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By Suresh Menon
Aakash Chopra, the former India opening batsman has emerged as a significant member of a small group of cricketers who have played the game at the highest level and now write about it passion.
His recent book, Out of the Blue, about Rajasthan’s magical year in the national championship, is a wonderful mix of reportage and biography, travelogue and autobiography.
It was a story that needed to be told; we are lucky that it has been told by an insider who is as comfortable with the square cut as he is with the smooth metaphor, and one who appreciates the passion, humour and the myriad human stories contained in victory and defeat.
Rajasthan, bottom of the lower division of the Ranji Trophy in 2009-10, finished as the national champions the following season. The fairy tale is described by Aakash Chopra with the kind of warmth, implausibility and attention to detail that is the hallmark of Cinderella and others in the genre. Except that in this case, every bit is true.
The creativity lies not in imagining the tale but in the manner of telling it. “When you are Rajasthan,” says Chopra in the Prologue, “last in the Plate Division, never having won the title, never even coming close to a final in over three decades, you don’t play to win the honour, you play to save what you can of yours.”
How did Rajasthan get it so right after a season when they had got it so wrong? For one, they hired the right professionals. Two of them, Chopra and Hrishikesh Kanitkar had international experience, and more importantly, were bristling to make a point after being poorly treated by their original teams, Delhi and Maharashtra respectively. For a professional, that is usually motivation enough.
Then there was the attitude of the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) itself, which was both professional and understanding of player needs. Officials cut through red tape when it was warranted, players were given the confidence they would be looked after (despite the usual politics), and loyalty was earned rather than demanded.
Chopra pays due tributes to the RCA, but ultimately book is about the real heroes, men like the opening batsman Vineet Saxena, who in a three-month period lost his father, his daughter and his job. As Chopra says, “Cricket was no longer about scoring runs, it was the only way to keep his family going. Failure was no longer an option.” Hours after burying his daughter, Saxena was in Japiur to play a match.
It is about Deepak Chahar who was told by Greg Chappell that he was “not cut out for cricket” but began the season with figures of 7.3-2-10-8 to dismiss Hyderabad for 21. Cricket to him was a means to enabling his father to pay off his loans.
It is about Vivek Yadav who ran away from home because of opposition to his playing cricket, Pankaj Singh who travelled ticketless on a 30-hour train ride and a host of others, each with a unique story. They form the backbone of the domestic game in India – mildly feted in small circles, forced to make huge sacrifices to keep playing, but somehow managing to keep their vision alive. A world away from the Tendulkars and the Dravids.
The author’s honesty and generosity is summed up in this description of team mate Rashmi Ranjan Parida: “He is one of the best players of spin bowling I have come across...it looks like he is trying not to hurt the ball while hitting it. When I see someone like that at the top of his game I count my blessings. I may not be half as good as him, but I am the proud owner of an India cap.”