Love of cricket

To love cricket is one thing, and necessary. There is a second and more demanding love — that of language itself. This much is known and accepted. But there is another love, rarer, and more precious.

Sidhanta Patnaik shares a copy of the book 'The Fire Burns Blue — A History of Women's cricket in India' with former India cricketer Rahul Dravid.   -  Photo courtesy: Karunya Keshav

Cricket teases out character in those who play it. Also in those who write about it. To love cricket is one thing, and necessary. There is a second and more demanding love — that of language itself. This much is known and accepted.

But there is another love, rarer, and more precious. Sidhanta Patnaik had it. He felt personally responsible for the game. If anything went wrong, if the game was brought into disrepute, it hurt him physically. He asked himself: What could I have done to prevent this?

"Cricket is my source of energy," he said in the last piece he wrote, one that ended mid-sentence with the word “and...” The symbolism is inescapable. Patnaik was only 34 when he succumbed to cancer. He brought together in one person qualities that go into the making of sports journalists: passion, energy, empathy for the underdog, an eye for the unusual, searing honesty, a phenomenal memory, and a nose for where the real story lay.

When he first walked into my office at Wisden India Almanack, he said international cricket could take care of itself, he was focused on the neglected: juniors, under-19 and, above all, women's cricket. He soon became the country's go-to man in these areas . His book on the history of women's cricket in India, The Fire Burns Blue (co-authored with Karunya Keshav) is a seminal work. He was working on a book on the Ranji Trophy even as his strength ebbed away and pain and frustration became his chief companions.

I was in England last year during the Test series when I received a message: Doctors had given Sidhanta two hours to live. But he hung on with that combination of mind and heart that characterised everything he did. Soon he was out of the ICU — he had asked for an “extension” so he could complete his Almanack  work — and back home. “I can live for two months, two years or twenty years,” he said casually.

To live each day as if it were your last is sound advice. With Sidhanta it was just pragmatism. He couldn't live any other way. Loved ones gained strength from his attitude — his wife and four-year-old daughter, his sister, his parents.

Sidhanta probably did more work in and around the ICU than most people in plush offices in the same period. There were the books and articles to be written. There was a cricket magazine, Women's CricZone, to be launched — he was the editor-in-chief. Youngsters had to be encouraged, fires lit under those who favoured status quo over progress.

He wrote final letters to friends: thank you for everything, there are no regrets. He travelled to Bhubhaneswar to prepare his grandmother for the bad news to follow. He wrote down a plan for women's cricket. He left no loose ends except for that dangling sentence.

He loved the game; his writings earned him the love of anonymous people. “Cricket kept me protected,” he wrote. He did the same for cricket.