Cricket journalist? But have you played cricket?

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Wednesday, September 8, 2004

4.00pm IST - Have you scored 30 centuries?

I have a friend who is a political journalist in a major Indian weekly magazine. She went to interview a veteran politician a few days ago, and asked him about something controversial that his government had done when in power. "Well," the gentleman suddenly roared, "have you ever stood for elections, young pup?"

My friend said no, she hadn't.

"In that case," the politician intoned grandiosely, nostrils inflamed, "you have no right to write about politics."

Well, yes, the above story is made up, and it's so ludicrous I needn't have confessed to that, it was obvious. But cricket journalists in India go through just this all the time, and too many fans have just this attitude. I've seen two talk shows with Ajay Jadeja, on a major news channel, in which, when Sachin Tendulkar's batting position or form has been questioned, Jadeja has asked the questioner, "but have you scored 30 one-day centuries?" Then he's sat back, leisurely satisfaction spreading across his cherubic face, as if he's just eaten a particularly good biriyani.

This stick is used to beat up on ex-cricketer-turned-broadcasters as well. The internet is full of bulletin boards ranting about how Sunil Gavaskar, he of that infamous 36 not out, has no business saying that the Indians need to keep the scoreboard moving, or that Navjot Singh Sidhu, who did not make as much of his cricket ability as perhaps he should have, should not criticise current players for their lack of application. This line of thinking, however, is misplaced.

When we discuss a commentator, or a cricket writer, all that we should judge them by is the quality of the work they do in their current profession. What they say, or write, should be reasonable, insightful, crisp, evocative, and possessing any other quality that you think good journalism should have. Of course, they must know their cricket. But a judgment of this should be made only by evaluating their journalistic work, and not by examining their biodata.

Indeed, if we held all journalists up to the norms the likes of Jadeja expect, our political journalists (like my fictitious friend) would have to stand for elections, our business columnists would need to run businesses, and our music critics would need to break through into the charts, and lip-synch in music videos. There wouldn't be too many journalists left, just celebrity columnists.

There are plenty of cricketers, of course, who have gone on to be fine journalists - playing the game does give you extra insight, which gives an ex-cricketer who is also a good writer an edge over a pure journalist. And I've come across rookie writers who haven't played the game at all at any level, and who simply don't understand how hard it is to keep pitching the ball on the same spot, or how a seemingly reckless stroke can be a reflexive action, and not necessarily an act of irresponsible volition. But this is evident in their writing - we don't need to know to what level they played their cricket to gauge their competence.

England has many excellent players-turned-writers, but in India, sadly, ex-cricketers are contracted by publications not for their insight but for their brand value, because they are celebrities. Often ghost-written, their columns are mostly a banal collection of cliches, with one of many trite observations sensationalised into a headline. Not all Indian cricketer-writers are like this, of course - Rahul Dravid, when he puts his mind to it, is a lucid and evocative writer. But he's an exception.

If you can't counter the argument, attack the person making it

The point I made at the beginning of this post - that we should only judge a journalist by what he writes and not by his background - is indicative of a larger malaise among all of us. Too often, both in private argument and public discourse, people deviate from the topic being discussed, and make personal attacks on the person they're trying to counter. (In the context of cricket journalism, this takes the "But have you played cricket?" line.) Instead of using reason to break down someone's argument, they attack that person's credibility instead.

This kind of intellectual laziness is all around us, most topically in the ongoing US presidential-election campaign, where one side is supposedly full of weak-willed left-wing liberals, and the other contains ultra-conservative, war-mongering stooges of big business. An intelligent debate is hardly possible amid the shrill rhetoric, which is a pity, because both sides have reasonable points of view on all the major issues, but are relentlessly caricaturing, and being caricatured by, the other.

I have got a lot of vociferously abusive e-mails after I began this blog, and was initially rather dismayed by them. Now, my rule of thumb is simply this: at the first sign of a pejorative comment directed at me, I press delete. I've had the pleasure of having some wonderful conversations with people who have disagreed with me in a civil and reasoned manner, and I've learnt from these interactions. But getting personal is a sign that the person has nothing useful to add to the discussion, and is an insult to the gift that we humans are uniquely given: of sharing our thoughts with, and learning from, each other.

And no, I haven't played any international cricket. Or even first-class or university cricket. You were dying to ask that, weren't you?

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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