Hughes
Photo Courtesy: Amazon

First things first: this book conforms to the belief that those cricketers to whom art or science of the sport do not come easy are often the best analysts, coaches or commentators. Simon Hughes had a glittering domestic career but that was about it for him. This makes him completely aware of his own struggles and the struggles of others like him. In this book, he has been able to express it in a way that toes the fine line between misery and humour like a ballerina would.

Therefore I found in him a tragicomic of a cricket writer, hidden underneath the smart analyst avatar that he has donned so often during his post cricket career in journalism. The author of A Lot of Hard Yakka peeps through the pages. Needless to say, his own answer to the question posed by the title was a resounding yes even though England always looked at him as a bowler from the 9-10-Jack brigade.

Any such book is fraught with the danger of clinging to the clichés — footwork, head position, technique, mental strength, awareness etc. — and becoming a rather boring read. Hughes has been able to sidestep this minefield quite delightfully. Instead of expounding academically on a point he tries to make, he dips into his vast reserves of contacts built over his playing and writing and commentating careers to make the reader listen straight from the horse’s mouth.

Once you read what a Graham Gooch has to say about ‘daddy hundreds’ or what a Ricky Ponting has to say about the pull, there’s little else that the author is required to do. Hughes understands this and forgoes the writer’s ego to not indulge in unnecessary postmortem. Also, not once during the book do you feel that Hughes has taken a prescriptive stance, one that could have been the antithesis of the purpose of this book itself. He is clearly a polytheist, finding merits in the styles of every great batsman yet encouraging the budding young talent to find out for himself what works best.

One of the reasons you pick up a book like this is to soak in the moments when anecdotes are played out. In this department, Hughes does not disappoint one bit. My personal favorite is when GOAT candidate Sir Sobers was on 301 during his then record breaking innings. Clyde Walcott walked up to him from the other end and told him he needed only 64 more. Sobers: “What’s that for, Sir?” and Walcott replied, “For the world record! So put your head down, you only pass this way once!” Sobers went on to say he really did put his head down after that since he felt the runs were needed not just by him but by the West Indies as a whole. What a testimony for the power of a charismatic leader of men! The book is choc-a-bloc with such incidents, either full of wit and repartee or a fulfilling sense of history.

The other reason why you pick up a good cricket book is for the glossy pages where photographs are printed. Here, one felt that the book came up really short. The pictures are very few and most of them are either either too common or too ordinary. There are only two that stand out — one featuring the author himself getting out hit wicket and the other featuring Peter Willey in his unconventional two-eyed stance. I, for one, have never understood why all picture pages have to come together in the middle of a book where they all seem disconnected , even with accompanying explanations (perhaps it has got something to do with the ease of printing). In this book in particular, it would have been great if the points about batsmanship discussed in a chapter could have been illustrated with a good, perceptive picture or two then and there.

Apart from the general features of a cricket book, there are two sections in this one that put it in the must read category for me. The first is what English cricket has owed Mark Ramprakash for a long time now — a thorough dissection into the trials and tribulations he went through during his horrendous England career when looked at in light of the potential he displayed. Yes, there are other places where his story has been featured and an impassioned look into his case has prompted a sea change in how England manages its top cricketers. But this book makes it extra-special by following the story from the eyes of a colleague who is sympathetic and empathetic in equal measure and who Ramps doesn’t mind opening up to. That Hughes loves this guy with ample unfulfilled potential is amply clear from the emotion that comes through — but then again, he doesn’t let this affect his brilliant analysis of what mental toughness means to a batsman and how it can be cultivated over many, many years of relentless focus.

The second section isn’t actually one; it is more a feature of the book which keeps coming up at regular intervals and leaves the reader absolutely delighted. This reaction is because you can’t help but feel happy with a tinge of wistfulness on being nudged to recollect your own childhood cricket memories. Jagjit Singh could well have sung about longing for a return of his cricket bat (knocked to perfection) and a brand new season ball in his famous song “Woh kaagaz ki kashti”. Hughes brings about this reaction by giving the reader details of the cricketing upbringing of his wards — two sons and a daughter. Being a father who could never quite fulfill his dreams and is now a critic to boot, he regales with his little stories of how he drives them, and himself in the process, on to the path of cricketing glory. But even this endeavor of his is adorned with his customary eye for details and subsequent analysis. As his daughter goes from strength to strength in a career that promises a great deal, Hughes pays his dues in kind for the wisdom he received from his father. In a larger sense, it also bodes well for women’s cricket and one can only wish that there are more and more like young Nancy Hughes.

The end of the book is marked by an in-depth analysis into the ways and means of one Kumar Sangakkara and the vital contribution of his father to his career. On a day when Twitter is trolling Sanga Sr quite rib-ticklingly to mark the end of his son’s illustrious Test career, one is left with the feeling that the zeroth law of guaranteed batting greatness could be that you must do enough positive cricket karma in this birth to be born to a cricket nut coach in the next one.

Author: Simon Hughes
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: July 13, 2015
ISBN-10: 1471135608
ISBN-13: 978-1471135606

(Abhishek Chopra idolises Rahul Sharad Dravid. Till a couple of years back, he used to daydream about getting selected for India as a leg-spinner or an opener or a wicketkeeper. Then reality struck. He can be contacted at facebook.com/chopra.abhishek)