Ramnarayan's book has heartwarming tales from a bygone era in Indian cricket. © Wisden India

Ramnarayan's book has heartwarming tales from a bygone era in Indian cricket. © Wisden India

Cricket was never far away for the average Indian kid growing up in the pre-internet era. The verandah of the house was Eden Gardens and the concrete alley adjacent to a friend’s place was the homespun version of the bouncy Perth pitch. Not far away in a vacant plot was the Bull Ring and on a rainy day Lord’s or Headingley were at your doorstep. In the evenings and on holidays, the action shifted to a proper field where intense battles were fought, tagged as “friendlies”. And everytime a milestone was achieved the applause of an imaginary crowd was soaked in dutifully. Such innocent childhood reminiscences and the flavours of Sujit Mukherjee’s Autobiography of an unknown cricketer were revived while reading Third Man – Recollections from a life in cricket.

V Ramnarayan describes himself as a magazine editor, author and teacher on his twitter handle, but the cricketing fraternity knows him more as an offspinner who may have been an international had his career not run concurrently with that of S Venkataraghavan and Erapalli Prasanna. That he was eternally positioned third in the queue gave birth to the book’s title.

Ramnarayan’s penchant for a good cricket story, especially from his playing days, is well established through his Wisden India columns. So, it is not surprising that he has elaborated his thoughts in an absorbing manner with a healthy dose of humour in his book.

Brought up on an abundant diet of cricket, music and literature in a Tamil Brahmin household in Chennai just after India’s independence, Ramnarayan’s all-round personality shines through in the pages.

Yes, at places his tone turns into a rant of missed opportunities and lack of adequate support from teammates, selectors and administrators, and he repeatedly tries to justify his stance on various matters. That his first-class debut came only after he moved from Chennai to Hyderabad because of his day job with State Bank of India, at a belated age of 28, might have had role to play in it. But such deep impression of events from three decades back also proves to be one of the book’s salient features. When modern-day cricketers have remained guarded in public, Ramnarayan’s honesty – helped by perspectives gained over time – provides a refreshing insight into the frustrations and insecurities of a professional sportsperson.

As Suresh Menon, the Wisden India Almanack editor, mentions in the foreword, Ramnarayan is both an insider and outsider to the game. The author has used the combination well, using his career’s ups and downs to build a narrative that could easily define a fringe cricketer from any generation.

The book has much more substance in it than just rants and justifications. Ramnarayan has used his stop-gap career as a reference point to bring the readers closer to the characters of stalwarts like ML Jaisimha, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Syed Abbas Ali, Abbas Ali Baig and P Krishnamurthy – all of whom were his Hyderabad teammates – Prasanna, Hanumant Singh, VV Kumar, Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, Bishan Singh Bedi, Gundappa Viswanath among others. But, the volume’s unique selling proposition is the author’s tribute to the faceless pursuers of the game in the local leagues, who would have otherwise remained unknown outside their region.

For example, the readers are told about D Ranganathan – an effervescent figure in the Chennai league in the 1960s who was popularly known as Don Rangan for the way he empowered youngsters to fulfil their potential. Ranganathan could be someone else in some other city, relentlessly working hard in the background, encouraging rookies.

There are also good lessons on offspin – the author’s primary skill – and everything has been tied in crisply by Ramnarayan’s first-hand dressing room experience. Turn to page 293, and there is a story of “I am Nana from Poona”, while on page 329 the experience of Richard Hadlee and a few other New Zealand cricketers during their visit to Kalakshetra and Vidya Sagar in Chennai is bound to bring a spontaneous smile to the reader’s face.

The book has been divided broadly into three segments, but some of the chapters could have been combined and the length could have been much shorter than its current 348 pages. This is where the editor should have stepped in. Ramnarayan’s passion could have been channelised a bit more constructively, and the repetitions at many places could have been avoided.

Those issues aside, the book gives readers an idea of a semi-professional era when international cricketers travelled by train, fought rightfully for their share of hot water and orange juices in community accommodations, and distributed time between a day job and a nets session. A world much before the Indian Premier League made things comfortable and focussed.

“I long postponed this book because I believed no one would be interested in the story of a cricketer who did not play for India. My friends assure me otherwise. Every cricketer has a story to tell, they believe. The stories I tell are, according to them, stories they can relate to, the average cricket lover can enjoy.”

Ramnarayan begins his book with those words. He was right to pay heed to his friends, and has succeeded in striking a chord with the average cricket lover.

Third Man – Recollections from a life in cricket by V Ramnarayan
Westland
348 p, Rs 223 (Paperback edition, online)
Rating: 3.5/5