The dates of April 22 and April 24 are enshrined in history for Indian cricket, as the ‘Sandstorm’ day and Sachin Tendulkar’s birthday (and sequel to Sandstorm) respectively. In between, April 23 is a rather special day too, though not just for cricket followers. It happens to be World Book Day, a day to celebrate books and everything that goes into bringing them to light from a thought in the author’s head to the page turning in your hand.
Reading books has become more niche than ever, but the well-written cricket book still gives unparalleled joy. It combines the insight and in-depth reportage that the long-form piece provides on the internet, but has space for the anecdotes that enliven a piece, the sidelights that might otherwise get lost, the explorations into humour, and even a writer’s creative indulgence that if done right is a delight to read.
In no particular order, these are the ten cricket books I have particularly enjoyed reading, and an 11th special entry. There are some notable exceptions, which are exceptions only because I haven’t finished reading them yet. Otherwise, books like Osman Samiuddin’s ‘The Unquiet Ones’ or Suresh Menon’s ‘Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer’ would be sure-shot entries into my personal reading hall of fame.
One of the cricket books I’ve most enjoyed reading has been Gideon Haigh’s On Warne. It’s a stunning capture of the many facets of Shane Warne’s legendary deeds, career, relationships and foibles. That it was done without speaking to the subject makes it more remarkable. There hasn’t been a finer exploration of cricket, not one that I’ve seen at any rate. You could say that about all of Haigh’s cricket books, but while the likes of ‘Spheres of Influence’ and ‘The Cricket War’ are tour de forces in their own right, the dissection of Warne’s craft has been done masterfully, considering angles that you didn’t think existed, with wit sprinkled through the book, with an eye for detail and a mind for decoding and explaining those details.
Dennis Lillee’s The Art of Fast Bowling is one of only two books written by cricketers on this list. It was the first ever cricket book I’ve read, but it’s not been picked for nostalgia’s sake. It is still as informative today as it was when written, and shows how well things can be put together when a great cricketer has the skills to be able to explain the art that made him great.
For reasons that go beyond cricket, the anthology compiled by Murray Hedgcock on PG Wodehouse’s writings on cricket has to be right up there as well. Titled Wodehouse at the Wicket, it is quite simply a collection of writing from the master of wit – who, not quite coincidentally, is a master of language as well. Wodehouse’s more famous writing is a delight at any time, for any piece. His cricketing prose is no different.
There is also a special emotional place for the second edition of the Wisden India Almanack. It features Tendulkar on the cover although it wasn’t originally meant to. But once Tendulkar announced that the most remarkable career in modern cricket was ending, all plans had to be hurriedly redrawn. As the one who happened to see the BCCI release informing the world about Tendulkar’s retirement first and interrupting a discussion about the edition, I have not been allowed to forget that I was the bearer of the news that caused great upheaval. The quality of writing inside the book was fantastic. Given the context, it is even more so. And it’s not every day that you get a byline in a Wisden for the first time. (Luckily, conflict of interest rules don’t apply to selections in this column).
The book that provided me with a first glimpse into the inside world of Indian cricket was John Wright’s Indian Summers. There is a warmth to the whole tenure that Wright had that shines through in every page, from recounting the back stories of the boys he took charge of, to exploring the labyrinthian corridors of power in the BCCI, to reliving some of the most memorable moments with the team.
One of the foremost men of the era, who did much to make it so roseate for Indian fans, was Rahul Dravid. His autobiography might never come, but the book that ESPNCricinfo released on his retirement, Timeless Steel, will do quite nicely till then. Providing perspectives from different angles, on different facets of the man, delving into particular innings and series, and with fine writing all through, it made for the perfect companion to anyone suffering separation anxiety at the thought of no Dravid walking out at No. 3 for India.
One autobiography that did get written, and that caused anxiety of a different kind due to separation was KP: The Autobiography. This will not make it to everyone’s ‘favourite’ list, but I have never read a book that is written with less political correctness than this one. Not one rooted in facts anyway. It was Pietersen switch-hitting every grievance, real or imagined, for six out of the stadium. The writing style is fast-paced and never boring, which helps. And given the intrigue around Pietersen’s summary dismissal from the team, his chequered career, and the smear campaign by his board via a steady drip of leaks, it was a book that needed to be written, if only to set the facts in balance and provide the other point of view.
Points of views can be monotonous. But when you manage to capture all the divergent ones and weave them into a tale of one of cricket’s most fascinating periods, you get Daniel Brettig’s Whitewash to Whitewash. It covers the era in Australian cricket from the Warne-McGrath-Langer finale, to the Mitchell Johnson mayhem, goes behind the scenes on every major aspect from Mickey Arthur’s sacking to Simon Katich grabbing Michael Clarke’s collar and then some. And it has the advantage of being written by an outsider, which means topics that might have been considered delicate if a coach or team member were to speak about them can be broached forthrightly.
Staying with books written by cricket writers, Lawrence Booth’s delightful Cricket, Lovely Cricket is about everything in the game, and nothing in particular, and is unputdownable. It covers the gamut from analysing teams, their fans, the modern player, press conferences, to anecdotes in and around the game that will leave you inevitably smiling. It is the first book I read that showed me that the game could be uninterrupted laughter, even when it was being analysed seriously.
The anthology of Martin Johnson’s writings, Can’t bat, Can’t bowl, can’t field – is in the same vein. The title, of course, refers to Johnson’s disparaging assessment of the England side that contested the 1986-87 Ashes. When they won, the irrepressible Johnson said, ‘Right quote, wrong team.’ And when you have a book that contains “If the Ashes took place between two teams of marketing executives, it would certainly be a closer contest” as one of the quotes even before you have got to the first chapter, it is guaranteed to be a riot.
Lists are restricted to ten, but for cricketing reasons there has to be an 11th. I don’t remember when I first read Rahul Bhattacharya, but it was magic from the start. And then I got my hands on Pundits from Pakistan. I had not read a finer piece of work on the game, and I haven’t since. Unfortunately, I was more magnanimous then than I am now, and I lent my only copy to a friend. To make matters worse, I’ve since forgotten which friend, and they have clearly loved the book as much as I did, which is why it’s now on their bookshelf somewhere in the universe. Peace be on you, scoundrel book thief, but I can’t really fault you for hoarding that treasure of a book to yourself.