August 21, 2013

The pleasures of Urdu commentary

Memories of following an India-Pakistan match described in high-flown Urdu

Radio commentary offers a chance to imagine interesting new worlds © AFP

On February 20, 1985, I was feeling a little cross during my usual long bus ride home after classes at the university. India were playing Pakistan in a one-day international game in Australia, and not only was there no live telecast, there was also no radio commentary.

However, by the time I returned home my mood had changed. Commentary was on from an unexpected source: Radio Pakistan. All India Radio, unable to send a team of their own to cover the games, had decided to start relaying commentary available from across the border.

Pakistan's innings was over, for a less-than-stellar 183, but in response, three Indian wickets had already fallen, all of them to Imran Khan. As Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin put together what would prove to be a match-winning partnership of 132, their feats were described to us in a familiar lingua franca: the seemingly highfalutin Urdu of Radio Pakistan's commentators. And there was no English commentary; it was Urdu all the way.

We all "understood" Urdu because we spoke it. Or at least we spoke that hybrid language that many Indians and Pakistanis speak, its vocabulary influenced equally by Persian and Sanskrit.

But we also knew that at opposite ends of this linguistic spectrum, at the extreme points occupied by Radio Pakistan and All India Radio, were the official languages of the governments of India and Pakistan, the languages of poets, artists, and writers, two entities termed "Hindi" and "Urdu".

The former was heavily Sanskritised, the latter heavily Persianised. Very few of us spoke chaste Hindi; it made us giggle. As did the chaste Urdu we heard in old Bollywood movies, in readings of poets from Lucknow, in news bulletins from Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television.

Urdu seemed to us impossibly courtly, full of graces and airs, meant for conveying courtesies and conducting mannered interactions, perhaps between nawab and courtier, between lovers exchanging declarations of undying love. To hear it used to describe cricket was still a novelty. We had heard news broadcasts in Urdu before; All India Radio still carried them in the 1980s. We had even heard cricket commentary in Urdu before, but the televised variety - during India's 1978 and 1982-83 tours of Pakistan - had been less chaste than the radio version we were now listening to.

That evening, and the next day at university, during the inevitable celebratory post-match discussions, there was talk, too, of the new words we had heard, of how quaint it had seemed for familiar cricketing situations described in such high-flown Urdu.

Imagine: the language of Mughal-e-Azam used to describe mid-pitch discussions and field-placings, the language of the poets used to describe a beautiful shot. We repeated our favourite lines, declaiming them with as much solemnity, stateliness and style as we could muster.

We all agreed that, thanks to context, we had learned new words: asharya apparently meant decimal point, as in: "the run rate is four asharya two"); sifar meant zero, as in: "Vengsarkar was dismissed first ball for sifar." (We figured out later that this word was the same as "cipher".) Who would have imagined it, having our vocabulary expanded by a cricket broadcast?

Because we had been listening to radio commentary with no accompanying images, we had an interesting new world made available to us: a game played many thousands of miles away, in a city called Melbourne, between India and Pakistan, described in a language that we associated with a host of other images drawn from history, the movies, and many of the arts. It was a singular experience and, as my writing here shows, an unforgettable one.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shahzad on August 25, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    Those were the days my friends. For me cricket was a craze and passion, thats why i used to lsiten to Akashwani, to catch up the commentry of say India playing down-under in 1977-78. Can You believe that? A Pakistani lad waking up early in the morning just to listen to the cricket broadcast, that too from Akashwani, and of a contest not involving Pakistan. I vivdly remember two names of that time Soshil Doshi, who used to do commentry in Hindi, and Dr.Narotumpuri, the english comentator. There used to be another English comentator of English but alas i have forgotten his name. he was just supurb.He often used to pair with Sushul Doshi, if someone recalls his name please do write it here. Radio Comentory was a very tough but facinating art, and very few mastered it.All the voices i used to hear on radio are silent now,recently casualty being Muneer Hussain.only two are still going great guns ,Chisti Mujahid from Pakistan,and Tony Cozier for WI.May god give them strenght to carry on

  • Ali on August 24, 2013, 1:15 GMT

    It would be nice if in the next Pakistan-India test series, we had Urdu commentators from Pakistan and Hindi commentators from India talking in sheereeni Urdu and shudh Hindi. I think it will sweeten the tense moments.

  • AQ on August 22, 2013, 14:18 GMT

    @CricIndia208 you are will also be interesting foryou that Sansikrat(the mother of Hindi language) also came from central asian aryans in about 2000 BC!

  • Ashok on August 22, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    A fine narration in praise of Urdu commentary. Being brought up in formerly a muslim state of Hyderabad Deccan, even as a Hindu, I learnt Urdu during my childhood. Urdu literally means Lashkar or Army & is a Turkish word. Just like English (which is mixture of 100 different languages), Urdu language itself is a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hindi. Hyderabad is well known for its Urdu culture which extended to our Cricket fields during our Cricket matches at the huge Osmania University cricket fields. We used the terms like Gendh(ball) & Balla(bat) quite commonly. When someone played a great innings, we described it as "Khayamut hai " meaning heavenly. I remember the terms used by fast bowlers boasting "unn Ki line laga dunga" means I will send the batting back in a line. Because of Nawabi attitude, when a fielder misfielded we used to shout "Jhukko Nawab". The commentary in Urdu can be very pleasant experience depending upon the commentator - who can make it refined or mixed!

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2013, 5:18 GMT

    Remember that particular match for precisely that reason - urdu commentary from Radio Pakistan. The progression of coverage in India during that tournament was quite interesting: first match against Pakistan - commentary from Radio Pakistan. Next match against England - AIR had managed to get their own commentators there. Next match against Australia - DD was telecasting live!

    I also used to listen to commentary from Pakistan on short wave radio for many of the tests Pakistan played at home. Particularly enjoyed a series against WI in '87 when Qadir did very well.

  • Jawwad on August 21, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    Thanks Samir for the lovely write up and your fondness of Urdu which is quiet evident. Even for a Pakistani like me who grew up in late 70's and 80's of Pakistan it was somewhat hard for us to understand the pure Urdu lingo. Reason being - We were too entrenched in Indian movies and often mixed Hindi/Urdu words in our conversations. I still remember my then 10 year old sister telling me one morning Bhaiya Kal Sapne Mein Dharam Fight Kar Raha Tha. (Reference to Dharmendra). Plz keep up the good work.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 18:31 GMT

    Cannot speak the language but I always enjoyed listening to Urdu. Regarding that Benson & Hedges Tourney, do not know about the match, Author has described but I have distinct memory of the Final between Ind and Pakistan telecast ed by DoorDarshan on Sunday afternoon with Shastri winning his Audi for ManOfSeries. Looking @ It now - How in the world India won ODI World Championship (Went undefeated) with Amarnath, Shastri, Vengsarkar(All the tuk-tuk guys) in the Team. That tells a lot Cricket is a game of chance!

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 16:10 GMT

    @AQ13 You are just plain wrong! Your comment only shows your ignorance, or your attempt to push some sort of agenda.

  • beverly on August 21, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    Samir, A good reminder! It is always so nice when we could back into the past and reminesce, and tell those who did not see or hear what made us happy in the past; especially when we could look up the STATS and present the accurate data for them to see. As it's only so they really get the best picture of what really happened - that is, via the STATISTICS!