Whether people’s interest in it has waned or not, the IPL has managed to thrive year after year from when it first took off in 2008. Replete with scams and celebrity involvement, it could make great material for a work of fiction. However, when director of Kolkata Knight Riders Joy Bhattacharjya wrote his debut novel, he chose to weave his narrative around the Junior Premiere League, a similar tournament for those above 10.
The prologue of The First XI -- Junior Premier League, creating the tense atmosphere of a match, grips you right away. “It was a costly mistake! You could see the ball soaring towards the floodlights on the south-west stand of the Feroze Shah Kotla stadium. For a moment, it seemed to be crashing into the floodlights before it finally started dropping and ended up in the eighth row.”
The first chapter cuts back to Neel, a sprightly eighth-grader from Delhi, who’s spending a boring winter break at Ranchi, where his grandparents live. Looking for someone to practise cricket with (he’s recently been selected by his school as a contestant for the Junior Devils, Delhi’s JPL team, which has tens of thousands of applicants), he spots Sachin Rawat bowling at the DAV School stadium, Dhoni’s home ground.
The boys soon spend hours together, discussing cricket and playing the game as Neel discovers that Sachin has a unique bowling technique.
True to the spirit of a fictional piece, Sachin moves to Gurgaon, secures admission at Shiksha, where Neel studies, and both boys manage to make it to the final 30 players, half of whom will make up the team. Soon you’re transported to a world where Junior Devils, Mumbai Patriots, Bangalore Boxers, Kolkata Lancers, Punjab Princes and Chennai Emperors are competing in a tournament, vying for the championship.
The author has been working in the field of Indian sports and media for the past 20 years or so, and it shows in his writing style.
He’s freely used cricket terms and described techniques as well. Yet, rather than leaving a non-enthusiast at sea, it helps you to understand the world of cricket better. The pace of the book, and it’s length of about 170 pages, aids you along, tempting you to finish it at one go.
The characters are fully formed: Neel, an unassuming leader; Sachin, a small-town boy, struggling to chase his passion and battle peer pressure; Ravinder, from a well-to-do family with a brother who’s already a national-level player; the Devils coach Satyajit Sinha with his rather mysterious back story. Most of the main characters are children, but the narration, though often from their point of view, is a mature one.
The First XI... might not be a must-read, but it’s a well crafted book that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.