Sudhir Raikar recalls a forgotten gem in the wake of the Indian team’s disgrace in the recently concluded English tour. John Wright’s Indian Summers may not be a pithy commentary on the technicalities of the game but has enough substance to remind the stakeholders of Indian cricket to revisit the age-old system that runs it, as early as they possibly can.
Lurking in the dark recesses of our cricketing tradition are many glaring loopholes engineered and nourished by unseen architects that Wright hints at but never pin points. Call it grace or indecision, but Wright’s shielded words sure ring true for most of us despite the fact that they were largely dismissed by the fourth estate. The Indian media, as also many of the ex-players and managers, picked up all the potentially sensational elements in lashing out at this loner Kiwi while ignoring the sheer beauty of his verse and the apparent sincerity of his purpose. Of course, this ruthless attack should come as no surprise, given the ever-growing power of vested interests and the ever-falling standards of journalism in India.
John tells an engaging life story, right from the days when he called it quits as a player to suffer a short-lived accident with the corporate world. (“My job at Fletcher Challenge, then NZ’s largest building supplies company, was a crash course in everyday reality”)
The coaching stint at Kent paved the way for the prized job and the subject matter of the book - the Coach of the Indian cricket team. Cricketing legend Colin Cowdrey’s dying advice to Wright before the latter left for Indian shores indeed proved prophetic - a nip of whisky in the evenings to keep the bugs away and a SOS call to Raj Singh Dungarpur when in trouble. Only that Wright seems to have replaced whiskey with beer. There was of course no substitute for Dungarpur, as he found out throughout his India stint.
Wright seems to have been a lone crusader to inculcate a sense of professionalism among the players. Not that he failed completely but the players who were fed on a staple diet of tea or biscuits at net practice or taped fingers while fielding would have proved tough nuts to crack. And more than the playing eleven, his real detractors ran the very establishment, whether as tour managers, team selectors, board presidents or governing committee members. His most studied observation is on the selection process where he brings to light several startling practices that run deep in the name of process and convention. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with India’s team selection, but we never knew the culprits could be so brazen in peddling their vested interests.
Certain things are clear and explicit - like Wright’s fluent chemistry with physio Andrew Leipus, his soft corner for players like Kaif and Laxman (although the latter was allegedly axed at his behest for the World Cup), his professional interaction with Jagmohan Dalmiya, his genuine respect for Dravid, his awe for Tendulkar, his trust on Ravi Shastri as an advisor and of course - his love-hate relationship with Sourav Ganguly. (The media only found the last bit worthy of discussion)
He gives an amusing account of the advertising and sponsorship market that’s ever chasing players with star status. In the process, he makes some great observations - Like having to watch Ganguly struggling to ape John Travolta or Rahul Dravid in an uncharacteristic black matrix-style outfit or the fact that Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble never became billboard heroes despite their success, thanks to their less glamorous image, compared to their counterparts. Tendukar’s engaging smile, of course, sends sponsors laughing all the way to the bank. Wright is honest to reveal a secret desire to pose in a TV ad himself but the offer that came his way was a show stopper - “advertising an ointment for old-age aliments at one-tenth of the going rate.”
Though of a poetic disposition, the verse he cites in the book is nothing special. He also does not come as a guy who would really put his foot down despite the repeated claims of “blowing my top”. He rather comes across as a soft guy who would make proactive adjustments to stay put. But more important, Wright is never harsh or prejudiced in pointing out the systemic flaws. “Many a times, things just fell in place, often without you understanding how and why.” His self-deprecating stance is worthy of both adulation and emulation.
The most striking part of his narrative, however, is his accurate sketch of the phenomenon called India - the blended fabric of culture and cricket in a deprived nation that unanimously regards the game as a religion, and the only one that binds people together. (“Indian cricket lovers are never in a state of emotional equilibrium - it’s either ecstasy or despair for them”)
Wright also peeps into the lives of ordinary Indians - like Pintu, the masseur, who supports a family of eight on a salary of Rs. 8500/- per month, Prasanna Raman, the enthusiastic software engineer who later became the technical head of National Cricket Academy or the nameless cabbie from Bangalore who religiously handed back the tip of Rs 120/- to Wright as it had not been explicitly labelled as a tip during their first encounter.
Wright throws good light on the mockery that rules the Indian cricketing system - ripe with selection hazards, zonal mandates, blatant favouritism, ruthless axing, bureaucratic hang ups, administrative nuisance, advertising diktats, and rags to riches stories, evils of heady success or the miseries of forgotten heroes. The nuisance for Wright came from all quarters. “A guy with the biggest diamond ear-stud once came wandering into the viewing area as if it was his private box”. This was India’s biggest beer baron, no marks for guessing who we are talking about. Wright invariably found playground boundaries shortened and ‘roped’ to ensure a healthy shower of fours and sixes that rakes in the moolah for the value chain of advertisers, sponsors and broadcasters.
John Wright is a poet at heart. His humour, his idiom and his melancholy all prove arresting and above all, the ring of pathos in his tales and anecdotes is soul-stirring. Yes, he may not have been the best coach in the annals of the game (or a truly great player either) and his knowledge of technicalities could fall short of the Gary Kirsten benchmark, but his hold over the psychological aspects of the game is undoubtedly striking. More often than not, cricket coaching as we have seen it, is about boosting minds, not pushing bodies. The book lingers in memory but more as a fabulous book on India and its cricketing fanatics - a neat summary in the league of Mark Tully’s ‘No Full Stops in India’. If not the bigwigs at BCCI, the beleaguered Indian team led by M S Dhoni will find a handy guide in this book to reinstate conviction and commitment and get back to their winning ways.