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By Suresh Menon
When should a cricketer write his autobiography? This is a question that pops up every generation or so, especially when dressing room stories are made public or when the player picks on colleagues for some honest truth-telling. The latest to raise the question is England off spinner Graeme Swann’s The Breaks Are Off which has taken pot shots at Kevin Pietersen, while the rest of the team holds its breath wondering what fresh revelations will be made in the serialised publication in a newspaper.
Swann, not known for his discretion, once famously declared that the top three in the England batting order – Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott – were ugly batsmen. “If there is an uglier top three in the world,” he said after the Ashes series, “ I don’t know of it.”
England’s team director Andy Flower is not euphoric over Swann’s comments in his book. “I personally don't think that it's a good idea for current players to be talking about their fellow players. The written word does come across very, very differently - when you can't judge a person's tone,” Flower has said.
On the other hand, players see book-writing as merely an extension of the commercial possibilities associated with their name (or ‘brand’), and what better time to write one than when you are firmly established in the team, a national sporting icon and capable of shifting thousands of copies with or without the salacious details or personal opinions? And if that causes misery within the team, too bad.
The success of an autobiography, like that of a cover drive, lies in the timing. It is possible for a player to reveal all in a hastily-written book while he is still an active player. Wait a few years, and the loss of relevance can be devastating.
Mohinder Amarnath, for example, was contemplating an autobiography in the 1980s, when, for a brief period (had the ratings existed then) he was surely the best batsman in the world, with centuries against the fast bowlers in Pakistan and the West Indies. Somehow, Mohinder got his timing wrong, and with that went his chances of being a successful author.
In contrast, Ajit Wadekar’s My Cricketing Years, ghosted by the late K N Prabhu, was on the stands soon after the player had led India to series victories, for the first time, in the West Indies and England. The disaster of 1974 was yet to come, Wadekar was still a feted player and captain and that made the difference.
Tiger Pataudi’s autobiography was published while he was still a player, as was Sunil Gavaskar’s. Vijay Hazare and Mushtaq Ali preferred to wait till they had retired. There were no startling revelations in any of these books, except perhaps in Gavaskar’s Sunny Days where he was frank in his comments on the crowds in the West Indies and the manner in which some of his colleagues reacted to situations.
Pietersen, according to Flower, has handled the digs at him with maturity. Which could mean (given Pietersen’s temperament) either he doesn’t give a fig, or is merely biding his time.
There is something unhealthy about players writing about their colleagues while being part of the national team. It is only human to react, and there is bound to be bad blood between players. An unguarded comment from Pietersen can still escalate the discomfort in the England team.
In the real world, writers wait till the people they write about in poor light have passed on. It is merely a courtesy. In the sporting world, comments about colleagues can wait till the parties have retired from the game. This is not a plea for political correctness, merely a plug for good manners.
So Swann thinks that Pietersen is not a natural leader and was never captaincy material. Nothing earth-shattering there. But colleagues deserve better while you are still standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the national cause.