktat of the President). That was an interesting story where Umrigar stuck to his guns as a captain and insisted that he have a definite say else he would not do the job. That is the spirit one likes to see in a captain.

Hemu Adhikari led in one test, D.K. Gaekwad in four, Pankaj Roy in one, G.S. Ramchand in five. In the period of 1947-1959,  India had nine captains. Amarnath was clearly among the favorite captains as he seemed to have a rare people connect. There were six victories - 2 against Pakistan and New Zealand and one against Australia. Rajan Bala notes that in this period, the Board's attitude to players was at best tolerant. Has it changed much since one wonders.

In the 1960s Nari Contractor led the country in 12 tests before that bouncer from West Indian fast bowler Charlie Griffith almost killed him. There are many references to Bala's meetings with Nari. That brought possibly the best captain India had, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as captain at the age of 21 years. He led for 36 tests and was someone whom all players liked for his loyalty to them."My job was to make the players believe in their abilities as cricketers." One thing I understood from that period was a huge boost to a thought I believe in - that the captain cannot be compromised. You can compromise a batsman but not the captain. When asked to lead a second time, Pataudi is on record as having said that he was available as a captain but if the committee was looking for a batsman they better look elsewhere.

Pataudi was replaced by Ajit Wadekar - a change bought in by the controversial casting vote of the Chairman of the Selection Committee, Merchant, to the tour of West Indies. Vijay Merchant's big gamble to persist with youth paid off as India beat the West Indies and England in away series and the talent of Sunil Gavaskar was unearthed. But in 1974, Wadekar's team suffered a bad defeat in England leading to his inglorious ouster. I remember reading his 'My Cricketing Years' as a youngster, with glorious production standards and lovely pictures and wonder what happened to such quality.

The selectors came back to Pataudi - who was clear - I will lead in all five matches or none at all. Pataudi was also clear - I am playing as a captain, if you're looking for a batsman count me out. Tiger was injured in the first test, and Venkatraghavan was made captain for one Test. And he was carrying drinks in the next. Crazy! India lost the series 3-2 but Vishwanath restored pride with some splendid batting and the result was not too bad overall. Pataudi quit after that series for good. Pataudi was the man responsible for the turnaround in Indian cricket feels Rajan Bala.

Wadekar led in 16 Tests and saw both extremes - success and failure. Chandu Borde led in one Test and it seems that he may not have been captaincy material. The irrepressible Bedi led in 22 Tests. And then Sunil Gavaskar in 47 Tests. Gavaskar was a fine captain as he was a clear thinking and combative person. Bala examines his ways, his 'khelna hai to khelo, aisa hi rahega' style and his many facets as a person. However Gavaskar lost his captaincy after a tour of Pakistan and Kapil Dev was made captain in 1982. In 1983 India won the World Cup and that set the cat among the pigeons. Cricket never remained the same.

Kapil Dev was relieved of captaincy soon after and Gavaskar was made captain again. The two had differences that were out in the open. Dilip Vengsarkar led in 10 Tests, Shastri in one and one wonders why such a clear thinking individual was given only one test to lead. Srikkanth led in four. Then came the era of Mohd Azharuddin who led in 47 tests and pretty successfully too. Azhar was seen and he himself believed that he was considered a soft person, but with Ajit Wadekar who was the manager, he formed a good partnership and they did well together for the Indian team.

Sachin Tendulkar led in 25 tests and gave it up, an unhappy man. It is the burden of one who is in his league - he expects the same from lesser mortals - be it selectors, players. I liked the interview of Rajan Bala with Sachin. A couple of points, one where Sachin says that beyond a point skill cannot improve and what you have is what brought you to the top. But with each passing year, he has improved mentally, grown stronger and developed options. Another time he talks of how much he relies on the subconscious - he says that the subconscious is preparing him for the big occasion in answer to sleepless nights before games.

The book goes on till the time Ganguly was captain and once again another era was scripted after that. In an interview Ganguly says - captaincy is all about man management. Win the man, win the match. Every individual needs to be handled differently. Great wisdom.

The match fixing controversy, the creation of stars, the influx of money and power, changed the game and the players completely. It is a far cry from the days when players went to the ground in rickshaws. The Princes, the professionals like Lala Amarnath and Vinoo Mankad, the rich and fortunate such as Vijay Merchant and Pataudi, stars such as Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, the mystical spin quartet, the many captains, teams torn by egos and infighting and finally teams that came together and built some pride. It is a long story and one that gives much information on how the game was played and administered. If stretched a few more years the IPL and its aftermath would have been included too but Rajan Bala never considered 20 overs cricket worth wasting his time about.

What I liked about the book was the way Rajan Bala looks beyond the obvious and tries to find out the truth behind the act. Was there mischief, was there injustice and if so why, why were some players treated badly and some treated well, what did those players feel and what did the selectors feel - he explores those areas. Deepak Shodhan, Randhir Singh, Pai, Gopinath, Salim Durrani - the list goes on. His apparent like for Pataudi and Jaisimha, his respect for Gavaskar, Kapil, Sachin and Azhar are all too evident, yet he retains his subjectivity while he addresses all the pluses and minuses of the person and their acts and words. He looks at Amre and the talent that India missed in similar players - Kambli, Goel Shivalkar, VV Kumar, Durrani, and many others. He feels for the underdog, cannot stand too much intrigue and pokes at all the finer points, makes supreme sense when he speaks of selection matters, player fragility. Still, there was much that could have gone in because he knew much more about the game and the players.

It is certainly a book to read for anyone who has any interest in how the game developed in India. I am also glad I got to repay Rajan Bala's fantastic review of my book, though so many years after his passing away. My review can do no justice to the book and I will be the first to concede that it is an amateurish attempt with not much substance. But a review it is and I will add to it as I read more and understand it more. But for all the things you taught me and shared with me in those late nights at your flat and in those long hours at the club, the long conversations on the phone and the affection you had for me, Mr. Bala, a big thank you.

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