'Indian cricket has hit a sweet spot': says sportswriter Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon talks about an anthology called
Celebrated Indian sportswriter Ayaz Memon has edited an anthology on the gentleman’s game called Indian Innings: The Journey of Indian Cricket from 1947.
The essays trace the development of the game, which gained independence from colonial British rule in 1947. The 1970s were a magical decade in Indian Test cricket as the spin quartet spun magic both at home and away series, followed by the Prudential Cup victory in 1983 by Kapil’s “Devils”, the influence of TV.
The game’s popularity exploded in the 1990s and by the turn of the millennium, the sordid match-fixing saga broke out. In between, there was the Sachin Tendulkar era, the epic Eden Gardens win in 2001, the 2007 T20 World Cup win, the emergence of the IPL, the 2011 World Cup win, the Dhoni captaincy era and the victory in Australia in 2021. The Milestones section is an exquisite snapshot view of the last 75 years.
wknd. caught up with Memon for a freewheeling chat on the evolution of the game in India.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
How does the evolution of Indian cricket mirror that of the nation?
Cricket is the heartbeat of India. That’s fairly well established by how the sport has grown in the years since Independence, and particularly since economic liberalisation in 1991. Cricket from the 1990s is a metaphor of how the Indian economy and the state has progressed to become among the most compelling and influential stories in the world. At a more granular level, the Indian dressing room is a microcosm of Indian life — it’s confluences and contradictions, it’s inherent plurality and inclusiveness, but with some chinks appearing every now and then.
In retrospect, how was the 1970s a decade of inflection points in Indian cricket?
The 1970s provided many major inflection points in Indian cricket history. It started with a massive upheaval and change in status quo when Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi was deposed as captain by chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant’s casting vote, it saw India win unprecedented Test series in West Indies and England in 1971 and; it threw up a world class batsman in Sunil Gavaskar. It also saw the team hit a nadir at Lord’s in 1974 after it was bowled out for a paltry 42, then perform dismally in the 1975 World Cup. But the next season also saw the team chase a world record score of 406 to beat the West Indies at Port of Spain in Trinidad & Tobago. There were multiple changes in captaincy, Ajit Wadekar giving way to Tiger Pataudi, then Bishen Singh Bedi and to Gavaskar through S Venkataraghavan. There were intermittent periods of turmoil and highs. By the time the decade ended, Kapil Dev had made his debut. There were two superstar performers — Gavaskar and Kapil — and both finished as world record holders in their respective departments of the game.
You were trained as a lawyer. How did you veer towards writing on cricket?
I was born and brought up in Mumbai and cricket was a passion since childhood. But alas! I was not good enough to play beyond the school level. My love for the game did not diminish because of my lack of talent. Initially, I aspired to be an engineer, later I realised I didn’t have the bandwidth for complex mathematics and physics. I studied economics, then law, which had been my late father’s vocation. While studying law, I got a job at Sportsweek magazine, which gave me a ringside view of sports, especially cricket. For a couple of years, I dithered between journalism and law as a long-term pursuit. In 1983, I covered the Prudential Cup (World Cup) in England. India’s victory in that tournament was decisive in my choice of career. Law was junked, journalism it was to be.
How has TV influenced the game?
TV coverage has had an enormous influence on cricket in the sub-continent. Cable and colour TV have been game-changers as they took the gospel of cricket to the farthest corners of the sub-continent, expanding the footprint of the sport. People of my vintage got most of their information and entertainment about cricket from radio commentary and newspapers. That was delightful, but from a mass appeal point of view, seeing cricketers and matches live had no parallel. With wide coverage established, it was only a matter of time that Indian cricket would exploit a growing economy to become a powerhouse.
What’s your take on cricket writing in this day and age of an explosion of digital media, where live blogging is the order of the day to grab eyeballs?
There’s been an explosion in the media, particularly the digital space and social media platforms. And because cricket is followed so widely, the number of people writing/analysing/commenting on the game has grown manifold. This has made the media environment chaotic and cacophonous, but has also enriched cricket writing, which is now not restricted to a handful.
Who do you reckon as the best commentator on the game — barring former cricketers — and the most consummate cricket writer and why?
It’s impossible to pick an individual. No other sport has seen so much writing — some of it at the level of fine art — and the commentary scene has been occupied by many hugely talented people. Among writers who I enjoy reading and grew up with are CLR James, KN Prabhu, Neville Cardus, Ray Robinson, Omar Kureishi, Rajan Bala, Suresh Menon to name a few who weren’t cricketers themselves. From commentators who are not cricketers, Tony Cozier, Omar Kureishi and Harsha Bhogle stand out.
Whose essay did you enjoy editing the most?
Again, it is impossible to pick one — or even half a dozen — from the mix. There are some very fine contributions in the book from writers as varied as Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Kesavan, Rajdeep Sardesai, Suresh Menon, Rohit Brijnath, R Mohan, Bishen Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Sharda Ugra etc. There are reports defining major inflection points in Indian cricket as well as features on the most influential characters. I’d recommend reading them all!
How has Indian cricket writing style evolved through the years?
Like everything else in life, change has been a big constant in cricket writing in India, too. From plain reportage and prose high on rhetoric, cricket writing has become more analytical — compelled by live TV coverage, which made plain vanilla reportage redundant — to data-backed pieces in this millennium. Cricket writing has also changed because of the readers’ profile. I feel the current crop of writing is rich in content.
Which has been the most difficult period in India’s cricket history?
I think when match-fixing and corruption were discovered — around 2000 and in 2013 in the IPL, respectively.
Lastly, how do you see this decade pan out for Indian cricket?
Indian cricket hasn’t been in a better place than now, in terms of talent, money and fan following. The Indian team has been the best performing and most consistent side in the world in the past five-odd years. The Test victories in Australia in 2018 and 2020 were outstanding. I dearly wish India had won the inaugural Test Championship, though!