A sublime straight drive past the bowler played only like Sachin Tendulkar can, a ball curling in for a goal as soon as it leaves Lionel Messi’s golden boot, a one-handed backhand which is a winner the minute it leaves Roger Federer’s racquet, prompting even his opponent across the net to applaud — poetry on the field or court lends itself to beautiful words.
But is sports writing as literature really thriving in the age of television and ghost-written autobiographies? The short answer is no, there isn’t a Beyond a Boundary or a C.L.R. James of the 21st century yet. In India, though cricket is a national obsession, there are few books which reflect this passion. As cricket writer Sujit Mukherjee rued in his brilliant essay “Cricket by the Book” in An Indian Cricket Century , considering India’s huge army of “watchers, listeners and readers”, it is a surprise that so few write on cricket. Ramachandra Guha, who wrote A Corner of a Foreign Field and edited The Picador Book of Cricket , writes in the introduction to An Indian Cricket Century that Mukherjee “is that rare bird, a first-class cricketer who is also a first-rate writer” whose books on cricket, including The Romance of Indian Cricket , “capture the drama and character of cricket at the highest level”.
Bengali readers have read sports fiction in the works of Moti Nandy ( Striker, Stopper about two young and old football players, Koni about a swimmer) and it’s wonderful that some of his books have been translated into English. With his latest novel Selection Day , Aravind Adiga has held up the mirror to India’s national religion, cricket, finding many areas of darkness. Set in the world of cricket in Mumbai, we follow the lives of two budding cricketer brothers, teenage batting sensations. They are poor and their father’s only aim in life is that his boys must be selected in the State cricket team. Things around cricket aren’t too rosy. A very serious senior coach cries out loud: “Oh, my Darling, my Cricket. Phixed and Ph…ed. How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side, and become part of the great nastiness?” As the two brothers excel on the field, their life unravels off it, and it’s as much a story about cricket as it is not.
American writers have often used the idiom of baseball to convey a way of life. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), which starts in 1951 with Bobby Thompson hitting the home run to help the New York Giants win, is a novel so much more than a game of baseball — for DeLillo draws out glimpses of American history in the second half of the 20th century, from the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, fears of a nuclear war, to life in The Bronx. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is essentially a book about the sport of deep sea hunting, Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel is written in the language of baseball, Joseph O’Neill in Netherland writes about life around cricket in a place which has not taken to the sport.
In Beyond a Boundary , James gave us arguably the most influential book on cricket ever written. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” By addressing this question through sport and a whole culture, James’s “window to the world” from a house in Tunapuna near the Port of Spain, situated superbly “exactly behind the wicket”, is a ringside view of the cricket field where some of the best sweeps and cuts and drives are being played. It also gives us a glimpse of life beyond the little Eden, surrounded by race, politics, colonialism and class, and a history lesson few history books can give.
Like Beyond a Boundary , there are several sports books that are unforgettable — Norman Mailer’s The Fight , about the bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire; David Remnick’s King of the World , again about Ali and his rise as the American hero; Frank Brady’s Endgame on the life of the mercurial Bobby Fischer who challenged the Russian chess champion Boris Spassky; Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch about his relationship with the Arsenal Football Club long before we knew every player and team of the English Premier League; Allan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner ; A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting about why some men take such risks to please the public; Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s manager Billy Beane and his complete rethinking of the “romantic” sport.
The rivalry pivot
For sport to enter the field of literature, it can be a dramatic expression of a great rivalry — Bobby Fischer vs Boris Spassky (chess), England vs Australia (cricket), Brazil vs Argentina (football) or Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic (tennis). It can be about personalities with their distinctive traits, and it will of course always mirror the era these sportsmen represent with all the challenges and battles over race, class, culture. Cricket, football and baseball should have been fertile picking ground for writers to explore relationships — coach vs team; players vs players/rivals; winners vs losers. Then again, each is a lonely game, about individual victories and losses. When Lionel Messi misses a penalty, or Virat Kohli gets out early, we don’t ever forget. What we wouldn’t give to know what’s going on inside their heads, especially when they fail. If the best writers in the world are obsessed with relationships, especially with family, the sports arena should be more than a place of interest.
Some might argue that sport is a divider; only a cricket fan will appreciate writing on a bowler’s run-up, bowling action, and follow through; only a tennis fan will truly appreciate a study on technique. But the best writers rise far above this, as we have read in Moneyball or King of the World . We don’t need to know baseball or boxing to read these books on relationships. We don’t need to know cricket to read Selection Day . Cricket, football, and hockey occupy such an important part of our national life at so many levels that, as Mukherjee says, “it is not enough if only reporters and players are to examine such conspicuous presence”.
Sudipta Datta is a Kolkata-basedjournalist.