Cricket’s Oral Tradition
Dilip Sardesai Memorial Lecture
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honour to be delivering the Dilip Sardesai Memorial Lecture this evening in front of an audience with a deep love and great knowledge of cricket.
Much like the late Dilip Sardesai. It was because of this deep love and knowledge of the game, that he also had a complete fearlessness – about protecting the game and when needed, calling it like he saw it.
I have heard a story about how he once stood alongside the sightscreen of the Brabourne Stadium not so far from here during a match and shouted, “lagori!” everytime a bowler with a not-so-great action, sent down a ball. Laghori, as everyone will know is the childhood game of seven stones in which throwing is an essential skill environment.
If he’s watching cricket from up there these days, no doubt he is shouting lagori very often. Let’s hope the game is listening.
My first personal story about Mr Sardesai is an incident from an U-19 match at the CCI in 1991. We were playing against New Zealand and one of their batsmen wasn’t happy with a decision he had got and showed open dissent at the umpire’s decision. In a manner that would get him heavily fined these days but at that time he walked off after expressing his annoyance.
Mr. Sardesai was watching this and was pretty upset about the Kiwi’s bad behaviour. Well, he didn’t just “let it be”. He made it a point to walk upto the player and the team manager and express his disappointment at how the young man had behaved. That probably sums up the kind of person he was. Forthright, plain speaking and always a generous man with a genuine concern for betterment of the game and how it was played.
In the few interactions that I have had with him, he always had a smile, a kind word and some sincere advice.
Apart from that incident, everything I know about Dilip Sardesai is through stories. Be it his partnership with Eknath Solkar in the West Indies where they tricked Gary Sobers into bowling the spinner for an extended spell. Or once when he was chasing the ball and he kicked it into the boundary because he realized the batsmen were ready to run five.
What I’ve just talked about – “a kind word” from Mr Sardesai, the “advice” and “feedback” he gave many a cricketer and the “stories” I heard about him forms the central inspiration of my talk this evening about Cricket’s Great Oral Tradition.
As youngsters, a lot of the advice we were given was not necessarily technical, it was more anecdotal. Coaches, former players, seniors would tell us stories about cricketers they had played alongside and cricket matches which they had played in, which helped us understand and appreciate the game better.
There is a great parallel with cricket’s oral tradition and a very Indian tradition of the Guru-Shishya parampara. Our parampara belongs not just to cricket but all walks of life, the passing on of stories, of legends forms an essential part of our education as children. Not too many of us here would have read the Mahabharata, but we have been told about Arjuna’s power of concentration and focus and in turn, we have shared the story with our children.
It was my father’s passion for cricket that made me fall in love with it. Apart from taking me to matches, my father also told me a lot of stories which made me more curious about this great game that enchanted him. In particular, he told me about watching Sunil Gavaskar bat and the purity and the correctness of his technique, the straightness of his bat. At how a 21-year-old in his debut Test series in the West Indies had scored 776 runs, four centuries, three fifties. Those were dizzying numbers and remain so, a benchmark for every debutant – and we’ve still not matched it again. My father introduced me to the wonder and the novelty of what he had experienced as a follower of cricket.
Over the years, discussing cricket with my father brought me great joy. He taught me the simple love of the game and I relished sharing this love with him. I guess that’s where the inspiration started, where my career started. I heard my father talk about cricket and I wanted to experience these stories. First hand.
A little later, I found myself extremely fortunate when Mr. Keki Tarapore took me under his wing at school. I couldn’t have asked for a better coach. He was more than just a coach, he was a mentor in every sense of the word, before the concept of mentorship became as popular as it is now.
Mr Tarapore told me stories about why cricket was called “The Gentlemen’s Game” and instilled in me the values that would help me always try to uphold this ethical gold standard. Mr Tarapore was very particular about punctuality and my whites being really white and T-shirt always tucked in and shoes clean. He felt these were essential trappings of a good young cricketer and that if one focused on these things, it was the right kind of beginning. The basics had been put in place. The rest of his coaching was very much about a player’s freedom to express himself. Other than that all he wanted was for us to grow up as good human beings.
Another story that I remember Keki Sir telling me was about what happened when a 20-something young man, from my part of the country, made his Test debut for India. The event apparently created a lot of excitement in the region and people actually made the journey to Kanpur, where the Test was going to be held to watch this young batsman represent his country for the first time. But then, he got out for a duck. The people who had made the long journey were shattered. They were anxious for ‘their’ boy. “Had he blown up his chance of playing for the country?”
Fortunately, Gundappa Vishwanath came back strongly in the second innings to score a century. The people who had made the journey were relieved. A few years down the line, I am sure they would have told people about how proud they were to have witnessed the birth of a great batsman and their story would have inspired the youngsters who heard them.
Like Keki, Sachin had Ramakant Achrekar who took him around Mumbai on his scooter to make him play more than one match a day, a story which made us a wee bit jealous and a little worried too. The astonishing thing is that men like Mr Tarapore and Ramakant Achrekar never expected anything in return. They did what they did wholeheartedly, because of their love of the game. In Bangalore, we have Mr. Duraiswami who at 80 years is still found at his club nets for the entire session, standing, walking around and pulling the hair of any bowler who oversteps. In Delhi, there is Tarak Sinha who has run his club for more than four decades moving it from ground to ground and been coach, teacher and guide for generation after generation of cricketers, and is still turning up for every weekend practice.
The relationship that young cricketers develop with these mentors is probably as important as the relationship they share with their parents. Schoolteachers come and go but your cricket coach or club secretary remains the same for decades and in a different sense, they live forever. Our relationships with them as cricketers have an influence on how we grow up and what we grow up to become.
Unfortunately, the dynamics are changing. Club secretaries belong to the age they live in and some can be more commercially motivated. When we read about club ownerships changing hands, it is astonishing to see the astronomical figures that clubs are valued at these days. Previously, the more committed older club owner passed on his club to a successor he believed would run it with the same good intentions. But today, along with cricket academies, club cricket has become a business and hence the quality of that relationship we shared with the old guard has certainly diminished. It needs to be rekindled.
The next part of the Great Oral Tradition that I found myself involved in, I owe thanks to the Indian Railways. As much of a pain as it was to be seated next to a toilet for 22 hours because my team didn’t have reserved seats never mind berths, it was train journeys like these that became learning grounds of their own. And I took many of them, the train cutting across vast tracts of India forming an informal class-room for cricket learnings, knowledge and information.
The Karnataka Ranji Trophy team would generally travel in second class and congregate in one of the compartments. There were no iPads or Portable play stations, no one had a walkman that shut him out from the others. Our sources of entertainment were card games, dumbcharades and even some singing which, believe me, no one needs to hear live today.
In between all that fun and humour, there were tons of stories. It would take us 48 hours to reach Eden Gardens to play a game against Bengal, so obviously time wasn’t at a premium. The Ranji Trophy teams back then usually included a few former/current India cricketers. I was lucky to play alongside Syed Kirmani and have Vishy as manager. They were never shy or short of a word. They loved story-telling and talking about their experiences of playing against great players from across the cricket world. I admired Vishy growing up and still do, and to listen to him talk about Michael Holding or Viv Richards was like being given treats on long journeys. At the end, I felt enriched, replete.
It was everything a young cricketer trying to find his feet in domestic cricket could have asked for. In fact, until I heard those stories from Vishy, I felt that the batsman usually could not see a really quick Michael Holding delivery and played purely on a vague sense of instinct. The fact that Vishy could see a ball sent down by Holding made me more confident about taking on domestic bowlers.
Kiri was my captain in my debut season for Karnataka and he noticed that I was this really superstitious boy. In his own inimitable style, he told me that this superstition stuff is really silly and that I should back myself and stay away from them. He said there would be times when I could not control these superstitious tics and which could, in the end, affect my game. I am sure I had heard that before but when it comes from a guy who had won a World Cup, you tend to listen and make changes. Post that chat, I had very few superstitions, more like routines actually.
Another person who I talked a lot with was Roger Binny. I lived close to Roger’s home so he would drop me back from the KSCA after practice. Although there wasn’t much traffic back then and we’d reach home in 10 minutes, I almost always took home a lesson. I would also see a young Stuart playing some backyard cricket. Many years later, I found myself captaining Stuart Binny and, while it did make me feel old, it did feel good. In my many talks with the two Binnys I am certain that on more than one occasion, I have just been the link – the transmitter of information from Roger to Stuart. Roger was a wonderful senior, approachable, helpful and someone who made a younger player feel comfortable. I remember appreciating that and learning from it; as an older player, I wanted youngsters to be comfortable talking to me about their game. A short while ago, Stuart and I had a chat about what you needed to do to take your game to a higher level and I told him that he should trust himself and his abilities. That when you moved to a higher level you needed to be careful to keep that trust strong and not let yourself down mentally. To have faith in the hours and effort you took to get to where you were.
As a cricketer, you can learn from your colleagues. Like I tried to do with Anil and Srinath. They played for India about four-five years before I did and I always remember waiting for them to return so I could pick their brains, hear about their triumphs. “How does that bowler bowl?” “How did you set him up for the dismissal?” Yes, we watched it on TV but it is something else to listen to the plot from the mastermind himself and see that grin break out over his face as we reach the climax of the story.
I have always had great faith and belief in the oral tradition. It is something I believed in as my career went along too. As much as I loved getting into analytics, video analysis and all that sort of modern technology, I would still make the effort to talk to as many people as possible to gain first-hand information. Sometimes it was from opposition batsmen on how they practice for a particular kind of delivery. At other times it was probably talking to a former cricketer on how to be a good slip catcher. The kind of information you gain through chats like these is just priceless.
I know from personal experience that it really means a lot to young cricketers growing up through the system when the seniors, their heroes, have time for them and are willing to have a bit of a chat. It is a different kind of coaching and one that has a huge influence on the youngster.
While I do not have any first-hand experience with Mumbai cricket, other than being on the other side in Ranji Trophy games, I have heard that passing on information played an integral part in making Mumbai the most successful domestic team in the country. A prime example of this is the famous “Khadoos” title associated with Mumbai batsmen. The word doesn’t even translate correctly – what is true khadoos? Stubborn? Dogged? Unyielding? Relentless? Or something in between that? Or all of it together?
Just like you can’t translate it, you can’t teach a kid to be khadoos either. You can only inculcate that attitude in him by sharing stories of all the khadoos-ness of past Mumbai stalwarts. For instance, the story of Sunil Gavaskar batting left handed to counter the left-arm spin of Raghuram Bhat and salvaging a draw in the 1981-82 Ranji Trophy semifinals. I remember watching that game as a kid and was amazed at what I saw.
On the one hand you had Raghuram Bhat who bowled magically and easily out-bowled the younger Ravi Shastri. On the other hand, you had the genius of Sunil Gavaskar being outrageous and batting left-handed to one bowler and right handed to the others. While there are articles and scorecards from this game, a youngster will never get his hands on the genius of that batting, until he hears the story from someone.
Back in the day, before formalized coaching, television and internet – it was these kind of informal interactions and word-of-mouth transfer of knowledge that played a critical part in the development of a cricketing culture.
Without television, our best chance of understanding an international cricketer was through stories from people who had watched them play. With oral communication, the tone of the speaker’s voice and emotions can be captured quite easily. The emotion definitely plays a part in how you receive the information and how you treat it. That is something the internet cannot give you. These are not coaching manuals. Also, I find that more and more people are a little worried to write about their experiences or share their observations, as they do not want to upset people. They are more comfortable with talking and as listeners, we usually find that thoughts and words about touchy topics are usually more free- flowing than the written word. When we hear, I believe to some degree, we can internalise.
Time and attention from senior cricketers and the stories they told us was of immense value to my generation. Dilip Sardesai was a senior cricketer who formed part of that continuing legacy. He had time for people. He never minced words. He was always one for a laugh. Being noticed by a cricketer of his pedigree was inspirational to youngsters but everyone knows how lightly he wore his achievements and his stature in the game. He was always generous of his time, his humour and his wisdom.
How can we talk cricket at the CCI and not recall the great Raj Singh Dungarpur? He was probably the best cricket story-teller I have ever encountered and will always remember listening to him talk about Miller and Trueman and the exploits of Vinoo Mankad with a child-like glee.
One of the other great Mumbai cricket story tellers is among us today (IF HE IS IN THE AUDIENCE) – Vasu Paranjpe. I remember reading Ram Guha’s story on Vasu Paranjpe talking about Hanif Mohammed’s defence: that if Hanif Mohammed played a forward defence in Brabourne Stadium, its echo could be heard at Churchgate Station. Since I first heard those words, I thought, now that was a forward defence to die for. Just shows you the kind of batsman I was.
Then there was Hanumant Singh, who coached us as juniors in Bangalore in an under-17 camp. After we’d finished our morning practice, we would have breakfast and then were meant to retire to our rooms before returning for practice in the afternoon. On some days though, Hanumant Singh would start talking about cricket at breakfast and forget that he had to return to his guest house to take a break. Before we knew it, we were onto lunch and another round of practice. Not all the under-17s I knew at the time listened eagerly but they were far too polite to leave.
Now, times have changed. Forget Ranji Trophy teams, even U-16 cricketers fly out from one centre to another, with some gadget or the other in their hands and music blasting out of those headphones into their ears. There’s a lot of information available on the internet and you can find the smallest of incidents posted on Youtube. Even more so, though, there is a place for stories, a place for the Oral Tradition of the game.
Especially in a country as diverse as ours where a lot of young cricketers have no access to the internet and where not much is written onto books, a lot still needs to be passed on through stories.
Just before the England series, I spent a week with the Indian team. It was not a formal coaching set up and I didn’t put down routines for the boys to follow. I was just around and available for a chat. It was a lovely experience for me and helped me connect with this new generation of Indian cricketers who I am pretty sure will keep the flame burning for Indian cricket. That’s another advantage with the IPL, it helps cricketers of different generations and cultures connect with each other for six weeks and so becomes a massive hub of knowledge-transfer.
It is important for my generation and the next to make sure we have the time and find the time and be willing to pass on knowledge and keep this tradition alive. It might not directly translate into runs and wickets and victories, but it will have an impact on the way these boys play the game, make them appreciate the support they receive and make them into good role models and ambassadors of this great game and country.
Yet, it can’t be one-way traffic. It is critical for the younger cricketers to seek out seniors and ask for their advice. But not merely start a conversation being worried about “If I don’t talk, he will think I am disrespectful.” Whenever a younger cricketer asks an older player, “How am I batting?” that makes for a very generic question. It’s like talking about the weather. A specific question means that you really want to know – “How did you practice for a particular kind of delivery?” I find it impressive when any younger player comes up with a specific question. It is evidence that he is thinking about his game, has done his homework and the conversation becomes a meaningful one, a mindful one.
Looking on at us from above, Mr. Sardesai I’m sure would not want our professional cricketers to turn into – and here I use one of his favourite words – ‘Popatwadis’.
As I was finishing writing out this speech, I got an email from Shishir Hattangadi, in which he told me about meeting Mr Sardesai in hospital on the day he passed away. Despite being weak and ill, the first question he asked Shishir was, “did you watch the game?” and then talked about how I should play the short ball on legstump. The debate ended with Mr Sardesai saying that a good Test player needn’t worry about the format, his technique will see him through. Shishir described the situation perfectly to me: His pursuit for technical excellence in batsman was still flowing in his blood stream even as he fought destiny.
It has reminded me yet again, that every Indian cricketer stands where he does in a continuum through history whose narrative has been scripted by the players from the past. This narrative contains beliefs, approaches and a storehouse of knowledge and forms the basis of our identity.
Each player has the opportunity to add and progress the narrative along and that is what leaving a legacy is all about. In the midst of historical records, statistics and win-loss records, when you go out to bat, you are connected to all those who have played for India in the past and you are also connected to those who will one day in the future wear the India cap.
Indian cricket’s colourful story is still being written… and it is up to us to enrich it.
Thank you for your attention