Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai picks Indian cricket's Best XI in his new book Democracy's XI

Oct 22, 2017, 10:04 IST | Jane Borges

Mumbai's monsoon had probably never cast such a pallid gloom in the Sardesai household as it did, around 10 years ago in the month of June. Veteran cricketer Dilip Sardesai lay fighting for his life on the hospital bed of the ICU at the Bombay Hospital in Churchgate. The meds refused to alleviate the pain, and for once, Dilip, who "never even winced when being struck by a hard, five-and-a-half-ounce cricket ball", appeared to be giving up. Yet, when the TV set in the corner of the room, relayed a rather, sorry dismissal of Rahul Dravid in an India Vs Ireland match, Dilip couldn't help but take stock and react with an expletive. "How could he get out like that? I can understand other batsmen getting out like that, but not Rahul. He is technically perfect!" his son Delhi-based Rajdeep, editor of a leading television news channel, recounts him as saying in his new book, Democracy's XI (Juggernaut Books). Exactly a week later, on July 2, Dilip passed away.

Dilip's obsession with the game of bat and ball now gets a fitting tribute within the pages of his son's narrative, which tells of the meritocratic rise of 11 cricketing legends -- Bishan Singh Bedi, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni among the many -- who shaped the sport's history in democratic India. "I had three motivations to write this book," says Rajdeep in a telephonic interview. "For starters, if we want to celebrate the fact that we are now a champion team, I think it was important to tell the story of Indian cricket, as it happened over the last 70 years. Second, I wanted to show how, unlike our Bollywood stars, our sporting heroes, who are the real superstars, are driven by raw talent, hard work and sacrifice. Lastly, I wanted to point out how cricket breaks barriers and unites the country like nobody does."

The result is a book filled with interesting vignettes, personal encounters and interviews with friends, relatives and peers, to give a bite-sized, yet wholesome tale, of Rajdeep's favourite XI and their sweet struggles, on and off-field. "The cricketers I chose for this book were a very personal choice," Rajdeep clarifies, before we accuse him of forgetting significant names. "I was very clear that I wanted to write about cricketers I had met and spoken to extensively. Two of them had passed away (Dilip and Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi), but I had interacted with them extensively. The other nine are simply people who represent a specific generation. So, the 70s is represented by Gavaskar, the 80s by Dev, and the 90s by Tendulkar, and Mohammad Azharuddin. Dhoni and Virat Kohli represent 21st century India. I guess there was an element of a chronological order," he says.

"But, at its core, the book is also a story of cricket and India, and how the country moved from a land of scarcity, where you had one bat, and you were lucky to have that, to an India where you have dozens of bats, and multi-million contracts for them," says Rajdeep, while referring to Virat Kohli's R100 crore-plus eight-year bat contract with MRF.

His own father, Rajdeep recalls, received a meager R250 per Test match with no extra allowances. "The one time he signed a formal contract with a bat manufacturer in 1965 (the year he scored his first Test century), he got no money, but a guarantee of three new bats a year," he says.

That the game has changed phenomenally is not unknown. But, the nature of the sport remains the same. "It still banks only on talent," says Rajdeep, who before his successful stint with journalism, harboured dreams of following in his father's footsteps. Rajdeep also captained Mumbai schools and played first-class cricket at Oxford.

"My father would often tell me, 'I am not going to be on the field to score runs for you. You are going to have to do that'. But, there came a stage when I realised that I wasn't good enough. I probably didn't have the fire in the belly, because I didn't have to struggle like him," he confesses.

Having said that, Rajdeep still follows the game passionately. And, like any ultimate fan boy, is still curious about the lives of the legends on the field. The book, he says, was a good excuse to dig deeper. It also helped him finally clinch an interview with Dhoni, who for reasons known to him best has a strict "no-interview" policy. "I told Dhoni I was my father's son, and that worked," he says of how he convinced the former captain to speak for this book. "Also, many years ago in 2008, when my son, who is a big fan of his, and I, ran into him during breakfast at the hotel in Mohali, where he was put up, Dhoni came up to me, saying 'there are only two journalists I like on television – one is Dr Prannoy Roy and the other is you'. It made my son's day, and it also helped me break the ice with him," says Rajdeep.

When the two met in May this year, Rajdeep recalls Dhoni giving him a straight three hours for the interview. "It was terrific because, he switched off his phone, and put a 'do not disturb' board. If you manage to break that wall, Dhoni can be quite honest. Personally, speaking to him was quite a life-learning experience for me," says Rajdeep. "One thing that stayed with me was his focus and how he takes life one step at a time. So, when he was a railway ticket conductor at Kharagpur, he was only thinking of how he would move up from a Class 3 employee to a Class 2. He wasn't thinking about lifting the World Cup in 10 years. I think that's a lesson for all of us," he adds.

One name that we found to be a curious addition to Rajdeep's XI was Kohli, whose story is far from complete, and still in the making. Here, the author confesses, he "succumbed to market pressures", because how do you write a book on Indian cricket without writing about its most upcoming icon? "But, in a way, Kohli symbolises the millennial star. For my son and daughter's generation, Kohli is the hero of their age, in a way that Gavaskar was for mine. And, I keep saying that Gavaskar's batting reflected that era of pre-liberalisation, which was an era where you had to live in self-denial because you couldn't get all the facilities you have today. Today's generation is in your face, aggressive and an era of plenty. I guess Kohli is a product of that," he says, ending, "I could never imagine Gavaskar with tattoos. It's a reflection of our times."

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