Everybody has that one uncle in the family. Or perhaps it’s an avuncular boss or mentor. The one that’s seen the world and its faces, and who brings back stories as souvenirs. One sunny afternoon, you both sit at a table in the verandah of the exclusive club he’s signed you into as his guest, and the anecdotes and subsidised drink flow freely. You’ve heard some of them before and he is rambling, but you indulge him, waiting, knowing a delicious new tidbit that surprises, entertains and informs is on the other side of the easy guffaws he’s induced in himself from the latest round of reminisces.
Makarand Waingankar’s A Million Broken Windows is that uncle if he was telling you about the heyday of Bombay cricket.
So much of cricket is an extension of personal memory after all, and the book, with its evocative title that resonates with anyone who has lifted a bat or its likeliness on a flat piece of earth or thereabouts, promises much nostalgia. Waingankar, an unapologetic Mumbai enthusiast with four decades of reporting on the sport behind him, is in his element. These are stories of a different time – it is always Bombay, never Mumbai, cricket for Waingankar – and of a different kind of cricketer: of a sixty-plus Madhav Apte saving a match; a Test player benched by Madhav Mantri for being five minutes late to a club game; the audacity of declaring with a lead of 150; on-field competitors offering scooter rides to one another off it; sledging that involved “Yeh kya hua” renditions to an increasingly infuriated Baroda; young Tendulkar and Gavaskar …
The colour is most vivid and the Bombay spirit most seductive in the descriptions of the Kanga league, that unique monsoon contest with its mud-soaked flannels and the “mischievous meddling of the weather gods”. It was a contest played for the joy of it, insists Waingankar: “It was not a ladder for anything … It was played because of a certain respect for cricket.” And it is written about, too, with the strongest respect for the game.
The rear-view approach means the book can be mildly anachronistic: in an age of paternity leave and ‘family first’ team ethos on one hand and IPL windfall and journeyman cricketers on the other, talk of “duty as a cricketer” appears dated (for better or for worse), and instances of players putting aside personal grief or celebration or ambition for the game elicit less aggrandising than they once would. So what saves the book from being a saccharine sepia-tinted tribute is the author’s attempt to examine what it is about Mumbai and its cricket that enabled the side to win a record 40 Ranji Trophy titles.
“What is it with Bombay?” he asks at the start; it is a question raised several times through the book, with players past and present attempting a distillation of the game’s essence in the city. Explored are the competition, the indefatigability of the players, the famous khadoos attitude, the ability to bounce back (like a “sleeping lion [shaken] from its slumber”), and the city itself: “The challenges of life in Bombay act as a sieve that separates the weak-hearted from the lion-hearted.”
Importantly, there is no attempt to rest on past glory. Ravi Shastri, in the player interviews section, describes the philosophy of ‘talking cricket’ – the knowledge passed on in the dressing room from one generation to the next. While every player appears part of a continuum leading to success, the “gharana” needs to keep up with the times: “No one can become a good player by relying on inheritance”.
The narrative, however, misses a nuanced discussion about the cricket club culture of the city; it is an aspect of the game that cannot be limited to references in a chapter on the Kanga League. This perhaps would have also allowed a recognition of those beyond the XI taking the field, the administrators, the coaches, the patrons, the schools and colleges – and those left behind to pick up the pieces of those broken windows.
The staccato structure of the work allows a reader to open any page and find an interesting anecdote (and there’s a stack full of trivia), but that is at the expense of flow and context, and opens up a tendency to repetition. So you have, awkwardly sandwiched between chapters on bowling and the Kanga League, and Tendulkar v Gavaskar and “interesting matches”, an attempt at a Best Bombay XI. “My heart and fingers tremble at the prospect of proposing Best Bombay XI. How can I choose mere XI players from a plethora of geniuses?” asks an adequately contrite Waingankar acknowledging the ambition of the exercise. It is an XI that is hard to argue against – and it would be just as hard to argue against the inclusion of a select few missing names; either way, you couldn’t win.
With this year’s Ranji Trophy less than a month away and a new-look Mumbai side aiming a recovery from an eventful season, Waingankar’s assertions about the “never-say-die attitude” of the side will be tested. For anyone getting ready to follow Mumbai’s progress from afar, the book is a valuable introduction to a long tradition.
A Million Broken Windows