This is the golden age of cricket writing

In sport, great performers and eras usually inspire great writing. Two things tend to happen: the nuts-and-bolts reporter who writes day in and day out on his sport gets lyrical in his descriptions and puts more passion into his writings. Even the most jaded are sometimes inspired by a great performance.

Suresh Menon

Such a period also attracts the non-specialist who writes the occasional essay which then becomes the touchstone for excellence. David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of Roger Federer is an example of the latter. Hugh McIlvanney’s writings about Muhammad Ali and K.N. Prabhu’s on Sunil Gavaskar’s times are examples of the former.

With the retirement of Virender Sehwag — possibly the one batsman even reporters would pay to watch — the golden era of Indian batsmanship is at an end. Zaheer Khan quit just before him, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni has already retired from Test cricket, leaving Harbhajan Singh alone theoretically still an active Test match player.

The golden era had everything — triumphs in all formats, batting that had both rare form and impressive content, bowling that had variety as well as bite. Did we notice that it might have also been the golden age of Indian cricket writing? And since most of those who were writing then continue to do so now, are we in the golden age, ignored in the present, but to be acknowledged in the future?

The answer, I think, is “yes”. Strangely, not many people I spoke to, including some of India’s best, agreed. One argument was that today’s writers are weak in two areas: technicalities of the game, and its history. Then there is the tyranny of time, where the past is always more golden than the present and writers like Prabhu and Rajan Bala, N.S. Ramaswami and P.N. Sundaresan seem unapproachable.

The best writers combine involvement with detachment, hardnosed reality with romanticism.

R. Mohan and Ayaz Memon, the bridge between generations, continue to write, keeping alive their enthusiasm through eras. Bala was technique, Ramaswami was romance, Prabhu was sometimes poetry: today’s best combine these attributes in various degrees.

More people are writing about the game now. And in more non-traditional platforms like the personal blog. Unlike in the past when newspapers had the best writing for them, now the best appear on websites like Cricinfo and Wisdenindia. These provide the platform for longer essays for one, and coverage from multiple angles that newspapers cannot afford for want of space.

Change in approach

The approach has changed too in the Internet age. The pressure to be different, to sound original has led the mediocre writers to focus on players and gossip, but has allowed the superior writer to go beyond the statistics and the personalities. The Sachin Tendulkar of Indian cricket writing, Rahul Bhattacharya, now an award-winning novelist, continues to thrill with the originality of his perception and the unexpectedness of his prose.

Just like Tendulkar collected around him a team of world-beaters, Bhattacharya was the leader of a group of writers — Anand Vasu, Dileep Premachandran, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Sidharth Monga — who are read as much for what they have to say as for how they say it. Add to that list Sharda Ugra, one of the finest columnists, and Sandeep Dwivedi, whose essays on players are such a treat, and we have the makings of a golden era.

The one strike against this lot is the lack of an ‘oeuvre’. The golden era must have its literary heroes. And so the magnificent Ramachandra Guha, historian, cricket obsessive, and above all, an aesthete. His books combine research and passion to a degree that bring the pages alive. Some day he might bring together his passions and write the definitive history of Indian cricket!

The best writers combine involvement with detachment, hard-nosed reality with romanticism. Cricket is a sport, after all, not a matter of life and death. If India lose to Pakistan, there might be national mourning; the better writer is conscious of both the emotion and the absurdity of it.

Era of cricketer-writers

This is also the age of the superior cricketer-writer. Aakash Chopra, already the author of three fine books, writes with an understanding of the nuances that reiterates there is more to cricket than Virat Kohli’s girlfriend visiting him on tours. Sanjay Manjrekar may not be lyrical, but he makes his point without fuss. Of the old-timers, Sunil Gavaskar is the consummate professional, Bishan Bedi provocative when he puts pen to paper, V. Ramnarayan, despite a tendency to pay regular odes to his former Hyderabad team, is an enjoyable read.

All this, and we have not even touched the writers in Indian languages, which, I am ashamed to say, I am not qualified to judge. There are respected writers in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali with a fan following to match some of the players.

A couple of years ago, The Guardian wrote about Indian cricket writers having a “loud and distinctive voice”. I took that to mean that the worst of us were merely loud while the best were distinctive, although one does not automatically negate the other. To mangle Yeats, the worst lack conviction, while the best are full of passionate intensity.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 9:27:24 AM |

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