Wisden India

This is the text of my speech at the Wisden India launch.


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,


First of all, I’d like you to bear with you in case I slip up. I’m so used to being on the other side of the microphone, asking questions. This is very much a new experience.


With that out of the way, I shall endeavour to explain to you why Wisden India will make a difference. To do that, I’ll ask you two questions.


First, why does cricket, or any other sport, matter? I’ve read many reasons. Some say sport is life in miniature. I don’t disagree. But if you think about it, so is cinema. The best definition I’ve come across is from the title of a book on football. The Faith of Our Fathers.


Think about it. How did we come to love this game? Speaking for myself, I saw my first Test match on TV when I was eight. My mother was the one who watched with me. It was the Lord’s Test of 1982 and though India lost, I was captivated by the flamboyance with which Kapil Dev batted and bowled.


The bulk of my cricket education, if one can call it that, came from my maternal grandfather. As a 19-year-old student in Madras as it was then, he watched Douglas Jardine’s England team take on CK Nayudu’s Indians. His love for the game never dimmed. At the age of 83, after he’d fractured his leg for the third time, he insisted on the television being shifted to his room so that he could watch India play in the Caribbean. I never saw him more upset than the night when India failed to chase 120 for victory in Barbados.


Each of us has such a story. And those stories matter because they’re the foundation of our faith.


My second question is this: What makes a sport? The players are at the centre of the sporting universe, because they’re the ones that make our dreams reality. The other indispensable element is the fan. Everyone else, whether it’s the administrators or the media, gets something out of sport. Those that invest financially usually get their rewards. But what of emotional investment?

I came across a couple of boys in Nagpur just before the India-South Africa World Cup game. They’d travelled 10 hours by train in an unreserved compartment to get there. They had no hotel room. They had freshened up and had a quick bite at the railway station and once the match was over, they had to head back to Mumbai the same way.


Passion is the most abused word in sport. But travel around India when cricket is played, and you can still feel it…people who get nothing tangible from the game, but give so much of themselves to it.


At Wisden India, we intend to listen to those fans because we believe they matter. When you support a Manchester United or a Barcelona, you get something back. In Barcelona’s case, the supporters are stakeholders in the club. Can we honestly say that Indian cricket looks after its fans, that the stadium experience is good enough for them to keep going back? It’s all too easy to sit in an air-conditioned press-box and criticise low turn-out. But what are we doing about it? We treat fans as caricatures, as over-emotional effigy-burners. But there are millions who are not. Wisden India will give them a space to express their views and concerns.


It’s not just fans either. We are prepared to work with everyone who has a stake in cricket. I emphasis the word ‘with’, because we will not work ‘for’ anyone. Independence has always been the hallmark of the Wisden imprint and that will not change when it comes to India. We will stand up for what we feel is right, but we will not push the agendas of those with vested interests. Wisden India will be true to the game, to its players and the fans whose support makes all of this possible. We believe that nothing else matters.


BCCI, censorship and Cricinfo

If you repeat a half-truth or a lie often enough, it can begin to sound like the truth. That happens a lot in Indian cricket these days, over everything from fitness updates to blanket statements about the Indian Premier League. Last week, I listened to a discussion on ESPNCricinfo about Indian cricket’s future that involved a former selector who also played seven one-day internationals for the national team.

He watches a lot of domestic cricket and offered sane and measured answers to most questions. Until the IPL cropped up, in conjunction with India’s miserable performance on the tour of England. At that stage, he said: “Let’s blame the IPL for India winning the World Cup.” It was meant to be a sarcastic aside, but it had very sinister undertones on two levels. Continue Reading »


In February 1995, one of Mumbai’s top police officers was investigating a murder case when his men brought in a suspect for interrogation. As soon as he saw the officer, the man broke down. “Sir, main bahut gareeb aadmi hoon. Mera murder se koi connection nahi hai. Main chotta aadmi hoon, sirf match-fixing karta hoon [I’m a very poor man. I don’t have any connection with the murder. I only fix matches],” he said.

Till then, the officer hadn’t even heard of fixing. At the time, India were in New Zealand for the Centenary Cup tournament, along with South Africa and Australia. “Kal ka match fixed hai, sir [Tomorrow’s match is fixed],” the man said. Once it was proved that he had nothing to do with the killing, he was allowed to leave. Over the years, while business has flourished, he has continue to give the police information. Periodically, the cops arrest his men from various city suburbs. Each time, they go out on bail.

Continue Reading »

The legacy of Boys’ Town

O’Neil Gordon Smith, Collie to those that knew and loved him, has been dead nearly 50 years yet you wouldn’t know it if you listened to Locksley Comrie talk about him. Comrie moved to one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Jamaica when he was six years old, though back then Trenchtown wasn’t the byword for gang violence that it has become today. He grew up idolising Collie, and like his hero, he was head boy at the school in Boys’ Town. In later years, he headed Jamaica’s football association, and was also president of his neighbourhood club, the same institution that once boasted of players like Collie and Sir Frank Worrell.

Comrie doesn’t go back to the area as much as he’d like these days. When he does, it’s often for the wrong reasons. “A lot of my old friends have been killed in the area,” he tells you. “Earlier today, I was watching a football game on TV, and you could see a helicopter circling overhead. There’s a fear of violence, and that violence is a fact of life in Trenchtown now. Growing up, it was never like that. Boys’ Town was one of the most successful institutions in the Caribbean, and dare I say it, the most unique in the world.” Continue Reading »

Over the next fortnight, as a glorified exhibition event called the Champions League – which proper tournament would have a player eligible to represent two or three teams? – seeks legitimacy in the eyes of the game’s aficionados, India’s selectors will be peering nervously through their fingers. There are three Test series scheduled for the next four months which will decide whether India remain at the top of the tree or come back to Earth with a thud. As important are the 13 one-day internationals tagged on, especially with a six-week-long World Cup to start in February. A player will need to be Bionic Man to play all the games and how shrewdly the five-man panel rotates the resources available will have a huge bearing on whether or not India become only the second host nation to win the World Cup.

It’s one of those little nuggets of trivia now that India’s legendary spin quartet played only one Test together, at Edgbaston in 1967. They took 18 wickets and kept England under 300 in both innings, but traditional frailties with the bat away from home scuppered any chance of victory. Thereafter, it was always a case of musical chairs, with S Venkataraghavan or Erapalli Prasanna usually missing out. Continue Reading »

Don’t leave the kids alone

“We had just won the World Cup, and I thought I could get away with murder, man … I think one has to have a guide, a mentor they can talk to, trust, and blindly believe what they say. It could be a fellow player, a coach or parents. If that other person says you are crap right now, you close your eyes and believe that is so. Thankfully due to my education and upbringing, I realised soon that I was heading the wrong way.”

These are not the thoughts of the 18-year-old Mohammad Amir, who played his part in Pakistan’s World Twenty20 triumph last year. Those words came from Robin Uthappa, now 24, in an interview with Cricinfo. With Amir now suspended and likely to face a ban from all forms of cricket, we should focus on what Uthappa says. Make no mistake, Indian or Pakistani, every young player who comes into the bubble is vulnerable. Continue Reading »

Two men have effectively been steering Indian cricket’s ship over the past few years. One of them is a liar. Which one? And can the game afford to have either in a position of power? Despite not being the figurehead, Lalit Modi was the prime mover for a half decade, the man who wheeled and dealed, set up the Indian Premier League and was then ousted based on misdemeanours that have yet to be proved. N Srinivasan is the board secretary, the man now as influential and powerful as Modi once was. Given his ownership of the Chennai Super Kings, through India Cements, he has been at the centre of conflict-of-interest allegations for a while now. But with the gloves off and open hostility between the two men, there are so many skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard that they could remake Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

Last week, a TV channel released emails that suggested the 2009 IPL auction had been fixed so that the Super Kings could sign Andrew Flintoff, who then turned out to be the biggest waste of money in the fledging league’s history. Modi later told Cricinfo that Srinivasan and the Super Kings “pressurised the [IPL] operating team”. When he was asked if other successful bids were less than transparent, he replied: “Yes, to my knowledge”. Continue Reading »

Walking the line

At some point in the 1990s, George Best, the greatest footballer the British Isles had ever seen, popped into his local pub in London and sat down with a half-pint. His liver was already failing and the doctors had told him to go easy. A while later, a giant of a man walked in. Eyeing Best in the corner, he walked up to him and said: “Can I get you a pint?” “No, thanks,” said Best. “Too important to drink with the likes of me, are you?” said the man with a hint of menace in his voice. Best ignored him.

When he leaned in closer, Best looked up and told the man to **** off. “Make me,” he snarled. Best, who had never shied away from a challenge on the field, stood up and socked him one flush on the jaw. The man didn’t flinch. “That the best you can do then?” he sneered. “Oh, alright then. Get me another half!” said Best.

I was reminded of that anecdote when I read the non-story about the eight Indian cricketers inside Tequila Joe’s in St. Lucia. Continue Reading »

Lee Bowyer could have been somebody. At the turn of the new millennium, he was the engine of a young and vibrant Leeds United side that had the football world at its feet. Then, after a drunken night at the Majestyk nightclub, Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate – also “daft as a brush” – were accused of a racist attack on Sarfraz Najeib, a Pakistani student. The court case took months and its aftermath resulted in Leeds being relegated and then sliding down the leagues. Bowyer, who was once seen as being on the same level as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, plies his trade for Birmingham City these days, any chance of greatness having long since passed him by.

The English Premier League, like its Indian cricket equivalent, is a harsh environment to grow up in. Pots of money, a fancy car a week if you feel like it, an endless stream of faux-celebrity girlfriends and groupies. Parasitic agents and hangers-on. But for every idiot like Bowyer who hits the skids, there are others like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, exemplary professionals who have lasted nearly as long as Tendulkar at the top. Continue Reading »

As a microcosm of life, sport too has its I-was-there moments, occasions that made you believe it was more than just a game. If away victories in the West Indies and England in 1971 were akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall for Indian cricket, then the agony [the Miandad six in Sharjah and narrow defeat in Sunil Gavaskar’s final Test, both against Pakistan] and the ecstacy [upsetting the West Indians to win the World Cup in 1983] of the decade that followed were like Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Those were the games that defined a generation of players and fans alike, the faded photographs of the lover whose face has become increasingly blurred with time.

Test cricket, with its drawn-out plots and Hitchcockian twists, is an anachronism in the 21st century, and you half-suspect that there are those in the game’s administration that wouldn’t mind seeing it go the way of the T Rex. After all, it’s one-day cricket, the Govinda movie with popcorn, and Twenty20, the five-minute cartoon, that have the cash registers going ker-ching. Test cricket, though, is a resilient beast and from time to time, it throws up matches that captivate a nation and bring in a whole new breed of fan.

English cricket is ineffably richer for the Ashes series of 2005, five matches where Dame Fortune didn’t seem to know which team to favour. From Ricky Ponting’s bloodied cheek at Lord’s to Kevin Pietersen’s dashing final-day century at The Oval, a generation that had never seen English Ashes success lapped it up.

Sadly, in India, where respect for elders is a way of life, the most venerable form of the game has often been given short shrift. Every other major Test-playing nation has its traditional matches, the ones that people plan their holidays around. Whether it’s Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the New Year’s Tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground or Newlands, or Lord’s in summer, these occasions have become part of the social fabric. Whatever happened to the Pongal Test in Chennai? Why not play at the Eden Gardens during Holi, or in Mumbai during Diwali?

Those that run the game won’t give you any answers. After all, board politics meant that Kolkata didn’t host a Test in 2008 or ’09, while games were played at venues like Nagpur and Mohali in front of largely empty stands. Ask the players where they’d rather play and they’ll tell you. “Eden has always been special,” says Harbhajan Singh, one of the heroes of the innings win that kept India at the top of the Test tree. “I have not heard this kind of noise anywhere in India. In Test matches, we don’t always get crowds but at Eden, you do for the whole five days. It’s fantastic.”

The game was too, with India resurrecting its hopes after a dire first two sessions that saw South Africa canter to 218 for 1. The famed Eden roar, that helped bring Steve Waugh’s Australia to its knees back in 2001, then came into play as the middle order fell apart. India never looked back, with Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni all scoring contrasting centuries as a massive lead was built. Then, without Zaheer Khan, the pace talisman had picked up a thigh strain, and in spite of the magnificent Hashim Amla – who batted 499 minutes for his unbeaten 123 – the patched-up attack bowled India to victory.

When Harbhajan trapped Morne Morkel leg-before with only nine balls left to be bowled, there was bedlam in the stands. Reports of Test cricket’s imminent demise had clearly been exaggerated. Keeping it healthy in the age of popcorn cricket may not be impossible after all.

*This was the latest column for the Sunday Guardian, a new newspaper published out of Delhi.