Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rajan Bala - Legendary Cricket Writer

Rajan Bala. The last word. A cricket writer of legendary status. Described variously as the "most perceptive of all the game's (cricket's) writers in the country"and as one with "a terrific understanding of the technical intricacies of the game, in fact the best you will" and so on, Rajan Bala represents the kind of people we don't see many of these days. Entire generations of cricket lovers in India grew up feeding hungrily on visuals of the action on the cricket field painted by masters like him. Uncanny intuition, razor sharp expression and a keen eye are only some of the qualities that this veteran journalist brought to the sports page for over forty years. I would not be far from the truth when I say that many newspapers were popular for their sports pages in the seventies and eighties - especially since television had not yet been born in India. Rajan Bala wrote and wrote - prose and poetry, critique and praise as he described match after match, player after player. Exquisite phrases, balanced critique, issues beyond the field, people and places, inside stories written with a sense of responsibility - it was never enough for the cricket lovers.

New phrases came into existence, most still being used by our popular cricket commentators of today. New media came in. The game gained an amazing following flying high on a surge of momentum built entirely on India's population and its favorite game. Today it's worth billions of dollars. There is so much money in the game that one cannot even conceive how it became so popular. It's time the game stopped and thought about it. And looked around to see where its original heroes are. The ones who took it from the stadiums to the millions across the country. The ones that helped it along when it was still an infant.

"I believe he never ever corrected a single draft," "He is known never to take notes - the scores are all in his mind," "He had a personal equation with several players, "Razor sharp in grasping the nuances, he was often sought by the lesser players for technical feedback and corrections" "A very erudite person (Anita Nair) - words flow out in open admiration for the grandmaster of sports journalism in India. Never one to hesitate while speaking his mind, never afraid of making enemies in the way of an honest opinion-Rajan Bala was and continues to be the enfant terrible of Indian cricket journalism. You can't help but wish that there were more like him - that acerbic wit, that vast reserve of knowledge, the enviable amount of cricket history he has personally witnessed, cricketers he knew personally, that clarity of thought and mostly that brash, bratty manner that always says "come on, put em up" - or simply ignores anyone or anything he thinks is not worth the time. Anyone who has spoken to him or met him will vouch for this - it is difficult to steal the last word from him. His weekly columns, aptly titled 'The Last Word" are eagerly awaited for their candour as for their wit, for their in depth analysis as for his weighty opinion.

Rajan Bala was then, the name I looked for to give me an opinion on my novel "The Men Within - A Cricketing Tale" which was launched in February 2007. It appeared that there was not much fiction written on the game and I gave it my best shot with a ideas of my own interwoven into the game. Having played first class cricket, having been a corporate manager, I could not sacrifice all sense and make a novel based on wild sweeps of imagination. I made a conscious effort for the story to make sense to the layman as well as the expert. I needed then, not just an expert who understood all aspects of the game - from captaincy to the coaching, from physical to psychological, from winning to merely hoping to win - I needed someone who could relate it to life. To the struggle we have of even daring to look at our dreams, to actually daring to dream, and then chasing dreams down.

Being a cricketer of limted success and almost zero credentials as a fiction writer, I had several doubts. Will my simplistic theories appeal to someone who has seen and dicussed strategies and plans with cricketing masters? Will the story work especially since I was treading a new ground that had not been, for some inexplicable reason, left untouched by so many writers and thinkers that the game has produced in India. Rajan Bala, Raju Bharatan, Ramachandra Guha, R. Mohan, Mukul Kesavan, Harsha Bhogle...and so many more who had both the knowledge of the game and the capability to write fiction had not attempted it. So who was I?

When Vidyut Jaisimha, my friend of all these years, proposed sending the book out to Rajan Bala I knew that it was he I was looking for. The book had to pass his critical eye. And so I sent it with great apprehension, writing and rewriting my note to him that accompanied the book. And then the wait. Not for long though. The next evening there was a call from Bangalore and a rich fruity voice addressed me with great familiarity and warmth. I don't remember the exact conversation we had but I remember thinking how easy it was to talk to him and laugh with him.
And how unassuming he was for a man of his stature.

I guess he liked the book because he wrote its finest review yet in The Asian Age". One that I'll treasure forever. There was no doubt in my mind when I did a book promotional event in Bangalore the following month that he would be the chief guest. When I first met him at the Asian Age office, I was completely bowled over. There was chai and banter, cricket talk and razor sharp repartee. His staff (the youngest being 23, a lad called Chokappan), walked in periodically with all kinds of stuff - bajjis, jokes, questions on cricket, - never once giving the impression that they were unwanted in the Resident Editor's office. Through that week I met him a few more times, once for the book promotion function, and by the time I left Bangalore I was completely taken in. Apart from his wisdom and extensive knowledge on cricket and so many other issues, the one thing that struck me was that I never felt any barrier - intellectual, age-related or anything ever. It was great fun listening to his stories and his characteristic dismissal as "rubbish" of things he didn't much care for. He'd sum up things like "writing a book is a matter of organisation" and I knew when I heard it that it will always stay in my mind forever. He'd listen to you, never making you feel that you are lesser in any way, always willing to discuss anything cricketing under the sun, always giving well-thought out opinions, always bringing on a funny side to things in a stark, brutally honest way. Like I said to him, the one thing I'd love to witness is a conversation between him and Woody Allen. I also wish he wrote more humour because I think it'd be a riot.

He was extremely helpful to me, a complete stranger, in his own way. When I told him that I proposed to invite one of my favourite Indian novelists Ms. Anita Nair to the book release fucntion, he said not a word to me, but called her up on his own just to do his bit. Similarly he put in a quiet word for me with Sanjay Manjrekar who was Chief Guest for my Mumbai event, as he did with the incomparable C.P. Surendran, who graced my Pune launch. I guess that's the way he is - lives on his own terms without giving a damn for anyone. If he has an opinion about a person or anything, I think it it does not matter to him what the rest of the world says. And so he argues for the case of Azhar as batting coach despite knowing that it is not politically correct at all, bats steadfastly for Greg Chappell when he has not a single friend in a billion Indians (it would have been professional harakiri for most), ignores Dravid in his book "Glances of Perfection", frequently takes on the BCCI's biggest names when he thinks it necessary, or for that matter writes fearless edits on politics and such. To me its wonderful to see people like him because I don't meet many like him anymore. They had a good time - he enjoys his drink, his food (so what's for dinner tonight?), reads voraciously, tells wonderful stories, has razor sharp wit, sings even more wonderfully, understands the bigger picture, does not miss the details, lives on his terms, always expresses himself fully.

Today, he is sadly not in the best of health. He is seriously ill with both his kidneys "packing up" as he said. Enough to keep him on dialysis for ten hours a day! When Vidyut and I went to visit him at his Bangalore residence late January 2008, we were relieved to see that the spirit was very much there. He did appear dulled by the sudden turn of events - he was pretty fine until a month ago. He was his usual cheery self, full of humour and wit as we spoke to him and his wife Priya over the weekend. Since then he's only getting better - back to work and even writing a fine piece on Kumble, the statesman-captain.

We were looking at Australia and India drawing the test match. We were looking at the amounts of money that BCCI and the IPL was raking in. We were watching cricket in India being at its helathiest financially and I could not help but feel sadly that veteran journalists such as Rajan Bala were somehow left out of the party. I hope someone at the BCCI includes all the people who pushed this game forward in on their gratitude list. I do hope that they do something for people like Rajan Bala who gave us reason to wake up and read the paper like it was the tastiest dish we ever ate on match days. He also gave us six wonderful books, mostly on Indian cricket which, I feel, only he could have written.

I hope BCCI does it without making him ask for it. There is something about our culture - we always acknowledge our elderly masters. I am certain that Mr.Bala will get comfort, assurance, support and love from several sources across the world.

After all he deserves it. He has earned it as much as the players on the field have. He is as much a hero as any other Indian cricketing hero.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


With the Perth victory Anil Kumble and his men shut up all the Sydney test nonsense in a way that brooks no answer. The Aussie skipper who was all belligerence after the last match shut up. The Aussie team with its irritating, whining quotes after the Sydney match shut up. The Aussie media at large shut up. Most importantly, all the fans in India who reacted with ‘Call the team back’ and who typically over-react to everything cricketing in India, shut up.

This was one of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever experienced by India. It made me smile. It made me take a walk out in the sun. It made me feel warm and fuzzy. No histrionics, no shirt-stripping-and-waving, no raucous shouting and falling over each other in a heap, no pushing out senior administrators rudely out because we won a historic win, no jumping all over the carcasses of the vanquished – no, just a quiet celebration for winning a game of cricket, genuine in every word (unlike some of the antics we see from some of our players which are clearly aimed for the cameras that they know are looking for some visuals to splash across). No wonder, the warmth touched us all the way here. And to all those TV anchors who doubted it – yes, it’s a gentleman’s game still.

It will remain a gentlemen’s game as long as we have players of such exceptional temperament. They belong to the highest league of men – Kumble- the statesman, Dravid – Mr. Fair play, Tendulkar – an icon who sets the highest standards of behavior on and off the field, Ganguly – an exceptional leader and motivator of men, Dhoni – a quiet achiever and incredible man-manager, Sehwag – the most under-rated of all, VVS Laxman – who’s so good you hardly notice him despite all his selfless heroics …there are more but yes, this is a list of exceptional men. Not because of their records but because they know how to lose.
And precisely because of that - they are also capable of winning. Like at Perth.
It’s time Australia learnt how to win. And to lose. Maybe they could hire Kumble to teach them a few lessons in the art of winning.

Bravo boys. This is about being Indian. We don’t need to sledge. We don’t need to fight and beat our chests. We can forgive - like we did Hogg. We can take it on the chin and still carry on – like a racism slur from the most ill-behaved team of all. We can play where it matters most - in the middle.
And we can hurt where it hurts most – by taking away your pride in your den.

But it’s not about that really. It’s merely about playing a game of cricket. And playing it consistently well over four days to deny the famous Aussies the pleasure of dominating even a single day. It is about all the players doing what they can do the best – Kumble daring to bat first on WACA, Jaffer for sticking out the first morning, Sehwag banishing all fears of pacy wickets and attacks, Dravid resolute in defense and so compact that nothing could have got him except himself, Tendulkar carrying the fight deep into the enemy’s heart on the first day, Ganguly for just being there, Laxman making sure that Australia chase 400 by scotching all hopes with some fantastic batting with the tail, Dhoni who excelled efficiently behind the stumps as with the bat, Kumble for captaincy that was uncannily on the button, RP for spirited batting and bowling and young Ishant for lion hearted bowling that reminded me of Kapil’s attitude against famed batting line-ups. A special word for Pathan who did no wrong with the bat and ball and tormented the Aussies and finally hurt them badly everytime he was out in the middle.
Did I miss anyone? Yes, the reserves, the support staff, everyone of us who egged the team on in our mids and said ‘Go on boys, do it at Perth”.
The world’s in good hands my friends. And I know I can wake up with a smile of anticipation tomorrow. The news in the morning papers is bound to be good.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Sydney Test - Lessons and Impressions

The second test between Australia and India at Sydney was eventful. It provided an unlikely result. However the match will be remembered for things other than cricket. The racism row, the atrociously bad umpiring, the Aussie penchant to win at any cost, India’s habitual capitulation under pressure, and what’s now a regular feature of post match analysis – glorifying the victim archetype that the Indian team has become.

Not everything was bad. VVS Laman was glorious, Tendulkar redeemed himself, Hayden and Hussey performed as efficiently as they can and Symonds batted well under pressure. But what made one sit up first was the Australian code of winning – one rule for others and another for themselves. When they sense a kill, they throw everything that’s decent and sportsmanlike to the winds. For a team that’s credited with having begun sledging and refining it to a fine art, they are remarkably coy and sensitive when it comes to anything thrown at them. Come on guys, grow up. Call it racism, call it whatever- this is a man’s sport and we’d like to see them behave like men – not whining like schoolboys. One thing’s clear – the Aussies don’t like to take what they dish out. They’ve lost a bit of that champion sheen now and are showing signs that they are rattled. (I’d love to see Sehwag, Sreesanth back in the next match and India giving Australia a hiding at Perth-no idle fantasy, I believe they have the firepower to do it if they get their act together.)

And for Mr. Proctor, it is time someone reminded him that the world is not a white man’s paradise anymore, so don’t slap racism charges here on us Asians because you think we are easy prey. We are not as dumb as you think so be prepared to get a bit more than what you dish out.

The umpires certainly need to be cooled off for a year for the bad show. You seriously can’t get paid to do jobs like that. Maybe, someone should actually investigate if the Bucknor-Benson duo’s integrity has not been compromised. It’s the not first time its happened so maybe its worth a visit for the anti corruption guys at ICC.

It would certainly be better for India if Bucknor was kept off Indian matches for a while (just as Hair was kept of Lankan matches). And I seriously doubt if Benson would have checked with the fielding side’s captain if the fielding side was Asian or West Indian. He must be relegated to the Sunday leagues games where such partisan work is best left. But the probe is not a bad idea since there are enquiries galore anyway.

Alright let us now, leave the external factors alone boys. You cannot hide behind bad umpiring and racist charges because you have yourselves to blame. No excuses for losing a match that could have been drawn even with two batsmen not being available fully. You are becoming the victim too often. I’d like to see the Indian side take on Australia and show some fight especially in the light of what’s going on. If Kumble can show grit as a batsman to save a test, so can the top six. Focus on the game, focus on the result. The one way to fight Aussie arrogance is to beat them in their own backyard, if not deny them the pleasure of winning. Come on guys, you could have turned the first match into a better game (you could have won with our fabulous batting lineup), you could have saved the second easily. Now after all this, please do find that something within you and come out blazing and beat the Aussie in the third. Get Sehwag back, let Rahul play at three or four, Sreesanth comes in and Irfan. And go for their throat fellows. The only way to beat them is to push them on the backfoot and keep going for their throat all the time. It’s a street scrap so get into it with all guns firing from the first ball. No warm up nothing. Change tactics. Get that final match.

Whatever happens don’t come back without claiming your honour. Treat them separately. Umpiring is bad - so fight it separately in appropriate places. Racism row, alight fight it where you have to. But when it comes to playing cricket, beat them so there’s no more talk. Remember how they shut up after the T20 loss in Mumbai.
There are no excuses. There are no victims. Nobody will remember the umpiring. We remember performances. Courage. Skill. Heart. And victory.
Do it. For pride. And for honour. We’d like to see blood and sweat, guts and gumption. We don’t care if you win or lose but don’t come back without giving them the fight of their lives. Which could very well be the fright of their lives.
Remember, bullies crack up first when someone stands up to them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

2007 ends on a high - Book launch in Pune

Shri Chandu Borde, me, CP and Suhita
2007 whizzed by. Very satisfyingly I must say. The last major event of the year was a book launch of 'The Men Within' at Pune. Crossword Bookstores, Pune, was gracious enough to host the event. Shri Chandu Borde, legendary cricketer, and Shri C.P. Surendran, journalist, poet and novelist, were kind enough to join the panel. Smt. Suhita Thatte, well known TV and movie actor, in Hindi and Marathi joined me for the bookreading. The event went off well as book readings do, with a goodly crowd of some 50 people comprising friends and relatives mainly, in attendance.

There is one thing about events such as this that always make me wonder, make me want to pinch myself. As a first time novelist who is keen to see his book reach out to all kinds of audiences (infact I would like everyone on the planet to read what I wrote), I keep pushing myself to promote the book in some form or another. Some times people take me seriously and sometimes they don't. But in the end, I realised that it all works out for the best. The right people come by at the right time and give the right vibes. It all works out perfectly.

For example I am truly floored by the simplicity and big heartedness of someone like Mr. Chandu Borde, a legend, and one of Pune's greatest sons. He not only spoke to me warmly and with such disarming simplicity when I first called him, that I instantly decided that when I grow up to be his age, I'd like to be like him. Here's someone who hardly knew me, who did not know what I had written about and with hardly any reference of sorts, and he has the big heartedness to consider being chief guest at my book launch function. When I called on him, he showed that wonderfully humane side to him by considering juggling times and dates between his busy Christmas schedule and I was so touched by it all that I decided that it does not matter whether I have the event or not if it inconveniences him. Finally, we decided on a date that was acceptable to him.

I was also fortunate to have dates that matched CP Surendran's - my first choice to be on the panel. CP Surendran, a writer and respected journalist, whose style is so stark that I always envied him for it (I know I can never write like he does). I have been reading his column since my days in Mumbai as far back as 1994-95 and have always enjoyed it. His perspective is always refreshingly different, it would always be different knowing the way CP writes and thinks, never conforming, always retaining his individuality even if the general idea is the same. He is an acclaimed poet with four collections of poems published by big publishing houses in India. I don't understand poetry much, except that it is a product of intense thought, and whatever little I read of his poetry did leave me disturbed. As a person too, he is direct, forthright and says it like it is, never saying anything because it is the done thing but only because he believes in it. CP is a busy man as the resident editor of Times of India in Pune and when he accepted my invitation to be on the panel I was extremely happy. More so because CP is known to my brother and it was he who put me on to my publisher in Delhi (despite not being convinced about what I wrote).

Suhita is a busy actor and resides in Mumbai. She travelled the distance to Pune to attend the function and read excerpts from it merely as a show of solidarity with me and my ideas. Her role during the entire event was for 10 minutes but she took the trouble to be there despite a hectic schedule, a bus that broke down on the way - all for an event that's certainly not the biggest draw. Suhita is my wife Shobha's cousin and was always supportive of my decision to write, but then it does warm the heart to know that she came all the way for the event. She is an extremely warm hearted person and I am very fond of her but the fact that she chose to travel the distance will remain among my cherished memories.

In such acts of supporting unknown people like me, merely on good faith, the gentlemen and lady mentioned above, have reaffirmed my trust in the innate goodness of humanity a thousand times. More so when my agenda is not so much as to make a commercial success of the book, as to have it read by as many people as possible because I believe that it has simple ideas that could possibly inspire a few to dream, to come to terms with self-belief. And when people such as Chandu Borde, CP and Suhita, Rajan Bala, Charu Sharma and Anita Nair, Ayaz Memon and Sanjay Manjrekar, spare sometime in their busy schedules to lend their energies to a book launch of a first time writer, I am convinced that the book would certainly find its way to its audience.

And in the process I learnt some very humbling lessons from these ladies and gentlemen about how to be as a person. I am deeply grateful for that.

Like I said, 2007 was a year well spent.