Words of Wisden
Wisden editor Lawrence Booth recently invited the ire of many Indians for what is perceived as an anti-India stand. In a candid chat, Booth rejects the notion that he is biased against India, and talks about IPL, Twenty20, Test cricket and much more
Lawrence Booth, the new editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, would like to make a couple of things clear. He is not against Twenty20 cricket and the Indian Premier League as such. Nor is he “anti-Indian”.In fact, he has been to India “seven or eight times” and enjoyed some thrilling IPL matches. However, he does think that the cause of Test cricket — in India and elsewhere — is not being served by the alleged over reliance on the part of the Indian authorities on Twenty20. For making this suggestion in the editor’s introductory article in Wisden this year, Booth has been subjected to a certain amount of abuse from Indians.
Wisden, long regarded as the “cricketing Bible”, began publication in 1864. The new edition, running to 1,552 pages, is the 149th and marks Booth’s debut as editor. At 37, he is the youngest editor Wisden has had for 72 years. Since Mumbai is the centre of Indian cricket, Booth would like to set the record straight and also urge the BCCI to do much more to safeguard the future of Tests. Booth’s basic point is that to dismiss India’s 4-0 defeats in England and in Australia as “just one of those things that happen in cricket”, may risk not recognising the symptoms of a deeper malaise.
In an interview aimed at rejecting the notion that he is biased against India, Both revealed: “I have been getting a bit of abuse on Twitter from some Indian fans who think I am just an India basher. It's far from the case. It's my favourite country to watch cricket in and I totally understand its importance to not just the economics of the world game but the atmosphere and the mood and the colour that it brings. But if they continue to put an increasing number of eggs into the Twenty20 basket then Test cricket will inevitably suffer not just there but everywhere else.” Following India’s defeats in England and in Australia, Booth had argued in his Wisden introduction: “The disintegration of India’s feted batting line-up has coincided with the rise of a Twenty20-based nationalism, the growth of private marketeers and high level conflicts of interest. It is a perfect storm. And the global game sits steadily in the eye. India, your sport needs you.”
He wrote: “The skewing of Indian sensibilities away from Tests would cause less alarm if their powerbrokers were on top of their brief.” He added: “India have ended up with a special gift: the clout to shape an entire sport. Some national boards would struggle to survive without an Indian visit. But too often their game appears driven by the self-interest of the few.” Booth is a former Daily Telegraph reporter who has also worked for The Guardian and currently writes for the Daily Mail. He admits to being no more than a “very average club cricketer” and rejects any notion of being prejudiced against India. However, India's championing of Twenty20 has received the powerful backing of England’s star batsman Kevin Pietersen who is currently playing for the Delhi Daredevils.
“In term of KP’s comments I wouldn’t expect him to say anything else — he is out in India at the moment; he is being paid a lot by Delhi Daredevils,” observed Booth. What Pietersen said was: “The IPL is very much struggling to find acceptance back home (in the UK). It saddens me because I have had an amazing time at the IPL. It’s down to a lot of jealousy, I think. It saddens me, all the negative publicity the IPL gets in the (UK) media, I don’t know why.” To which, Booth offered this rejoinder: “The media aren’t jealous — the administrators might be jealous; the ECB might be jealous that India has produced this tournament beyond their wildest dreams in terms of the money it has generated. Yet again they have overtaken England in a form of the game that England invented. Yes, I can see the administrators might be jealous but the journalists have no emotional attachment in that sense.”
“My only concern is for the well being of cricket,” declared Booth. “I have no particular interest in knocking a particular country — I want to see the game run as well as it can be.”
“No one in world cricket wants to see the Indian Test team struggle and Indian fans lose interest in it,” Booth went on. “The two four-nil defeats were not just bad for Indian cricket; they were bad for the world game because the world game needs India. We all know of the money that India brings to the game — that is absolutely vital.” Asked whether there was a correlation between playing in the IPL and poor performance in Tests, Booth responded: “You cannot prove a correlation beyond doubt in these things — you can have a theory and you can examine the available evidence. Just to take two Indian series, when they came to England in 2007 they played superbly and won 1-0. They went to Australia in 2007-08 and fought a very closely fought series and were unlucky not to win.”
He continued: “India’s next two tours to England and Australia both resulted in 4-0 defeats. I am not saying that is a direct correlation but it doesn’t help the argument that the IPL had helped India’s Test team. We saw a lot of these guys turning up in England last summer who weren’t fit — Zaheer Khan dropped out after a handful of overs at Lord’s — and that really scuppered India's chances. Batsmen came in carrying injuries that they had either picked up in the IPL or they aggravated injuries that they had had in the IPL. I don’t blame the players. With this money being thrown at them what would you do? Would you play in the IPL or sit out a tour of the West Indies?”
“The last thing I wanted was to see India lose 4-0 last summer,” emphasised Booth. “I wanted to see a great series,” he said. “I wanted to see something like the 2005 Ashes - something that got people talking about cricket for the right reasons. That’s why I was so disappointed that India turned up but wasn’t quite on the ball - we were expecting more from them. I took no real pleasure from the 4-0 victory. I may be English but I try and take an internationalist perspective. India are the most powerful country in world cricket. That’s fine, someone has to be. I just want them to run the game with an eye beyond their own boundaries.”
Booth has also called for the International Cricket Council, the game's governing body, to stipulate that all series except those involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe should consist of a minimum of three Tests. “Outside England, the Test match increasingly resembles the quiet zone of world cricket’s gravy train: respected in theory, ignored in practice,” wrote Booth. “And even in England, they have axed a Test this summer in favour of five extra one-day internationals against Australia.”
He drew attention in his interview to the trend to have a series even with fewer Tests. “A fixture list in which only four teams — Australia, England, India and, just occasionally, South Africa - play a series of more than three games is bad enough. But the real damage is being done by the prevalence of the two-match series: once a means of hurrying through Tests against Bangladesh, now a means of hurrying through Tests full stop. Of the 19 series which took place either wholly or partially in 2011, six contained two games, and a further three (in Zimbabwe) only one. For any series not involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, three Tests must be the minimum. I would like to see cricket administrators properly market and publicise first class cricket — they have become so seduced by Twenty20 cricket that they are forgetting about Test match cricket.” Often, fans were denied a decider in a Test series.
“If anything was designed to put fans off Test match cricket it would be the two Test series where the teams finished locked at one all,” said Booth. “We had England and Sri Lanka with Australia in South Africa last year — the players and the fans were crying out for a third Test. But because the calendar is so squeezed now by these Twenty20 tournaments there is no time to stage a third Test.”
“You may say this is just the market speaking but if the cricket administrators do nothing to at least regain a bit of faith in Test cricket, then we are going to end up with cricket that is just essentially Twenty20,” he warned. “I know people go and watch Twenty20 and that's great. But I don’t know many fans who think Twenty20 is a better game than Test cricket.” He accepts that Twenty20 has a role to play. “It’s an extremely important format now. It brings a lot of money and new fans in but let’s get the balance a bit healthier. Cricket could eat itself alive if it throws all its interests behind Twenty20. I think fans might get bored with it.” His fear is that if there was just Twenty20 in five or 10 years’ time, fans may desert the IPL. “We are already seeing crowds aren't what they used to be. Let’s hold our nerve with the longer form of the game. Maybe Twenty20 can help to finance the longer form of the game.”
“I’m not an old fogey,” Booth insisted. “I think Twenty20 has its place. Personally I don't believe it can hold a candle to five-day cricket in terms of the profundity of it and the ebbs and flows you get in Test cricket. A lot of people would fall out of love with cricket if the first class game was relegated to even more of a sideshow which we already are in danger of becoming and the administrators just have to be careful about that. Yes, it’s great all this money is coming it but let's use it wisely. Part of the problem is that a lot of it is disappearing into the pockets of private marketeers or franchise owners of IPL. How much of this money is actually going back into cricket is a moot point.” He set out his main argument: “There is a lot of short termism in the game at the moment and Twenty20 is the ultimate symptom of that.”
“I first came out to an IPL in 2008 for three weeks as a freelancer and paid my way round there, just to see what it was like,” he recalled. “It (IPL) is a hell of an impressive tournament. I was there on the first night when (Brendan) McCullum scored 158 in Bangalore. I am not knocking the organisation of IPL. ”It was drawn to Booth’s attention that his comments on India had been played big by the media in Pakistan. “I did not write what I did so that Pakistan could bash India over the head,” he said. “I am interested in the global perspective. People are saying I am bashing the BCCI for the sake of it — I can look myself in the mirror and say that’s not the case.” Booth lets on that the publishers of Wisden “are launching Wisden India Almanack’s first edition in October — it will have separate content and an editorial team . It’s a separate operation (from London). Its bias will be towards the Indian season. I believe the cover (unlike the yellow in London) is going to be blue.”