I picked up Mukul Kesavan's Men In White, after reading the glowing tribute to it in Outlook by Ramachandra Guha. Then in the book I found Kesavan's glowing references to Ramachandra Guha's book! Anyway, I still read Men In White, and here's my review (which also appears in DNA Sunday)...
Reading Enid Blyton, waking up at 5 a.m. to catch cricket commentary on Radio Australia, and cutting & pasting pictures from Sport & Pastime: Mukul Kesavan's Men In White takes the 40-plus reader on a nostalgic trip to a time when cricket formed a part of growing up in a way that is different from now. Kesavan tends to romanticise this, although the main difference was that there was no TV, which meant the poor fan had to rely on the often biased and ill-informed radio commentators.
The nostalgia is sweet, nevertheless, and older readers will be drawn to it like moths to a flame, at the outset. A chapter or two later, unfortunately, the confession on the book's jacket, that it's an armchair piece by somebody whose topscore was 14 in neighbourhood cricket, turns out to be more than a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating throwaway line. Not that you have to be a Gary Sobers to write about cricket – or a Greg Chappell to coach India, for that matter – but perhaps more of a first-hand feel for cricket, or some other ball game, might have given the writer better insight into the game than is apparent in the book.
Of course, going by his many glowing references to Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner Of A Foreign Field, Kesavan obviously intended his book to be as much social commentary as about cricket. Another reason for this is his vocation, because when he isn’t writing about cricket, Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Whatever the genesis, the book seems to fall between two stools, neither providing much in the way of fresh insight or interesting anecdotes about Test cricket as a game, nor going deep enough into its sociology or history to use cricket as a backdrop against which to view society.
His fan’s point of view is also ambivalent. The book’s jacket proclaims that “his self-professed credentials for writing about the game are founded on the spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective”. And yet, in the book, he writes witheringly of the modern Indian spectator: “Not having played in years (or ever) he has no understanding of the contingencies that can turn a match, no first-hand experience of defeat… Seduced by the tidy perfection of televised cricket, failure, in his book, is inexcusable.” Instead of blaming the fan for not being more tolerant of failure, it would have been more worthwhile to look at the mismanagement of India’s most popular sport, which has now reduced us to such a sorry state that nobody wants to coach our team – John Buchanan, Tom Moody, Graham Ford, and even John Emburey having said ‘no, thanks’. Only the highly successful Dav Whatmore said ‘yes’, and our board showed him the middle finger!
Coming back to Kesavan’s Men In White, it covers the whole gamut of topics that come up on the sports pages – the effect of the camera on umpires, Gilchrist going against the Aussie grain by ‘walking’, how skewed the one-day game is in favour of batsmen – with his own takeaways such as this one about how to improve one-day cricket: “Just as there are no artificial restrictions on the number of balls a batsman can face, there should be none on how many a bowler can bowl.” He misses the difference that the batsman ceases to bat if he gets out, whereas the bowler can complete his quota of overs even if he gets smacked for a six.
Some of Kesavan’s asides are more interesting, such as pointing out the hypocrisy that’s become a matter of course in cricket. A batsman is not viewed as a cheat if he stands his ground after getting a nick, but a fielder who claims a catch off a grounded ball is considered plain dishonest, for instance. He also challenges the “Anglo-Australian definition of a ‘sporting’ wicket”, which is often taken for granted. “Why a pitch that turns from the first day is bad is not clear. Why this is worse or more unfair than a pitch where the ball bounces throat high or swings like a banana from start of play is even more obscure,” Kesavan writes. But, like a lot else in the book, the observation is on the dot, without moving the issue forward by really looking into the whys and wherefores.