The writers who play with words

Throwback to 1993: The portable typewriter and open-air press box are now things of the past. A scene during the Mumbai Test between India and England at the Wankhede Stadium in 1993.

There are few areas of non-fiction writing that capture of the imagination of the reader like sports writing. With a combination of descriptive skills, intelligent analysis and good presentation, it has the powers to magically transport the reader to distant locations and to invigorating pursuit of excellence called sport.

And, I dare say, there are few more fortunate pen-pushers than sports writers. One of the greatest privileges of being a sports writer is that he or she gets to travel to places which would never have been on the itinerary. What’s more, the sports writer gets paid to watch sport while everyone else in a stadium has to pay a small fortune for his or her tickets or haggle for complimentary passes.

For long, sports writers had the privilege of being the eyes and ears of millions of fans, tracking sporting events and sportspersons. They have recaptured the charm of the game and the rich characters who have played it. They have recorded histories of societies in transformation, using sport as the backdrop to paint vivid pictures.

The much revered and never matched Sir Neville Cardus is one of the first names that springs to mind when the conversation focusses on sports writers. As a cricket writer in England, he brought languid prose to his work, creating heroes and legends out of the players. John Arlott is another fine representative of wonderful writers from Old Blighty.

The grace with which Simon Barnes writes on a variety of sport, the ease with which the erudite former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck wrote on cricket – coming up with fresh insights – and the innovative and insightful Gideon Haigh’s ability to make the most complicated of situations seem simple, after all, bear the hallmarks of the best craft.

In Australia, writers like Ray Robinson and Jack Fingleton, who played a number of Test matches, held sway over readers with the incredible gifts of observation, analysis and expression. Anyone who has ever read Fingleton’s description of the final over of the Tied Test in Brisbane featuring Australia and the West Indies can never forget the images his words etched in their minds.

And our own India has seen the likes of cricketers like Prof DB Deodhar and CK Nayudu and journalists like KN Prabhu, NS Ramaswami, Ron Hendricks, KN Mohlajee, R Sriman and Rajan Bala wield a facile pen. There have been others like R Mohan and Nirmal Shekar, Vijay Lokapally and Harsha Bhogle whose writing has had dedicated fan following.

For all that, one of the finest books on sport has to be CLR James’ tome titled Beyond A Boundary. It is a sociologist’s perspective of cricket in the West Indies and has taught several generations of cricket followers that sport is never played in vacuum and reflects the society in which it is played. He made everyone realise that sport was not bereft of politics, racism and struggle.

Indeed, sport is often seen as a mirror of a nation’s youth and vitality; the sports pages of newspapers are a mirror of aspirations and achievements. Sport can be looked at from different angles, each illuminating it in its own way. Therefore, it is one area where a wordsmith’s own idiosyncrasies and prejudices are more easily accepted by the reader.

Yet, with live broadcasts now beaming in from all over the world, the contemporary wordsmith faces a challenge like never before. If fans have missed a live telecast, they can always catch up with replays on TV or streaming on the web, thus making it difficult for the sports writer to follow what their predecessors did in the time when TV and streaming was not in vogue.

The charm of sport, its technique and the rich art need to take precedence over personalities, feuds and dressing-room chatter but, increasingly, the clutch of news channels and the urge to be different has led to most sports writers joining the herd. It calls for great analytical and story-telling skills for someone to be heard above such cacophony.

There are a number of wonderful writers who have withstood such demands. Sharda Ugra, who moved from Mid-Day newspaper to The Hindu in Mumbai and to India Today and is now with espncricinfo is easily one of India’s finest sports writers. Anand Vasu is another who has made the art of weaving his words on cricket and cricketers very special.

Rahul Bhattacharya, author of acclaimed book Pundits from Pakistan, and the incredibly gifted Rohit Brijnath who grabs the reader’s attention and takes it on an emotional roller-coaster ride each time he sets out to write on Indian sport and its performers. There is also an interesting set of writers with The Indian Express. Few can match KP Mohan’s passion and intensity when it comes to athletics and doping.

It is a beautiful world, the world of sports; and it is a privilege and a challenge to be able to bring the action alive well after the players have returned home and the dust settles down. Yet, as the writers will tell you, there is no greater joy in being able to help readers draw images in their own minds with the right mix of word that can capture the whole array of emotions. 

This article was originally published in Orbit, a school magazine.