Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Vijay Lokapally - An Interview With a Dear Friend, A Much Accomplished Sports Journalist

I first met Vijay on November 1, 2012, at Mohali while watching the Hyderabad team play Punjab in the season opener. I was Chief Selector for the HCA then, and I was hoping the team would do well. Sitting by myself at the Mohali ground, I saw this unassuming gentleman, clad in a kurta walk in, and sit beside me. He asked me if he could read the newspaper that was lying next to me and I said he could. Something about him made me ask him who he was and he said he was Vijay and that he was a journalist with The Hindu. Again, something made me ask if he was Vijay Lokapally, whose pieces I had read in The Hindu and the Sportstar and he nodded. I was amazed at his humility and unassuming manner, and as I found soon enough, at his work ethic too, as he went about meeting players, administrators at the ground. In those four days, we lunched together, spoke about cricket and many other things of interest and I even interviewed him for my blog. We realised that he had met my brother in law Satish Nargundkar, who lives in the USA, during a visit to the West Indies in 2002.

Vijay Lokapally - Watching and Writing!
Ever since then, Vijay and I have been constantly in touch. When he comes to Hyderabad we make it a point to meet for a coffee, a meal. He indulges me and supports my writing ventures wholeheartedly, giving me generous reviews, not because he is partial to me, but because he is a kind human being who gives people a chance. He does that with players as well - not tearing them apart - and understanding that they are trying their best. Rarely does he criticise anyone scathingly, but then, he has the fine art of speaking his mind without hurting the other person. His stock is high in his circles and one need only to remember the star power on stage when he released his book `Driven’ on Virat Kohli in 2018 to get a sense - Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Anil Kumble, Kohli and Virender Sehwag. Among others who graced the occasion were Ashish Nehra, Ajay Jadeja, Anshuman Gaekwad, Kartik Murali, Vijay Dahiya, Sarandeep Singh, Gagan Khoda, Gursharan Singh. Just a hint of the respect he has earned with the players with his thoroughly likeable ways.

Vijay began his career as a freelance journalist in 1981. He covered the India-England Test in 1981 at the Ferozeshah Kotla for Children's World and the marathon Ranji Trophy final between Delhi and Karnataka in 1982. He reported the 1982 Asian Games for Patriot before joining THE HINDU in 1986 when it launched its Delhi edition. Vijay has travelled across the globe, covering cricket matches in Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Holland. He reported on the cricket World Cups in 1987, 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2011. Vijay also wrote in THE HINDU, apart from sports, on music, cinema and books. The books he has written include - "The Virender Sehwag Story", "Driven" (Virat Kohli), "Housefull" and "World Cup Warriors". There are more on the way.

Vijay's long career with The Hindu ended, as all good things must, on March 31, 2020, and in the midst of the lockdown and the pandemic, he exited quietly, in his own style. No big announcements, no teary farewells that so many of us would have indulged after a lifetime's work. It was only when I saw a random tweet and asked Vijay what it was about, almost a month later, that he said he had retired. Just like that. I thought he was joking and then realized he was not. Not being a regular on twitter, I had missed the flurry on the social media where greats from the sporting world across all disciplines, not to forget his young colleagues from the profession, hailed his contribution to sports and sports journalism.
Vijay and me, in Mohali November, 2012
I felt sad that I would not be reading his reports and columns in the paper anymore. And then, I asked Vijay if he would indulge me once again and answer some questions of mine for an interview for my blog and he said he would.

Here it is.

Q. What was your childhood like, the early influences on you, that shaped your life?

A. My Baba, Narayan Rao Lokapally, was a government servant who came to Delhi from Hyderabad on a transfer and stayed on (so effectively, I'm a migrant). My Aai, Sarla, was a housewife. She was my greatest supporter, gifting me a season ticket for the 1969 India-Australia Test at the Ferozeshah Kotla. I think the ticket cost Rs 20 or something, which my parents could not afford really. I saw India winning the Test and fell in love with cricket. Every evening I would walk back from the match to find Aai waiting anxiously. She would listen to my description of the day’s play as I would relive the finest moments of the game like an `expert.’ My sister (Neeta) was an attentive `fan’ and later she would be the `bowler’ to suffer my batting as I emulated (Tiger) Pataudi and (Gundappa) Viswanath in the backyard. My younger brother (Ajay) used to be the electric fielder. 

I was actually pampered by my mother. She was the finest cook on earth – made the best scrambled eggs and egg-curry just for me even though she was a strict vegetarian herself. She would cook anything I requested. Never served me cold food. She was the greatest influence on me – taught me to be humble and affectionate to others. I miss her the most. My childhood friend Ghaus Mohammad, now a well-known football commentator has been my biggest benefactor. He backed me to become a journalist and I owe everything to him. He instilled in me the importance of friendship. He has stood by me in all my tough times. As for my hobbies, reading, cricket, music and films occupied all the time in my life.

Q. What are the lessons you learned from your long career as a sports journalist?

A. Being a sports journalist taught me to respect sportsmen. It gave me a ringside view of many great contests and essentially introduced me to the wonderful world of sports where I came across some great champions. To be able to interact with sportsmen was such a privilege. It also gave me deep insight into the making of a champion. There were life lessons to be picked. I learned from sports to accept defeat and also to acknowledge the success of others. Life becomes easy when you understand that the opponent is better.
On the tour to South Africa, 1992
Q. If you had to pick three best moments of your career, what would they be?

A. The first Test of my career (courtesy my Aai) and later as a journalist which I covered for Children’s World at Delhi. It was an India-England match, third Test of the series. It was a memorable occasion. December 23, 1981. The day when I took a seat in the Press Box at the Ferozeshah Kotla and just observed some of the finest cricket writers and how they worked. I still get goosebumps thinking of that experience. Centuries by Chris Tavare, Geoff Boycott, GR Viswanath were some of the highlights from that match which ended in a draw.

B) Meeting Graeme Pollock on the tour to South Africa in 1992-93. I had read so much about the great left-hander and getting to interview him was an unforgettable moment. Everything about South Africa was intriguing really, from the players to the first-world cricket infrastructure. I was given a great trip into South Africa’s past by Graeme Pollock. And he was such a generous host. He gifted me two rare books on South African cricket which I have preserved.

C) The 1999 World Cup semifinal between Australia and South Africa. The match at Birmingham was tied and I had to meet the deadline. Landing the report in time was as exciting as the match which was a heart-stopper. Also, meeting Viv Richards, Javed Miandad and Jahangir Khan at Lord’s in 1996 with the Indian team at the `nets’. As luck would have it, I happened to be the lone reporter present and earned a super `exclusive.’

Q. What would be the best sporting action in the world, ever, that you missed, and would have loved to witness?

A. It would be the Tied Test between Australia and West Indies at Brisbane in 1960. It had so much to savour. The result was unique. It had a century by Garry Sobers. What more can you ask for! A five-wicket haul by Alan Davidson. A dream spell it must have been! Then it had a century from Norm O’Neill. Spectators would have been in a trance really! The match saw the bowlers take over the game in the second innings. Australia, which made 505 in the first innings, had a target of 233 to win. Davidson (80) and Richie Benaud (52) added 134 runs for the seventh wicket. Australia looked a winner at 226 for seven but neither team won as cricket saw a most fascinating finish – a tie – and a run out marked the incredible finish. It would have been great to be at the Gabba on 14 December, 1960.

Q. If you had to pick three most defining moments in Indian sporting history, what would they be?

A. The 1975 World Cup hockey final at Kuala Lumpur when India beat Pakistan in the final. I followed the match through radio commentary with a bunch of friends and the celebrations that followed were incredible. We all wanted to become Ashok Kumar, who scored the match-winner.

The 1983 World Cup win at Lord’s when India beat the West Indies. I was on night-duty (at Patriot) and took great pride in making the page in the company of colleagues M. S. Unnikrishnan and Rattan Francis.
The Olympic gold in 10 metre Air Rifle by Abhinav Bindra at Beijing in 2008. Once in life moment and the fact that it came from the humble champion that Bindra is made it all the more sweet.

Q. Who were the best sports journalists/writers in your opinion, Indian and foreign? What was it about them that made them great?

A. Indian:
KP Mohan of THE HINDU (Flawless, awesome perspective of sports and a great mentor to many)

R Mohan of THE HINDU (Impeccable reading and understanding of cricket. Prolific writer)

Raghunath Rau of Statesman (Flowery style of writing. Would make you read even a copy on weightlifting).


Jack Fingleton of Australia (Deep insight into cricket which shone in his writing)

Ray Robinson of Australia (Lovely writing with some amazing information on the game and players)

Norman Mailer, the fascinating American novelist (His book The Fight, on the epic contest between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, is the greatest piece of sports writing)

Q. Who were your role models as a writer?

A. I was given a break by Mr. PVR Menon of Patriot, encouraged by K. Ramakrishnan, editor of Children’s World, he drilled in me the significance of meeting the deadline in journalism; supported by S. Krishnan, Sports Editor of THE HINDU, but groomed and fine-tuned by K. P. Mohan of THE HINDU. He taught me the importance of “watching and writing” and also to be objective when assessing/criticising a sportsman. His homework and reporting of an event were model lessons in journalism. He never had a sense of insecurity and was more than helpful towards youngsters wanting to learn. He also gave me the greatest gift of my career. He was a superb cricket journalist but gave up cricket reporting for my sake. Ever-grateful to him.

Q. Who are the sportsmen who you would have loved to interview, but didn't? Any particular question you would have liked to ask?

A. Don Bradman: Which was your best moment on the cricket field.

Muhammad Ali: What would you have been if not a boxer.

Dhyan Chand: What was your conversation with Adolf Hitler (at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) ?

Gabriela Sabatini: Would you accept an invitation to play a match in India?

Margaret Court: How does one become a consistent champion?

Q. Ten sportsmen/women you never met but love to have dinner with?

A. Dhyan Chand

Don Bradman

Muhammad Ali

Usain Bolt

Wilma Rudolph

Johan Cruyff

John McEnroe

Nadia Comaneci

George Best

Chris Evert.

Q. What are the qualities that a sportsman should possess to impress you?

A. Humility is a must. Also, the ability to connect with fans, who are the driving force behind you rise, cheering you to become a champion. Of course, integrity and character should be an essential part of your personality.

Q. Do you believe a great sportsman also needs to be a good human being?

A. Certainly, because he represents what is best in a human being – resilience, spirit to overcome failure and compassion for fellow humans.

Q. How would you describe yourself?

A. I would leave it to you. What do you make of me? Good journalist. Decent human being. Helpful to juniors. I think one should be judged by those who have followed his/her works. Good, bad or ugly, I leave it to them. To me, I am the best. But that can’t be true. I will have my flaws. One thing is certain though. I have always tried to be honest in my writing and looked at my junior colleagues as equals. I feel happy when I see a youngster excelling as a sports journalist.

Vijay - At it!
Q. What has been your life philosophy? Your work philosophy?

A. You have to work diligently. Whenever I went on assignment, I remembered that I was going there only in my capacity as a representative of THE HINDU. I had a responsibility to live up to. Life philosophy is simple. You are fortunate to be where you are. Much talented individuals may have missed the bus for want of opportunity. So, stay grounded.

Q. What was the best advice you ever received?

A. From my father: Don’t take things for granted

Q. What advice would you give youngsters who are embarking on a sports journalism career? Where do you think sports journalism is headed? What skill sets do they need?

A. I think this generation has some outstanding young journalists. I just request them to watch and write. Write more about sportsmen than the officials. Avoid reporting press conferences in a big way because I am convinced most readers are not bothered about wanting to know about sports officials. Sports journalism is a fascinating platform for you to express yourself on the conquests that the sportsmen/women achieve though incredible human endurance. You must look to write what you see and not what you hear. The best thing about the profession is you get paid to watch the best of sporting spectacles. Look to improve your writing skills by reading the best writers and develop a passion for sport. There is no harm in playing a sport, even at the basic level, because it gives you a good perspective of competition. Sports journalism will face challenging times but there will be new “normals” and new ways of presenting the game to the reader. I love this generation of young sportswriters.

Q. Can you explain what you mean by 'watching and writing'?

A. Watching is important because you get to understand the game and the players. I never missed the first ball of the match in my career. Unless you watch intensely you don’t grasp the developments. I can make out from the report whether you have watched the match or relied on the scorebook. Similarly, every sport offers action which you need to absorb and put it in words. My philosophy was simple. My report was like writing a letter to my mother. She did not understand sports so I had to present the match or the day’s play in a simple language for her to enjoy my work. It made my job easy.

Q. What are the other things you're passionate about? Hobbies etc.

A. I love good cinema. These days I am hooked on Malayalam, Tamil and Marathi cinema. Amazing actors and some brilliant stories. Music has been an integral part of my growing years. My Aai was a superb painter and she sang so beautifully. Of course, reading and collecting books has been a childhood passion.

Q. What's on the cards next?

A. A couple of books. "Speed Merchants, Story of India’s fast bowlers", which I am co-authoring with Gulu Ezekiel, and a book on badminton with my son, Akshay. He is the main author.

Q. You've seen many champions. What do you think is the hallmark of a champion?

A. The quality to acknowledge that the man who finished second could have been the first.

Q. Anything you don’t like in people?

A. Ingratitude. When someone helps me, he sacrifices the most precious thing he has – TIME. I should value that help.

Q) Other than the names you have mentioned as your benefactors, who would you give credit to from the profession?

A) There are many but my immediate colleagues - Kamesh Srinivasan, Rakesh Rao, Y. B. Sarangi and C. Rajshekhar Rao - have been my strength. Actually, they are family and this camaraderie is something you have to be lucky to possess. The list is long but these four are special.

Q) Other important people in your life?
A) A big part of my success is obviously my caring wife Sunanda. I was hardly home during the peak phase of my reporting days because of the travelling for cricket assignments but she never complained. She has been a great source of strength. I am also indebted to Manoj Vatsyayana, K. V. Prasad, Norris Pritam and G. Rajaraman for time and again backing me. Manoj and I have grown together from the days when he would earn ₹ 500 a month and I got ₹ 250. Manoj would not let me spend. We went to Sharjah in 1991 and worked in tandem on that assignment, sharing stories and editing each other’s reports. There never could have been any competition between us and I would like to put it on record here that among my contemporaries Manoj was the most outstanding journalist with a tremendous flair for writing. Manoj was miles ahead of us in his understanding of the game and presentation in the form of a delightful report. My parents loved Prasad. He is a man you can rely upon and I was thrilled when he rose to become the Editor of The Tribune. Norris and Rajaraman continue to help me with their kindness.

Q. Your most precious memorabilia from all these years covering sports?

A. My memories of some glorious time spent in the company of some glorious champions.


Thank you, Vijay, for taking so much time out and patiently answering my questions. As I read it, I can feel your connection with your mother and your childhood, your early days at work and how much you appreciated and enjoyed being part of the fraternity, covering sports. It's a rare thing to see someone enjoying his profession as much as you do, and you did that to the last day. You are indeed fortunate.

Since you redirected the question about yourself to me, let me tell you what I think of you as a person and a professional. I have found your humility disarming. You are kind to people, to the environment around you, and one gets a sense of harmony when you're around. You have a learning mindset - you are not full of answers as some are, you have a lot of questions, and have a genuine desire to know and learn, even from amateurs. You're also the consummate professional and I believe you do give your best shot at whatever you have done, to the best of your knowledge. More than anything you have compassion for life, a multi-dimensional personality with many eclectic interests and a ready sense of humour. It's easy to ask you anything, to reach out to you, to know you understand. Also, I am sure many players might have felt confiding in you easier to do because you will not betray their trust.

I am looking forward to more discussions, meetings and fun times ahead and also to reading your upcoming books - especially the one about the 'Speed Merchants' and the debut book by your son Akshay. Thank you once again for your time and I am very sure some young sports journalist will benefit from this little effort of ours.


Rajasekhara Rao said...

Excellent read, from the heart

Avishek Roy said...

Fabulous interview -- a must-read for young sports journalists.