The Colonel’s Last Wicket by G V Rama Rao is a delightful novel that uses scenarios and technicalities drawn from cricket to add poignancy to a gentle but moving story. This is not a book about cricket. It’s a book about people, about their development, their motivation and their identity. At the plot’s core are Colonel Seth and Raju, the former a retired, decorated Indian Army officer. He is a widower, proud of his successful daughters, but still suffers a little when he contemplates what might have been. Despite his medals, he was never promoted to the highest rank; his beloved wife died; he never had a son. And he never achieved the distinction of playing first class cricket.
Raju’s life has been a thoroughly different story, however. He is an orphan, living a life of poverty in a poor area. Of dubious parentage, even his peers and playmates regard him with some disdain.
But Colonel Seth sees talent and potential in Raju when, by chance, he watches the boy playing a makeshift game of cricket in the stubble of a rice field. Seth takes Raju under his wing, encourages him and strives to bring his talent to fruition.
The book’s subtlety lies in how G V Rama Rao uses different aspects of cricket as metaphors to illustrate the nature of the boy’s and the Colonel’s struggles in their joint quest. There are plans to be made, risks to be taken, gambits to be played. The boy becomes a good cricketer, but not the top notch star his early potential promised. Like Colonel Seth, it seems, he is destined to achieve some, but not lasting recognition, a status perceived as merely “also ran”.
As the boy matures, the Colonel uses a variety of motivational tactics to stimulate his achievement. All of them work. All of them also fail, since they do not include permanence in their successes. When Raju meets the privileged and beautiful Usha, his adolescent male sensibilities respond, but again the positive effects she generates are manifest only when she is nearby. When she is not in attendance, Raju’s downside undoes all the good work.
In contrast, Ramu, Raju’s friend and fellow protégé succeeds with apparent ease. He has a wealthy, comfortable background in contrast to Raju’s lowly origins and caste. Indeed Ramu seems starred with instant success. Raju, on the other hand, always has to do things the hard way and, despite his obvious talent, keeps missing out on the glory.
G V Rama Rao skilfully and subtly uses this scenario to make simple but enduring comments about Indian society, considering religion, caste, class, commercialism, social change, honesty and identity. He identifies corruption, back-biting, recalcitrance and worse, all viewed through an apparent filter of relationships within the game of cricket, but all with far-reaching, society-wide significance.
And so The Colonels’ Last Wicket is far more than a cricketing book. Through cricket metaphors it addresses some fundamental and serious issues relating to societal relationships and re-definitions. India has changed. Its cricket has changed, and these processes are accelerating. The Colonel’s Last Wicket suggests that its author is not totally trusting or appreciative of this change, but equally we are ultimately left in no doubt about the depths of his optimism, for ultimately it is the relationship between Colonel Seth and Raju, his ward, which endures.