The willow path to peace, Hamish McDouall

John Wright’s Indian Summers 
John Wright with Sharda Ugra and Paul Thomas
Hodder Moa Beckett, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869710620

In a sport largely populated by talented solipsists, former New Zealand captain John Wright has always stood out within cricket for his self-deprecating wit and affability. His first book, Christmas in Rarotonga, was funny and enlightening, infused with Wright’s honesty, and is often mentioned as one of the best contributions by a New Zealander to cricket’s canon. John Wright’s Indian Summers is very much cut from the same cream flannel. That his “ghosts” have managed to render John Wright’s charm and humour effectively is no surprise – Paul Thomas worked on Christmas in Rarotonga and clearly knows Wright well. He has shared roles this time with Sharda Ugra, the Indian Sportswriter of the Year for 2005, and I assume the source of some of the rich detail about the sub-continent found throughout the work.

This book is effectively a sequel, covering the denouement of Wright’s playing days, an uneasy drift through civilian life, and his return to the game as a coach. First he coached Kent and then, the heart of the book, Wright had over four years in charge of the Indian national side, a team that until then oscillated regularly between being incandescently brilliant to being utterly dire.

India’s collective consciousness seems bound to the performance of its cricket team, and it is extraordinary that a New Zealander was charged with sustaining the national psyche of that country’s one billion people. This is a country where, in the words of a famous quotation,“If you win, they name a street after you, and if you lose, they chase you down the same street.” Wright examines the complexities of managing a team made up of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, with further divisions of geography, age, language and caste. Many of these players are regarded by the populace as near deities. Wright’s ability to manage these demi-gods suggests that the snippets of man management advice found throughout the book are worth attention.

The coach in cricket is in the unenviable position of having to abrogate responsibility to the captain the moment the team walks onto the field of play. From that point the coach becomes a fretful spectator, burdened with uncomfortable dramatic irony, knowing the planned tactics and ability of the players but having no power to alter the course of events. Wright compares his job with that of the Indian prime minister at one point, noting “like coaches, politicians don’t have much in the way of job security”, but the coach has perhaps more in common with a theatre director. After innumerable rehearsals a production may still fall apart in front of an impotent director, and Wright imparts the same sense of frustration in his job.

There is no self-aggrandisement in this book, and just a smattering of ex post facto rationalisation. Wright’s attempt to defend a physical and verbal attack on a young player lacks conviction. His comment late in the book that the captaincy of the team needed to change is not backed up by any reasoning, and, having criticised many of the tour managers, he states he made “friends for life”. Balancing that obliqueness are some confessions to having erred at vital moments, honest assessments of his progress and understandable pride in relating historic successes India achieved during his time with them, including famous victories over Pakistan and Australia.

One chapter, “The Cone Man” (the president of the MCC described Wright as “the man who puts the cones out”), details Wright’s coaching philosophies, which occasionally journey into the territory occupied by The Little Book of Calm or Chicken Soup for the Soul. Inane dicta like “Simplicity is wisdom” and “Attitudes are habits of thought” are sprinkled liberally throughout the chapter. Much more satisfying are the gems that arise from match situations: “after all the practice, the fielding charts, the computer analysis and the team talks, you’re reduced to hoping like hell the other mob has an off-day.”

The tone of the book seems very much like that of a friend showing you his photo album of a recent trip to the sub-continent. It is told in episodic form or, in fact, in a series of small anecdotes. This is not meant pejoratively. The anecdote is as quintessential to cricket as statistics. Some of the stories are engaging, some seem irrelevant, and others have a surprising poignancy. Tales of his loneliness and separation from his family, 9/11, the deaths of his father and of Colin Cowdrey, and the poverty and dignity of the people of India are surprisingly powerful.

Some of these vignettes don’t work and, just like viewing a photo album, you end up wondering who some of these people actually are. But those snapshots that illuminate India in all its paradoxical glory are the most affecting. The stories of India’s tour to Pakistan in 2004 are particularly impressive. Wright evokes the bellicosity of the countries before undercutting this with anecdotes from the tour which reveal the hospitality Pakistanis extended, not only to the Indian team but also to the thousands of Indians who crossed the border on special “cricket visas”. Between attending matches many Indian fans visited villages where their families had lived before Partition:

They’d arrive unannounced, ask for the oldest resident and explain their family connection, and before long they’d be surrounded by villagers who’d known their grandparents. A number of Indians told me that Pakistanis wouldn’t allow them to pay for taxi rides or food.

 

These insights offer great hope for the future of southern Asia, and give context to politicians’ rhetoric about “the willow path to peace”.

Appropriately there are chapters devoted to the labyrinthine selection process, the lengths that current Indian greats went to in order to achieve success, the mind-boggling figures attached to media coverage, and the ordinary Indians’ obsession with the sport. These monographs break up the narrative but allow the reader a unique and rich glimpse into the bizarre world of Indian cricket.

Wright’s humour is full of charm, but often scattershot. Some of the similes are hackneyed, but then there are some winning phrases:  “Ganguly examined his bat and looked heavenwards before wending his way off the field like a man searching for his lost car keys.” And “By the time I finished, my Hindi vocabulary consisted of chalo (let’s go), jaldi (quickly) and A C bund (air conditioning off). But my pronunciation was impeccable.”

This book never transcends its categorisation as a sports book, but it contains enough opinions and stories about the game to keep any cricket fan content. While not reaching the status of Christmas in Rarotonga, John Wright’s Indian Summers is the former book’s companion piece and has, like the man himself, an honesty and affability that raises it above the ordinary sports fare of hagiography or prosecutorial brief.

 

Hamish McDouall is a cricket writer living in Auckland.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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