Today, midway between two World Cups, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s final six of 2011 is a visual that is undergoing the process most iconic sporting images do, and beginning to slip just out of reach. It will come back with greater intensity with every passing year, though. The story of 2015, meanwhile, is already here: war-torn, poverty-stricken, security-bereft Afghanistan has qualified, and will take its place among the elite.
Between the two fairytales, Triumph in Bombay reminds us not just about the cricket, but also the context in which World Cup 2011 was played. You can relive Virender Sehwag’s straight drive, of course, but Vaibhav Vats takes you beyond the boundary, and into the hearts and minds of the most fanatic supporters of the game. That cricket unites the subcontinent is a cliché, but when you hear similar sentiments being expressed by a Sinhalese coach in a Tamil area in Sri Lanka or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, you begin to understand how the cliché evolved.
The author set out to “write of a sport and simultaneously illuminate an entire culture, hold a mirror to an entire age”. Even partial success in such an ambitious venture must be lauded. Cricket is seldom about cricket alone. The romantics love to pour into the sport all manner of symbolism. Vats doesn’t fall into the trap of highlighting the artificial connections, however tempting. Instead he lets the patterns emerge through interviews, match reports and succinct portraits of those he interacts with. The reader can join the dots.
This journalistic approach is at once the strength as well as the weakness of the book, providing it with clarity and objectivity but robbing it of the subjective, which is the cornerstone of travel writing. The pure travelogues are the best parts of Triumph in Bombay, such as the wonderful and strange story of Hambantota, hometown of the president of Sri Lanka. There is wit and understanding here of a gentle farming and fishing village.
The political theorist and writer Leonard Woolf had worked in Hambantota nearly a century ago, and written The Village in the Jungle, a novel inspired by his stay there. Now, suddenly, Hambantota was being built as “an imperial city”, with $210 million being spent on an airport and another $360 million on a seaport. “Hambantota seemed ill-prepared for the change that it had been condemned to,” writes Vats, capturing in one sentence the megalomania and the futility of the effort. “This uprooting of old ways of living, of old livelihoods, of places violently thrust into modernity was an increasingly familiar South Asian narrative,” he says.
The Sri Lanka portions are a delight. There is passion too that is somehow missing from the cricket itself, and which leaves the book strangely unbalanced. It’s strange, because like all Indian boys growing up, Vats was clearly cricket-obsessed. Still, he brings to the tournament itself the curiosity of the outsider not yet jaded by years spent in the press box. A stadium, for example, is “bulky and devoid of imagination”. It is good to remind ourselves how stunningly ugly some of the temples to cricket, our national religion, are.
Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack