Before you dive into Indian Innings, it might be useful to take stock of the conditions. Readers would do well to treat editor Ayaz Memon’s introduction as a pitch report, and not skip it. “This compendium was originally intended as an anthology of the best cricket writing in India since Independence,” the veteran sports journalist and commentator writes. But, as he then explains, somewhere along the way he pivoted to assembling an anthology that mapped the “major inflection points” in the game.
It’s an important admission, for, while several pieces in this anthology are excellent, they don’t all hold up as good writing. A lot of them are match reports—most no doubt written quickly under the pressure of an evening deadline. That these first drafts have to serve as markers of history is perhaps unfair, especially since they are juxtaposed here with more considered pieces, usually by better writers. The match reports also come with the sort of errors that you’d expect from pieces filed in a hurry—incorrect grammar, missing punctuation, misspelled words—though why these couldn’t be cleaned for this book is unclear.
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Memon writes that his decision was guided by a lack of published material on cricket in India between 1947-71. Startlingly, there are only two articles on that period—on Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Hazare. Thereafter, the book jumps to 1971, with a Mihir Bose piece about Ajit Wadekar taking over as captain for the historic tour of England. For an 85-article compendium that bills itself “The Journey of Indian Cricket from 1947”, this just isn’t good enough. Surely descriptions of Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath and Tiger Pataudi, of India’s first Test win and series win, merit inclusion in a book that has space for Shobhaa De’s “Virat Kohli: Ladka Bootiful ... Kar Gaya Chull Chull Chull”?
Overlook some uneven writing and editing, and Indian Innings has a lot to offer. Though Memon apologises for it not being exhaustive, it’s fairly hefty at 400 pages. The selection is wide-ranging, culled from newspapers, magazines and websites, memoirs and cricket books. The authors range from sports desk veterans to politician-author Shashi Tharoor (a wonderful tribute to Sunil Gavaskar) to Ravichandran Ashwin’s wife, Prithi Narayanan. Memon adds a little context at the end of the pieces (unfortunately titled “AYAZspeaks”) but mostly stays out of the way, allowing his eclectic assembly to tell the story.
Indian Innings is also a snapshot of how cricket writing changed in this country. Memon admits in the forward that since the internet, “the environment [is] cacophonous, and the quality of writing is obviously inconsistent, but overall cricket writing has become richer”. For someone like me, who grew up in the Sportstar era and graduated to EspnCricinfo, the change is clear to see. In the pieces drawn from venerated newspapers like The Times of India and The Hindu, there’s an older, flowery style of reporting, more given to cliches, puns and alliteration (“…yet another stomach-churning epic that no Bollywood or Hollywood can script”; “mesmerising medley… requisite rapture and razzmatazz”). But when the articles are from websites and newer publications, they are hipper, slangier, more exciting. It’s difficult to imagine an old sports-beat pro writing, as Prem Panicker does for Rediff about the epochal Kolkata Test of 2001: “I, for my part, failed – glub! – my own bid to walk on water” (it’s also difficult to imagine a traditional copy desk leaving the “glub” in).
Though match reports and topical pieces are the majority of the book, the best writing is found, unsurprisingly, in the player profiles. In the delightful “Coffee with Chandra”, written for The Cricket Monthly, Suresh Menon meets the great Indian spinner years after his retirement. Akshay Sawai’s Cheteshwar Pujara profile for Open magazine is also a home visit—one of several examples in this book of how it takes a village to raise a national-level cricketer. There’s a Rohit Brijnath appreciation of Mohammad Azharuddin with a 108-word sentence: a Molly Bloom like exhalation.
A book twice this length would leave room for argument over underrepresented players and writers. I, for one, would have loved to see Sharda Ugra’s piece for The Cricket Monthly on Jasprit Bumrah—one of the best sports profiles in recent memory. Players like Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj are ignored (there’s only one entry on women’s cricket). Several pieces are on non-cricketers: on former BCCI and ICC president Jagmohan Dalmia, on IPL founder Lalit Modi, and on Sachin Tendulkar’s agent Mark Mascarenhas. This is a risky call, but perhaps a fitting one: these men have done as much to shape modern Indian cricket as any player.
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The boldness only goes so far. There is no real reckoning with the bullying nature of the BCCI in international cricket today or, more damningly, the IPL match-fixing scandal of 2013. It’s left to Supriya Nair’s “Dial Down the Hostility, Boys” to present a less rosy look at the amped-up “new India” that’s emerged under Kohli.
It’s raining cricket books this year: Ramachandra Guha’s lovely, autumnal The Commonwealth Of Cricket, two by Boria Majumdar, Ravi Shastri’s Star Gazing, whose release may or may not have prematurely ended the tour of England. Indian Innings is the widest-ranging of the lot, and, from a chronicling perspective, the most valuable. A proper compendium of Indian cricket was, to borrow Tunku Varadarajan’s phrase from his article on Kohli, the domain of the Department of Unfinished Business. They can close that file now.