The book carries excerpts from Bala’s interviews with several giants of the game, from Rohan Kanhai to Ian Chappell, and from Imran Khan to Clive Lloyd.
In his prime, Rajan Bala covered cricket when the Test version was in the forefront, and every match was significant; a Test defeat would rankle for days.
There was little money but great pride at stake. The away campaigns were elaborate and well spaced out. Importantly, there were tour games where the cricketers on the fringes received a chance to stake claims.
Indeed, Bala’s days were well spent under cricket’s glorious sunshine, even if — before the advent of laptops — he had to carry his typewriter, ribbons, and papers on tours. He also had to rely on telex to beat deadlines. While the cricket on view was invariably captivating, the job of a reporter could make extreme demands. Sending every story was often a struggle.
Passion for the game
But then, Bala’s all-consuming passion for the game and the joy of travelling with the Indian team, filing reports from foreign lands, and getting acquainted with different cultures made his journey, lasting over four decades, an immensely satisfying one. His final work is commendable since it was penned after Bala was diagnosed with a serious kidney ailment in 2008. This book was completed in July 2009, three months before he passed away at the age of 63.
Bala has focussed on major cricketing nations, providing the readers with precious vignettes of both cricket and the personalities around the game. It carries excerpts from his interviews with several giants of the game, from Rohan Kanhai to Ian Chappell, and from Imran Khan to Clive Lloyd.
The domination of Australia with its aggression — as Richie Benaud says, playing to win came naturally to the Aussies — and of the West Indies with its battery of pacemen and powerful strokemakers is well documented.
The book celebrates the achievement of the immortal Gary Sobers and Frank Worrell — one an extraordinary all-rounder and the other a great leader of men — and Bala has a soft spot for the West Indies cricket.
Bala is also conscious of the changing face of the game. He writes: “To see cricketers like Ajit Agarkar and Anil Kumble, without great batting qualifications, scoring Test hundreds in England, makes me wonder if the conditions and the challenges prevailing in this country have become very manageable.”
He writes extensively on the challenges of touring Pakistan. In a compelling conversation, the legendary Imran Khan, furious over ball-tampering allegations, reveals how the Pakistanis knew to retain shine on one side of the ball while the other became rough. “This is how we get the old ball to swing,” says Imran, adding that his pace partner Sarfraz Nawaz mastered the art. The year was 1983 and reverse swing had become a factor.
Bala recalls a young Muttiah Muralitharan, during a visit to Sri Lanka, pulling his shirt sleeves up to show him the forearms that were bent naturally. Chandra Schaffter, that great lover of the game, immediately told the author, “[This is] merely for convincing you that he does not throw. Call it nature’s gift if you like, but this is how he produces spin.”
Of course, Bala spends considerable time on Indian cricketers during a rather informal era when the media contingent from the country barely exceeded three journalists on tours. During the 1978 tour of Pakistan, it was over an evening drink that Bhagwat Chandrasekar spilled the beans on an offer to senior Indian cricketers by the Aussie business tycoon, Kerry Packer. And Bala was sitting on a major story, as the unsuspecting Chandra continued to sing.
A great admirer of Mumbai’s cricketing culture, Bala devotes a chapter to ‘Forever Bombay’. He recalls how Mumbai captain Dilip Vengsarkar requested the great Kapil Dev to bowl at the 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar in the nets. Kapil operated at Tendulkar for nearly an hour, paving the way for the precociously talented teenager to make it to the Ranji Trophy team. The rest is history.
Former India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, someone Bala greatly admired, has written the foreword and there is an appreciation from the spin legend, Anil Kumble, who first met the writer at a cricket ground as a 15-year-old.
DAYS WELL SPENT — A Cricketing Odyssey: Rajan Bala; The Marine Sports, 63 A, Gokhale Road (North), Dadar, Mumbai-400028. Rs. 395.