A cricket history lesson for millennials
In the distant past, before the World Wide Web, and indeed ESPNcricinfo, the yellow-brick Wisden Cricketers' Almanack seemed like a distant object available only to a particular kind of cricket journalist and/or enthusiast in India. It was treated as the ultimate statistical and historical resource, hard to get hold of and enormously expensive. Its Cricketers of the Year were originally required to pass through an England summer to get noticed. It was much too posh for many of us rookies.
An Indian version of the annual, Indian Cricket, was launched by the publishers of the Hindu in 1946-47, its saffron cover as defiantly distinctive as Wisden's buttercup yellow. It was meticulously put together by a series of senior editors of the Hindu's sports department, where I worked for more than six years. It was a very big deal to have your match reports or series summaries on its pages. Writing up a "Cricketer of the Year" profile was quite the ultimate piece of cheese. After 58 years in publication, Indian Cricket's final edition appeared in 2004. A year later the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia - with a green cover - shut down after eight editions.
So the arrival of a Wisden India Almanack in 2012 spoke of, if not anything else, a determination to prove that compendiums of this kind have both a life and afterlife. The Wisden India Almanack is now the little blue book, meant to reflect the Indian cricket team's colours. Though to quibble it is less the navy blue of India Test blazer and more the light blue of the limited-overs uniforms. A fair reflection of the T20 age, you could say.
The 2016 edition is well produced and painstakingly put together. There lingers around it, though, a certain mystery about its audience. Will the new Indian cricket fan turn the many Almanacks into retro collector's items to show off 25 years later? (Don't laugh at retro - who thought vinyl would return, or for that matter, hand-wound watches?) Or will only obsessive collectors of cricket memorabilia seek out these diligent annual compendiums?
Never mind, the 2016 edition gets stuck into the here and now. First up, if you are one of those who prefers reading off paper rather than screens, and have been given the book as a gift, be nice and say thank you. There is heaps to read, and it lends itself to dipping in and out in your own time, picking whatever interests you.
An emphasis on India-centric cricket and a due bow to the Cricketers of the Year - R Ashwin, R Vinay Kumar, Younis Khan, Dhammika Prasad, Mashrafe Mortaza and Joe Root - is bookended by much that is unexpected and whimsical.
Now that the internet has set cricket records and statistics loose into the ether, books like Wisden India Almanack must expand from being mere documents of record to recorders of, and mirrors to, the zeitgeist. Along with recognising the achievements of the cricketers above, this edition also introduces a "Beyond the Boundary" honour - handed out to Justice Mukul Mudgal for his work in busting the IPL 2013 corruption scandal. Mudgal exposed severe fractures in the BCCI's handling of the situation, leading to the Lodha Committee recommendations, which aim to turn the BCCI's governance structures upside down.
A good portion of the book focuses on writing that tries to deconstruct the main happenings of the year for the reader in a digestible, lucid form. Much of modern cricket writing, as reflected in the Comment section, covers a vast range of topics and theories. The definition of greatness, the philosophical underpinnings of every sport's code, the demands made on the Indian fast bowler, how teams can be built, and so on. It is only here, though, that you will also be told of the connection between actor Sivaji Ganesan and cricket, through Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.
The real gems emerge from the pages of history, and full marks to those who picked the pieces for this edition. There is DB Deodhar's account of the politics around the last few seasons of the Pentangular, titled "Cliques and caucuses". And Vijay Merchant's clear-eyed analysis, "How Gavaskar differs from me". Were millennials to read these, they would understand how bold these old dudes really were.
Past the essays, I came across, by pure accident, one of the smaller yet quite moving parts of this Almanack. Three sheets from the very end, in what might be perhaps the smallest readable type size, there is a listing. One after the other, with no numbers, just line upon line, the names of every Indian Test cricketer there ever has been, till October 2015, each separated from the next by a dot. From Amar Singh to Naman Ojha. The names fill one page and three lines of the second, and the first thing that strikes you is: is that all? Fitting onto an 8" x 5" page and a bit? All our heroes, all our villains, our charmers, our scallywags, record-holders and record-breakers, men of mystery and men of dazzle, men who were invisible and those who were larger than life. The entire history of this game in the country, told through names tightly packed onto a page and a little more.
This is obviously part of a running roster of record, updated every year, but it was the first time I've seen it printed in this way. Seeing them on a digital screen couldn't, I think, produce such a response. Want to get Indian cricket fans to respond to history? Someone should put the names up on a carefully designed poster every year and see if they can sell it. I'll buy one for sure.
Wisden India Almanack 2016 traverses both a cricketing year, several decades and many ideas. As far as answering the fundamental philosophical questions - Who am I? Why am I here? - is concerned, the future will handle them. The future only happens tomorrow anyway.
Wisden India Almanack 2016
Edited by Suresh Menon
802 pages, Rs 999
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo