Once, when Indian test batsman VVS Laxman was asked about one of his great innings, he remarked “Oh it was nothing much. I just went out to the field and expressed myself.” Rajdeep Sardesai may well say that about this book. A self-confessed failed cricketer who could not rise beyond club cricket, despite his great passion for the game, Rajdeep has found his mettle as a journalist and, now, as an author. Growing up in the 1970s, Rajdeep used to spend every weekend at the Brabourne Stadium watching the Mumbai cricket team play Ranji Trophy matches. This was a towering Mumbai team which won 14 Ranji Trophy titles in a row, some sort of world record. The worthies who used to play for Mumbai included Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, Ramnath Parkar, Padmakar Shivalkar and Milind Rege. Apart from the Dara Singh bouts where the outcome was foregone, Mumbai winning the Ranji was the only sure bet in town and that was before the days of match-fixing! I should know because I used to be there too.
Rajdeep has carried his enthusiasm for the game of cricket into his book and his pedigree, as Dilip Sardesai’s son, has certainly helped his writing about cricket. This book has portraits of eleven of India’s great test cricketers who changed their game; but actually it is a little more. It is the story of Indian cricket after independence. You may not find Vijay Merchant or Vijay Hazare or Vijay Manjrekar here but you will find many of your favourite cricketers including Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli. You will read about the Nawab of Pataudi and Bishen Singh Bedi; you will also read about Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin. Each profile is detailed and has nice titles which are a throw back to Rajdeep days as a print journalist.
For instance, the chapter on Sunil Gavaskar is titled “Original Middle Class Hero”. The title of Sachin Tendulkar’s chapter is “Boy Genius”. The one on Mohammed Azaruddin is “Destiny’s Child” and the title of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s is “Small Town Revolutionary”. These profiles are detailed and the author has extensively interviewed the cricketers and those around. They reminded me of the profiles from the New Yorker magazine. They are wide ranging and extensive and Rajdeep’s love of the game shines through in every profile. Rajdeep also seems to have some sort of karmic connection with cricket because he was present for Sachin Tendulkar’s first innings for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team and got his first by-line in The Times of India when he reported the story.
Sachin Tendulkar came in when Mumbai were at a precarious position and the batsmen at the non-striker’s end told him to be careful, lest they lose the match. Sachin’s reaction was bindaas, which very much stays in your mind even when you finish the book and sums up the man and his career, in one word. Of course, you might complain that only two bowlers are included in Democracy’s X1 (Kapil Dev and Bishen Singh Bedi) and one of them is an all-rounder. I would say, in Rajdeep’s defence, that the chapter on Bishen Singh Bedi includes all the four great spinners Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkatraghavan and ,if there were a chapter on, let us say Anil Kumble, who would you drop is not clear. But why is it called Democracy’s X1? Rajdeep believes that the rise of the Indian cricket team has run parallel to the evolution of India as a democracy.
The most interesting profile, for me, was one of Sachin Tendulkar and one of the most poignant moments is when Virat Kohli goes out to bat in a Ranji Trophy game the day after his father’s death. That shows the determination to succeed over all odds and win the game. I would give this book four stars.