April 05, 2020
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Chennai Diary

Somebody had forgotten to tell the authorities on high that it was not supposed to rain in Chennai in December...

Chennai Diary

It Does Come In Blue Outside it was raining—somebody had forgotten to tell the authorities on high that it was not supposed to rain in Chennai in December. But the warmth inside, as cricketers from the past, present (and future?) sought one another out, brought to the evening a special quality. For once, an 800-page book rather than the captain of the Indian team or its future captain was the star of the show.

“And here’s one more reason to do well,” intoned Mahendra Singh Dhoni, “you might get on to the cover of the Wisden India Almanack.” The two players who did make it on the cover of the inaugural issue, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli, saw it in somewhat personal terms. “I doubt if I will be on the cover again,” said Dravid, who retired from the game last year. “I am honoured to share the space with Rahul bhai,” said a diplomatic Kohli.

It is a good time for the Almanack to make its debut in India, with the national team in transition, and the golden era winding down. There is something exciting about change, about recording a generational shift; about reminding ourselves, as C.D. Gopinath said, that phases of victory and defeat come in cycles. Gopinath, a sprightly, articulate 82, was a member of India’s first Test-winning side. His stories of how players on national duty in the 1950s were billeted in train carriages and in the houses of fans shocked a later player, Sourav Ganguly, who has known nothing but five-star hospitality since he began playing.

The original Wisden first appeared in the UK in 1864, a significant year in the history of the game. Overarm bowling was legalised that year, while W.G. Grace made his debut. Wisden was a first-class cricketer who once claimed all 10 wickets in an innings, and was on the 1859 tour—the first-ever cricket tour—to the US and Canada. He had a rough crossing, though, and suggested to the ship’s captain that perhaps he should use the heavy roller on the Atlantic to calm it down.

The Rank Turner Ganguly’s cry for an Indian coach “who understands Indian cricket better” than any foreigner raised a cheer. But it is a tough call. In a pool among players with over 100 Test match appearances and with the experience of having played all over the world, an older Indian coach begins with a handicap. How do you tell Virender Sehwag to turn up for practice? Then there is the problem of personal biases. On a tour of Pakistan, when a Maharashtrian was coach, a player from Maharashtra made the trip because the coach said he would “look after him”.

If it must be an Indian at the helm, then it has to be a relatively newer former player who knows about the non-cricketing aspects—the pressures, the travel, the media, the board politics for instance. All that even before his ability to manage the job comes into the equation. The foreign coach comes without baggage, fully aware. As John Wright wrote in his book, when India win, there will be a limousine waiting for him at the airport but when they lose, he has to find his own taxi.

“Why don’t you take over?” I asked Ravi Shastri seated nearby. “I love to coach,” said the player, commentator, columnist, IPL enthusiast, “If coaching began and ended with talking to the players on the field, demonstrating and strategising, then I am all for it. But there’s so much more.”

Neither a ‘yes’ nor a ‘no’, then. 

Phantom Image The Wisden India Almanack was put together in a haunted building. Eyewitness accounts claim to have seen a ghost late night in the editor’s chair, watching cricket on television. For a while it was assumed that it was the editor himself indulging in some ghost-writing till someone realised that the apparition was present even on the nights the editor was not in town. Even ghosts, it was acknowledged, cannot be in two places simultaneously. So who was the ghost?

I believe it was John Wisden himself, making sure all was well and that the number of leg-byes in the scorecards tallied with the actual figures. Wisden wasn’t the first editor of the almanac—W.H. Knight is credited with that honour. But what he said in his first edition holds good still, “In offering our first edition of the almanack to the patrons of the Noble Game, we have taken great pains to collect a certain amount of information, which we trust will prove interesting to all those that take pleasure in this glorious pastime.” 

The Premiere League The IPL question continues to intrigue. With its colour, noise and razzmatazz, it is an American sport accidentally invented in India. Like pulp fiction, it demands a different standard of criticism. If Test cricket is War and Peace, Twenty20 is the grocery list. Yet each is important to its constituency.

Today, the first edition of Wisden is worth a small fortune. Could, years from now, the first edition of the India Almanack put some collector's grandchildren through college?

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