At university, a friend and professor of philosophy would find it frivolous when cricket talk cropped up during academic meetings. None of my explanations cut ice with him, till suddenly the Wisden India Almanack 2017 provided me a trump card wrapped in velvet - an essay by Ray Monk, a professor of philosophy and a cricket lover, which explored whether it was true that Wittgenstein loved cricket. My colleague now tolerates our diversions into the sport with a smile. Wisden India Almanack, already a dear companion since its debut, has become more endearing since.
The year 2017 might have passed in a cricketing blur but it left us with everlasting memories of the Indian women's team. Playing a World Cup with grace, charm, and amazing skill, Mithali Raj and her team won the hearts of every Indian. Who can forget the captain calmly reading a book before her turn at the wicket! For the first time in decades, Indians could watch their team lose a heartbreaking final and not make it a national disaster. How appropriate that the cover of Wisden India Almanack 2018 celebrates the women's team. We must nurture the momentum, urges senior editor Karunya Keshav in her essay.
Cricket is a kind game for it embraces readers and lovers of the game as much as it does the players themselves. Cricket lovers can immerse themselves completely in the pleasure of reading about cricket without feeling sad that he or she was not blessed to play it well enough. Wisden, when it was first published 155 years ago, perhaps recognised that well. And now, sitting as squat and sturdy as its yellow elder is India's version in blue. Everything might be available at the click of a mouse or a run of the thumb, but nothing can remotely equal the tranquil joy of flipping through the pages of this treasure trove. A friend actually smells the Almanack's pages before hungrily picking essays of his choice.
I thought last year's issue was outstanding, but this year's holds its own. It is going to be difficult for editor Suresh Menon, senior writer Sidhanta Patnaik, Keshav, and the others at Wisden India, to keep surprising us year upon year, but they have set the bar themselves. And for that we can only be thankful.
The "Comment" section is a feast. As always, the contributors are familiar, respected names, and intriguing, illustrious ones too. Partha Chatterjee takes you on an indulgent journey of Kolkata maidan cricket - only the jhalmuri is missing. He ends his essay with the lament, "Now when I see that a defeat in a cricket match can produce the sense of a national disaster I must sadly conclude that the vernacular has been thoroughly erased from the soul of Indian cricket."
Once in a while, gifted cricket writers emerge to light up our world, not least because their canvas is much more than cricket. India had Rahul Bhattacharya arrive like a fresh breeze. And Sri Lanka had Shehan Karunatilaka. Wasn't his Chinaman one of the finest cricket fictions? Who would not want to discover the smells and sounds of Sri Lanka after reading him? He is in great form here, writing about Sri Lankan cricket with a mixture of emotions and a lightness of touch that are uniquely his.
Anything on Garry Sobers, bring it on. But Ian Chappell's tribute is special. I remember a former India captain telling me and my colleague Raghunath, when we were researching our second book, that we must talk to Chappell. Sadly, we didn't. His essay on Sobers here is sheer adoration - rich with anecdotes, so much fun.
Elsewhere in the book, one went with anticipation to the essay by Rammanohar Reddy, the former editor of Economic & Political Weekly, but came away less than satisfied. A pearl in this compendium is a Don Bradman article from 1986 in the archives section. Wise and far-seeing, it is even more relevant today.
Indian cricket writing is in fine young hands. The traditions of excellence seamlessly handed down by KN Prabhu and Rajan Bala to people in Menon's generation are being carried forward by Sidharth Monga, Saurabh Somani and their peers. One gets a measure of the goodwill and stature Menon commands in his bringing together all these writers and cricketers from across generations for this annual compendium. He brings to the banquet every year the best of them.
English-speaking cricketers like Chappell have the advantage of writing in their own language - a privilege that is not available to many cricketers from countries like India. And that is the trigger for the suggestion that follows. Even a year ago, the calm tones of Nasser Hussain, Mike Atherton and Michael Holding seemed the best way to enjoy cricket on TV. But Indian cricketers have come into their own on the Hindi sports channels. Loud and excitable - for that is how we Indians are - the fun and banter between them is so natural in Hindi. Their cricketing insights are nuanced and they have discovered their metier. Perhaps this points us to another step forward in India's cricketing identity. Maybe Menon can persuade Indian cricketers to write freely in their own language. We might discover some nuggets. An English translation that retains the salt of the original could well adorn future editions of Wisden India Almanack in a manner that represents the spirit of the blue cover.
S Giridhar, is the chief operating officer of Azim Premji University, and the co-author of Midwicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar and From Mumbai to Durban: India's Greatest Tests