Not everyone can be an Ed Smith

2012 Apr 16 by Suresh Menon

Just as it is difficult to find a cricketer with the ability to succeed beyond the game, it is hard to find a leader in another field with a genuine passion and understanding of the game.


By Suresh Menon

Old cricketers never die, they simply lose their appeal. I think the original cliché might have been about lawyers, but the shoe fits. What do sportsmen do after retirement? There are three obvious routes: coaching, media and franchising out the name to commercial establishments.

In the immediate aftermath of retirement, there is the grocery-buying phase which players look forward to. Rahul Dravid mentioned this a few times, and then realising that it might get out of hand, suggested he might mess up one or two sessions just to ensure that he wouldn’t be asked to do the groceries any more. But Dravid is an exception. His innate intelligence, educational background and involvement with the game mean that he will bring lustre to any field he chooses. In an interview he pointed out that sportsmen who were at the top find it difficult to reconcile themselves to being less than the best in their chosen second careers. It’s an interesting perspective.

In London recently, at the Wisden dinner, the question I was asked most often was: What will Tendulkar do after retirement? “Cricket is all I know,” the player has said often enough, yet it is difficult to see him as either coach or television commentator. Having to choose a career at 40 is difficult even if financially there is no compulsion.

The essential difference between the two great Indian batsmen is that at 16, when Tendulkar made his international debut, there was nothing beyond cricket in his mind. Dravid, who came in at 23 was already conscious of having to look beyond the sport.

Not everyone can be an Ed Smith, former England player who completed a history course at Cambridge and is the author of some of the finest recent books on cricket (besides being a leader writer of The Times). Smith’s latest. Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters is a look at a much-misunderstood aspect of competitive sport written with an easy style that disguises the complex nature of his subject matter.

Just as it is difficult to find a cricketer with the ability to succeed beyond the game, it is hard to find a leader in another field with a genuine passion and understanding of the game.

The main speaker at the Wisden dinner was the Booker-winner Howard Jacobson whose book The Finkler Question is a delightful romp through age, friendship and Jewishness. Jacobson spoke of the influence he had on English cricket as a small boy when, listening to the Ashes commentary he would perform a series of actions in bed that would ensure that Dennis Lillee didn’t take a wicket or that an English batsman didn’t get out.

Jacobson came as close to making a room full of tux-wearing black-tie guests roll on the floor as anyone I have seen. His passion for the game and his involvement as a fan were apparent at every turn and lent the evening a special charm and warmth.

Jacobson’s speech set me thinking. Which Indian from another field would be able to speak of cricket in like manner? The obvious answer is Ramachandra Guha, historian, anthropologist, essayist who has written fine books on the sport and is claimed by the cricketing fraternity as one of their own! Guha continues to give public talks in London where he holds the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics.

In recent years the sociologist Ashish Nandy has written a quirky book on cricket; Nandan Nilekani speaks a decent game of cricket while the college professor Mukul Kesavan is better known for his cricket writing than his academic work.

That’s just a handful. The cricketing intellectual – someone who sees the game beyond the statistics and match results – is a rarity. A novel like Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman hasn’t yet appeared in India.

The late Stephen Jay Gould was a baseball nut and has written a book on the sport which is on a par with his books on evolutionary biology.
We have our Tendulkars and Dravids but we await our Karunatilakas and Goulds.