It’s not important that Aakash Chopra is just one book away from becoming the most prolific Indian Test cricketer turned writer of books in English, a mantle he might one day share with Sunil Gavaskar, who has authored four books. But, in the larger context, that fact underlines the paucity of first-hand player accounts in the world’s largest cricket market.
Chopra’s three books reflect his flair for the written word with original and compelling narratives. Beyond the Blues brought the readers up close with the frustrations of a fringe cricketer and the murky politics of the Delhi state cricket association. And Out of the Blue –the 2013 Wisden India Almanack Book of the Year – on Rajasthan’s rise from the bottom of the 27-team pile to their maiden Ranji Trophy triumph in 2010-11 is filled with touching, behind-the-scenes tales.
The latest – The Insider: Decoding the Craft of Cricket – offers a detailed breakdown of the game’s technicalities in a straightforward manner. Not all cricketers are good storytellers or can explain the operational aspects of their profession. Through his columns for various media publications, Chopra has showcased a knack for analysis, and this book is another confirmation of that.
Chopra reproduces numbers, anecdotes, styles and character, varied responses of players under pressure, and his understanding of different departments from his experience of more than three decades like a computer storage device.
Opening the batting in Test matches and fielding close to the bat are among the toughest jobs in cricket, which need more than just courage and fast, risk-assessing abilities. Having had a taste of both those roles, Chopra spells out the secrets.
He recalls a conversation with Michael Atherton, who told him that openers need to first concede that they are not perfect, and then work towards building a watertight game. Such awareness and taking a leaf out of Greg Chappell’s book are a few ways to handle failure better and regain form, Chopra says. He writes that Chappell believed every poor knock was a step closer towards getting back among the runs as a batsman usually scored well once in every fourth or fifth innings.
In the pages dedicated to fielding at short leg, Chopra gives a thumbs up to half-squats over full squats as it allows the fielder to maintain a fixed eye level, and remain focussed till the last moment. He stresses on the need to know the bowler’s plan in order to be prepared, and remembers an India A game where he would lie flat on the ground to protect himself the moment Ambati Rayudu pitched the ball short.
He also goes back to a session with Geet Sethi, the champion cueist, who defined concentration as the basic ability to stay in the present for a longer duration. Relating the observation back to cricket, Chopra explains the need to “soft focus” and “hard focus” between deliveries to be able to maximise output on the field. On the same subject, he shares Gavaskar’s insight on why many set batsmen get out immediately after reaching a milestone. There is a thorough explanation differentiating panicking from choking as well.
In another passage, Chopra exposes the flaws in the traditional ways of calling between partners when the ball is played behind the wicket, the requisites of a first slipper as compared to a second slipper, and gives a studied opinion on playing swing – both conventional and reverse.
He expresses a logical sympathy for wicketkeepers dropping catches off the inside edge, and speaks highly of offspinners who have adapted to survive across the three formats.
The book’s last segment analyses the freakish talents of MS Dhoni, Brendon McCullum, AB de Villiers, VVS Laxman, Mitchell Johnson, Virat Kohli, Glenn Maxwell, Sunil Narine and Lasith Malinga.
Not every assessment over the 46 chapters is new. Some are elementary, a few are repetitions, but the book is refreshing because, at a time when Twenty20 cricket is erasing the old school of thought, Chopra reminds us that the basics of the game remain the same.
The reader, therefore, is advised to approach the pages with a Test match mentality, soaking in the details and enhancing his or her game intelligence, instead of hurrying through.
The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket by Aakash Chopra
Harper Collins and ESPNcricinfo
240 pages, Rs 450