Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Personally, I'd choose cricketers over politicians": Rajdeep Sardesai

What provoked TV anchor Sardesai to marry both his passions in a single book?

Democracy's XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story, Rajdeep Sardesai's new book, brings out the other side of the prime time news show's host. In the book, he is Dilip Sardesai's son and that gives the reader a new perspective. The book has 11 chapters on 11 cricketers; one might debate the selection of the players or if it's really the all-time greatest team, but each chapter establishes itself as a great Indian cricket story.

The book starts with Dilip Sardesai: Renaissance man from Goa and ends with Virat Kohli: Millennial Master. That's the journey of Indian cricket, from Rs 250 per test match, bare heads and below mediocre equipment to the billionaire-perfectionist sports culture complemented by the million dollar brand endorsement deals. Cricket and the life of a cricketer have only grown in India and from Dilip Sardesai to Kohli the author depicts the story in its truest form.

"Personally, I'd choose cricketers over politicians": Rajdeep Sardesai

Democracy's XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story
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However, cricket romantic Rajdeep does not forget to induce his passion for politics in this book which he defines as a "love letter". One can easily make out that the author has cricket in his heart and politics on his mind which does justice to the title. He compares cricket to politics, depicts how cricket is now a world open for everyone and politics is still driven by dynasties and connections. "On the cricket field, there is no space for Hindu triumphalism or Muslim grievance, no question of Dalits being ostracised or a Kashmiri being alienated," this is an apt description from the book that sums up the politics-Cricket connection.

Rajdeep's first major book '2014: The Election That Changed India' has been a great success with over 1,00,000 copies already sold. The book has been translated into six different languages. Rajdeep refused to choose one of the two as his favourite; instead, he said both are like two individual children. afaqs! spoke to Rajdeep and in a candid chat, he takes us through his experiences while writing the book.

Edited Excerpts

You have a very busy on-air life; what motivates you to write books?

Politics and Cricket have been my two abiding passions. Politics, of course, because of my professional work as a journalist and cricket is a passion that I had from childhood. This is a game I played and was a part of my life because my father was a Test cricketer. So I always thought I have two books in me - one on Politics and another on Cricket. I guess I have exhausted my quota now.

What made you choose the title you did? It can easily be assumed that you are using a trending word and riding the mood of the nation to make it a commercial success.

In cricket today, if you have the talent and the quality, I think no one can deny you a place in the sport which is very different from the rest. Take politics for example; in India politics has unfortunately become a closed shop driven by families, dynasties, networking, and connections whereas cricket today has opened itself to a true meritocratic world, which is why today's cricketers come from across castes, regions, incomes etc; all barriers have been broken. I am a romantic when it comes to cricket; I see the sport as a celebration of what democracy can do if it provides equal opportunities to all.

How difficult was it to finalise on the 11 you did? One can always debate the selection.

That was a very difficult part. In hindsight, I think I should have done the book in partnerships. So a Kohli (Virat) should have been with Sehwag (Virender), Kumble (Anil) should have been with Dravid (Rahul) and Ajit Wadekar should have been with my father because they were both integral parts of what happened to Indian cricket in 1971.

The selection of these 11 was on the basis of my personal relationships with them. They are the people with whom I have had the privilege of interacting with, also, the players chosen in the book had an impact in the era they played in, both on and, in some cases, off the field and in the book I bring out those stories. So yes, I could have selected an entirely different level or I could have done two in every chapter, but there were only so many people I could interview.

Your book is titled 'Democracy's XI' and it shows how cricket is open for all and yet you don't feature a female cricketer; was that a conscious decision?

I regret not having a woman in the book. But remember, I finished writing the book in June this year and the fantastic run of the women's team in the World Cup happened in mid-July. Maybe I could have added one later, but that could have been seen as an afterthought.

The book, from your father to Virat Kohli, establishes the contrast of Indian cricket; was that always the idea?

Absolutely. That was one of the aims of the book, to show how cricket has gone up over the years. I wanted to draw a contrast to how cricketers in the early 50's and 60's had to struggle for their livelihood; how they had to play without helmets and proper equipment and played the game only as amateurs and not professionals, unlike today.

Why did you decide to start the book with your father?

The book is partly a personal journey and that is why it starts with my father. I candidly mentioned in the book that my father would not find a place in India's greatest XI, but he was the one who got me to the game first. Thus, it was necessary to start my story with him which is why my book starts in the late 50's and not 40's.

In the book you describe Dilip Sardesai as a street-smart cricketer because he kicked the ball across the boundary line to stop the batsman from running five; who do you think can do something like that today?

There has always been an Indian cricketer who could be described as street-smart. In the current team, you can call a Dhoni or a Jadeja a street-smart cricketer. Many cricketers, even today, come from 'Tennis ball' cricket or 'maidan' cricket and those experiences make you street-smart which is why I would say every generation throws up street-smart cricketers in India.

How challenging was it to write a chapter on Sachin Tendulkar? Since his autobiography is already published and he also released a movie on his life, did you fear it might get repetitive?

I believe we need to understand Sachin Tendulkar's mind; we all know his achievements, but this book is about understanding his mind. 11-year- old Sachin, 15-years- old Sachin, what was going on in his mind while he was growing up. Also, this book is done mainly on primary interviews, so I am not reciting his achievements, I am trying to understand what is going on in his mind and then I draw a contrast between him and a Kambli (Vinod) and others of that age. At an age of 15, he was playing for India while other 15-year- olds were struggling to solve their algebra problems. How did he deal with pressure; handle expectations? How he maintained durability over a certain period of time, is what I tried to reel out.

You are married to a Bengali; you are Bengal's jamaibabu and you write what Sachin Tendulkar is to India as what Sourav Ganguly is to Bengal; why do you describe him as a regional icon and not a national one?

Sourav Ganguly, to my mind, is a unique character. If you look at his support base, more than half of it comes from Bengal, at the very least. In Bengal you cannot say a word against Sourav; you can get away with it outside Bengal. In that sense he is a sub-national or a regional hero; like in politics, we have regional politicians and national politicians. Yes, Sourav was a very successful captain and he is much admired for it, but the obsessive support that he has in Calcutta is unparalleled when we look at other cricketers and that is what makes him Bengal's folk hero.

What are the challenges that you faced while penning this book down?

Naturally time was a big challenge when you're doing a marquee show every night, so half of your attention is always on the television. Thus, time-management was a huge challenge. The other challenge was that modern cricketers are very difficult to get access to; the Kohlis and Dhonis and I don't really know them personally, so I had to go through friends, contacts, and repeated WhatsApp messages to get through to them. I must have interviewed about 70 people over the course of a year and a half and the interviews with the main protagonists were about five to six hours each. Getting people to talk about themselves and then getting the recording transcribed also took a lot of time.

A Sachin Tendulkar interview versus a Narendra Modi interview; which would satisfy Rajdeep Sardesai more?

Purely in journalistic terms, a Narendra Modi interview will score higher than Sachin Tendulkar. Having said so, as a human being, I will choose cricketers over politicians. Whatever a cricketer achieves is through sheer talent, so my admiration for a cricketer would always be very high. But on professional terms, politicians will score over a cricketers.

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