On cricket writing

Just as the World Cup proved to television that a cricketer needs an additional quality to become a broadcaster, so too must newspapers learn that you need something extra to be a cricket writer.

IN a little corner of his own field Ramchandra Guha scored a century last month. Writing out of his stylish house in Bangalore, he won the UK Cricket Society Literary Award for his book on the social history of Indian cricket. Guha is an academic and people like him, erudite, passionate and with a vision beyond the boundary line, belong to the other world in our box-office driven cricket culture. Sadly cricket writing in India has chosen to confine itself to cuts, drives and pulls, and quotes from press conferences. It bothers me and I hope it bothers many more people. That is why his achievement deserves applause.

Ramachandra Guha has recently won the UK Cricket Society Literary Award for his book on the social history of Indian cricket. — Pic. R. Ragu-

Then I got a copy of the latest Wisden Almanack and was lost in Rohit Brijnath's admirable essay on Sachin Tendulkar. It had everything a good innings should; solid technique, deft nudges, delicate glances. It had facts, an argument, a contrary point of view and all bound together in silken writing. It is interesting how we do not always tolerate a slow, plodding effort with the bat but are quite happy to live with it in print. Brijnath's essay was the literary equivalent of an innings that its subject might have played.

The Wisden Almanack is an interesting subject for cricket lovers. It amuses me that they should choose to call themselves the Bible of cricket in much the manner that Lord's believes it is the home of cricket. Neither is true but neither is questioned! The Almanack is a fine product, indeed it is a much younger and fresher edition that presents itself this year, but it is aimed at an English audience. Brijnath's name for example, finds no mention on the jacket while those of English writers do. That is fine if you are catering to an English audience to whom familiarity with the names can be a selling point. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Wisden have the prerogative of calling themselves the Bible of cricket but it is up to us to accept or reject that claim. I believe we should reject it with the same firmness with which we should reject the claim of Lord's to be called the home of cricket. The Bible of English cricket maybe, the home of English cricket maybe, but not for the rest of the world.

But to return to my original theme, if Guha and Brijnath are fine writers, and Indian, why don't we see their names in Indian newspapers more often? Why don't newspaper editors, who demand fine cuisine when they dine out, ask for a smooth car when they have to drive one, demand a pretty turn of phrase and a forceful argument from those that write on their sports pages?

There is a view expressed that with the arrival of high quality television, the match report was rendered redundant and so newspaper editors began demanding sidelights and quotes from their reporters. Indeed, if that be the case, with the news cameras being everywhere, and fairly adept at searching for sidelights too, there should be even less for the reporter to do. I hope that doesn't sound right because it isn't; because it is an argument that either justifies average skills or suggests that the editor doesn't want to demand more. Neither should be true.

It was my belief that when television raised the bar in the middle to late nineties, newspaper editors would too. Now that the match report in its traditional form was no longer needed, reporters should have been freed to write match reviews rather than reports. The wealth of human feelings that sport presents to its audiences demands a reviewer not a reporter and it disappointed me very greatly that faced with the opportunity of making cricket writing richer newspapers chose to make it poorer. Now that the news channels have arrived, print can no longer compete even for sound bytes. Surely this must now be the blessing in disguise for Indian cricket writing. Surely this must now be the moment when Indian newspaper readers get a different, stylishly written point of view rather than quotes that mean so little and which they have probably seen anyway.

But I fear the worst. Sadly in India the expression "cricket writer" has very skewed importance levels assigned to the two words that constitute it. The word "writer" is but a wasteful appendage to the word "cricket" and so newspapers would much rather have the often bland pronouncements of the cricketers than the delicate mix of spices that the writer can offer. Just as the World Cup proved to television that a cricketer needs an additional quality to become a broadcaster, so too must newspapers learn that you need something extra to be a cricket writer. The cricketer has the advantage, that is understandable, even acceptable, but he must bring the right combination.

Till such time the writer must bring the wonderful mix of flavours that a cricket or tennis or hockey match can generate. And the editor must demand to see the writer in his man, not just the reporter. Such people exist. While Guha is probably happier being a historian or a social scientist, there are others like Brijnath and Sharda Ugra to name just two; younger writers like Dileep Premachandran, Jayaditya Gupta and the immensely talented Rahul Bhattacharya have arrived. There must be many many others who can make Indian cricket writing rich, who can make reading about Indian sport a pleasure.

Let us raise a cheer to them. Wisden may not be the Bible of our cricket but it places a very high premium on writing skills. Get the latest almanack, actually given the price borrow it if you can, and admire how words can bring the game alive. Our newspapers can too, if they choose to.