An invaluable contributor to cricket reporting
For a couple of decades from the start of the 1970s, Rajan Bala was India's most provocative and controversial cricket writer. Not for him the well-turned phrase or the surprising metaphor; his writing was aimed not so much at the head or the heart as the solar plexus. Sometimes he missed the target, especially when he let emotion get the better of him. But more often he shocked because he knew well both the game and the people involved.
At his best he was stimulating, and even when he wrote with the awareness of an insider he gave the impression that he knew much more than he wrote. He was blessed with the attributes of the popular columnist: a passion for the game, the love of language that placed simplicity of style above what Hemingway called the ten-dollar words, a remarkable memory for facts and figures and a sharp opinion on most matters.
As a reporter he was hard-working, had a great instinct for news and an almost virulent dislike of the fakes and phoneys of the cricketing world. He was 23 when he wrote his first book in 1969, the story of the New Zealand tour of India that year (Kiwis and Kangaroos), an expanded version of his reports for The Statesman, Kolkata. Very quickly, he took Indian cricket writing beyond the Cardusian cadences of a KN Prabhu or an NS Ramaswami, combining his understanding of technique and human nature to produce stories that went beyond the 22 yards. In this he was a pioneer, setting the agenda for today's writers who, forced by the immediacy of live television and the internet, look for the stories behind the story. Had Rajan Bala not been on the 1974 tour of England where India lost the three-Test series 0-3, it is unlikely that some of the more unsavoury aspects of that tour would have seen light of day. Bala sniffed out the stories of personality troubles in the team, the unhappiness of those who had come to play cricket and not politics.
His presence at cricket stadiums and at board meetings thereafter was guaranteed to keep the officials and players looking over their shoulders. In those years, Bala was the conscience-keeper of a cricketing nation. Yet, for a writer who often wrote about the underbelly of the sport, Bala was no cynic. He saw every game with fresh eyes, arrived at the press boxes around the world with infectious enthusiasm and a determined effort to beat the other guy to the news story. He continued to look up to his heroes. Tiger Pataudi, Erapalli Prasanna, the late ML Jaisimha, Gundappa Viswanath, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, the late Dattu Phadkar, Garry Sobers, Bob Simpson, the late Ken Barrington and many who didn't get to play international cricket but were no less icons for that. He wrote about them, wrote for them, and wrote by them. And he was prolific. But that was not all.
His writing was only a portion of his contribution to the game. He took a path through The Statesman and the now defunct Hindustan Standard, The Hindu, Deccan Herald, Indian Express, Afternoon Despatch and Courier, and Asian Age publications spread over the country, from Kolkata to Chennai to Bangalore to Mumbai - and built up teams of writers in each of these publications.
Just over a quarter century ago, Rajan was sports editor at Deccan Herald, Bangalore. On my first day at work, fresh out of university, I asked hesitantly, "Is it all right to smoke in here?" and was welcomed with the memorable words: "So long as you don't f**k on my table, you can do what you want." Rajan was friend, guide, philosopher and mentor to a bunch of talented youngsters who went on to make a name for themselves. At a recent Test match, someone calculated that the press box was filled with a good percentage of Rajan's boys and one-time acolytes. All of them had been put through the Bala school of hard work, passion, respect for facts and endless debates over bottled stuff. All of us were inspired to feel extremely possessive about the game: if things went wrong we felt personally responsible. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," Rajan was fond of quoting. Sixty-three is no age to die.
In the last decade or so, Rajan had become unhappy. There were medical complications, and emotional ones too. He wrote books on the character of Indian technique (Glances at Perfection), the politics of Indian cricket (The Covers are Off) and biographies of Chandrasekhar and Sachin Tendulkar. He wrote less than he knew, which works for a newspaper column but doesn't in a book. His final book was to be released this week. Its title, Time Well Spent, sits well as his epitaph. For despite everything, he would not have wanted it any other way.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore