Why sportswriters shouldn't succumb to myths

Often in sport we see (or hear) what we want to. Sport might thrive on myths, but sportswriters ought not to.

India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi with his English counterpart Tony Lewis. During a Test, Pataudi was seen to say something to Lewis on the field after completing a single. “Pataudi was complaining to Lewis about the fall in the standards of on-field behaviour,” wrote the Indian media. What he actually said according to Lewis was “No pair in this match, Tony.”   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Former England captain Tony Lewis once wrote about a Test in India where Tiger Pataudi was seen to say something to him on the field after completing a single. “Pataudi was complaining to Lewis about the fall in the standards of on-field behaviour,” wrote the Indian media.

What he actually said according to Lewis was “No pair in this match, Tony.” But why disillusion the many fans of the former Indian captain, reckoned Lewis, and didn’t correct the impression.

Often in sport we see (or hear) what we want to. And if a reporter on whom we rely on for information is in the tradition of the romantics, he contributes to its myths by his own imaginative interpretations. Followers of sport can be broadly divided into two groups. The first wants to believe in the ideal, revels in mystery and hates to have it clarified while the second wants to get to the bottom of things.

More people probably remember folklore and legend, especially if they were fed these at an impressionable age. That is the power of myth. Did an umpire actually say “That’s out Your Highness,” when Pataudi appealed for a leg before against Colin Cowdrey for his only Test wicket? Was the second tied Test the result of a scorer’s error? Or an umpire’s? Or neither?

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The answer to the first of these questions — like stories told about Fred Trueman or Muhammad Ali — isn’t important except as a joke in a bar. But the next two are, and they have been dealt with in detail in Myth-Busting: Indian Cricket Behind The Headlines by Gulu Ezekiel, veteran journalist, corrector of errors in publications and on social media, and firm believer in getting it right. You feel his pain is almost physical when he spots a common mistake being repeated, so fastidious is he with facts.

Sport might thrive on myths, but sportswriters ought not to, and in busting a range of myths that have nearly become accepted as ‘facts’, Ezekiel is setting the record straight.

The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored by Derek Birley, published over four decades ago remains the Bible of myth-busters. The difference between the two books is that while Birley’s is interpretative, a collection of opinion pieces, Ezekiel’s is a fact-based attempt at de-mystifying the fables that have attached themselves to Indian cricket through ignorance and repetition.

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When Keats accused Isaac Newton of taking the poetry out of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism, he had many supporters, all arguing that scientific explanations, the laying out of facts at the cost of the poetic took something away from appreciation. But however unromantic, there is beauty in truth, as Keats himself said in another context. It is this beauty that is sought by books that set the record straight.

Increasingly, as fans demonstrate they believe Indian cricket began with Ravi Shastri or perhaps that it was invented by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Myth-busting is a useful reminder of other times and other people.