20 years of ESPNCricinfo
John Woodcock (first from left), on his last official tour as cricket correspondent of the <i>Times</i> sits with photographers behind the boundary, first Test, Pakistan v England, Lahore, 25 November 1987
Remember when cricket writers sat by the boundary? © Getty Images

Oi, rookie. Six hundred words on Saeed Ahmed Hattea and Pandurang Salgaonkar and India's lost generation of quicks.

These days: Yawn. On it, boss.

First stop ESPNcricinfo player profiles. Then Google - seven results in 0.3 seconds on Hatteea, 0.25 for 1295 on Salgaonkar. Where they are now, what they think. Useful Indian XI to never have played a Test. Easy peasy. Six hundred words, and the spelling is "Hatteea".

In the BC era, panic, scramble. Exclamation marks, skulls and crossbones. To late-20th-century humanoids, BC was Before Cricinfo.

Hatteea and Salgaonkar? Find books, scour through volumes of Indian Cricket, look for telephones numbers, invoke stats gods. The Mumbai trinity used to be the venerable Anandji Dossa, the diligent Sudhir Vaidya, and newbie Anant Gaundalkar. Did they know someone who knew someone who would possibly know a person who could locate these splendid chaps? BC was before the internet, before Statsguru, before the connectivity vital to sustain human life.

Existence BC, though, was viable and sustainable, if requiring beastly amounts of gopher work and endless talking. At my first job, on Mumbai's afternoon tabloid Mid-Day, the news reporters' early morning drill was to call, in turn, the cops, the ambulance hotline, and fire brigade and ask, "Kahi vishesh? (Anything special?)

On non-match days, at a respectable hour, cricket offices were called. Much meaningless conversation happened, ears on full alert. The guy who served the tea in the ramshackle BCCI office? Remember his name. Who knew what he knew.

Information didn't come from a single, mighty encyclo-umbrella called Google. People and books had it. People had nuggets, stories, trends. Books had cricket's numbers arranged in proper order - averages first, aggregate runs/wickets later. Strike rate and economy rate were calculated privately by the numerically obsessed. Ask Kapil Dev about his falling strike rate, though, and permafrost would follow.

Books also opened doors, books of all types. The microscopic type of the Volume II (M-Z) of the utterly overweight Mumbai telephone directory led down a long, endless column to a number for "Tendulkar, Prof Ramesh". The professor's youngest child was provoking much interest. An older son translated questions to the tyke on the phone from English into Marathi and helpfully translated the tyke's answers back. It was a very short conversation, but hey, the kid with the barely audible voice spent his time batting, not chatting.

The BC era wasn't in any way peaceful or uneventful. Tumult still ruled. In the decade following the 1983 World Cup, India had six different captains, 38 Test debutants, and 45 in ODIs. Continuity be damned. India's first "coach" demanded the team be chucked into the Pacific.

Interviews with new performers on tour were conducted in the Mumbai airport arrival lounge (which you could sneak into in those days), as players waited for their bags to turn up on the conveyor belt on their return home. They had no choice but to sit down on luggage trolleys and answer questions.

After such achievements, arm-wrestling followed because typewriters were involved. You versus the machine. Flat out. No sissy stuff like backspace, delete, and spellcheck. Certainly no copying and pasting. When precious second thoughts struck, you ignored them or started over, from line one. Oh and by the way, tick, tock, tick, tock, deadlines aren't flexible.

The Wimbledon media centre in 1992 still had two telex machines. That corner of the media centre became forever India. The rest of the world was onto the latest fad - facsimile

Way before the idea of an expanding World Wide Web invaded our brains, there were computers. No one told us that the keys didn't have to be pounded as if they were fixed in concrete. (Those still capable of exterminating keyboards today are BC vets.) We signed up for "Word processing" courses lasting two months, contemplating blinking green lights called (we believed) "cursers", and discovering the secret 11th commandment: thou shalt always save.

On the press-box frontlines, the typewriter (with spare ribbon, please) remained your ally and companion. You needed a calculator to double-check the day's scorecard. Plus record books like the sparingly distributed BCCI Statistical Annual, Indian Cricket, newspaper clippings, and if you were posh, Wisden.

Scorebooks were prized possessions, kept separate from the pages of scribbled notes. The notepads full of messy handwriting, bored doodles and nothing quotes were dumped. Scorebooks were kept as pristine as possible and stored. They reminded us of where we had been. The dates, the game, the venue, the umpires, the toss, and the match itself. In repeated rituals, of reverence almost, the scorecards were always properly tallied. No matter what the game was or where it was played or who played in it, the numbers were never going to lie.

On outstation assignments, the object of worship was the telex. In the normal course of duty, the crusty operators typed one-line telegrams ("May Heaven's Choicest Blessings be showered on the young couple" [Greetings Message No. 16], "Sincere Greetings for the Republic Day Long Live the Republic" [Greetings Message No. 19]) When fatigued folk carrying portable (5kg minimum) Remingtons and Olivettis and densely typed A4 sheets walked in, they slid off their high wooden chairs and invited us to seat ourselves there. Do start typing, they said. Some tea? Samosas?

The telex was a piece of genius - a page of text typed on it turned into a long paper ribbon filled with perforations in indecipherable code. Then the machine dialled a number, and if another machine somewhere answered, off went the paper ribbon. A slithering snake spitting out its message, turning those holes into alphabets, words and sentences on the other end of the line.

Then the magic happened. "Recdok?" you typed. If all was well, the machine typed back, "recdoktks". It was like listening to what Indians call Akashwani, the voice from the sky, aka revelations from heaven.

Mike Gatting poses with a plate of prawns as David Gower looks on, on the tour of India in 1992-93
Mike Gatting cosies up to a plate of prawns, Mumbai, 1993 © MiD DAY Infomedia Ltd

The Wimbledon media centre in 1992 still had two telex machines. That corner of the media centre became forever India. The rest of the world was onto the latest fad - facsimile. It was a good-looking, lean piece of machinery, but without the kindness of the telex, without any guarantees that a decipherable script had appeared at the other end. If the phone line was bad, a fax could produce a page full of barcodes.

Fax didn't require retyping or ribbons. It took mere minutes but it didn't talk back. It didn't say "(hiya) recdoktks". The brusque "OK" on its report was as believable as the message on the backs of Indian trucks. "Horn OK Please" actually means, "Overtake and you'll be run off the road."

The fax made for a grumpy bedfellow, so it was easy to be distracted by the next new chap - the "tandy". Foreign wire reporters began to carry these ultra-tiny computer screens about. Two plugs from one were attached to the mouthpiece of a phone, a number was dialled, and squawking was heard. We were told it was the sound of reports being transmitted to London, Paris, Singapore.

The Olivettis and Smith-Coronas never complained or abandoned their duties, but they knew. We were about to be seduced.

Laptops first had a mandatory attachment - the portable printer. First you typed, then you printed and then you faxed, no? Smells like progress. Abandoning the printer meant making early contact with file-transfer protocol and the C prompt.

Mysterious entities emerged. A thing called cricket.org, they said, contained scorecards. Where did they come from? Who put them there? How? Then we met Statsguru, and bingo - everlasting love.

Everyone has a BC-era latop / tandy story. Mine came from Cuttack. Before horrified, outraged eyes, a harried Englishman smashed his laptop on the ground at the Barabati Stadium. Maybe he just missed his typewriter, but we called it a slur on our great nation and its marvellous telex offices. Reporters' legend says the machine was rescued off the floor and given a second life in Calcutta.

This was the tour of 1992-93*, when everyone could wander to the centre wicket on Test match eve, scratch chins and make utterly incorrect predictions. Where interviews were conducted with a congenial sit-down on the outfield. Where, as England trailed 0-2, Mike Gatting and David Gower thought nothing of posing for a photograph with a plate of prawns. In Madras, Gatting had been felled, it was rumoured, by bad prawns the night before the second Test. Gatting waited for the arrival of the plate of prawns he was to pose with and explained kindly: It wasn't the prawns, they were lovely. It was the amount of prawns that were consumed that had caused the problem. And of course, he could be quoted.

BC really wasn't the dark ages.

*0730 GMT The year was corrected from 1990 to 1992-93

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo


Posted by mukulkesavan on (July 20, 2013, 8:41 GMT)

Sharda, this is one for the anthologies: wonderful!

Posted by PrabhuRangarajan on (July 18, 2013, 19:26 GMT)

A tiny reminder for those wondering what Gower was doing in India during the 1992-93 series - he was part of the Sky Commentary team. In fact, he smiled when a Sportstar journalist drew his attention to a banner in the crowd at the Bombay Test that said, "David Gower 3, England selectors 0". I am reminded of those days when as a schoolboy, I would take the Second Trip of the schoolbus to reach home around 5pm, since taking the 1st trip required me to cross the busy road, an act my parents forbad. I would then eagerly wait for the AIR 6pm news to hear the day's scores.

Posted by MastQalandar on (July 18, 2013, 10:17 GMT)

Lovely piece Sharda!

To your collection of sportswriter's' gadgets I will add the listener's gadget - the transistor radio. I still remember sitting in the back row in a college lecture hall surreptitiously listening to a "transistor" radio through an earphone (with earpiece safely tucked by a cap), listening to a description of Gavaskar's double century at The Oval as a riposte to Freddie Trueman's "rag-tag and bobtail team masquerading as a test team" comment at The Oval.

Since at our company we ourselves design data communication products, and have worked with faxes, modems and, yes, telexes (still remember typing "Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" to test out all characters from A-Z), your article resonated even more. The exercise required in typing out the messages ensured that at least Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was non-existent in those days. In fact it was quite a muscle-building workout for the arms!

Look forward to more of your writing.

Posted by   on (July 18, 2013, 7:43 GMT)

By the way, it's "AkashVani" Sharda. :-P

Posted by   on (July 18, 2013, 7:05 GMT)

It was Gooch and Gatting i believe...

Posted by Atul on (July 18, 2013, 5:03 GMT)

Did you mean the tour of 1992-93? I am sure England didnt tour India in '90. Then again, Gower wasnt in the 92-93 tour to India I guess..

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