The angst of writing cricket

There’s a conversation I have, ad nauseum, with friends and cricket fans alike. It goes like this:

Q: Why have you stopped writing about cricket?

A: Would you believe, ennui?

*Cue puzzled/disbelieving look*

Q: Dude, get paid for watching cricket all day and writing about it? We’d kill for your job.

At which point I go, mentally, ‘You want to try doing it, day in and out, for a year, mate. Then let’s talk.’

I leave the thought unvoiced, these days, because I’ve never in the past managed to convince anyone — not even close friends — that ‘doing this for a living’ is not all it is cracked out to be. How do you explain, for instance, the difference between kicking back and watching cricket as a fan and sitting in front of the TV or in the press box, laptop open, scrutinizing each moment minutely for technical points to make, for “turning points” to identify and use to season your report, for broader narratives to expound on?

After a time, you see only the trees — the greater beauty of the forest is lost to you.

Earlier today, on Twitter, I’d linked to a lovely piece by Tom Swick, on travel writing in the age of YouTube. Partly because the piece is in itself worth a read; partly because parts of it resonated at a personal level, in context of writing about cricket.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan —  a good mate, who you likely know from his excellent writing on Cricinfo, and who you can follow on Twitter here — sent me an email that expresses exactly what I’ve been trying to say, to those who ask ‘How come now that you are in Yahoo you haven’t gone back to writing on the game?’ [Incidentally, it is not as if I couldn't do that in Rediff, or that I was prevented -- I chose not to, thanks to the sense of ennui I mentioned earlier].

Here’s Sid:

Thanks so much for sharing Tom Swick’s piece on Travel Writing. It got me to write something which you may agree with.

Here’s one part that struck a chord:

These books have done a great deal to romanticize the profession. (Tell people that you are paid to travel and write about it and you’ll be greeted by exclamations of envy.) … “Travel writer” may be the one title everyone wants except the people who have it.

I can see where Swick is coming from (and I’m sure you can as well). “Cricket writing” is a highly romanticized profession too. People gawk when told about one traveling the world to cover cricket. And that’s way off the mark. Several leading cricket writers spend close to 250 days of the year away from home. Even the ones who are assigned individual tours, are out for 50 days at a stretch. It’s an immense burden on their family lives and several end up with extremely unhealthy lifestyles (it’s difficult to be on tour and stay away from a drink or seven).

Cricket reporters go through tournaments under so much stress. One needs to file three or four stories every day and it often requires preparation, burrowing instincts and last-minute flexibility. Persistence is vital – whether it’s calling a former cricketer for an interview, or lounging around in the team hotel lobby for a stray quote or diary entry.

The additional occupational hazard is the daily press conference – often a stream of cliches that add little value. Each one of these is like a repeat of the previous – with players being highly guarded about team compositions, injury updates and team assessments. Every game is “crucial”; every opposition “cannot be taken lightly”.

A handful of writers may well bypass all these irritants – you can work for a monthly magazine, you can skip the press conferences, you can write and not report – but what even they can’t do is change the way they watch the game.

We all began as cricket fans before becoming professional cricket writers. Being in the profession, though, takes away a lot of the fizz. Of course, we’re supposed to be objective (to the point of being cynical) and stay away from flag-waving zealotry but what really rocks the boat is the gradual understanding of the players’ personalities, the system they operate in, the subtle politics, the shenanigans.

You begin to understand that X was picked over Y not necessarily because he was better but because he was from a certain zone or because he was backed by a certain agent or because he was the distant cousin of Z. You also realize how players (some of whom you might have idolized before you entered the inner circle) can be egotistic pricks and manipulative Machiavellis.

At a more basic level, you are constantly searching for narratives to write on. The multiple aspects of the game that you earlier noticed give way to a more thematic observation – trying to weave a story through a common thread. Of course there was a wonderfully athletic catch at midwicket but how does an appreciation of that play fit into the day’s story? You are forced to focus and not simply ramble along – which is basically what fans do when they watch a game together.

At some point, when all these influences come together, you start watching the game through a different prism. It’s no more the innocent past-time that made you jump up and shriek or kick the floor in anger or sulk all day. It’s now the sport that you trying to be detached from (though you’re actually very close to the epicenter). It’s a sport you think you have figured out (though you actually have very little expertise on the subject matter).

Gradually you begin to view it as another job – I’ve actually felt really frustrated when a cricketer died on a Sunday, simply because it meant more work. Soon you ask yourself – just like Swick says of travel writers – what (the heck) am I doing here? And over time, you gradually forget why you got here in the first place.

To paraphrase Swick, ‘cricket writer’ could be the one job everyone reading this, and the far larger universe not reading this, wants — except those of us who have it for the asking.

Actually, when Sid says “Over time, you gradually forget why you got here in the first place” — he is bang on the money.

Why did I get into cricket writing? Because I love the game to bits [and because when we were starting out in Rediff, none of the "established writers" wanted to join us, so someone had to do it and I got elected]. So why do I not want to write too regularly on cricket? Same answer — because I love the game to bits.

I’m fairly certain that after reading all of this, you guys will go “Huh, what the eff are you cribbing about?”. And/or have questions to ask. Go for it — and while on that, a long weekend starts now. So — no Yorker tomorrow [if you missed logging in while Aakash Chopra was live, today, here's the transcript].

I’ll be back with the live show Monday — and over the weekend, will swing by here only if able.

Have a good weekend, all.

Responding to Roy

Ever since I read Arundhati Roy’s latest novel travelogue essay, I’ve been toying with a response — and each time, tossing the thought aside for want of both time and energy.

Now I can stop “toying”, thanks to good — if elusive — friend Salil Tripathi, who constructs the counter argument with his usual skill in Mint. The payoff:

Fascination with Maoism is beyond moral sensibility. It is a parallel universe, where recalling Gandhian hunger strikes evokes hysterical laughter; where poor treatment of women in the forests is equated with their poor treatment in the cities. This takes moral equivalency to a new low. This is amoral nihilism.

It is also Roy’s Hanoi Jane moment. She is a voyeur, with the sky as her bed sheet, stars as her guiding light and birdsongs as her alarm clock. She connects those stars to form an intricate pattern. To us, it is Ursa Major; to her, an AK-47. In this surreal landscape, children don’t go to school, but learn to kill from ambush videos; tribals and rebels are one; and majoritarian justice by a show of hands is considered fair because everything else has failed. This is where cultural relativism leads us: In this Maostan, they probably speak Na’vi, and Roy is their Avatar.

Also read an earlier take-down, by Sivaram Srikandath:

But where she loses the  plot is in making her world is so strikingly mono-chromatic. Just black and white, with barely a  shade of grey. No prizes for guessing who is black and  who is white.  The villains in the story  are those who wield power – vast, unfettered power, namely the Indian State  - and the heroes are the Maoists of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army operating in the Dandakaranya forest of Central India.

The heroes and the villains live in starkly differing worlds and the author  adroitly paints the two  in opposing semantic shades as an effective literary device.. The devious universe of the Indian s tate is best described, and lampooned by ominous sounding phrases  like Gentle Giants Who Really Care,  Gravest Internal Security Threats, Killing Machines, Looti Sarkar,  etc; the capitalized alphabets  being Roy’s cute,  trademark style marker.The Maoist  reality on the contrary is romanticized as a peaceful  way of life that leaves a “lighter carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist.”  It is a world of stars and fireflies; of private suites in a thousand star hotel; and  of  sweet Bastar tamarind trees “watching over the land like a  clutch of huge, benevolent, Gods.”  A forest where the floor is a carpet of gold,  and the air is suffused with the slightly heady smell of the flowering mahua.

The psycho in the shower

Forty years, almost to the month/day after Alfred Hitchcock finished shooting Psycho — and its much admired (90 shots, 70 camera angles, chocolate syrup standing in for blood…), endlessly discussed, often parodied shower sequence — the commentary keeps coming.

‘Was it really Janet Leigh in the shower?’ is a theme discussed as often, and as frenetically, as the identity of the man on the grassy knoll, and who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Carrying the obsession to a natural conclusion, we now have a book — on the girl in the shower. Here’s Will Hodgkinson, in the Guardian, on the book and the controversy.

Incidentally, the girl in the shower has also been identified as one Myra Jones — who ended up stabbed to death, in real life.

Also incidentally, Leigh once said she was so terrified after seeing the movie for the first time, that she couldn’t for the longest time take a shower without leaving the bathroom door open, ditto the shower curtain — which must have been kind of weird for her house guests. I also recall reading someplace that after the release of the film, Hitchcock got an angry mail from a guy whose daughter, already off taking baths thanks to a scene in some horror flick, was now refusing to take showers as well.

Hitchcock’s reply was a classic: “Send her to the dry cleaners.”

Oh – and here you go:

Revamping IPL for season 4

One reason I keep this blog going despite occasionally feeling, like Short of a Length, an overwhelming sense of same old, same old, is the feedback — the pithy comments on here, and the longer arguments that land up in my mailbox. Here’s an example of one such: Mehul Shah, whose main interest is in tennis, got into an email discussion about how, despite adding two new teams, the IPL could be restructured to enhance interest and at the end of it all, crystallized his thoughts as a guest post:

Season 3 is just halfway done, and already there is some concern that Season 4 will finally push us over the boredom threshold: 10 teams, 91 games, 56 days, characterized by the shrill coverage — it all seems a bit much, even for the diehard cricket fan.

So how about tweaking the format, to get the best of all possible worlds? How about attempting to satisfy the craving of fans — and, importantly, the corporates — for at least one game between any two teams, while controlling the total number of games, and rationalizing the schedule?

Here’s how: Split the ten teams into two groups of five teams each. Within the group, each team plays the other twice (away and home). Teams across the groups play each other only once but at neutral venue to avoid any bias. The top two teams from each group qualify for the semis, the knock out phase.

The total number of matches at league stage will be then be 65, which is way less than the number we are going to get in IPL 4 when the number of teams swells to 10. The neutral venues for inter-group matches could be third party cities that currently do not have their own franchises, thus spreading the IPL to more centers, and helping to build excitement levels.

As for how the groups could be split, there are various options. You could follow American sports leagues wherein you have fixed groups for all seasons, based on regions or otherwise — a system that promotes lifelong rivalries that add to the excitement. This system may not be optimal for the IPL, though, since the number of teams is relatively smaller. So why not split the groups based on the ranking of the previous edition of the IPL, with teams ranked 1, 3, 5, 7 [and later 9] in one group and the rest in the other? Or seed 4 semi-finalists from the previous edition, split them into two groups and have a draw for the remaining 6 teams — which incidentally gives the IPL another opportunity for hoopla, with Bollywood stars participating in a high profile drawing ceremony.

Scheduling also can have creativity. You could play all the games within the groups first, say as Phase I. Teams will know where they stand with regards to the others within the same group at the end of it. Then play Phase II with all the inter-group games, to catch up or consolidate. While it will fundamentally not affect the qualification process, it could divide the otherwise long round-robin stage into two distinct phases and make the whole tournament a 3 phase event.

What works for you about this? And what doesn’t?

Right. Thoughts? Oh, and for those who asked: There’s nothing to this guest post business. Mail me what you want to write about [premp at yahoo-inc.com] and we’ll take it from there.