A few years ago, in a private international law class, the name of Multan had come up in the course of a case law discussion. Professor H, sucked into an irrelevancy as only a cricket tragic can, had turned to the class and asked: "And does anyone know who they call the Sultan of Multan?" 

I had gracelessly taken the bait: "Inzamam-ul-Haq, sir." 

Professor H, worshipper of the great Imran Khan: "Ah, Vikram, cricket fan, is it?

"Sort of, sir." 

Professor H had sighed, gazed resignedly at some unspecified spot on the basketball court outside the classroom window, and said: "It is a disease, save yourself while you can. Otherwise, you will waste your life like I did."

I thought of Professor H and other nameless tragics of the ilk as I read Sanjay Manjrekar's arresting autobiography, Imperfect. Reading Manjrekar's life story, it was tempting to believe that the characters who populate the cricketing universe, whether as players, coaches or analysts, are people like us. Apart from the little fact of cricket being their day job.

What we lack by way of talent, we try to make up with obsession. But is that ever enough? No, like Professor H, we are left chronically dissatisfied. Yet, it is clear that there is no other way, we cannot help but care about this sport and the people who make a living from it.

The triumph of Imperfect is in the way it humanizes the world of professional cricket. The battles may be of a different order, but they are battles nonetheless. In that realm too, there is idolatry, only there we see talent bowing down to genius. Obsession may not be enough to overcome a technical deficiency (as with Manjrekar's own batting), and there are all those days when one wonders what might have been.

From early on, Manjrekar's burden was one of legacy. His father Vijay, a towering figure in Mumbai's cricketing circles, had played 53 tests for India. He was also a "troubled soul post retirement", ill-tempered and struggling "to find his place in the world after his playing days". It is probably why Sanjay was so determined to build a second career following his own retirement—in the manner of the child of an alcoholic parent resolving to be a teetotaler.

Manjrekar insists that he was "not really that into sport" and would even now rather watch a film or listen to music than pick up a bat for a backyard game. Finding cricket to be a "convenient career path" and wanting to be famous like his father, he set out for the ordained destination from the maidans of Mumbai. Being Vijay's son, he found many doors open for him and he has written feelingly about the Mumbai cricketing fraternity taking on the guardian role after his father's death.

As with many of us, his college days were the real "wonder years". Memories of his six hundreds in an inter-university tournament in Baroda are recollected in the same breath as those of watching English films on the VCR with his friends. On the back of those Baroda hundreds, he was called up to the formidable Mumbai Ranji squad—famed for its ‘khadoos’ brand of cricket—and it was not long before he made the Test team.

In Barbados, on his first overseas tour and in only his third Test, he scored a hundred against a fearsome attack. Yet, in the chapter about the tour to the Caribbean, he does not dwell too much on his exploits on the pitch. Instead, he shares delightful anecdotes highlighting the cricketing culture of the West Indies: chatty, knowledgeable locals; the graciousness shown by players like Desmond Haynes and Jeff Dujon; the spirit of fair play that King Richards lived by. This chapter is my personal favourite: it confirms all that is great and good about Caribbean cricket, and justifies all those laments about its decline from tragics of my father's vintage.

The chapter titled ‘Pakistan’ may well have been called ‘Imran Khan Niazi’, for Manjrekar devotes almost all of it to the Pakistani legend. Professor H will be pleased. In lesser sports autobiographies and fan writing, it is not unknown for admiration to slip into a cloying fawning but Manjrekar's narrative manages to balance an almost child-like fascination with a mature, measured respect grounded in personal experience and interactions.

The book has been marketed as "Manjrekar the analyst on Manjrekar the cricketer and person". Indeed, Manjrekar is alive to his many chinks as few former sportspersons are and outlines them with a refreshing and almost brutal honesty. Nowhere is this more evident than in the successive chapters dealing with his struggles and consequent early retirement at the age of 32.

Manjrekar batting for India during a Test match against England in 1992. Photo: Getty Images
Manjrekar batting for India during a Test match against England in 1992. Photo: Getty Images

The slide began during the gruelling tour to Australia in the run-up to the 1992 World Cup. Trouble with running between the wickets exposed his lack of fitness on the "big and soft outfields". The obsession with technique began to take over, but no amount of tinkering could conclusively resolve his problems with the short ball, especially on overseas pitches. Memorably, he likens the efforts to correct his issues in the nets to preventing leaks in a boat with holes: every time a hole is plugged, water would enter through another.

Manjrekar does not shy from sharing home truths about the men who played for the country in the last days of amateurism and the first ones of private television channels—the late 80s and early 90s. Then, the dressing room was a distrustful place, with "everyone living in their own bubble" and "looking after their own interests". There was a clear divide between players from the North Zone and the West Zone, and superstar batsmen frequently demoted themselves down the order when the West Indian bowlers came to town.

Balanced assessments about players like Kapil Dev (sweet and amiable now but helplessly caught up in his superstardom then), Mohammed Azharuddin (average tactician but very honest and quietly generous) and Manoj Prabhakar (untrustworthy but a fearless fighter) seem unforced and reveal that Manjrekar's analytical mind was always at work, on and off the field.

By his own admission, Manjrekar's transition into commentary was "seamless". Justifiably, he takes pride in being able to conduct live shows, engaging viewers even as he is plugged-in to the production room chaos on his earpiece. There are many insights into what goes on behind the scenes in a cricket production, including some background to the incident where Dean Jones was heard referring to Hashim Amla as "a terrorist" on air.

Manjrekar is a man of strong opinions, and I have often heard him being challenged by his colleagues in the commentary box. He is also trolled a fair bit for his opinions on social media. Whatever the eventual merit of his views, he does comes across as a thinking man who likes to do his homework.

The book conveys his appreciation of the value that such discussions add to the viewing experience. Here is a former Test cricketer who is open to learning from even his much younger colleagues—he has high praise for 27-year-old anchor Raunak Kapoor—and is actively calling for more non-cricketers to be part of commentary teams.

There is a lot in Imperfect for the tragics but the money section might well be the few pages that follow Manjrekar asking us: “What is batting, really? Is it scoring runs or scoring runs the right way? What is the right way? Who decides the right way?"

In the hours that we tragics have spent dissecting the style versus effectiveness question (and watching every ball of a Test series), some of us could have learnt to speak Spanish or master the violin. Manjrekar confesses that he could not help wanting to defend correctly all the time, and look good while doing it. Why are we artless commoners so emotionally invested in this game? The answer is in a Marathi saying Manjrekar uses to explain his obsession with technique: "Swabhavala aushad nahi". There is no medicine to remedy one's nature.

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