I have always felt that great cricketers make poor writers.
Writing requires the discipline and sage-like patience of the first session of a Test match. And I believe most great players have run out of their patience and hence choose to either steal cheeky singles or go for the almighty slog while writing their books.
I had read Allan Donald’s White Lightning – but the book tells us a lot about the man, his thinking, and his motivations – but reveals little about apartheid, and the colourful days of South Africa’s return to cricket. Shoaib Akhtar’s Controversially Yours suffered from the author ‘performing’ too much. In his effort to present a colourful story, Shoaib sacrifices narrative for histrionics.
And then, the most boring book I’ve ever read in my life – Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way – written in collaboration with Bore-ya Mazumdar. Sachin’s book – like his track record in Rajya Sabha – is devoid of any excitement. It has been stripped of any human emotion like fear, envy or resentment.
Which brings me to Sanjay Manjrekar.
My earliest memories of Sanjay Manjrekar are of confusing him with Sachin Tendulkar. They were both openers, and around the same height. They both batted with impeccable technique, but for a few key differences – Sanjay wore a white helmet and played a lot slower than Sachin did.
He was however, a terrific fielder – and has pulled off some amazing catches in his playing days. I also recall that he retired sometime around 1997 and then went on to sing songs, before finding his voice in the commentary box.
Now, the problem with writing a book in India is the classic India question – Tune Kya Kiya Hai, bhai?
It is a problem people like Sanjay Manjrekar and Murali Karthik face in the commentary box. Every time they make a comment on a player’s game, the first thing trolls ask on social media is ‘What right do YOU have to talk about a player like Kohli’? Unfortunately, in our pea-brained understanding of critique, you have to achieve something equal or greater than the person you are critiquing to be able to say anything about the person.
Sanjay Manjrekar – a well read and erudite cricketer – knows the importance of an impactful first chapter. And he takes a leg stump guard from the very first ball. In fact, the very first line in the book talks about how the author has never touched a bat since the day he retired. That his idea of a perfect day is to sit in the darkness of a theater and watch a movie. That if his father wasn’t Vijay Manjrekar, he probably would have been something else in life.
Sanjay Manjrekar understands the importance that cynicism plays in the life of an Indian, and rests those fears from the first over. Having forced the reader to change his line and length, Sanjay Manjrekar goes on to play the steady, assured innings that he had built a reputation for.
What Manjrekar does differently – and thank god for that! – is refusing to rabble in numbers and statistics. I find most Indian autobiographies to be detailed statistical sheets. What he does instead, is to make it an engaging personal story. The name ‘Imperfect’ makes a lot of sense as you go on to read about the man, his obsession with technique, and the constant, looming fear of a perfectionist.
Instead of cramming the book with chronological numbers and statistics, Manjrekar takes a path of his own. The first chapter is dedicated to his father – the legendary Vijay Manjrekar – and yet, he does not adopt a reverential tone. Chucking a chronological narrative, the author has divided the chapters as ‘Pakistan’, ‘West Indies’, ‘Australia’ – and my favourite – Mumbai school of batting.
Having read Arvind Adiga’s Selection Day, I have been fascinated with Mumbai, and the constant churning out of batting geniuses who arrive from the jagged shorelines of Mumbai. In the chapter ‘Mumbai school of batting’, Manjrekar lays bare the grind, grime and grit that makes Mumbai kids bat for days at stretch. There are wonderful snippets – like the ‘mantra’ Mumbai kids tell themselves before every ball – ‘I am not going to get out this ball’.
The book also changed my opinion on a few characters – Ravi Shastri and Gavaskar, for example. I generally find the duo overbearing and omnipresent. But reading the book, I was able to see Shastri in new light. A man who could have chilled out, joined politics, run a business – and earned millions. But the fact that he has been involved with cricket since the day he retired – is proof of his love for the game. Similarly too, with Gavaskar. There are heart-warming stories of Gavaskar being Sanjay’s senior at Nirlep (cricketers in those days worked desk jobs during off-seasons), and how Gavaskar would give him advice to tackle bouncy pitches from his cabin.
There is also my personal favourite – the much-maligned Manoj Prabhakar. Stories of his humanity, his jest, and how he was the first Indian bowler to learn the art of reverse swing from the Pakistanis. One of my pet-goals in life is to redeem Manoj Prabhakar in Indian media, and Manjrekar’s book paints a warm picture of the man who bore the brunt for match-fixing.
Instead of talking down to the reader, Sanjay peppers the book with wonderful anecdotes
But more than anything, the book is an honest portrayal of the man himself. For someone who sounds unabashedly biased towards India in the commentary box, Sanjay Manjrekar displays tremendous maturity as a writer. He is comfortable talking about his slide, his lack of form, or the need for fame.
He has no qualms admitting that he wanted the ‘fame’ that came with Indian cricket. He admits to shouting at Mumbai bowlers while he was the state captain. He also admits that he was not the most talented and used hard-work and OCD-levels of preparation in his technique. He bares his heart out in the portions where he was dropped from the national side, and on playing in the domestic league after tasting the giddying heights of being a national player.
Sanjay Manjrekar comes across as a logical, rational, disciplined man. A man obsessed with his craft, a man who clamoured for fame, but also realised when he saw Rahul Dravid, ‘that his time was up’.
The last cricket book I read – Sachin’s Playing it my way – reads like a Sanjay Manjrekar innings of the 90s – slow, safe, steady. Sanjay’s book reads like a Sachin Tendulkar innings in the late 2000s. He starts a little shakily, takes time to settle in, and then pulls out glorious drives, completely at ease.
Sanjay Manjrekar’s Imperfect could not have been better named. It is humane, witty, and a thoroughly satisfying read. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best cricket-based book that I’ve read.