February 6, 2014

When cricket crackled

Listening to radio commentary required you to construct an image from the words you heard and create a rich movie of the match in your mind's eye

Listening to radio commentary gives one a great chance to imagine worlds from afar © PA Photos

Cricket in the pre-television era was heard over the airwaves and imagined in our heads. In India, of course, the pre-television era lasted a lot longer than in many another countries - pretty much into the early 1980s. For me, India's greatest cricketing moments - and their more frequent plunges into the abyss - are inseparable from the voices of commentators.

If ever the cliché "less is more" was true, it was during those radio days. You had to work at constructing an image from the words you heard. You triangulated the commentator's descriptions, the blurry newsprint photographs of cricketers and grounds, and images of the different countries of the world, to project a rich movie of the match in your mind's eye.

Gavaskar's incredible display of technique and determination at Old Trafford in 1974, when he got a century in the biting cold, is indelibly associated with John Arlott's Hampshire burr as it waxed and waned through the ether to reach my transistor radio in Madras.

You had to keep fiddling with that dial, changing the position of the receiver, and trying every trick you knew to keep the short-wave transmission reasonably clear. For some reason, it got worse as the evening wore on. It was a great way of developing fine motor skills and patience, I suppose. I recall too the barely concealed glee with which Brian Johnston and the rest of the BBC crew described India's catastrophic 42 all out in the next Test, at Lord's. It somehow made the experience that much more painful.

Rivalling that occasion was the inaugural match of the 1975 World Cup, between India and England. After having listened to England rack up well over 300 in their innings, one settled in to hear our boys make a fist of it. With Sunny, Vishy, Brijesh Patel, Farokh Engineer and Abid Ali in India's line-up, they had quite a few dashers. We thought even if victory was a long shot, surely some fireworks would be in order. A growing frustration was followed by sheer disbelief as we numbly realised there was going to be no acceleration at all. Gavaskar inexplicably played out 60 overs to remain unbeaten on 36 and we doddered to 132 runs in 60 overs at 2.2 runs per over.

The English commentary team pretty much lost interest in describing the proceedings as India batted. They discussed just about everything under the sky barring the cricket. I think it was Freddie Trueman who suggested the crowd would be well advised to demand their money back as recompense for the torture they had endured. To compound the Indian listeners' misery, the BBC commentary on that first day rotated between the various grounds and we were constantly updated on the three other matches as India mystifyingly plodded on.

During exam time, commentary was a distraction that was difficult to resist. I remember once when in college, a friend coming to my dorm room late one night with a weird request. He handed me a few Eveready batteries and wanted me to keep them for him

The late Suresh Saraiya may well have been the man Mark Tully was thinking of when he titled his book No Full Stops in India. Saraiya spoke a variety of English I have not heard before or since - it simply had no punctuation at all. He paused when he had to take a breath, but otherwise the words just cascaded out in a torrent of free association. I do have to thank the man for one thing though: he unwittingly ended up improving my Hindi considerably.

I was so put off by Saraiya's style that I preferred listening to the spare and elegant Hindi commentary of Ravi Chaturvedi, who was frequently his partner on overseas tours. The two of them took us through the exhilarating win in Port-of-Spain when India chased down 404 in the fourth innings against West Indies. In retrospect, I must admit that Saraiya was a genuine lover of the game and appreciated opponents as much as he did his own team: one can forgive a man who has those qualities a lot of early-morning aggravation.

Matches played in India meant our lives revolved around the commentary. If it was an exciting match, life pretty much ground to a halt as everyone huddled around the radio sets. The kids in school who had access to a pocket transistor saw a sudden surge in their popularity. You had to quickly catch the score between classes or when the teacher was distracted. Somehow, even amid the restrictions, one person would find out the latest score and it would soon spread through the entire classroom through notes and whispers.

Anant Setalvad was a personal favourite. He had a rare quality among Indian commentators: understatement. Dickie Rutnagur and Narottam Puri were very good as well. Anand Rau and Balu Alaganan epitomised southern charm - dulcet voices and calm non-partisanship. And when it came to expert commentators, the Lala was in a class of his own. His bluntness was refreshing and he was great at putting some of his over-analytical colleagues in their place. "I don't think it was a great ball or well flighted or anything of the sort. It was a straight ball, the batsman missed it, and he was bowled," was one zinger I recall.

During exam time, commentary was a distraction that was difficult to resist. I remember once when in college, a friend coming to my dorm room late one night with a weird request. He handed me a few Eveready batteries and wanted me to keep them for him. He had been wasting endless hours listening to the cricket instead of preparing for his exams - and pulling the batteries out of his radio set was one way to silence the damn thing. I have no idea if it worked, but he did stop by a few weeks later to collect the batteries.

Those radio days are long gone. Now it's cricket in high-resolution all over the world, all around the year. Nothing is left to the imagination, and live coverage, endless replays, highlights, and Youtube ensure that nothing can be. When everything can be seen in such vivid detail, what is left to say? The clichéd repetitions of balls traveling like tracer bullets, words like "magnificent", "tremendous", and "fantastic" are repeated over and over again till they have lost all meaning. The moving image has displaced the spoken word and all its richness has strangely left us a little poorer.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu

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