Star Sports sporadically serves a delectable late-night treat for incorrigible cricket enthusiasts. After the others at home have finished with their cartoon shows and soap operas, you can sit back and watch John Snow running in to bowl to Sunil Gavaskar in 1971; or Ian Botham pulverize Dennis Lillee and company in1981; or it could even be Richie Benaud coming around the wicket to Ted Dexter in 1963. Ah, bliss!
The cricket is riveting and quaint in equal measure. The batting is unadventurous, there are no war dances after the fall of a wicket, the fielding is pedestrian, the spectators do not wave flags with mesmeric ardour and the commentary is not a spate of repetitive adjectives.
The game is the same in a dry, technical sense, but it has changed beyond belief in terms of its culture. The turning point was 1977, when Australian TV tycoon Kerry Packer started his rebel cricket show after the bosses of Aussie cricket did not give him broadcast rights for official cricket games. Packer reinvented—or rather helped reinvent—cricket. And, perhaps, rescued it from oblivion.
He also turned the game into a colourful circus.
A lot that is good and bad in contemporary cricket can be traced back to the Packer uprising. “The Age of Cardus—elegiac, rooted, literate—(was) replaced by the Age of Packer—energetic, rootless, numerate,” writes Stephen Moss, editor of the wonderful Wisden Anthology 1978-2006, as he compares the game today with the way it was when the great cricket writer Neville Cardus was writing about it with unparalleled elegance in the first half of the 20th century. The subheading of this book is a telling one: Cricket’s Age of Revolution.
What was this revolution all about? Moss says its first commandment was elitism. True. After Packer, the world of cricket was sliced; the best players were taken out and placed in the bright light of televised stardom, while the rest were left to poke around in their little dim corners. The paths of the stars and the journeymen seldom cross these days. Modern test cricketers rarely play Ranji Trophy matches, let alone league cricket, which is quite a change from the time when Gavaskar would fly in from London on a Saturday night and turn up to play for his club, Dadar Union, a few hours later on a Sunday morning.
The interesting thing is that this elitism went hand-in-hand with democratization. Cricket became a people’s game, and in becoming so, went back to its roots as a Sunday game played on the village greens in England. Whether you like it or not, cricket is no longer about polite gentlemen at Lord’s, but about raucous fans at Eden Gardens. The link between modern cricket’s elitism and populism is inadequately understood.
The Wisden Anthology does not provide any answers either. Perhaps that is expecting too much of it. The editor had to make do with what has been published in Wisden annual almanacs over the years. These annuals are first-rate reading companions, but more for the match scores, list of records, obituaries and various miscellany that they publish. And, a lot of this is heavily skewed towards what happens in England.
This, perhaps, explains why this anthology lavishes 166 pages on the English counties, but has a miserly 71 pages on India and Pakistan. There are three articles on Graham Gooch and only two on Sachin Tendulkar. Graham Thorpe and Rahul Dravid get one article each. This is not an editorial failure, but the nature of the raw material Moss worked with. I have a 1980 edition of the Wisden, with page after page listing match scores of public school cricket in England.
This book is recommended for the same reason that any Wisden is—it’s an incomparable register of cricket scores, a useful reference book and full of little bits of news that shock and surprise. It is not, however, a good history of the game, despite the editor’s determined efforts.
On the stands
These new releases are quick pre-World Cup reads
Caught and Told by Sandeep Patil and Clayton Murzello (Roli Books): Patil has the reputation of being a great raconteur. This little book is fun while it lasts—which is not for long. The good thing is that the anecdotes are about Indian cricket. None of the same, tired stories about English and Australian eccentrics.
The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket Boria Majumdar(Roli Books): One expects a lot of old photographs in such a book. Yet, half the pictures here are in colour and of post-1980 cricketers. And, two pages on the end of Sourav Ganguly’s career, now resurrected, suggest that this coffee-table book is a quickie
One Day Cricket Ashis Ray (HarperCollins): A book worth carrying to the West Indies for the forthcoming World Cup, or to keep at your bedside if you are not going to the Caribbean. It has lots of scorecards of one-day matches played by India, interspersed with readable commentary.