June 17, 2013

The radio years

Cricket commentary never felt better than it did on radio - particularly short wave

When listening to cricket on the radio far-flung places actually seem far-flung © AFP

Short-wave radios are interesting things. Sadly, you get to see very few of them these days. It has almost got to a point where you need to explain what a short-wave radio is. A radio, by default, is now an FM radio. How defaults have changed.

The quality of long-distance audio over the internet is obviously much better. Television brings direct visual effects. However, there is something a bit more active about the short wave. The waxing and waning has an almost human quality to it. It conforms to distances: far-flung places actually seem far-flung. Perhaps, after all, there is something to be said for the analog.

Cricket commentary never felt better than on radio. Lata Mangeshkar sometimes sounds even better on a creaky old short-wave. But maybe I'm getting a bit carried away.

In Calicut, like in most of non-metropolitan India in the late 1970s and in the early-to-mid '80s, there was very little television. We kids had to rely on our short-wave radios for entertainment, which mostly translated to cricket commentary.

We had a Philips set for a long while. Stations you fine-tuned to the previous day had to be retuned the next morning, as the twine that pulled the needle that served as the frequency marker, would never stay completely put in between times. Dialing was a fine art, patience an absolute prerequisite, for at times it took a long time to tune in to short wave. The allure of Johnston and Martin-Jenkins, McGilvray and Maxwell, provided us the motivation.

I happened to tune in to Radio Australia once during a world news round-up some time in the course of the 1978-79 Ashes. I can't be sure whether it was pure happenstance or whether it was actually a directed search for the 13 metre band. In any case, within a bit, a bunch of us were well acquainted with metre bands and frequencies. When I look back at those Google-less radio years, I marvel at the resourcefulness of kids those days.

Medium wave and All India Radio (AIR) were more accessible and obviously took less fiddling with the dial. The short-wave antenna was given some respite. This meant there was more time devoted to the build-up before a Test. The high-pitched beep and the AIR signature tune provided the perfect prelude to the drama that was to follow.

My most abiding memory of AIR cricket commentary is that of Anant Setalvad and his gentle, coaxing voice. Setalvad seemed to sound extra special during Tests at the Wankhede Stadium. His knowledge of cricket seemed beyond reproach. Deep, booming voices are often the object of much appreciation, but Setalvad was different. He never raised his voice, always seemed in total control, and provoked a gentle tickle of anticipation as he described the bowler running in. Or as he put it: "... as we wait for Kapil Dev to come in to bowl."

At times, our radio wouldn't have proper reception. I used to hop over the open rain-water drain that acted as some sort of separator between our house and our neighbour's. There, my friend Sankar had perfected the art of placing the radio next to the telephone to get better reception.

Once, in the middle of one such hop over the drain, I heard the sound on his radio go up in a crescendo. Rushing up to the radio, I realised that something that had happened only once before had happened again. Gavaskar had been out first ball - c Shivnarine b Clarke 0. It was the Bangalore Test of the 1978-79 West Indies series. Cricketing dismissals have a tableau-like aspect to them. You tend to remember exactly what you were doing when someone got out.

There were a few in the AIR commentary teams of the late '70s and early '80s who had commentating quirks you could never forget. For the late Suresh Saraiya, adverbs always came in pairs. A ball on leg stump was always hit gracefully as well as effectively. It was almost as if he didn't want to stop describing a stroke. There was a singsong quality to his commentary that went well with the adverb pairs. Now I reflect on his irrepressible enjoyment of the game and the dedication that went into his work, so much so that I possibly admire him the most among the AIR commentators.

But then I had such a strong Setalvad bias that everyone else seemed to pale in comparison. Another commentator I can't forget is Jai Prakash Narayan. At times, you felt he was directing some military manoeuvre when he described the field as a bowler ran in. It was almost as if he was commanding someone to attention, invariably ending with a stentorian "a fine leg right on the boundary". He used to refer to himself as Narayan Jai Prakash when returning you to the AIR studios. When Narayan Jai Prakash returned you to the studios of All India Radio, it seemed like you'd just finished flipping through the index of some tome.

Akash Lal's inscrutably accented drawl piqued our curiosity. In retrospect, I appreciate that he added that bit of colour to the commentary.

The Hindi commentators used to sound fairly similar except for Jasdev Singh and Sushil Doshi. Doshi for some reason created in me a sense of expectation. I think it was the crispness of voice, which, to some extent, rivalled Henry Blofeld's. Jasdev's command of the language was obvious even to those not so fluent in Hindi.

Although we couldn't deciper most of the Sinhala commentary, we could soon make out lakunu (run) and kadulu (wicket), just as much as the Urdu aashariya (decimal point) and umdha (beautiful)

It was not just the commentators who had quirks. The commentary schedules also had patterns you got used to after a bit. The pre-lunch session never had breaks; the session between lunch and tea was the worst, breaks-wise. AIR Calicut had all sorts of news bulletins and sundry other programmes from 12:30 to 2:10pm, so unless you were creative enough to find non-local radio stations like AIR Madras that had just the one news break, you were pretty much stuck, as far as commentary went, till ten past two.

Once during the 1978-79 Australia series in India, I remember listening impatiently to a news bulletin in Tamil during the early post-lunch session of one of the Tests when suddenly, barely audible over the newsreader's voice, I heard a commentator excitedly announce an Australian batsman's dismissal. On perking up my ears a bit, I found it was Graeme Wood. I felt an adrenaline rush, the kind a journalist would when he stumbled upon a scoop.

If memory serves me right, I discovered the BBC during the England-India series in England in 1979. David Gower made a brilliant unbeaten 200 at Edgbaston and since that knock, I used to hope Don Mosey would be on air when Gower eased lazily into a cover drive. Everything seemed in slow synchrony and blend perfectly into each other - the cover drive, the polite, controlled applause of the English crowd and the deliberate tones of "the Alderman".

Nothing could beat Henry Blofeld's idiosyncratic metaphors - Curtly Ambrose was variously described as an animated beanstalk, and as standing with arms akimbo rather like a teapot. Brian Johnston was an institution. I still listen to and chuckle at the famous leg-over clip on the BBC website.

Having listened to games starting early in the morning (Australia) and in the afternoon (England), the only slot that wasn't covered thus far was filled with the 1982-83 series in the West Indies. Listening to Reds Perreira and Tony Cozier in the middle of the night was a new kind of thrill.

Everyone on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation then seemed to insist on referring to cricketers by their names in full. Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts turning at the George Headley Stand End caused a collective drawing in of breath in faraway Calicut.

Cricket commentary often blurred linguistic boundaries and made languages appear less foreign. Although we couldn't decipher most of the Sinhala commentary, we could soon make out lakunu (run) and kadulu (wicket) just as much as the Urdu aashariya (decimal point) and umdha (beautiful). Much closer to home, there was Tamil and Malayalam commentary, the latter curiously always referring to bowling legspin as "attempting to bowl legspin" without once doubting the legspinner's bowling abilities. And, of course, the first number in Hindi that really caught our attention was ninyanve (99).

It wasn't just the cricket commentary. You listened to long hours of sports programming. Saturdays were an absolute gold mine. Radio Australia on Saturday mornings had ABC Grandstand - international cricket interspersed with Sheffield Shield, tennis, and horse racing that you didn't really understand but still listened to by force of habit. The BBC had Paddy Feeny's delectable spread in the evening. It was like you were being read to from the pages of Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me, all at once. Live.

On a homecoming trip to India in the late '90s, I remember landing in Mumbai on the first day of an India-New Zealand Test series. I had wandered around what was then Sahar airport, looking for someone listening to commentary of the first day's play at the Wankhede. Soon enough I heard the strains of static-filled medium-wave commentary from a duty-free shop. I hadn't listened to Anant Setalvad in years. It felt like I had caught up with a long-lost friend.

The Packer series is often credited with making cricket telecasts what they are today, but surely the real work had been done earlier. For, half the viewing pleasure we experience now must come from seeing the worlds that these doyens of radio helped us imagine then.