It’s all about the importance of recorded history,” author (and Mint columnist) Rohit Brijnath told me when I asked him what inspired him to co-author Abhinav Bindra’s A Shot at History. “We generally have a great tradition of recording events and happenings but little of our sporting history is archived.”
I can second that, and so would most other sports reporters/writers looking for credible background or archival information while writing on Indian sport; there just isn’t enough material in print or in the ether (let me state at the outset that I’m referring to the English language; Indian languages, especially Bengali, have a far richer tradition).
World of sport: (clockwise from above) Sunil Gavaskar, Abhinav Bindra, Milkha Singh, Michael Atherton and Diego Maradona.
Sports reporting in India has a noble track record but the older reports, in keeping with the times, mostly specify the who, when, what and where—not the why and how, the statistics more than the stories. The lack of books doesn’t help; there are encyclopaedias and anthologies but precious few (auto)biographies from, say, the golden age of Indian hockey, or even of cricket pre-Sunny Days, little in print about the Mohun Bagan team of 1911 or the Indian team that made it to the 1950 World Cup, yet didn’t. Premjit Lall’s Down the Line is a rare account of India’s first great tennis era and even the fascinating story of Milkha Singh, arguably the most iconic non-cricketing sportsman of independent India, lacks a good telling.
Much of that was, of course, a function of the times; newspapers pre-liberalization had far fewer columns for sport, the publishing industry was a fraction of what it is today, readers’ tastes were shaped by what the publishers offered and, crucially, the writing was different. It took Sportsworld—edited by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi but run, fairly anarchically, by David McMahon, Andy, Barry and Derek O’Brien, Mudar Patherya and Brijnath, among others—to take sports journalism to a different level. There were three qualities that set Sportsworld and its writers apart: One, they rarely pontificated; they were storytellers, not desktop commentators. Two, they spanned the wide world of sport, not merely cricket. Three, they were totally contemporary—they were PLUs, speaking and writing in our language. The magazine’s tag line—“Take a look at sport, with people who’ve played the game”—didn’t refer to the editor alone.
They weren’t beat reporters, though they could report the socks off any newspaper hack. They were writers, passionate about their craft as much as about the sport they were covering. They saw the story beyond the facts, the struggle behind the record-breaking feat, and most importantly, the fun in all of it, and told those stories in a voice that came from you and me. That was in the mid-1980s; soon enough came liberalization and the explosion of sport, publishing and readership. The rest is recorded history.
The past two decades have seen the Sportsworld style of reportage become the norm, especially among bloggers, though too often replicated in style without the substance. The genre was forced by the advent of news television, which made straight reporting in newspapers and magazines pretty irrelevant, and was helped by the rise of other sports in India, and of Indians in those other sports: Lee and Hesh, Bhaichung Bhutia, the Southern Stars of track and field, the Fab Five of Indian cricket and perhaps the most successful of them all, Viswanathan Anand. Their stories—of middle-class Indians achieving success not necessarily through an abstract genius but also by sheer hard work—echoed the larger story of India’s rise in the world.
From there to A Shot at History is a logical progression.
Two points invariably crop up in any discussion about the book: One, that Brijnath could have chosen a more high-profile (read: cricket-playing) subject for a “first book”. Two, that Bindra, yet to turn 30 and still at the peak of his career, is too incomplete a subject for an autobiography. The first point says much for Brijnath’s sense of perspective and priority; the second is answered by the compelling storyline and the need for it to be read here and now, even as the story itself is evolving, so as to inspire those who wish to follow Bindra. In these days of instant celebrity and the Twenty20 retelling of stories, this book serves a purpose by detailing the excruciating minutiae of a shooter’s craft and graft, the nuances of training and technique that the mainstream media cannot get into, and by underlining the fact that, in an age where almost everything is so easily accessible, an Olympic gold can’t be bought off the shelf. Not even if your father is a crorepati (immensely wealthy).
It’s the sort of honesty that, thankfully, is becoming more prominent in Indian auto/biographies, though sport is a different ball game. Honest opinion is much sought after but rarely tolerated; ask Shoaib Akhtar. Good autobiographies have to come clean, take a stand, ask questions. Top of my list are Mike Atherton’s appropriately titled Opening Up; Diego Maradona’s El Diego, which chronicles his chaotic, careening life; and, in a different vein, the mountaineer M.S. Kohli’s One More Step for its simple, unassuming retelling of the greatest of feats.
Sports writing today is far more participatory, thanks to blogs, and easier with so much sport on tap; it’s easy, though, to slip into the habit of voicing opinion and venting spleen than it is to tell a well-researched story, especially if it isn’t yours. Proper chronicling of history needs far more rigour and selflessness. Today, we wish our predecessors had told the stories of their times; let’s hope those who follow us don’t say the same thing.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com