Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Men in White by Mukul Kesavan

The most interesting and unusual insight that emerged for me from Men in White is the distinction Mukul Kesavan draws between the Australians and the South Africans on the subject of match-fixing.

When Cronje was first photographed after his confession, he had his pastor with him for insurance… It’s hard to imagine Warne or Waugh turning up with their priests in tow; blokes don’t do that… they’d be laughed into the Tasman Sea. If they did bring anyone along, it would be their lawyers.

It seems to sum up the way they played their cricket even. Think of Jacques Kallis at the crease. Now think of Ricky Ponting.

Oh, oh, did I do a comparison? Kesavan strongly advocates against it, especially in the what-might-have-been sense. When people compare Graeme Pollock and Sunil Gavaskar, for example. Kesavan argues, and persuasively at that, that this comparison does not hold water because Pollock did not actually get an opportunity to play much at the highest international level. If he had, who knows, he may have turned out like Graeme Hick. (Well, may be Hick wonders whether he should have stuck to Zimbabwe – he may have evoked comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar later on.)

Having made such a persuasive argument, it’s a pity really that Kesavan falls into the what-might-have-been trap, comparing Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Sure, both played at the apex level, but the times were different, the circumstances were different, the pressures were different. So to say that Gavaskar never copped a hit on the head while Tendulkar did, does injustice to protective equipment – Gavaskar’s skull-cap could not have afforded a rap on the nut; not so with Tendulkar’s fibreglass helmet. May be counting the number of times the two padded up deliberately would’ve been more relevant. Or may be not even that – today’s umpires have a different attitude to deliberate padding than those of the past.

When Kesavan starts off the first piece by arguing that test match spectators are the modern world’s last audience for epic narrative, you know you’ve got an unabashed lover of test matches. And you approve of it. But when he goes on to say “Like war, Test cricket allows you to fill days and weeks of television programming with reliable action that pulls in reassuring viewership numbers,” you long for a more decisive editor. And the longing is for more than just that – Men in White is really a lazy book.

To begin with, there are no date stamps on the different pieces. This robs valuable context from the book. There does not seem to be much thought given to the sequencing of the pieces – there are two back-to-back pieces of the betting scandal, and another couple on Mohammed Azharuddin. And then there are the printer’s devils. Sanath Jayasuriya is referred to as Jayasuriya and Jayasurya, not across different passages, not across different pages, not across different paragraphs, but in the same sentence. And Gavaskar is credited with having scored 220 in the famous Oval test match, when in reality it was 221. The difference is just one run, but ask any cricket lover how much it matters.

Considering it is a collection of articles written over time, the book is rather predictable in flow, feel and ideas. Some praise here, some insight there (“Among the many things the West Indies have given to world cricket, being not-England was an important gift” is my favourite line in the book), some reform recommendations thrown in, some childhood reminiscence elsewhere, the odd comparison (Bradman and Shakespeare, in a predictable combination, with a rather schoolboyish wordplay of Bradman and Bardman), some idle (and sometimes specious, especially the one around hockey’s fall and cricket’s rise in India) speculation for variety. Mostly familiar stuff for the avid cricket fan.

The hard truth is that a cricket book reader is quite likely a test match aficionado – his expectations are bound to be quite high. Unfortunately, Kesavan does not deliver. There’s one thing Men in White demonstrates: A compilation of blog posts (with introductory paragraphs explaining why each piece was written) does not make a book.

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