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Much of the epic romance of cricket was peerlessly documented for over half a century by the lyrical pen of the immortal Sir Neville Cardus. Seldom available on the shelves of modern day book shops, the half-recalled memory of the bewitching accounts enticed Arunabha Sengupta enough to embark upon a journey to find the elusive volumes of epic cricket reportage.

 

This August, during the recent Indian cricket tour of England, he scoured the length and breadth of the old country, hunting down the books by the greatest cricket writer of all time. Here is an account of his travels and treasure hunt.

 

# “McCabe hooked Voce with a forked lightning stroke, and the crack of his bat was the accompanying thunder.”

 

# “Grimmett’s arm, not above the shoulder, could toss a ball along an arch of wicked temptation, or send it along with a subterranean deceit.”

 

# “While Ranji seemed to toss runs over the field like largesse in silk purses, Fry acquired them – no, not as a miser his hoard, but as the connoisseur his collection.”

 

# “There were not enough fieldsmen available, Bradman found gaps and vacancies in nature.”

 

# “This game could be laid up in heaven, a Platonic idea of cricket in perfection.”

 

There were just a couple of volumes of Neville Cardus in The British Council Library of Calcutta during my student days, and for them I paid around seven months worth of college stipend in overdue fines.

 

Cricket had been my refuge, my vehicle of fanciful flights away from the rather harsh reality of a grim childhood. Anticipation of domestic disturbances or the growing frustrations of a misunderstood juvenile always found dissolving solace when one of the Indian maestros of the eighties, in proud spotless flannels, stood bravely at the wicket, negotiating the might of foreign fast bowling.

 

However, Cardus was the conjurer who converted interest into romanticism. I somehow seem to more vividly recollect a drive by Frank Wooley than a similar one by Allan Border, although I saw the latter in flesh and on screen, and the former hung up his bat and boots forty something years before my birth. Such was the magic of a Cardus piece.

 

Within maturity’s formative mould were cast the most scorching lines ever written about a sport, to leave an impression that modern day cricket writing has struggled against ever since, as a pretentious tailender might have flaunted his extra cover drive going in at number three instead of the Don.

 

I grew out of my boyhood, entered working life, watched as much cricket as came my way, became an author. The days of familial friction grew distant in the rear view mirror of time. But, yet, a part of me remained unfulfilled, a part of my very being.

 

Dished with the modern day bushwhacked bilge that passes for cricket writing, where the metaphors of willow and leather are restricted to ‘Amir is bee, Asif is snake’, with grandeur of the English language pulled down to the levels of grammatical questionability as reverse sweeps, my soul yearned for Cardus in the covers.

 

And that is what I could not find. Neville Cardus classics were not available in book shops any more, a striking testimony to the devaluation of real riches in the glitz loving modern world in general and semi-literate shelf space in particular.

 

My work took me across the world to the United States of America, to the Netherlands, to Switzerland – the whole Schengen Zone opened out in a lavish spread, feeding my wanderlust in borderless facility. I traced routes in business and pleasure across the length and breadth of twenty three countries. Lands with dream islands and archipelagos of bookshops, some that hit you in the face in a (Barnes and) Noble sort of way, and others tucked away in obsequious corners like the nondescript Kloveniersburgswal of Amsterdam.

 

Yet, not one of the countries I visited was a Test playing nation. Cricket bats were seldom recognised as instruments for the noble purpose of making runs, often mistaken as oars for kayaking. It is not that I did not find cricket books in these misguided states content with their fare of baseball and soccer. A bibliomaniac can at best be down, but not even the most enterprising of umpires can declare him out. A John Arlott here, a candid autobiography of Freddie Trueman there … but a Cardus catch eluded me. All I had was a copy of his autobiography, a most delightful and erudite study of his life and times, ordered online from a second hand bookseller.

 

With shelf, floor, sofa and other spaces giving out, crowding around me in protest against accumulating folio, I had acquired a Kindle. But, the gems that I sought were not available in the electronic gold mines either.

 

So, when the trip to Blighty was fixed on an impulsive evening after Sachin Tendulkar hooked Dale Steyn for six to bring up his 51st Test century, I saw my unflinching target for the tour in my mind’s eye. I would scour the length and breadth of the land if necessary, but come back I would with my Cardus booty. Surely, in some nook and cranny of the Old Country would stand some of the glorious books in splendid oak shelves, waiting for my hands to fall on them, ending a wait of two decades.

 

And thus began the chase…

 

********************************************

 

The hunt begins before the ship docks in Harwich. On the Stenaline boat, I login to the internet and search deep and wide to draw up lists of cricket book shops.

 

The immigration officer learns that I will be staying back for almost two more weeks after the departure of my wife and kid. “Why?” he asks.

 

“I will be going to two Test matches,” I reply, slightly uncomfortable.

 

It is perhaps the combination of professionalism and good-natured hospitality that keeps him from smirking or countering with a jibe. Indians on the tour have not really done us proud.

 

The first night in London is spent with a school friend of my wife. I learn that her husband, Suvro, is a cricket fan. I am apprehensive in these matters. Cricket can mean too many things in these days of corporate diversification.

 

At one end of the spectrum are a few who consider it a game played on the greens, by men in white, by artists who produce masterpieces in motion. Who profess, in the words of Cardus that –”(for) the great batsman … the bowling is his material, and out of it he can, if he be a Woolley, carve beauty before our eyes, beauty that is characteristic.

 

And the other extreme is crowded with ones who believe in painted performers emerging from dug outs, who gyrate in beat to the pelvic thrusts of the cheer leaders, who pay homage to the game around the sacred fire of burning effigies.

 

At yet other corners of the ‘cricket loving Indian space’ are the self-appointed social commentators, arm chair proletariats, who convert their own frustrations of ordinary life into righteous indignation at the endorsement riches earned by the living legends of the game through the sweat of their brow.

 

Suvro shows me a replica of the Ashes urn from the museum at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). He presents me with invaluable Bradman memorabilia. I know I have found an ally who will crouch close to the wicket as I try to snare out Cardus. I ask him about the master, and he points me to Blackwells at Oxford. “The most beautiful bookshop in the world,” he says. “Especially the Norrington Room.”

 

I leave their Rainbow Quay flat in the morning, having borrowed Sujit Mukherjee’s Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer for the long train journeys. Not found in Indian bookshops, the works of this late professor of Patna University were probably the closest any Indian cricket writing got to Neville Cardus. Wonder how many modern Indian fans have heard of him.

 

*

After a rainy day spent at the Jane Austen centre of Bath we reach Swansea and I visit the St. Helen’s cricket ground. It was in the older version of this picturesque ground overlooking the North Sea that in 1968 Garfield Sobers, playing for Nottinghamshire, hit the Glamorgan spinner Malcolm Nash for six sixes in an over.

 

In Swansea, I hear about the riots that have broken out in London and are fast spreading across the country. Pangs of worry burn furrows on the forehead. The head throbs anxiously about the safe passage of my wife and daughter who will leave the country in another couple of days. The heart frets loudly, speculating about the painstakingly drawn up itinerary getting jeopardised, but the soul is at rest. Rioters seldom loot books. And it will take some jolly good urchin to find something I have not been able to till now. Would I loot a shop if I witnessed a first edition Neville Cardus through the glass window? These are unsettling questions of moral fortitude.

 

*

The country side of England is lush green. The wild outgrowths off and on, so absent in the perfection of European fields, add to the charming beauty like the rough edges in the technique of a raw talent. The long train rides bring on all the associations of déjà vu. I have read all about them, in works of the giants, from Charles Dickens to Thomas Hardy, from Conan Doyle to P.G. Wodehouse, from Somerset Maugham and to not the least Cardus. From the train I sight a match being played in the village green. His words ripple back to memory from the light of other days.

 

“Onward we walk, feeling the ripe contentment of England in summer time everywhere. And now we are visited by extreme bliss: the lane makes a curve – a gesture of invitation. We turn around the bend, knowing that some delectable sight is waiting for us. Here is another fence, a wide casement in the shade of the lane, and sunlight comes through and shines on the road like water. We see through it our cricket match; it is going on in a little field tucked away in the countryside. And… we stop, lean over the fence and watch the play.”

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)

Part two of “Chasing Cardus – The saga of a treasure hunt across England” will be published tomorrow, October 18, 2011

 

Click here for Part 2

 

Click here for Part 3

 

Click here for Part 4