Just this month, Wisden announced that it would be launching an India edition in early 2012. It’s a measure of the times we live in that this announcement went out, to quote Douglas Adams, in a blaze of no publicity at all. Two decades ago, the news would have had Indian cricket fans out in the streets, waving their floppy-brimmed hats. But today, there’s Cricinfo and relentless TV programming and mobile applications to fill in the gaps – and that’s assuming fans here are still reading anything longer than Yuvraj Singh tweets. And what’s an almanack anyway?
The Wisden Cricket Almanack is the game’s one holy book. It was first published in 1864, and has come out every year since, making it the longest-running sports periodical in history. Since the game’s beginnings on the village greens of England, Wisden has been its most faithful scribe, and generation after generation have set its pronouncements in stone. Despite this God-like reputation, it would be unwise to view Wisden on India as a definitive history of cricket in this country. This is, at best, a selective history of Indian cricket, seen largely through British eyes. Compiled by writer Jonathan Rice, it brings together all the major reporting on Indian cricket that’s appeared in Wisden over the years, starting with the Parsee tour of 1886 and ending in 2009, with Virender Sehwag as Leading Cricketer in the World.
In Beyond a Boundary, arguably the greatest cricket book ever, CLR James wrote about how, at one point in his life, he was so much “on the alert for discrimination” that he would underline anything said against the West Indian team in his copies of The Cricketer. Reading Wisden on India might stir similar feelings in history-conscious Indian fans. There are some major omissions – Palwankar Baloo and his 118 wickets at 18.11 apiece on the 1911 tour of England are barely mentioned. The tone, especially in the early years, is often patronising (for instance, the vague mention of a “want of harmony” in the touring team of 1936, followed by the sage advice: “If a team of India cricketers is to be successful, differences of creed will have to be forgotten”). There’s also a tendency, noted by Rice, to detail the exploits of blue bloods who merely dabbled in cricket in India.
But for every real or imagined slight, there are substantial rewards for the patient reader. Some are in plain sight, like the two guest articles by Vijay Merchant, the first great Bombay batsman. One is an overview of the first two decades of Indian cricket, the second an exhortation to the 1959 touring side titled “India, Be Bold!” (They weren’t, and lost the series 5-0). Others are buried treasure: the last line in the obituary of the Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi predicts a bright cricketing future for his then 11-year-old son. Mansoor Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi, who passed away this month, led India to its first series win in 1962.
Wisden on India is not for the casual fan. There’s a lot of statistical information, and little by way of anecdote. The Almanack’s writing, until recently, has never been of the flashy sort, and several pages go by without any verbal flourish. Serious readers may be disappointed by the lack of literary heavyweights in this collection. Neville Cardus and John Arlott wrote for Wisden, and about Indian cricketers, but never, it seems, at the same time. RC Robertson-Glasgow, Matthew Engel and John Woodcock only make cameos. There are, however, some memorable pieces by famous Indian cricket writers. Ramchandra Guha (whose A Corner of a Foreign Field Rice calls “by far the best national cricket history yet published”) hypothesises hilariously about Mahatma Gandhi’s cricketing career, while Mihir Bose does a spot-on bit of crystal ball-gazing, predicting, back in 1997, the impact Indian money would have on the game.
Wisden is obviously committed to striving to keep up with changing trends. In recent years, its pages have featured articles dedicated to the intricacies of powerplays, as well as a loosening of style (to the extent of including an explicit tweet by English pacer Tim Bresnan in the 2010 edition). If this book and their Wisden India plans show that they’re not above tapping a lucrative market, it also indicates their desire to not just survive the brave new world of modern cricket, but also remain the authority on it.
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.