Samir Chopra's passion for the gentleman's game shines through in his nostalgia-tinged 'Eye on Cricket'
The world is divided, I suspect, into those who recognize the number 796.358 for what it is and those who don’t. No, it’s not the speed you touched on your recent Delhi-Agra jaunt. Nor is it the average size of a class in the cacophonous school you once attended. Nor even is it the number from the famous story of mathematicians Hardy and Ramanujan, when Hardy said his taxi had a most uninteresting number and Ramanujan said, “Oh no, it’s actually very interesting indeed!" Nope, that one was 1729 and this one is totally uninteresting indeed—except if you are something of a cricket nut.
Because if you are, you will have recognized it: the Dewey Decimal System library number for books on cricket. So, what I liked best about Samir Chopra’s book Eye on Cricket was the chapter that muses on 796.358. “In my relationship with cricket," he writes, “no other number has had as much significance as this one." (Aside and full disclosure: Chopra wrote a generous review of my own book Final Test several months ago.)
Chopra is a professor of philosophy in New York, but also a long-time and widely read blogger on cricket. I have read him in the past, but this collection showcases the breadth of his passion for the game. And it caused me no small delight to find that every new library presented to him the same challenge I always took up as I entered one myself: where’s the 796.358 section? And what are the books I will find there?
My school and college libraries had reasonable selections. The British Council and Bombay’s musty Asiatic had larger ones. At Cambridge University, I was bowled over by the enormous range under 796.358. I was bowled over at Brown University and the University of Texas, too, but not because they had huge numbers of 796.358 books—they didn’t. Instead, it was that these libraries in the US—that cricketing wasteland—had cricket books at all.
And at each of these libraries, and others, I spent many happy hours leafing through numerous cricket delights before borrowing one or another—Keith Miller’s autobiography, Handasyde Buchanan’s Great Cricket Matches that even offers up a 1910 Eton vs Harrow game, A.G. (‘Johnny’) Moyes’s definitive account of the famous 1960-61 West Indies tour of Australia, and so many more.
Besides the Dewey number and his keen observations on the modern game, Chopra is not immune to the nostalgic thrills in cricket’s history. In fact, speaking of Australian great Miller, Chopra has this vivid snapshot: He “sported the slick, Brylcreemed-brown-leather-jacket-wearing-aviator look; he hit hard, bowled fast, and was a character; his cricket matched an image that, thanks to Miller’s service in WWII bomber fleets, had a basis in reality."
Take that, every one of you anodyne cricketers circa 2015.
Though for me, the nostalgia strikes a chord not so much because of famous cricketers of the past, but because it’s really rooted in Chopra’s accounts of playing at boarding school, on grounds across Delhi and in Australia. I mean, I played on Delhi grounds too. That’s where I bamboozled young Kewal Krishan Verma (where oh where are you, old pal?) and his friends with leg-breaks that turned square but then I suddenly grew six inches taller and my leg-break just as suddenly vanished. And I played in the US. The time a hard-hitting West Indian slammed a ball into my belly at silly mid-on—I held on triumphantly, he trudged off disconsolately—remains a beloved memory.
I remembered as I read, bats and balls, incidents and rivalries, friendships and partnerships. My overall incompetence too—though, oddly, with curious waves of affection.
Though to be sure, it isn’t just about nostalgia in sepia shades.
For example, I was grateful for Chopra’s take on this thing called “aggression" that we keep hearing about these days. Too often, it seems to equate to a certain snarling obnoxiousness that never gets beaten down as it should be, but instead finds a perverse approval from some followers of the game. Take Shikhar Dhawan’s crass mocking of Shane Watson’s injury in an India-Australia game a couple of years ago. By any reasonable standard, Dhawan should have lost his place in the team, at least temporarily. But when I wrote of him critically in my own cricket book last year, I got an angry email from a “fan" who said I knew nothing about “being patriotic".
He may be right. If it’s patriotic to defend nauseating behaviour, I do know nothing about it. And that’s why I was so glad to read that Chopra rues “the acceptance in the cricketing world of the incoherent claim that rudeness, petulance and plain old immaturity are somehow equivalent to aggression". Whatever happened to simply playing hard and defeating the other guy?
There’s a lot to savour in Eye on Cricket. Like when Chopra watches a World Cup game at a packed Bangladeshi restaurant in Manhattan, standing for seven hours late into the night. “I was as sore as could be imagined," he writes, but “my body (was) so wired by the euphoria of (India’s) win I did not fall asleep on the subway ride back home."
How many nail-biting games watched do those lines bring back for each of us, I wonder. Elsewhere, he had me rifling through YouTube for clips of Frank Tyson with arms and legs flailing, or Alf Valentine bowling off the wrong foot. Because “in the past, a variety of body languages ensured a pleasurable Babel of cricketing expression on the field". So, when Chopra notes that “players’ bodily movements are more organized now", you know he’s not exactly wired by euphoria.
And, of course, Chopra writes about cricket writers. Plenty of them. There’s a certain recursive satisfaction in knowing that libraries will file his book, with theirs, under that number that he has an entire chapter about.
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.