Wisden's wisdom is questionable
Wisden is unlikely to change its policy of picking five cricketers of the year from among only those who have performed in England, but rigidity has not always gained them applause over the years.
This year marks 40 years for Sunil Gavaskar being named among Wisden Cricketers' Almanack's five cricketers of the year in the 1980 edition.
If Gavaskar fans had their way, he would have featured in the 1972 edition for his stupendous debut year of 1971. After plundering 774 runs in the West Indies, he scored half centuries against England at Lord's and Manchester. But for a cricketer to make Wisden's five, he has to perform stupendously on English soil.
On the 1974 tour of England, Gavaskar hit, what he later called his best Test hundred - in the first Test at Old Trafford. He thus described his century in Sportsweek's World of Cricket (January-March, 1984): "It was also an extremely difficult day to bat (June 8, 1974). It was cold, windy and it kept on drizzling just enough to make the umpires continue play and not take us off the field."
In 1979, Gavaskar slammed an epic 221 in the final Test at the Oval where India fell nine short of the massive 438-run target. He got into Wisden's five on the basis of that performance. Wonder whether Dicky Rutnagur, who wrote the profile on Gavaskar in Wisden 1980, was indulging in a veiled attack on Wisden's tardiness in including Gavaskar as late as 1980 after his 50th Test match. "Gavaskar has made and broken records at all levels of the game. Flip through the statistical section of Wisden's Indian counterpart [Indian Cricket] and his name figures on almost every page," wrote Rutnagur,
In his Sunday Mid-day column last week, Gavaskar provided no indication of support for Wisden's policy of considering only performances on English soil and the fact that a player can be the cricketer of the year only once in his career. Gavaskar pointed to Wisden opting for "second best" and "lower performances" in the wake of Australia's Steve Smith not qualifying to be among Wisden's five for this year's almanack because the 2019 Ashes hero was chosen in 2016.
While it is true that the publishers of the now-defunct Indian Cricket Annual followed the same policy as Wisden, it was essentially about Indian cricket. For international cricket, one had to go to the Test Cricket in Other Lands chapter.
The West Indies Cricket Annual too had a performance-on-our-shores criteria for cricketers of the year, but it was interesting to revisit a complete set of Caribbean annuals (1970 to 1991) to discover how the late editor, Tony Cozier started to opt for logic as against tradition when it came to Cricketer of the Year honours. In the 1981 edition, for which he broke tradition, Cozier wrote: "Our Five Cricketers of the Year include, for the first time, a player previously chosen but it has been such a memorable year for IVA Richards that this departure from the norm was virtually automatic."
Malcolm Marshall and Desmond Haynes were named cricketers of the year five times while Curtly Ambrose bagged a 'hat-trick' in 1990.
Wisden broke tradition too when they named VVS Laxman and Zimbabwe's Andy Flower among their five cricketers in 2002. In the then editor Graeme Wright's words, "Laxman immediately became an exception" after his monumental 281 against Australia at Kolkata in 2001 while Flower was chosen for his exploits at non-English venues.
When it came to Wisden 1973, four of the chosen five were Australians – Greg Chappell, Bob Massie, Dennis Lillee and Keith Stackpole. English pacer John Snow was the fifth cricketer of the year for his 24 wickets in the 1972 Ashes. But I wonder why he didn't get that honour the previous year after playing a significant part in England regaining the 1970-71 Ashes in Australia with 31 wickets.
One great batsman who missed out on being Wisden's five was Australian Doug Walters; not good enough scores across four Test tours to England. Gundappa Viswanath was another class act who was never named among Wisden's top five although he scored 341 runs which included a hundred at Lord's on the 1979 tour. Sourav Ganguly and MS Dhoni, two of the modern era's most celebrated captains, were never recipients of the Wisden's Cricketer of the Year honour. Ganguly scored two Test centuries on the 1996 tour and also led India splendidly in the summer of 2002 when his team clinched the NatWest Series in unbelievable fashion and followed it up with the 1-1 result in the Test series.
From all accounts, Dilip Vengsarkar's Wisden honour was most publicised. He was included in the 1987 edition after his series-impacting performance in 1986 when he became the first non-Englishman to score three centuries at Lord's. Vengsarkar didn't recall being overly thrilled when he was delivered the news of his special entry into Wisden, but remembered getting the Padma Shri in 1987, which coincided, with a period in which he was the number one batsman in the world in the Deloittes rating.
Sachin Tendulkar made it in the 1997 edition while Anil Kumble in 1995 became the first Indian after KS Duleepsinhji to be recognised for his performances in county cricket – 105 wickets in 17 games for Northamptonshire. Kumble's fellow Bangalorean Rahul Dravid was picked as a cricketer of the year for his extraordinary performances in the 1999 World Cup. And had it not been for his heroics in the 1983 World Cup, Mohinder Amarnath wouldn't have been among Wisden's five in 1984; his run-heavy season of 1982-83 notwithstanding.
If not for the on-English-soil policy, Mohammed Azharuddin, like Gavaskar in 1972 would have been one of Wisden's chosen five in 1985 after his three centuries in a row against David Gower's team in India. But Azharuddin got into the pages of the 1991 edition for his sublime batting in England the previous year. Ravi Shastri could have made it in the same edition for his two centuries in the 1990 series but it's an honour he had to end up without. Ironically, Shastri was asked to write a foreword to the Wisden on India anthology in 2011. "I never became a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, though I like to think I came close once or twice. But when I look at the names of the 15 Indians that have been chosen in the last 77 years, I understand why. Wisden has enshrined the most prized legends of Indian cricket," he wrote. It has, but there is an inescapable feeling that Wisden, for all its reverence, is far too much about English cricket than what it should be considering how far and wide cricket has spread. Yet, we want to have a bite of it. We know it's not akin to fast food, but without substantial Indian spice in the mix, it still doesn't have the perfect flavour. Maybe, we should actually keep reminding ourselves that the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is an English cricket-centric product.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
Catch up on all the latest Mumbai news, crime news, current affairs, and a complete guide from food to things to do and events across Mumbai. Also download the new mid-day Android and iOS apps to get latest updates.
Mid-Day is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@middayinfomedialtd) and stay updated with the latest news
Sign up for all the latest news, top galleries and trending videos from Mid-day.comSubscribe