Raju Mukherji, now 72, occasionally lets fall words and sentences which suggest he has finally put his feet up. That he hasn’t come home when he lets you in on the drift of his thoughts on cricket. He’s alive to the latest piece of information and can fashion a story around it, embellished with references to the past. He’s also still at it, though with the grandson, a little bundle of irrepressible energy, he dotes on. And we’re all ears when Mukherji talks cricket. He’s done so much in the game – playing, leading teams, coaching, spotting talents as major as MS Dhoni, heading selection panels, writing books and reports and columns and blogs, appearing on television, doing radio work, being a match referee in the Indian Premier League – his voice is authoritative. Stalwarts of the past read – and react to – him. Few Indians, former cricketers of the highest aristocracy included, express themselves with quite the same lucidity as he does. Fewer still retain their spirit of inquiry, which enables Mukherji to probe the past and endow it with fresh angles of research which enrich our knowledge of the game. Though initially reluctant to be interviewed, because he wasn’t excessively enamoured of contemporary cricket, warts and all, Mukherji told Pulakesh Mukhopadhyay how he thought cricket was going now.
Q: Twenty20 is the flavour of the season, it seems. So much so that Tests appear to have been eclipsed. How do you feel about it?
A: Let’s take the example of music. Test cricket is classical music whereas T20 and similar stuff are pop music. No, Test cricket has not been eclipsed. Every genuine cricketer still feels that Test cricket is the real “test” of a cricketer. By its very nature, Test cricket takes a meandering path while the current innovations are designed to suit the supposed “fast-paced” lifestyle of today.
Q: Do you think the three different formats result in an identity crisis for the game? And, after the Asia Cup, there’s the T20 World Cup in Australia. Do you think whoever wins in Australia will necessarily hold an advantage in the global event?
A: No. These words like an advantage, form are created by the media to sensationalise sport. It has nothing to do with sporting skills. The result depends on whether one is good enough or not. The best players are those who adapt to all conditions, environments, circumstances, and situations. Legends like Bradman, Sobers, George Headley and other greats never offered any excuses for their rare failures. By sheer merit, they proved themselves superior to the rest in every conceivable scenario.
Q: India hasn’t won any International Cricket Council trophies for quite some time now. Do you think the World Cup will once again put India to the test? Do our team foozle it sometimes because the format itself doesn’t admit to a quick recovery?
A: You win some; you lose some. That’s what sport is all about. I know this is the most obvious. But at times one needs to repeat the obvious because cricket communicators bring forward peculiar perspectives to confuse cricket followers. When India won in 1983 no one expected India to win. When India had six world-class cricketers in the team we lost in 2003.
Q: How serious a challenge will Twenty20s face in the future from The Hundred, T10s and other abbreviated formats?
A: Every format will have its own space and time.
Q: Some people have said Test cricket will eventually have to be moved on from so more Twenty20s can be played for money, with cricketers backing the move. What do you think?
A: Earning money is fine. Everybody needs money. But if money becomes the primary objective, then why choose the noble game of cricket? There are so many other professions, smuggling, for instance, where I understand there is much more easy money to be made.
Q: How do you feel when the conventional game is edged out in terms of the handling of it by, say, the IPL? Should making money be the sole objective of the cricket board?
A: I am against franchise cricket, not against representative cricket in any form. When you find a player volunteering to be auctioned for money, you immediately think of those awful days of slavery. That’s certainly not a healthy sign. Recently, Ross Taylor mentioned that he had been dealt harshly with physically by a man who had invested money in him! Can you imagine someone being manhandled for failing to get runs? Absolutely disgusting. As a match referee in the IPL, I have witnessed some terrible behaviour of team officials towards players. Since these are private teams, the “auctioned players” dare not raise their voices in protest. They remain quiet and accept all insults because of Vitamin M which acts as a primary tonic. If a cricketer comes down to the level of a slave, then as a cricket-lover that’s not the ideal situation for me.