Transcript: Couch Talk 36 with Chetan Narula

Couch Talk Episode 36 (play)

Guest: Chetan Narula, Author of “Skipper

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello, and welcome to Couch Talk! Today, we have the cricket reporter, journalist and writer Chetan Narula, as our guest, to talk about his book, “Skipper – A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains”. Welcome to the show, Chetan.

Chetan Narula– Thank you, Subash! It’s a pleasure.

SJ– The book, it’s a monumental effort.. it runs over 700 pages. Question number one – what was the need for such a book? Two – what was your inspiration to write the book?

CN– Subash, I think there is no need, as such, to have a book on India’s greatest captains. But, like I was told by a person during the book (writing) that “You write a book because you want to write a book”. I got this topic just out of the blue. I was working with Cricket Today, a magazine based in Delhi, and wanted to do a small coffee table book on India’s captains – just pick the captains and write on them. And once I started, I realised that if I am doing a topic, I should get into the detail of it, because this is a topic that cannot be covered in a coffee table book. The more I got into it, it was actually coming more and more interesting. So, once it got really interesting, once you start talking to people and when things started falling in place, I thought of going just as deep into it as possible. One of the first interviews I did was with Rahul Dravd, I was very lucky there. I just packed my bags and went to Bangalore, and Rahul was practicing there. It was just before the Sri Lanka tour of 2008, and just 8 months ago he had quit his captaincy. I was just hoping that he will be willing to talk to an amateur. I went up to him, and asked him, to which he replied that he would be glad to give me 20 minutes. He gave me 40 minutes. That was my first ever interview, the first interview for the book. It just rolled out from there.

SJ– In the prologue, you had mentioned something about a conversation you had with and autorickshaw-wala… Explain further, please.

CN– Yes, that was a very weird conversation, really. I was doing my MBA internship in Mumbai. I was returning from office one day. I was living in Borivali, which has more autorickshaws than it has taxis. And, the one thing of all autorickshaws everywhere in India is that they will always have film-starts donning their auto. But, this guy had Sourav Ganguly, a huge Sourav Ganguly poster. I asked him “Are you into cricket and everything?”, and he said “Yes. A lot.” He was a Bengali, and had migrated to Mumbai a few years back. He talked about how India had been knocked out of the 2007 World Cup. It was pretty disappointing for everyone. This incidence happened in May, and we were knocked out in March. Everybody was disappointed, of course. But, he was talking about how it was Rahul Dravid’s fault. He made it seem like Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell’s fault. And that, of course, Sourav Ganguly was on his autorickshaw. Of course, Ganguly is known as one of India’s better captains. He had very strong views about that. so, when I started reading the book, that was a conversation fresh in my mind. That was a good starting point. But, the thing that struck me was that we all have so strong opinions on cricket. Those opinions might not be based on facts, and especially when you have an overseas tour going on, we just have the Australian tour finishing up. And there has been a lot of shit-storm about captaincy and this and that. Everything, in fact. And it doesn’t help that the team is not performing. We don’t really know what is going on behind the scenes. But, we have very, very strong opinions. The second part that struck me the most was that we are easily comparing two people. This is, we are talking about Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, who by chance had consecutive reigns as captain, but we always say that Sourav Ganguly is the greatest captain or M. S. Dhoni is the greatest captain. How do you compare someone like M. S. Dhoni, who has won the World Cup after 28 years with someone like Kapil Dev’s World Cup? You cannot compare. How do you compare Tiger Pataudi with Sourav Ganguly? Or, how do you compare C. K. Naidu, who never won a test match he never led the team to a win, lost all four test matches, how do you compare him someone like M. S. Dhoni or Sourav Ganguly or even Mohammed Azharuddin, who had record breaking wins for Indian cricket or Sunny Gavaskar who had so many draws? It was a completely different era of umpiring, cricketing errors, no-balls, reverse-swing, this and that. you really cannot compare, but yet, we do that without giving it much thought.

SJ– As I mentioned, this must have been a labour of love for you, running over 700 pages, taking a lot of time. How much time did it take for you to write the book? How much time did it take researching? Who were the people you had interviewed?

CN– It took me three years to write the book. I started in early 2008, and just ahead of the 2011 World Cup, I had finished it. it went into editing during the World Cup. So,w hile I was covering the World Cup, I was busy editing the book. As for the research part, I read a lot. Obviously, cricinfo helped. They have a lot of stuff on the website, which is just marvellous, all of them just a mouse-click away. You have Wisden. Wisden Cricketer had some of its articles online, about the old times. But, some of the books that i read – History of Indian Cricket by Mihir Bose, Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field. I think there two books were the most influential books any Indian cricket fan can ever read because they tell you in detail what actually happened. When you log onto cricinfo, you see the old scorecards, it is easy to judge from scorecards what happened, who scored how much and all. But, the crux, the scorecards don’t tell you the story, it is a very widely spread statistics, they don’t tell you the story. I read both those books, from cover to cover and I refer to them quite a bit. I try not to be influenced by them, but you really don’t have too many cricketers talking about pre-independence era, so, I was really handicapped there. I spoke to some elder journalists. I spoke to Mr. Jagannath Rao, a very, very senior journalist. He used to work for PTI, and he was a very close friend of Lala Amarnath. I had a conversation with him. I tried talking to as many cricketers and journalists as possible.

SJ– Did you talk to the sons of Lala Amarnath?

CN– I tried speaking to Mohinder Amarnath, but he didn’t have time. I had been to Bangalore and Mumbai to speak to cricketers. I had spoken to Rahul Dravid in Bangalore. I tried talking to (B. S.) Chandrashekar, but he was out of the country. (Erapalli) Prasanna did not entertain me. Then, I went to Mumbai, where I spoke to Ajit Wadekar, Sandeep Patil, bishen bedi, Abbas Ali Baig, Sunil Gavaskar, Madal Lal, Chetan Chauhan, Sanjay Majrekar spoke a lot on late-90s. I had a chance to speak with Navjot Singh Siddhu. He promised he would give me a lot of time, but he didn’t give me a lot, he jsut answered  a couple of questions on phone. Obviously, a busy guy. Sourav Ganguly. I ran after Sourav Ganguly for two years. He si a busy guy, and was actively playing at that time. It was around the end of his career. I asked him in 2009, and he said “Yes”. His was the last interview that I did, while Rahul Dravid’s was the first. That’s a disparity. Sourav Ganguly is a busy guy, and he is not easy to reach.

SJ– There is a symmetry to that- you started with Dravid and ended with Ganguly!

CN– Yeah, you can say that! i also spoke to some of the leading journalists in India. I spoke to Harsha Bhogle, Sharda Ugra, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan. Also, R. Mohan, Vijay Lokapally, both very senior journalists. And, Suresh Menon also gave his inputs. Quite a few people. They all had very different things, and very interesting things to say about their favourite cricketers, the current cricketers, cricketers of old. It was an enriching experience.

SJ– You have an interesting way of approaching the ten different men, leaders of men. You have employed a interesting technique in how you have portrayed these players. You have introduced an analogy, for lack of better word, with some sort of parallelism between these players and characters from literature, pop-culture and movies. For example, you have Col C. K. Nayadu as BraveHeart, Lala Amarnath as Godfather. Rahul Dravid as Dark Knight, Sourav Ganguly as Julius Caesar, and Azhar(uddin) as the Shakespearian Tragedy. Enlighten us, why you wanted to go in this path?

CN– First of all, I never thought that the book would run to 700 pages. People don’t really tend to pick up fat books. They are very scared of doing so. I went to a World Book Fair today, and thin books are the word. You just pick it up, read it in two hours and tuck it away. So, I first didn’t realise that my book would run into 700 pages. But when it did, or when I realised earlier that it would… sports books don’t have huge markets. It’s a very niche market, if you can say that. so, if somebody who is not too much into cricket picks it up, it should not be just about cricket. And, even for a cricket lovers, while reading a cricket book, it sort of gets monotonous when talking of just scorecards and matches from the past, progress and everything.

So, I thought of putting in analogy into it, and bring in an external element. It is not always easy to find a parallel. Even if you find one parallel, and build around it, then, yes. Maybe, it’ll become a little more interesting. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been in that, because in some of the reviews, people have liked it, and some of them haven’t. Some of those who have liked it, have liked only a couple of analogies and the rest of the analogies havne’t really caught up. Everyone has a different taste. My thinking was that if somebody is reading my book, he must not get bored. Because, reading a cricket book might get a little boring while reading matches of the past, ones you didn’t even see on television. You’re talking about the first test match India played. Nobody’s every seen it. We know who led and who took the wickets, we just know about the scorecard. If you have an added element around it, for example-  Col C. K. Nayadu, the BraveHeart, maybe it becomes a little more interesting in doing that. i’m not sure how successful I’ve been, but I’m hoping I’ve been successful.

Analogies were not really easy. Something like Sourav Ganguly’s analogy comes up easily, the betrayal thing happening with Greg Chappell and all. But, someone like Bishen Singh Bedi. That was the toughest analogy of all. Till today, I’m not convinced f that analogy myself. I’m not sure if a writer should say that, but I’m being honest here. I compared him with Douglas Jardine. Because that’s how you’ve seen bishen Singh Bedi. I haven’t seen him play. I just spoke to him for 15-20 minutes. You don’t really gauge a person who played when you were not even born. Whose crime is it that you weren’t born, how can you gauge a person like that? Rahul Dravid, you have seen. Sourav Ganguly, you have seen, Azhar, Sachin too. Even a little bit of Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, you know, because it was there. But, someone like Bishen Singh Bedi, he was so outspoken. That’s the persona that comes across most. And my thing was, who are the people who were very outspoken about what they believed. Mohammed Ali was one. But, I wanted to do something about Jardine. Jardine was one who was very tempting. That whole mentality of “what I’m doing is right. What I’m doing is right.”, which was  a parallel. Bishen Singh Bedi says Muralitharan is a chucker, and he believes that. i don’t think anybody can every convince him differently. We aren’t debating right or wrong. We are just saying that he believes it, and nobody can convince him otherwise. Similarly, Jardine believed bodyline was legal, and no one can convince him otherwise. I thought that was a parallel, and went on investigating that.

Each analogy is also an investigation in itself. Even while I was building the analogies, I couldn’t write about, for example, Julius Caesar. There is a whole book in himself. I just knew one thing, the betrayal thing was the one. We don’t really know if Greg Chappell betrayed Sourav Ganguly, we don’t know what happened behind closed doors. All we have is information. Nobody has really come out in the open. We just know that some things were said. And, we have to take one man’s word for another man’s word. But, the fact of the matter is that it feels like betrayal. In one way or the other, Sourav Ganguly was instrumental in getting Greg Chappell, and everybody knows that. so, it feels like a betrayal. And Julius Caesar was betrayed by one of his close aids. You just have this one string of analogy there, one string of parallel there. Then, the rest of it has to be built. It is an investigation there, on which parts to leave out, which parts to pick. Then, you have the role of Rahul Dravid. John Wright had a major role to play. So many people and so many things to be considered. Australian tour, the World Cup, Pakistan tour, how things went South, how he built the team from match-fixing era… Each analogy is an investigation in itself. I could say that the Ganguly one was the easiest and the Bedi one was the toughest.

SJ– Let’s talk about the current skipper – M. S. Dhoni. What would be an analogy for him, and where do you think he ranks among these ten gentlemen? Is it even fair to compare?

CN– Let me just say, first of all, that it is not fair to compare. When I sat to write the book, I had thought the first chapter to be Ganguly and the second would be Kapil Dev and so and so. So, the ten chapters would be in an order, based on a ranking. But, it doesn’t work like that. i cannot compare Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy with Rahul Dravid’ captaincy. You have a little bit of comparison, of course, because they were consecutive captains. But, considering that, you cannot compare Sourav Ganguly with Kapil Dev. You cannot even compare Sunil Gavaskar with Kapil Dev, because it is very, very tough. Gavaskar was captain for three to three and a half years years and Kapil Dev for one and a half years, and then again Gavaskar for a couple of years and then Kapil Dev for a couple for years. So, it all was over-lapping. You cannot compare that. they are some who were playing with the same team, and there are some who were playing with totally different teams. You have Tiger Pataudi, who captained for an entire decade, built everything from scratch, he built the whole spin spin-quartet thing, but didn’t have too much success with that. and then, Ajit Wadekar takes that idea and is suddenly very successful. Do you say that Ajit Wadekar is a very lucky captain and has taken it from Pataudi? You don’t know that.

SJ– Which is what a lot of critics usually say – that he is a lucky captain.

CN– Same with M. S. Dhoni. There is always an element of luck in sports. I asked  Abbas Ali here, because he played along with Pataudi when he was a kid, at Oxford and everywhere else in England, and he was Tiger Pataudi’s best friend. He was there the day Tiger Pataudi lost his eye, and he has also played under Ajit Wadekar and had been there in England and the West Indies tours when Wadekar was having his whole huge success. And, Abbas Ali Baig frankly told me that you cannot be just lucky to win three consecutive test series, and two of them abroad, especially West Indies and England. Of course, there is an element of luck. Similarly, I would say, yes, there is an element of luck in M. S. Dhoni, definitely, perhaps more than any other captain in the last two decades. Perhaps, he is the luckiest captain after Ajit Wadekar. You throw the ball to Joginder Sharma and Misabh-ul-Haq hits it to Sreesanth. So, that’s lucky. There is also an elemnt of “Captain Cool”, charisma, not giving too much credits to the the critics thing. But come on, when you are throwing the ball to Joginder Sharma, what are you thinking? In the final of a World Cup, against Pakistan, the whole world is watching! What are you thinking? If it hadn’t paid off, what would’ve happened then? At some point of time, I will be updating the book with a Dhoni chapter. This is not the right time to do it, because up until now, he has had it easy. I’m not talking about the England and Australia tours. I’m talking about the World Cup. I had a talk with my publishers, and they wanted me to update the book. Because by the time we finished editing, India had won the World Cup. That’s why I wrote a small bit on Dhoni, because he won the World Cup. The thing is that, the test for Dhoni is now. When he talks about giving up one format of the game in 2013. So, how India rebuild now, when India have been blanked 8-0 away from home. How you rebuild, how you bring in a new captain, how you groom someone for captaincy when Dhoni gives away test captaincy, or whatever format he wants to give away.

SJ– That brings me to two points. One, Dhoni, in the middle of the Australian tour said “If you have a better person that me, replace me. I have no issues, I’m not holding on to the job.” And two, Virat Kohli has been elevated to the position of vice-captain for the Asia Cup squad. And selectors have said that it is a 10-12 year project, and basically, he is going to be groomed for captaincy. So, what is your take on these two things?

CN– The basic thumb rule for Indian cricket, it only excludes Sachin Tendulkar, is that whatever goes up comes down. Except Sachin Tendulkar, this rule is applicable to everyone – administrator, pitch curator, cricketer, anyone. Let’s not go into the Sachin part.

SJ– To be honest, these days, even Sachin is getting a fair bit of flak from people like Kapil Dev, and others.

CN– Everyone has a downward curve. I’m not sure if that was the right thing for M. S. Dhoni to say in the middle of the tour. Not because he mustn’t say what comes to his mind. Having covered the World Cup, I know that M. S. Dhoni doesn’t give a damn about the media. Most of the stuff that M. S. Dhoni says in press conferences, I don’t believe it. he is selling crap to media, and they are buying it. Indian media has this tendency to buy crap, simple. He said about the 20 runs thing, that was pure crap. We bought it, we twisted it, and we made this into a huge ruckus. For all we know, Sehwag and Dhoni might b having a beer every day. So, Dhoni doesn’t give a damn about the media. But, having said that, I’m not sure that was a nice thing to say. Especially, because, look at the shit-storm! Everybody is after his case now. It’s the Indian media that will haunt him till 2013, when he says that he will give up one format. He really shouldn’t have said that, because the Indian media will go after him on every opportunity they get now, because the team is not doing well, being one thing. And, then, to come and say “replace me”, I think that was a reply to all of what was circulating in the media. They don’t care, but they do keep an eye on who is writing what. To be honest, you don’t really have anyone to replace. You can say Sehwag is deserving and all. Maybe he was, two years ago. But, not right now. Dhoni has scored more runs than Sehwag on this Aussie tour. And when you say Gambhir, I’m not sure. The thing is, that when you say Virat Kohli must be groomed and all, the thing with Indian vice-captaincy is that it is a musical chair thing. If the selectors really think that now is the time for Virat Kohli, they need to persist with him. They can’t have Sehwag as vice-captain when he is back. Kohli is not going anywhere anymore, unless he gets injured or something. Even if Sehwag is there, make Kohli the vice-captain. Then tell us, that he is being groomed. Right now, it doesn’t really matter. Personally, I really appreciate the way Virat Kohli has grown a lot as a batsman. But, as a person who would be leading India, Indian captain cannot be flipping the Australian crowd. As a gentleman code of conduct that surrounds cricket, and that’s an unwritten law-book. Even for a normal cricketer, that’s a normal behaviour, but there is a line that you cannot cross. But, for a cricket captain, flipping the crowd, home or away, is unacceptable.

SJ– This unwritten code of conduct, it’s not only for the players or the captains and officials. When the fans keep on hammering about the code of conduct and all that, they also are part of the contract. Just because they buy a ticket and walk through the turnstile, it doesn’t mean you have the right to abuse a player.

CN– Yes. But, like I was talking earlier, we have very strong opinions. We think that, just because they are representing us, they owe us something. That mentality has to change. Only a few days back, we were talking about a video that went viral on youtube. We had Rohit Sharma and Praveen Kumar being abused, and they were abusing back.

SJ– Fair enough! For a large part, you have been a freelance cricket journalist. What is the life of freelance cricket journalist in India?

CN– I think it depends upon your age. If you are 27 years old and you are just trying to work out stuffs, it is pretty difficult. You have to make calls everyday and you need to convince people that you have something to offer. Because, in India, the basic thumb rule is – if you are a cricketer, you know about it, else not; which, I think is a very wrong way of looking at it. so, yes, at 27 it is very difficult. Not only in the work life, but also in personal life. I belong to a middle class family, and to convince my folks that I’m sitting at home, working from home watching cricket matches and writing about that… They are people who have worked 9-to-5 all their lives. So, it is very different from what they have seen and what they are used to. To convince them of that, I think, that is also a difficult part. As experience grows, probably it becomes a little bit easier. I wouldn’t like to compare myself to Harsha Bhogle, I ‘m just giving an example. He is one of the best known voices. For him, a written work, or a commentary stint on radio or television or anywhere, is not at all difficult. Because, Harsha Bhogle is a brand in himself. Or Ayaz Memon, for example. I’m sure, that if I continue like this, life will be easier at 47 as compared to 27, in terms of work assignments. But, as I already said, for somebody without experience, you still have a lot to offer. I’ve also written a book on Formula 1. It was the first book on Formula 1 by an Indian author. It’s published by Roli Books, titled “History of Formula 1: The Circus Comes to India. I know Formula 1 quite well, and I can talk on it, or write on it even better that cricket, actually. Then again, I’m not a Formula 1 racer, am I? So, that again goes against me. In that particular sense, Indian media is a bit more typecast. Abroad, probably, I might have 10% more opportunities, considering my age, I think, from what I’ve converged with people in UK, Australia and the USA. I think, for the way things are going at the moment, maybe in 10-15 years, Indian media might open up. Because, everywhere, we see a cricketer doing commentary, giving expert opinions. Somebody, somewhere will tire out and say- enough of cricketers, we need a fresh voice in. Maybe that would be a chance for people like me. You never know.

SJ– Let the listeners of Couch Talk know where they can get Skipper.

CN– Skipper is available on . Rupa Publications are the publishers of the book. They are also available on Flipkart, it is available on both hard-back and paper-back. And, I think Flipkart is giving some good discounts.  They are also available on Infibeam, Crossword, Oxford, Landmark all the major known book websites, stores, websites, wherever you can shop for a book. It’s not available on Amazon yet. I’m trying for that. otherwise, whenever people from abroad, when they come to India, can try for that. but it is available on all major websites which sell books across all stores in India.

SJ– On that note, Chetan, thanks a lot for coming on the show. I wish you the best!

CN– Thanks a lot, Subash, it was absolute fun to talk about so many things.

SJ– My pleasure!

CN– Thanks!


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Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman