Couch Talk 165 (Play)
Guest: Samir Chopra, “Eye on Cricket: Reflections on a great game”
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is an author and Professor of Philosophy and more relevantly, a contributor to ESPNcricinfo’s The Cordon blog – Samir Chopra. We will be talking about Samir’s new book – Eye on Cricket, which is a collection of essays on cricket, his personal reflections and recollections.
Welcome to the show, Samir!
Samir Chopra (SC)– Thanks, Subash. Thank you very much for having me on. Great to be here!
SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure.
You are originally from New Delhi, India. You have been living in the USA for nearly 3 decades now?
SC– Nearly 3 decades, it will be 28 years now with a 2 year gap in the middle when I lived in Sydney in Australia when I was doing my post-doctoral fellowship there.
SJ– Eye On Cricket is your second book on cricket, right?
SC– Yes, after Brave New Pitch.
SJ– In that, it was more about the changing scenery of cricket, and this is more a personal recollections and reflections on the goings on in cricket. That seems to be a constant fact that you have been away from India where you learnt and loved your cricket and cricket teams, in basically a cricket wasteland. There is, and I want to quote this from the book because it caught my attention immediately, you left a conversation in progress in India when you moved to the USA. How has the conversation gone on since?
SC– It is a very interesting point, because sometimes we tend to think about the losses we suffer by leaving India behind and it is there in the sentence about leaving the conversation in progress, but the same token I tapped into another cricketing culture when I moved overseas, which is the culture of cricketing exile. Those folks who find pleasure and solace and relief in each others’ company precisely because of their bond together or being drawn together by the fact that we are all out here in this land which is not home to cricket, where we are estranged from the game we love so much, which brings us together. We have this shared tale of war to tell each other. Over the years, what has happened is that I have developed new set of stories, new set of experiences, all of which have to do with watching and talking about cricket away from home. Driving to New Jersey in the middle of the night to stay up all night and watch the game, or catching the train to Queens Theatre in Jackson, Queens and watching it in the theatre, all the various tricks that we do to follow this game back at home – that has actually led to another conversation, and another kind of experience and another stock of memories that I find myself drawing upon now, at this stage in my life, which I look back upon almost as fondly as my time in India as well.
SJ– There are two kinds of fans. In a way, some of my experiences are similar to yours. I haven’t been away from India for that long, but I am closing up on two decades now. We have some similar stories. In the last 15-20 years, we have had a tremendous growth of the internet, which has allowed us unprecedented access to the sport. You could be sitting anywhere, you could be working in the office and the phone could be streaming something. You could be in a conference, in a toilet in Wisconsin, but streaming things. Technology has made that possible. But also, it has given rise to hindered souls and spirits that you can share in this wasteland. Even in the land where cricket is available in a stadium if they want or on a television, you are still tied to them. For example, someone in Melbourne or Karachi or Wales watching cricket – even if you can watch cricket, you are still connected to them from here in New York. The growth of the internet fan. Can you compare the fandom and the fandom that arises from being surrounded by cricket all the time – stadium, newspaper, television, conversation on your dining table?
SC– That is a very god question. There is a way in which people respond to each other on the net which is different from the way people respond to each other when they are talking face to face. When I first experienced cricket, it was mostly listening to commentary and talking to fans who were listening to the commentary at the same time, or you go and talk to people who saw the game yesterday. A lot of these concessions took place in person, face to face settings, at most you might write a letter to the editor in response to an article. But you weren’t talking to that many fans and to the same diversity of fans and opinions as you are now.
The first change that I noticed when I first went online was that fans from all over the world had quite often a very different understanding of the game than what I did. They saw the games differently, they perhaps saw the weaknesses and strengths that I hadn’t seen. They had a different understanding about the significance of a particular event. People can now refer to numbers and facts and figures and call them out, and you can correct someone’s claims. Someone can come and say “He has never been given out LBW at home.” And someone can immediately drag out a number and say “He has been given out 7 times in 29 Test innings.” There is this way in which we can correct other people and there is this way in which we can bolster our argument with facts and figures in a way that people couldn’t do before. It has also led to at times the negative sides of internet fandom, which is the constant flaming, bickering, easy reliance on prejudices and stereotypes. You can get away with saying something anonymously to someone that you are not going to come into actual contact with. Internet fandom has given us access to more cricket than before, in giant archive in youtube cricket videos, the best cricket writing in the world, number of fans with blogs. It is a much richer world for the cricket fan now than it ever was when I was a kid, when I had to rely upon Wisdens and Frindall’s book and old John Player specials and magazines and all that.
SJ– That specific aspect – you mentioned that in the book as well, where you grew up with books – cricket digests, tour diaries, Sunny Days, Runs and Ruins, all these books around you in your living room or in your cousins’ house, or at your friends’ place, in the market at Delhi, or school in Darjeeling. You are surrounded by actual artefacts in front of you, the tangible ones – including the newspapers, the relatives talking about it (cricket). But now, this kind of modern fans’ education in cricket and the feel of love for cricket is laid out in a ‘with us against us’ feel. I was wondering what sort of effects this internet fandom, or the way people have access to cricket through internet have an effect on long term fandom?
SC– One thing that has happened was that the ones who didn’t have that much television or visual information about the game were who had to rely on radio and reading. We filled up our spaces with imagination. We constructed images of what these grounds must look like, what these players must look like, how they must be playing, the kinds of shots that they must have played. All you could see of the older world was the black and white photographs, which were awkwardly posed. We had a very different understanding of how they played. Sometimes, you can almost develop an alternate imagination of the game. Imagine someone who is both a youngster and who has access only to radio and reading. He is going to construct these fantastic visions about what this world of cricket is like, what its players are like, how its stories must be populated by these characters and legends.
As someone who is growing with the game, you will get the visual confirmation of what you think the game looks like. When I was growing up, I didn’t know what Alan Davidson’s or Richie Benaud’s bowling looks like. I just had to imagine them bowling in the 1961 Ashes. But now, if you want, you can go to youtube and search and find this famous Test match I am talking about. Richie Benaud bowls him out of the rough, and I am thinking about it. i have heard of that dismissal in the 1961 Ashes so many times, and it is only after youtube archives of these videos became available that I went and saw it.
So, there is a kind of way in which perhaps I was lucky in that I was able to be slightly deprived in my early childhood of so much visual simulation, and that led me to actually play with the inside of my mind a little more and that made the game a little more fantastic, a little more touch of magical. Maybe now someone who has so much cricket available that there is not so much left to the visual imagination. I don’t want to speak too much on behalf of the people who have grown up in this way because maybe their imagination of the game has its own wild-side, which they have developed in their own unique particular way in terms of their particular exposure of the game.
SJ– Talking about letting your imaginations run wild, I want to talk about a couple of things that you mention in the book. The first is this story that your father handed down to you from when the Australian services team toured India in 1945-46, that included one gentleman Keith Miller. Can you talk about that – Keith Miller and Col. Naidu?
SC– That, like i said, amongst my two favourite cricketing stories that my father told me –the Naidu-Miller story and another story, a better on probably, a more fantastical story, in which he met Frank Worrell’s team on a ship when they were going to Australia for the famous 1960 tour of Australia. I will tell that story some other day. The Naidu-Miller story for me is particularly fascinating because it speaks of a time in India that was before independence. I think about Delhi in a way that it must have been in the 1940s. There is a legend of these boarding school kids who are fascinated by the games and they have heroes within it. My father must have been 10 – 11 then. In fact, when he was telling the story, I was 10 or 11 myself. He was kind of telling me a story of what he was like when he was 10-11 year old. In a way he was kind of spinning out memories of his particular childish understanding and exposure to the game, the way these guys were giant like people in the game, and how they made an impression on him.
My age at that time was also 10-11, and my father was a giant like figure to me – larger than life – and everything he said took on an added importance. So, when he told me the story – I had seen many Test matches by that time – but this game between the Australian Services team and this local Indian team which I didn’t even know the name of was almost as important as the Brisbane tied Test or the Ashes or anything. This was a game that my father had seen, this was a game that Naidu was playing, Miller was playing. It had that international touch to it, but it had this location in a mythical land – pre-independence India – at a time my father was in boarding school. It had the right ingredients. My father was telling me the story when the great all-rounders in the game were (Ian) Botham, Imran (Khan), Kapil (Dev) and (Richard) Hadlee were part of our collective imagination. And he was telling me, “You know these guys, the guys who bowl fast and they hit hard and these flamboyant all-rounders? We used to have players like them in our times. One of them was Keith Miller. One of them was CK Naidu.”
SJ– “All rounders were better in my days.”
SC– Yeah. He didn’t even bring it like that. just that “Let me tell you about this one time when really dramatic, exciting thing happened.” That’s it, I was off and running. I don’t know who remembers the story wrong – he remembers it wrong, or I remember it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Because of the fact that my father told me this story, he made sure that I stayed a cricket fan of a particular type.
SJ– I don’t want to give away the details, I want the reader to find it out themselves. When you go and try to look up the cricketing archives available, was there a tinge of disappointment or “I have made peace with the story as it is in my mind, so I am going to let it remain that way”?
SC– Yes. i remember thinking that it would be great if the story was confirmed, because that would be spectacular. But when I found out that the story was not confirmed in the exact shape or form, it didn’t disappoint me, but it made me think, “Oh, that is interesting.” Here is another example of how our memory plays tricks on us and how we choose to tell a particular story of our life with this kind of selective attention to detail. This is something that I am interested in, I sometimes think about this in other contexts. This is why I quote Freud lin that essay. It is because this is something that often happens in psychotherapeutic sessions. People want to tell a particular story about their lives, we are the authors of our lives. The impressions that we have of ourselves is very much a function of what details we have left out and what details we have chosen to include.
I think that is what started to fascinate me. There is this view when I look past in my life. What is it that I am paying attention to, and what I don’t? Maybe I have forgotten something that would have made me think of my life very differently. Maybe I animated myself by a particular impulse, because I view this world possible of the kinds of magic that my father was talking about.
SJ– That aspect of it, the ability to free your imagination, to let it run wild. That space has been taken up by the dozen of highlights being shown over and over again, and the ease of access. I can go in and find, say, Laxman’s 281. If that were to be from pre-independence, that would hold some mythical context to it and it is like Gundappa Vishwanath’s 97 at Chepauk. Everyone in Chennai says they were there, of course that was not possible – that sort of thing. Does that give rights to fans that grow up with this ready availability of confirming things, statsguru and everything – does that take away the magic of cricket from them, and perhaps fuels a bit of cynicism.
SC– I think there is something to be said about loss of freshness. One very good example that I could give, something where I have not wanted a more visual confirmation. Let’s take 2 famous examples. One is Gundappa Vishwanath’s 97. I have never seen a video of that innings. I don’t know anybody who has seen a video of that innings. I don’t know what the state of telecast in India at that time was. But I read Pratap Ramchand’s description of that innings and it is a fantastic description. The descriptions of square cuts in that game, “He square cuts Andy Roberts so hard that the ball hits the fence and nobody could measure the time the ball took to hit the fence….” and so on and so forth. One part of me is like, “I don’t want to see a video of this innings.” I don’t want to find out that it is different from my mental conception of it. That is fine. I read about the 97, it thrills me as a great innings against fast bowling – fast bowling of our imagination. That is good enough for me; I don’t need to see it. On the other hand, I do know that if someone was to come to me tomorrow and say, “Hey Samir, guess what? The 97 is on youtube!”, I would go and watch it. it will happen. But I think I will go there with the same cautionary note on my mind, to not be disillusioned if it is not what you thought it was going to be. And, I won’t be, because the role the 97 had to play in my life has already happened. it has already changed me. So, that’s cool. If at the age of 55 I find out that on the square cuts, the balls didn’t travel as fast off Vishy’s blade, the way all these sports writers dreamt it up, it is fine.
Another is the Kirti Azad game. That was in the 1980s. I was at the stadium, I saw the game and I still remember that on the next day, they repeated the live telecast on television. I didn’t see the replay. I didn’t see the highlights of the game again. I said, “No!” I was at the stadium, I saw it, I experienced it, it was fantastic, I don’t want to watch the televised version of the same thing. I have these beautiful, clear memories in my mind and I don’t want them changed by the telecast. Now, perhaps, out of sheer curiosity, I might watch it. But, it won’t make any difference to my understanding of the game and my imagination. I was there that night. I saw those four 6s hit. Four 6s are nothing for this T20 generation. They are nothing. But those four 6s? Oh my God! That wide ball flying up into the stands, I won’t ever forget it. You could see the crowd rising behind it and it was incredible. That was the whole Nehru Stadium rising as one when the ball was flying. I don’t think I will ever forget that.
it is possible that people now who watch highlights again and again and over and over… Today’s special, tomorrow’s special… I was in India and they keep showing these great innings, partnerships, great jugalbandis and all these kind of stuff over and over again. I wonder, do people keep watching this again and again? Doesn’t this get stale for them? Aren’t they going to get slightly blase about the whole thing? I too worry about it. Maybe it is too much of a good thing.
SJ– I think Andy Roberts mentioned in an interview that people are asking about Test cricket and stuffs. He said we play too much Test cricket. In a way, the cache of Test cricket gets lost when you have more number of teams playing, more number of teams playing more number of matches with the FTP etc. so, the mythical status of a 7-fer or a 150 in a 3rd innings loses its value.
SC– Same thing with statistics. People score 20 centuries now. When I grew up…. 20 centuries? No one got to 20 centuries. Now, the number of people with 20 Test centuries is just unbelievable.
SJ– There is another chapter, a topic in the book, that you covered that is close to my heart about how I feel about cricket. In the book you have referenced Gideon Haigh quite a bit, and he has written the foreword as well. This is something that I envy him for. He is in his 50s and he has a family, he has lots of writing and speaking commitments and all that. But, he still finds time to do nets. Every week. I don’t know where there is a week that goes by where he doesn’t do at least a couple of nets sessions. During the Australian summer, he pretty much plays for the South Yarras every week. The playing fan. I also have a feeling that the more you play, the more you understand the game. You understand the struggle of the superstar even though you are not 1% as skilled or talented or physically gifted. But, you understand the struggle. And then, you are more sympathetic when someone misses out on a catch or misses out in the “clutch”.
You understand these things. You played some level of cricket; you watched in your college, you have played in Australia. You are now living in the USA without playing much (here). How has that affected you as a fan?
SC– I think the point that you mentioned is exactly the one that i made the most of in the essay. You have sympathy and tolerance of the players because you see them as fellow practitioners of an art and a craft that you have worked so hard to be even reasonably competent at. You start to see players not as entertainers, but as fellow strivers like you. It is just that they are really much, much better at it. But they are still subject to the same challenges as you. It leads to sharper understanding of why they are able to do something well, and why they do some things poorly.
For instance, I used to be very mystified by why batsmen could bat so long. How do they make 300s, how do they make 200s? I bat for 5 minute and I get bowled or give a catch. I wonder how the hell that happens? And then I remember once playing in a game, I was batting 9 or 10, and we had to save the follow on otherwise there was going to be an outright defeat. We were out there blocking the ball, and just trying to somehow to survive. I noticed that after a few overs I felt giddily confident and reckless. I just felt I am not going to get out. I started to feel less scared of the cricket ball. I felt that I could stand in front of the wicket and I didn’t care. I started to feel confident, I started to feel that I could make this, that we could survive. At that moment I suddenly understood – Oh THAT’s how these guys bat for days and days. that is what commentators mean when they say things like “Give the first hour to the bowler and after that it is all yours”, or “Runs will come to you if you stay” or “Dig in for the first few overs, it will get easier.” Oh, that is what they are talking about! That was a blinding moment of clarity, and I experienced it while playing.
After that, I have got such a different sense when watching a batsman who has taken 10 overs to make 7 runs. And I am like, “This guy, watch him. He is getting settled in and he is taking his time. this guy is getting more confident.” You have a different take on what is happening out there. You have a kindness, perhaps, for when things go wrong. You see players drop absolute dollies and sitters. You know what happens, there is a weird failure of body and mind that happens together at that time. Players playing stupid strokes, playing doing something that you think a professional player wouldn’t do. You develop a greater empathy for them. I think that sharpens your watching of the game.
I gave that tennis example where that one summer I played a very low level of tennis with my wife. We would go to the neighbourhood park and play that tip – lob – run tennis that most amateur players like to play. But that summer, I watched the most tennis on television I had ever watched. I watched not just the grand slams but also the humble ATTP tournaments. I wanted to see how really good people do it. Even watching a player who is ranked 75 in the world is great because this guy is still a 1000 times better than me.
SJ– It is like you play cricket and an average Ranji cricketer, or even an average u-22 cricketer is going to be several 100s of times better than you.
I want to do a number association game. i am going to give you 4-5 numbers, which is like how you do it in the book as well, which is how a lot of cricket fans relate. Sometimes you relate your life instances to events, like when Sachin was scoring a ton at Melbourne, I was in 10th standard math exam. That sort of thing.
I will give you a number and you tell me what it is. Let’s see how good of a cricket fan you are. Let me start with an easy one, for you.
SC– First international representative game?
SJ– This is for the number of runs.
SC– 1788 – Yousuf Youhana’s runs in a calendar year?
SJ– Yes, of course. Mohammad Yousuf now.
This one should be very easy for you.
SC– I know this – Kim Hughes at Adelaide. What an innings!
SC– Is it Bishen Bedi’s wickets?
SJ– Most number of wickets by an India before Kapil Dev overtook.
SC– This seems like someone’s career aggregate of runs. But who the player is, I don’t know.
SJ– It cant be Tests, of course.
SC– Yes. (Semi-confidently) I was going to say something like, “One of (Sachin) Tendulkar’s aggregates”, but…
SJ– It is, actually!
SC– It is? It is his LOI aggregates?
SJ– Yes! One last one here. We are being unfair to bowlers here, but that is life, that is cricket.
SC– (Sir Don) Bradman?
SC– And of course, Mark Taylor not out at Peshawar.
What I thought you were going to do was that you were going to read some random numbers, and ask if that particular number have a connotation for you (me)? Something like, “167?” and I would think of something related to it. i think a lot with numbers. There are some numbers that stick out of my mind.
SJ– Yes. For me it is like, since mine is more in the Tendulkar era, many things have to do with Tendulkar. 98 at Centurion, 155, 177, 165 at Nagpur etc.
I want to wrap up the interview with… The Australian numbers you rattle off, the people of the generation before mine were obsessed with the West Indies. So, in the book, you talk about growing up as a kid enamoured with the West Indies and the Australian cricketers. Later on in the book you switch to being a one eyed Indian cricket fan living and dying with the wins and losses. When did that transformation happen for you? Was it after you left India, did the distance cause that for you? How did that happen?
SC– You know, that is a wonderful question. When I mention in my book, my third book, when I sent it off to my publisher, that book describes that process in great detail. There was an ironic switch for me. the ironic switch is that I was a fan of Test cricket but the real transformation came with India’s World Cup win in 1983. Just a couple of years before, in 1981-82-83, the transformation had begun to happen. Kapil Dev had come into the scene. Some of the vibe around Indian cricket was starting to change a little bit. Kapil Dev, Sandip Patil, Mohinder Amarnath, these guys were bringing a certain vibe to the Indian team. They were more aggressive, more on the front foot, more inclined to take on the challenge.
Mohinder, with his hooking and cutting – not just like players playing fast bowling and surviving, but taking on fast bowling and attacking. Kapil Dev was there, with the whole package – a hard hitting batsman, a fast bowling all-rounder, Sandip Patil had completely revolutionised Indian batting in that phase. We saw this man, when he cover drives and square cuts, he smashes the crack out of the ball. Some of my conceptions of Indian cricket at that time were changing. The World Cup made it complete for us, it made clear that India could be good in a version of the game that everyone thought we would be incompetent in.
I think the transformation started happening then. But I was still caught up in a certain mode of thinking of Indian cricketers as being a kind of marginal entities on the world’s cricketing stage. We were not the big players, we were the side performers. The real performers were the English, West Indies and the Australians. All the cricket literature seemed to be around these people and we were like the players whom they went up against and did well against. Don Bradman made 4 centuries against the Indians. We are there, we are the supporting cast.
SJ– We make up the numbers.
SC– Yes, we make up the numbers. We throw the ball to you and you hit the ball, you get your numbers. Bradman has to score his numbers against someone, right? So, he scores them against the Indians. That thing had stayed in my mind. I talked about them in my book. I find the Paksitani cricket team much more exciting than the Indian cricket team. There was Imran (Khan), Sarfaraz (Nawaz), their batsmen seemed more exciting. They had more flair.
SJ– You mentioned Zaheer Abbas so many times in the book!
SC– He had such a powerful hold on my imagination at that time.
Two things happened at that time. i went to the ‘States in 1987. By then I had already morphed into becoming a different type of a fan, because I understood. Don’t forget that the phase 1985-86 is also very crucial. People talk a lot about the 1983 World Cup win; they forget that the win that we had in Australia, we went to Australia and we won the Benson and Hedges Championship, that was even better. We went to Australia and every single game was won by like 8 wickets, 9 wickets, 85 runs, 90 runs. We just swept everybody. Admittedly, we were playing against a weak Australian team; maybe the other teams were not as dominant as they were. But, India beat everybody they came up against. This was all captured on the beautiful Channel 9 television as well. not only did you see the Indian team playing well, you saw them doing well overseas and you saw their feats captured in high definition clarity and lots of slow motion replays. You suddenly saw your team in the way that they could be at their best. It is like that artist has come along who can draw a picture of your loved one that captures them in the best possible light. The Indian team winning at the MCG, captured by Channel 9, that is going to make a completely different fan out of you.
The Indian team was capable of doing anything. The Pakistani team came and bowled us out for 125 at Sharjah. We just went and bowled them out for 87. At that time you thought that it was possible. When Pakistan went out to bat that day, I thought, “OK, let’s see. 125. We have a chance.” Today, if India was to do that, I don’t know how many Indians would be confident. I actually thought confident that night. Maybe we would lose. But guess what? We bowled them out for 87.
Ironically, I am a huge Test cricket fan, but my conception of the Indian team changed because of the efforts of the One Day outfit, and it transformed me into an Indian fan in some ways. Then, you leave home and become teh classic romantic immigrant. You are highlighting everything about how you left behind everything that are far more rosy tinted, more nostalgic. Now, you want your team to speak up for you, to give you the ammunition with which you can strike force and meet other fans as well. That transformation, and of course encountering other cricket fans on the ‘net, it found me defending the Indian team in ways that I never thought I would ever defend them. All of a sudden, I found all the strengths in the Indian team that I never thought. Now, there were virtues that I found in the Indian style of playing that I never thought of virtues before. I think all of that process does get covered in the next book.
SJ– Finally, let people know where they can get your book.
SC– The book – Eye on Cricket, Reflections on the Great Game, you can get it through Amazon. For those of you who are in the USA, you can get the Kindle version, or the regular paperback version as well. for folks in India, it is available at all the online sellers like flipkart and infibeam and these other online retailers. Harper Collins has done a really good job of also making it available at bookstores. I think it is available on Amazon all over the world. i know people in the UK and in Australia can get it on Amazon as well.
SJ– Excellent, Samir. Thank you so much
SC– Thanks, Subash. And, thank you once again for having me on the show!
Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman