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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.

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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.” (more…)

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then perhaps you should read this.

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Some wilt under the pressures of captaincy. For Mahela Jayawardene, it was the springboard to greatness. Always a fine batsman, and so very easy on the eye, he was one of those who frequently infuriated fans with his lack of ruthlessness. No one doubted the talent, but there were plenty of questions about whether he had made the most of it.

Then, Marvan Atapattu’s back gave before a Test series in England. And after innings of 61 and 119 salvaged the most improbable of Test draws at Lord’s – Sri Lanka batted 199 overs to save the game – Jayawardene hasn’t had the time or inclination to look back. He’s scored 13 more centuries since and now needs just 62 more to cross the 9000-run barrier. Given how the FTP isn’t very kind to Sri Lanka, that’s some achievement. Along the way, he’s scored 374 against South Africa and gone past 150 on six other occasions. After the years of moderation, the man’s become a run-glutton. (more…)

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Spare a thought for Rahul Dravid. Even on the day that he made one of his finest Test centuries against Sri Lanka, most of the news headlines were given over to comments made by a cartoonist-turned-right-wing ideologue. But Bal Thackeray’s critical remarks were aimed at Sachin Tendulkar, and nothing gets India into a lather quite like unkind words about its cricketing Peter Pan. So, though Tendulkar’s first innings of a third decade in Test cricket lasted just three balls, Dravid’s magnificent 177, which led the team from the wilderness of 32 for four to 426 and included his 11,000th Test run, became “in other news”.

He’s had enough time to get used to it though. Cults of personality are rare in team sport but when present, they can be especially fanatical. Most people can name only one player from the Argentina team that won football’s World Cup in 1986. With El Diego around, who could spare the time for Jorge Valdano’s finishing or Sergio Batista’s tackling? It was always the No10 and the rest.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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Around half an hour after the India-Australia series began in Vadodara, Huma Akram passed away in a Chennai hospital. The World Cup final at the MCG apart, Chennai was probably the scene of Wasim Akram’s finest hour, as his Pakistan team won a thrilling Test by 12 runs a decade ago. More important than the result though was the standing ovation that they got from the crowd at Chepauk. There’ll be plenty of people who were in the stands that day who’ll shed a tear for the Pakistan legend today. Australia may have won a close game on Sunday, but it was one of those occasions when sport ceased to matter. Compared to matters of life and death, what’s a game of cricket?

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If you were asked to stick pins on a map of the world to denote the most hallowed venues in cricket, it’s safe to say that Barnfields in Staffordshire probably wouldn’t get one. Moddershall, who play there, do have a claim to fame, though. It was from the relative anonymity of North Staffs & South Cheshire Premier Division cricket that Rangana Herath was summoned to Sri Lanka to play a Test series against Pakistan. The quintessential journeyman had been asked to replace the irreplaceable Muttiah Muralitharan, and he surprised everyone by doing just that, taking 15 wickets in three Tests.

The reward? To be left out for the opening game of the series against New Zealand, with the out-of-sorts Ajantha Mendis returning to the fray. The 31-year-old Herath is not your average crumbling cookie, though, and when given his chance at the SSC in Colombo, he took an eight-wicket haul, thwarting a rousing lower-order charge orchestrated by the magnificent Daniel Vettori.

Sri Lanka’s 2-0 series win has given them a little more breathing space in the ICC’s Test Championship table, and only two points now separate them from the No1-ranked South Africa.

Read the full article here.

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If you weren’t much of a cricket fan, some of the writing about the Ashesdecider at The Oval would have made you wonder whether Bill Gordon was a pastry chef rather than someone entrusted with preparing a cricket pitch. Adjectives like “overcooked” and “overbaked” were used liberally to describe the 22 yards of turf, and the debates raged on long after Graeme Swann had bowled the final ball.

I’m no expert on pitches – and I have yet to come across one – but I honestly don’t understand the fuss. It might help to work with facts, rather than Ashes-inspired emotion. England finished the opening day on 307 for eight from 85.3 overs. Both sides scored more than 347 in their second innings. The innings of the match was played on the third day by a man making his Test debut…

Read the rest of the article here.

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You are an Indian cricketer, so revered/reviled by the public that you can’t step out without the sunglasses and wigs that wouldn’t have been out of place on a TV show about Scousers in the 1980s. The season is over and, with just a fortnight to go before the interminable cycle of gym, practice and commercial shoots starts up again, you decide to take your family and disappear into the wilds of the Masai Mara or Iceland.

You have a good time on holiday, putting away your favourite food and the odd beverage, those little luxuries that modern sport tends to deny its practitioners. Then, in the middle of the night, around the time cricket tragics back home wake up to tune into the play from New Zealand, there’s a knock on the door. It’s an inspection team from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada). Bleary-eyed with sleep, you have to step into another room, drop your pyjamas and pee into a bottle, in full view of some stranger that you’ve never seen before.

This, in a nutshell, is the Doomsday scenario that has India’s cricketers refusing to accept Wada’s controversial “whereabouts” clause.

Read more here.

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If the meteorologists are right and Supertramp provide the soundtrack to the Headingley Test, then Australia’s long stay atop the Test-cricket perch will finally be over. A drawn series would drop them to No2 behind South Africa and an English triumph would see them inhabit the unfamiliar No4 position. (England will remain fifth regardless of the result of the series.)

Unlike other sports, the ICC has yet to devise a ranking system that the average punter can actually understand – teams, for example, can lose points despite winning a series – but when it comes to a South African ascension to the top spot, there would be few naysayers.

Read more here.

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