Sachin Tendulkar released his autobiography on November 6 © IANS
Sachin Tendulkar released his autobiography on November 6 © IANS

Sachin Tendulkar’s ghosted autobiography ‘Playing It My Way’ had all the ingredients to become an enthralling read. However, Chuzzlewit finds it riddled with shortcomings.

One fact after another

“How do I define history? It’s just one f**** thing after another.”

That is Rudge’s answer to question posed by the mock interview panel in The History Boys, the 2006 movie based on Alan Bennett’s play.

It scandalised the interviewers — particularly Douglas Hector, played by Richard Griffiths.

Such simplification of history is considered outrageous. Now imagine if this same answer turns out to be an accurate description of the biography of one of the greatest cricketing legends of all time.

Perhaps it is a result of being ghost-written by a historian.Whatever be the reason, the most jarring thing about Sachin Tendulkar’s much awaited autobiography Playing It My Way seems to be that it is presented as a series of events one after the other — narrated in chronological order, starting from the icon’s childhood to the final Test match.

It can be perfectly all right for a biography to be written in chronological order. Sometimes, such a presentation is useful for quick reference. However, narrating fact after fact after fact of a 25-year-long cricketing career can get tedious. Especially if there is hardly any literary quality in the entire work to liven things up, and it reads like a long, placid office memo.

Cricket has produced more admirable literature through the ages than any other sporting endeavour. And biographies and autobiographies, from the very early days, have remained the pride of the cricketing shelves.

Be it the unique storytelling manner of Cricketing Coals by HV Hordern, to the thought provoking Batting From Memory by Jack Fingleton, right up to the modern Opening Up by Mike Atherton, cricketers who wrote their own stories have often performed a commendable job. One may not even bring professional biographers like Gideon Haigh or AA Thomson or Stephen Chalke or Duncan Hamilton into the picture here.

Even ghost-written stories have often been excellent reads. Coming Back to Me, Marcus Trescothick’s struggles with his ailment, ghosted by Peter Hayter, was a superb effort.

This is where Boria Majumdar, the co-author of this work, ends up way short of the mark. The thick, voluminous, book is not short of matter or material, but is written with a lack of style that sticks out like a sore thumb through every page. There is no drama built up, no literary devices used, no subtle usage of words or description to take the reader along on the journey. A potentially great story is told like a long, monotonous drone.

Like a flawed Wikipedia

An account of match after match, with certain miniscule details in some cases, and most often a puerile ‘write in words’ transformation of the available scorecard — all this together prove to be a damp squib after all the eager anticipation. In patches, it reads as drab as a sales report — only barely as enticing. A dramatic career, with a fascinating story of a teenage sensation who grew to be one of the greatest icons in the sporting world, reads like a gigantic Wikipedia entry.

If even the romance between the protagonist and the lady of his life reads like minutes of meeting, it is cause for concern.

Besides, there are plenty of other flaws in the entire structure of the book.

The Test career of Sachin Tendulkar stretches across 24 years, and has been dissected often enough for ardent fans to remember each and every scorecard in detail.It is hardly worthwhile for the reader to go over brief descriptions of each Test match, most of which are obviously reverse engineered from the scorecards. There is Wisden for that purpose, and numerous cricket websites.

But, this constitutes most of the book. The tell-tale signs are all too glaring. 24 years are a lot of summers and winters of cricket. It is quite apparent that old matches are not remembered with ease. Hence, scorecards are crudely restructured into prose.

Hence, the description of the first ever 50 in Test cricket becomes “I managed to play 172 balls en route my first half-century in Test cricket and was finally dismissed by Imran for 59. I was involved in a 143-run partnership with Sanjay Manjrekar, and though I hit only four boundaries, the innings gave me a lot of satisfaction.” I guess one gets what I am driving at.

As the years roll by, the memories become fresher and are dealt with in more detail. Hence, relevant but minor One-Day Internationals (ODIs) of the 2000s are covered with far more words than the magnificent centuries at Birmingham 1996 or Cape Town 1997.

Similarly, gems such as the spectacular 96 in the 1990-91 Ranji Final are not even mentioned. However, the 2013 match at Lahli is dealt with in detail.

If the man himself fails to remember, the job of the hired hack is to get enough eye-witnesses and reports of the day to make up for the gaps. However the ghost-writer, a historian at that, fails miserably in this area.

Not many fans often realise the uphill road that a cricketer has to trek before reaching the rewarding summit. Hence, thousands would have been interested not in these telegraph-language accounts of each Test match, but in the story of the maestro’s growth from a promising young lad to an established boy wonder.

However, apart from certain anecdotes about the days with Ramakant Achrekar, there is hardly any detail about his journey to the top. After some rather haphazard sampling of events from Tendulkar’s childhood — is the reader really interested in when he had Chinese food for the first time? — we are given glimpses of Achrekar’s coaching and suddenly it is time to turn out for Bombay and India.

It is only later, while narrating the exploits of the established cricketer, do we come to know that earlier Sachin Tendulkar had visited England with Kailash Gattani’s Star Cricket Club. While there are at least some stories of his Yorkshire experience, we learn next to nothing of those early experiences. Given there were many interactions of an early Tendulkar with an early Sourav Ganguly and early VVS Laxman, we miss out on what could have been magnificent anecdotes.

What else is wrong?

There are factual mistakes.

“The Ranji Trophy, the premier domestic competition in India, was started in 1933-34, after the famous KS Ranjitsinhji, Indian cricket’s first global figure, who played for England against Australia in 1896.” Thus reads a complicated compound sentence which is typical of the book.

First of all, Ranji did not play for England against Australia only in 1896. His Test career stretched to 1902. It is a curious way of relating facts, especially if we consider this is being told by a historian.

Besides, it is not even mentioned that Ranji was a prince, the beauty of his batsmanship. This was a splendid opportunity to weave in a bit of history of Indian cricket, with some allusions to Ranji’s silk shirt and later his regal attire. Any writer worth his salt would have used this opportunity to travel down the road of Indian batsmanship. No such effort is made.

An account can indeed convey the details match after match after match, but there remains room for information and stylistic devices to make it more readable. David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy is a defining example. If that seems too foreign, even A History of Indian Cricket by Mihir Bose can be referred to.

There are other more glaring factual errors as well.

“I remember telling John Wright after he took over as coach of India in 2005 …” Sorry, Wright took over five years earlier.

“After being dropped on 33, [Gooch] went on to make a triple hundred.” It was 36 when Kiran More spilled the catch.

“The other thing that I tried in that [Ahmedabad 1996] Test for the first time was to get Rahul Dravid to bat at three and Sourav Ganguly at five. Though we reverted to Sourav at three and Rahul at five in the deciding third Test of the series, and the first two Test in South Africa shortly afterwards, we repeated the experiment in the third and final Test at Johannesburg …”

The truth is that Dravid batted at No 3 at Ahmedabad because Ganguly did not play in the match. In the second Test at Kolkata, Dravid opened and Ganguly came in at No 3. In the first Test at Durban, Dravid batted at No 6. And in the second Test at Cape Town he opened the innings again.

Tendulkar’s memory can play tricks after such a long career, but the scorecards are just a click away. It is just unpardonable for the writer to miss it.

There are other minor mistakes.

For example, the mongoose at Eden did not appear sporadically during the Hero Cup semi-final. It makes a good story if one insists that every time it came on the ground South Africa lost a wicket, but the fact remains that it had entered the ground midway through the innings and had remained in the field of play till the very end. However, even when such a story is concocted by merging fact and fiction, the style lack of style ensures that it falls flat on the face.

Some other shortcomings stem from rather ordinary attempts at translating Hindi into English. Sorry, ‘bachche’ is not newcomer. Neither can ‘dum’ be translated into ‘skill’. And there are plenty of better translations of ‘diya’ than ‘a kind of candle’.

Redeeming features

There are redeeming features in the book. One always wondered whether Tendulkar would be candid enough to dwell on certain topics. He covers some, which makes it worthwhile. At the same time, he avoids other issues, which is a little disappointing.

The Multan declaration issue is covered in detail. Tendulkar’s version of the story is narrated in full.  We learn of the sudden changes of instruction and alarming gap in communication. The legend makes it clear that his discontent more than just missing the double hundred. He also talks at length about the Sydney Test of 2003-04. Tendulkar candidly states that at Sydney the declaration had been delayed and had an actual effect on the result in that game, and that was mainly because Dravid had insisted on batting on as he neared his hundred. The declaration was made, but not before the then vice-captain was struck on the head at 91. It is a study in contrasts between two decisions which reads quite forthright and revealing. It may come as a shocker to many.

While dwelling on the Multan matter, Tendulkar also guns for Sanjay Manjrekar. The legend states that the former Indian batsman had no clue about what transpired in the dressing room during Multan, and thus had little idea of what he was talking about when he so eloquently praised the decision as a positive one.

Obviously, the Greg Chappell-issue is discussed, as is quite well known by now. Tendulkar’s take on that era is perhaps justified to an extent, but one has the lingering feeling that the results achieved by the Indian team during that time are not entirely reflected. Yes, there was the World Cup debacle, but India did also go through some successful phases. While the insecurity is recounted, the moments of success are not.

There are some other intriguing points dealt with in a hurry. One such is the call not to impose follow-on at Ahmedabad in 1999. Tendulkar summarily dismisses it as a team decision. At times, he questions the various choices of the selectors during the period of his captaincy.

Certain umpiring howlers are analysed. The Mike Denness-affair and Monkeygate are dealt with in detail. One thing rings out loud and clear from the Harbhajan-Symonds episode and his analysis of Australian captains: The journalists in the Australian media who have made such a hue and cry about the contents of the book in past few days have not bothered to read the work at all.

And there is the account of an enjoyable discussion with Ian Chappell in 2010, which Tendulkar fans will find fascinating. The icon tells us how he let Ian Chappell know what he thought about his 2007 analysis about Tendulkar’s future. The master does not pull punches. He also raises a pertinent question. If such a statement had been made by an Indian ex-cricketer journalist about a top Australian cricketer, would it have ever made it to the headlines of Sydney Morning Herald?

There are some parts in the book which deal with the effects of excessive adulation as well as excessive criticism. There is also a chapter dealing with the way pressure built up on him due to the encroaching milestone of the hundredth hundred.

Yes, there are a handful of anecdotes which have never been related before, but they are rather few in number.

A lot left unsaid

Yet, several rather weighty issues are conspicuously ignored. These most obviously include match-fixing, his deteriorating relations with Mohammad Azharuddin, and more importantly Vinod Kambli. The young Kambli is shown, flying a kite while batting in a school match. But the older Kambli seldom appears in the narrative.

Hence, a lot of facts fans wanted to know about are left unsaid.

The World Cup win is described in detail. The euphoria and ecstasy is combined with the problems of the life of a mega-celebrity in India. There are a lot of physical and social problems that he talks about, the many difficulties he has faced all his life. Unfortunately, the quality of writing can make neither the pleasure nor the pain poignant enough to strike a chord by itself. Tendulkar fans will readily identify with their hero, but they didn’t need the book for it. The rest of the readers will find it a hard time to stay awake.

As the book progresses down the years, the descriptions become more detailed. At the same time, a lot of important events are lost amidst the excessive focus on back to back facts.

We hardly see Anil Kumble assume captaincy before we learn of it during the Monkeygate episode. We do not get to know when Duncan Fletcher suddenly assumed his role as the coach. Surprisingly, the 2001-2 tour to West Indies is not dealt with at all. However, there is a detailed analysis of how the great man countered Pedro Collins. Many cricket lovers may find this description quite enthralling.

The greater amount of detail in the final stages comes with its own burden. The final period of the career, after the World Cup win, was hardly a memorable one for the legend. Often the concluding parts read as if he wants to find ways to justify his many dismissals for low scores during this period. Perhaps that was not the intention, but the writing surely gets in the way of anything else that Tendulkar might have wanted to convey.

Finally we all know about some of the injuries. There are many we did not have any idea about. There are gory details of the same.

Yes, one can relate to the pains the hero has gone through in order to serve his nation for so many years with such impeccable results.

However, the quality of writing makes sure that it reads like a comprehensive medical report — without the literary merits that can be found in even a prescription.

Complete coverage of Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography Playing it My Way

(S Chuzzlewit is a chronicler who sees the world of cricket through a sometimes light-hearted and often brutal lens)