Of Wisden, Bradman, Sachin, Sunil

Wisden RAJU BHARATAN

ALL the buzz on Wisden has been about Cricketers of the Century and Teams of the Century. But, in the first half of the very century under the microscope (1901-2000), was there a more prestigious edition of Wisden than its 1949 one? The edition with which (following Australia's momentous 4-0 Ashes-retaining 1948 tour of England) Wisden took legendary note of Don Bradman's saying sayonara to the game? It was to this 'Wisden 1949' volume I turned as Sachin Tendulkar notched 117 (260 balls, 14 fours) vs Carl Hooper's West Indies on the first day of the April 2002 Port of Spain Test. A ton seeing Sachin so media-sweepingly catch up with The Don's 29 hundreds for Australia. What I now Wisden-beheld, therefore, was akin to discovering an error in a printed postage stamp. I mean Wisden's getting Sir Donald Bradman's number of Test centuries wrong in the one edition (1949) that mattered to all Australia, to the whole world! Page 81 of this 'Wisden 1949' carries the following noting:

"D.G. Bradman, 1927-49, Career At A Glance". Next, in the segment here reading "Records by Bradman", we have the astounding noting: "Most Hundreds in Test Matches - 28; 18 v England; 4 v India; 4 v South Africa; 2 v West Indies".

That makes it a total of only 28 Bradman tons, so where did The Don's 29th Test hundred (Sachin-matched) disappear? Wisden alone can tell, seeing how, in the "Hundreds - 117" section (just below the "Records by Bradman" segment on Page 84) we find each one of The Don's 29 Test hundreds duly listed (19 v England, 4 v India, 4 v South Africa, 2 v West Indies). Indeed even the "In Test Matches" Wisden portion, here, reads Bradman-right - as a total of 80 innings (10 not out), 6996 runs (highest 334), ave 99.94. How come then that, in the one detail that counted, 'Wisden 1949' had Bradman's total number of Test hundreds fatally flawed as 28 instead of 29?

I pose this query in the light of Wisden's being so much in the third eye right now. Its ratings - beginning with Kapil Dev as 'The Cricketer of the Century' - have been furiously debated. Certain yardsticks Wisden followed in determining its final winners now bear scrutiny. Going off at a tangent, let us begin with the 'Star of The Millennium' award to Amitabh Bachchan. There was no less heartburn when this 'Star of The Millennium' award went, overnight, to Amitabh Bachchan. But at least that award was the outcome of a worldwide dot-com popularity poll. Amitabh Bachchan the public so chose. So Amitabh Bachchan it remained as the 'Star of The Millennium'. The dot-com point then made was that Amitabh Bachchan emerged so singularly distinctive because he was still a personality captive in the public eye.

In a similar setting did Wisden's announcement of Sachin Tendulkar as the 'People's Choice' cause no end of confusion. The way it came across on TV, Indian viewers first thought Sachin, not Kapil, had won the plum award. For when an award is announced as the 'People's Choice', it is naturally interpreted, by the viewing millions, as made to the one who is No. 1 here and now. My point is straight. Why at all did Wisden have to do a double think on its own value system for bestowing its millennium awards? We had known about a 'Jury of 35' finalising the Wisden awards for some time. The very fact that jurist Madhavrao Scindia had sent in his list to Wisden just four days before his untimely death underscored that there was a pattern pre-set for determining the ultimate winners.

How then did a popular vote at all come into play by which Sachin finished as the 'People's Choice' - a la Amitabh Bachchan? Once such a style of vote is ordered, is it not obligatory to stick by the glam outcome? Obviously such a system would be grossly unfair to the earlier-era achievers. But was it not to foreclose this precise possibility that Wisden had named a massive jury of 35 to pick and choose? What else was the 'People's Choice' award, in the circumstances, if not a meretricious concession to popular Indian sentiment? Sachin here was the obvious winner seeing how, as one still performing like Amitabh, Ten's aura abided. Such a 'People's Choice' citation, therefore, avoidably devalued Sachin in public esteem.

Wisden cannot have the Diana Hayden cheesecake and eat it. Either there is a select jury or there is not. That select jury votes for Kapil Dev as the Cricketer of the Century. There the matter ends. No matter that, in the process, quite a few see it as a snub to Sunil Gavaskar for the views he has lately held on all things cricketingly English. The impression Wisden created in fleshing out Kapil Dev was that only cricketing performance counted in its assessment. Why then was Mohammed Azharuddin treated so scurvily by Wisden? Why was Azhar's name shortlisted among the 'First 16' in the expedient foreknowledge that he was going to be marginalised in the final stage? Why, at all, was an invite sent to Azhar for the Wembley Wisden function, yet the air fare so due to him withheld? An invite handed to Azhar with the right hand and withdrawn with the left. Was this not a calculated insult to one whose image as the touch artist supreme endures for all the off-field calumny falling to Azhar's lot? Ours (like Britain's) is an open society where the man has a basic human right to his dignity.

I go a step further and submit that 'The Indian Team of the Century' award to Sunil Gavaskar was a 'blind'. Sunil himself saw through it as such when, at the awards' function, he expressed surprise at Kapil Dev's 1983 World Cup side not bagging the award - as the one team of the century status-symbolising "the defining moment in Indian cricket". I myself have been in too many awards' set-ups not exactly to know what happens in such a razzledazzle environment. Somehow I have always encountered glitterati-jury resistance to awarding the same personality twice. My own experience of the balancing act in such iconic awards is that, once the main winners have been decided, they tend to look around for the ones to whom the 'bits and pieces' could go. Thus citing Sunil Gavaskar as leader of 'The Indian Team of the Century' here served a dual purpose. It cut Sunil (vis-a-vis Kapil) to size even while the award could be presented as a well-disguised face-saver for Gavaskar's having only just lost out as 'The Cricketer of the Century'.

Do reflect upon how they did not see it fit to name Sunil for even the 'Best Batting Performance of the Century' - if at all there could be such an award. I say this with no disrespect to V. V. S. Laxman's turning up trumps, in this category, with that monumental 281 in the March 2001 Eden Gardens Test. It is the great irony of the game that Laxman's should be the 'Best Batting Performance of the Century' via an innings played in the year 2001! It was a super 281 by VVS beyond doubt. Steve and Mark Waugh alike spotlighted this Laxman 281 as the best they saw in their playing lifetime. It was an innings that turned the 2000-01 Test series on its Kangaroo head. It saw VVS 'art and craft' an innings destined to rate as a priceless gem.

Still I would like to put the point to V. V. S. Laxman himself - as the one who finally overtook Sunil Gavaskar's 236 not out (compiled in the sixth Test at Chepauk vs Clive Lloyd's West Indies, end-December 1983). That unbeaten but pressure-free 236, in my opinion, was lucky to win for Sunil even the 96th place in the 'WISDEN 100' in which there was not one slot for Sachin. So (leaving aside that bat-in-hand Sunny 236) I would commend to Laxman's attention the extraordinary circumstances in which Sunil Gavaskar hit 221 vs England. Leaving it to VVS, introspectively, to re-appraise his own 281 (in Indian conditions) in this context. That 221, if ranking as but 74th in the 'WISDEN 100', saw Sunil Little Master-mind S. Venkatraghavan's India to all but a miracle win over Mike Brearley's England in the almost (1-1) series-squaring fourth and final Test at The Oval (August-September 1979). That 221 came to be hailed by the English cognoscenti as the pedigree performance by an Indian.

I refer VVS to the fact that, among Wisden's 'Top 10 Indian Test Innings Of All Time', The Oval Sunil 221 rates but 4th compared to Laxman's own 281 (occupying pride of place). If India finished merely 274 behind Australia in the March 2001 Eden Test, then, on the Tuesday of September 4, 1979, we had needed no fewer than 438 runs to win that Oval Test - as Sunil resumed his stroke-filled marathon. The consolidation came first, the aggression after. Indeed, such was Sunil's suzerainty here that India was 389 for 4 as Gavaskar (steeplechasing a dream win) fell to Ian Botham - caught by David Gower. By then we needed but 49 more to win with G. R. Visvanath (coming in No. 6) still there.

This pointedly was when Visvanath (15) came to be ruled out 'caught' (in the covers) by Mike Brearley off Peter Willey. The newsreel clip showed it to be a Vishy 'catch' visibly taken on the half-volley. Yet Mike Brearley, sadly, appealed. For umpire David Constant to adjudge Visvanath out and for India, in a familiar heap, to finish up 429 for 8. Just 9 runs short of a target representing a scale of Test victory unprecedented 'into this century'.

The Constant verdict against Vishy (15) undid, in a trice, Sunny's entire contribution of 221. This, as I view it, is where Sunny's animus against the English begins. I rate Sunil's 221 hit then in no way inferior to Laxman's 281 struck now. I have been witness to other great innings by Indians through half a century and more. If I pinpoint Sunil's Oval 221, it is only for VVS to be able to Wisden-place his 281 in perspective. Otherwise, Laxman's 281 remains 'live', in the mind's eye, as the one innings that made us believe in our cricket again.