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Their routine, our genius - The life of a sportswriter

I don’t quite know how to categorize Pramesh Ratnakar’s meditation on “The Father, The Son and The Spirit of Cricket”, titled ‘Centurion’. I picked up the book after reading Sharda Ugra’s rather glowing review, and expected to be taken on an appropriately thrilling ride. Instead, I found myself scratching my chin in what I hope was an intelligent manner, as I sat pondering about what to make of this absurd tale that doled out tankers of popular philosophy as it attempted to address, what are characterized as the ‘big questions’, such as ‘who are we?’, ‘why are we here?’, ‘what is the meaning of it all?’ and more.

Being a book of ideas, it is expectedly abstract in most parts, but it remains underdeveloped and oversimplified, a kind of text that you’d carry into ‘Post-modernism 101′. Mr. Ratnakar’s defenders would surely argue that it is not about finding the answers, but rather asking the right questions, and he cannot be faulted on that ground for he has picked up on some of the most troublesome queries that the existentialist individuals have the propensity to wallow in. One of these questions is the conflict between the life of the mind, and that of the body. In ‘Centurion’, this is manifested in the tension between Sachin Tendulkar (who is the same person as you, the reader – told you it was weird) and his father, the academic professor Ramesh Tendulkar. The character of Sachin struggles to pay attention in class and is at once attracted and repelled by the world of his poet father. His father on the other hand, writes a lyric comparing his son’s batting to poetry (as so many others have), seemingly drawing analogies between the internal logic of poetry and a batting innings (a burst here, a flourish there; above all, a moment).

Now, all this got me thinking whether attempts to give meaning to sport by writing about it are actually analogous to playing it. Apples and oranges, I can already hear some of you say. You can’t really compare writing about sport to actually playing it. They are two completely different tasks, having their own place and importance. There is no such thing as a hierarchy of effort. You need everyone to do their jobs for the world to continue spinning around its axis in a perfect synchronization. But a lot of good sportswriters are sportsmen who failed or were talentless. By failed sportsmen, I mean people who weren’t good enough or by dint of circumstances, didn’t have a chance to play at the professional level. Even if they did play at professional level, their careers weren’t exactly deserving to be called remarkable. I have a rather unoriginal theory to explain why failed sportspersons get into sportswriting in the first place. It’s simply because they have come closest to understanding, and to rationalizing too, the sweet pain of sport.

The reason why many sportswriters get so excited and exasperated with young talent is because they acutely perceive their own lack of it while watching the talented. When Rohit Sharma characteristically throws away his wicket on yet another opportunity, we think of it is a personal affront, as if his continual indifference is a deliberate mocking of our own shortcomings. The patron saint of cricket writing, Neville Cardus, while writing on the young Bradman, notes that the great man reminded him, “of the trapeze performer who one night decided to commit suicide by flinging himself headlong to the stage, but could not achieve the error because his skill had become infallible, a routine and mechanical habit not at the beck and call of anything so volatile as human will or impulse.”

And that is the standard at which a sportswriter holds the men and women about whom he writes. His genius is their routine; it must be no other way. He writes with passion about the beauty and the glory of sport, because he has known perfection; not how a Federer or a Messi might know it, but as Simon Barnes so effortlessly puts it in ‘The Meaning of Sport’, because he too has “had the experience of excess”.

A lob over an advancing custodian in an inter-batch football final, a leg glance that raced to the square leg fence, a forehand in a short-lived tennis coaching programme that left even the coach perplexed with its precision; yes, these moments are few and far between. You’ll usually find him getting trapped plumb in front of the wicket and walking back to the pavilion, shaking his head like there has been an absolute travesty of justice. The prizes that his tribe chases are little indeed, and in both body and spirit, they are the great patrollers of the boundaries of both grief and ecstasy on the sports field.

Which brings me back to my original point about whether there is a hierarchy of effort. What would he give to be in the thick of the action? Oh, an (non-athletic, weak-wristed) arm and a (spindly, fatigue-prone) leg! But professional sport does not forgive weak eyesight (a recent casualty being Virender Sehwag) and daily aches, and so it goes that the bespectacled shall not inherit the 22-yards or the astroturf – only a computer screen and a column on a sports website to live out their dreams second-hand. If a journalist is indeed nothing but a failed novelist, then a sportswriter is mostly a failed sportsman.

So, is the writing cathartic in the least bit, you ask? What makes him pick up the pen (or stare at blank Microsoft Word documents for hours at end, trying to come up with words that can describe Kallis punching through covers or the mind of a penalty-corner taker) and write about sport like it matters? Ironically, it is the memory of the ignominy of his own struggles and the short-lived haloes of moments when he exceeded his own abilities. It is this remembrance of things past (the future is also a kind of past for him as he already knows that he will not reach double figures in the next ten matches he plays) which draws him to write about grand theatres and grander actors. And yet, it is those moments – and the fact that, as the Portuguese writer Pessoa put it, he carries his awareness of defeat as a banner of victory – that instruct him in the futility of empathy and analysis. Then he realises that there is nothing like empathy for something like a missed penalty. There is only an indescribable grief. All else is romanticization.

And that is the existentialist crisis of the sportswriter. He is the ‘sometimes exuberant, sometimes reluctant’ peddler of futilities – a middleman between the life of the body and the life of the mind. I must point out that it is easy for him to get carried away. A turn of a phrase here, a pointed analysis there and he might think that he has bowled his profession’s equivalent of the doosra. He has informed, amazed and bamboolzed an audience into submission, helping them make sense of the sport, making them actually understand how it works. He may capture their imagination with such a delivery, summing up what they feel about a player and his craft, or even an age, weaving with his words a sense of simultaneous kinship and wonder in the reader. Of course, it is no mean feat to be able to do this and praise should be heaped on those who do. But there invariably comes a moment when he chuckles to himself when he watches a sport. He chuckles at the pettiness of his own endeavour.

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