If you’ve ever fancied a pair of those glamorous Oakley sunglasses that all the cool cricketers wear nowadays but can’t be bothered to pay for them, then try this: Get into the Delhi Ranji team—surely, you know somebody who knows somebody at the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA)—and then take five wickets in an innings or score a double century. Delhi skipper Virender Sehwag, Aakash Chopra informs us in his book, will gift you one.
That is just one interesting revelation in Chopra’s debut book, a diary of a season in the life of an Indian domestic cricketer—a cricketer who spends an entire season precariously placed on the fringes of international duty and the corresponding fame, fortune and, most pertinently, self-validation.
Beyond The Blues, on the face of it, is a book that has little going for it. It is unimaginatively produced—the bare cover looks more like a school textbook than a cricket diary. Also, the book is about Indian domestic cricket—a side of India’s favourite sport that makes up for non-existent fan interest with plenty of administrative intrigue. And finally, it is written by Aakash Chopra, not a name that immediately evokes images of a face, a match-winning innings amid a swirling sandstorm or even a product endorsement for an energy drink or hair gel.
Chopra’s international career, which lasted just one year after he debuted in October 2003, comprised 10 Test matches. It was a time when India was desperately seeking an opening partner for Sehwag, and Chopra seemed the perfect counterfoil. As is evident from any media profile, and from Chopra’s honest if slightly humourless assessment of himself in the book, he was not, and has never been, an opener to take the game to the opposition. Instead, his strength is staying at the crease. The Delhi opener’s forte was orthodox batsmanship that helped him scratch out the shine and life in the new ball for the stars that followed.
Alas, orthodoxy at the crease is a skill that has endeared few players to the Indian cricket audience and selectors. After a poor performance in the 2004 Border-Gavaskar Trophy that India famously lost, Chopra was axed. He has never worn the blue since.
Chopra would eventually strike form in 2007, helping Delhi win the Ranji Trophy. The batsman would then be picked for the Kolkata Knight Riders Indian Premier League team.
Knighthood: Despite Chopra’s (right) orthodox style of play, he won a place in Shah Rukh Khan’s (centre) high-profile IPL team. Pal Pillai / AFP
So, why bother reading Chopra’s book on his “cricket season like no other”?
Because the travails of a domestic cricketer are endlessly fascinating. You just can’t make up stories of Ranji players being ferried in mosquito-ridden little buses to a cricket administrator’s home for a quick lunch before being shuttled to a ground in Nagothane, somewhere between Maharashtra and Goa, for a Ranji match.
Nothing from team buses to kits to hotels is free of vested interests: “I believe…that there is some kind of deal (or understanding) between the hotel owners and whoever is responsible for these decisions in the associations,” Chopra states gently, while talking of establishments such as the Sea Green Hotel in Mumbai, Shelter Hotel in Chennai and Rajdoot Hotel in Delhi, where Ranji players are put up.
Chopra’s book earnestly brings out the sheer quantity of quality cricket there is to be enjoyed on the domestic scene. His lively portrayal of matches and personalities will make even the most ardent Twenty20 fan want to hop over to the nearest Ranji, Irani or Duleep Trophy match.
But, most of all, read it for Chopra’s writing. The cricketer-scribe has already written for newspapers and websites. In Beyond The Blues, his voice is measured, but honest. The 2007 season that takes up most of the book saw Chopra top the domestic season in runs scored. That, bizarrely, may not have been enough to win him a contract with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). But it did prod him to write this delightful book.