There is a soothing smile on his face as he opens the door of his house to let me in. The aura of calmness around him is almost infectious, but I am fidgety, like a debutante, itching to get off the mark.
I was nervous because in front of me was someone who I, like many others, have grown up reading and have learnt so much from.
‘Should I get you something?’, he offers. I say ‘no’ politely, anxiously rehearsing the questions in my mind.
Like an expert, he has the measure of the situation and attempts to calm my nerves. With a glass of cold Limca and a bowl full of chocolates by the table, we discuss topics that cut through at least three disciplines- cricket, writing, and education. It was like a veteran captain trying to comfort a rookie bowler, and doing an effective job of it.
There is always a modicum of thrill attached to beginnings in a sport and cricket is no different. A good first over could set the tone of the match, get the audience by the scruff of the neck and keep them engaged.
Pakistan left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim, or ‘Kaka’ as he was fondly called was once handed a gem by legendary Indian spinner Bishan Bedi: ‘On a turner the most dangerous ball is the one that goes straight through.’ This was on a turning track, in Bangalore 1986-87 in a Test against India. More than two-decades later, I had read the same quote, in a tribute to Bishan Bedi. The by-line read- Suresh Menon.
At a time when Indian cricket finds itself at the crossroads of regulatory and administrative opacity, it helps to peek into the thoughts of someone, who likes to keep it honest. As we got talking about his obsession with the game and the challenges faced by the present lot of sports journalists, I started to gain more insights into the mind of Mr. Menon, who was ‘always interested in writing because he was always interested in reading and always interested in reading, so always interested in writing.’
That getting into the profession for an author of his ilk was ‘accidental’ tends to catch you by surprise, especially when he reveals that he not only did ‘not have any journalistic background’, but not even a writing background except for a ‘few articles published in the college magazine’.
The then sports editor of Deccan Herald Rajan Bala, saw potential in this college graduate who was then (early 1980s) playing club cricket in Bangalore. Every memorable debut has an ounce of romance attached to it, one that comes to define that larger narrative later in time, and Mr. Menon’s was no different.
When Mr. Bala introduced a young Suresh Menon to the Editor of Deccan Herald and posited that ‘he would be an asset in sport’, little did he know that he was giving the game one of its most illustrious chroniclers.
Hailing from a family with deep cricketing interests, Mr. Menon fell in love with cricket at an early age. A clear-headed and incisive analysis; a regular feature of his writings, stems from a deep-rooted understanding of both, the game and the players who play it. As an eight-year-old, Mr. Menon’s favorite writers were ‘Jack Fingleton and Ray Robinson because these were the accessible writers; you had them in The Hindu’s Sport and Pastime magazine.’ Ralph Barker’sTen Great Innings and Ten Great Bowlers also featured among Mr. Menon’s favorite reads.
He says, he ‘knew more about Hammond, Ranji and a whole lot of cricketers of an earlier period because of his reading.’ While he could reel off the statistics of Indian players of his boyhood days, he ‘knew less about Indian players because there was no material available. There was not a lot of writing on them.’ A lack of comparative literature on Indian cricket meant that Mr. Menon knew a ‘whole lot about Jim Laker, and generations before that- the fast bowlers, Richardsons, Gregorys and McDonalds but (did) not (have) even a fifth of the knowledge or information about our guys like Prasanna.’ That initially a lot of his ‘cricket came from reading’ is not a surprise.
Those who have read Mr. Menon speak highly of his writing. Among his best-known pieces on cricket, one theme that stands out, for its novelty and depth is re-counting the links between culture and cricket- a rare subject in newspaper columns these days. Throwing light on the absence of such writings from mainstream newspapers, Mr. Menon says the reason is both lack of space and lack of interest.
His theory as a sports editor and later as the editor-in-chief makes a valid point for incorporating such pieces in the daily broadsheets. He believes, ‘If you write a good (and) readable piece and it is a compelling read, it should appear. You might probably struggle wondering if it should fit in this page or that page (but) if it’s a good piece, it should appear in the paper.’ Mr. Menon says, ‘The argument that newspapers have is that there is not a readership for it (such pieces) but it is not true and certainly not in India, where the readership is large. A significant number of people are interested.’
Authors like Ramachandra Guha, for example, have been doing marvelous work in this field, and for Mr. Menon, such proficiency arises from a ‘combination of passion and professional training as historian (or) as an anthropologist.’
As editor of Wisden India Almanack, Mr. Menon tries to foster such writing by ‘getting a whole range of people writing about cricket. Cricket writing does not only belong to the journalists. They are the nuts and bolts; they are the ones who are watching the action, doing the reports but not all of them are trained to interpret, to see the big picture.’
Still, he feels that it will take time for such pieces to start trending among readers. He thinks, ‘it is difficult, it is not an easy thing to do. It requires a specific set of skills. It is much easier to say A beat B by x number of runs but this (linking cricket-culture) is a very specific skill, you need to train yourself, you need to start with the passion. Everything else can be taught, but passion.’
Listening to Mr. Menon is an aesthetic pleasure. A rare combination of wit, humor, and intellect; his appetite for the game is second to none. At a time, when the game is going through a flux; with ICC suggesting a slew of measures to revive interest in the five-day format, Mr. Menon deliberates that ‘cricket has been blessed because it has three very distinct formats.’ He says, ‘Leave test cricket alone because test cricket is a completely illogical, almost anachronistic, ridiculous (in a positive sense) format and that is its charm.’
And just when you thought, a stance favoring the test format could not get any better; he remarks – ‘Test cricket almost does not have the right to exist and that is its charm.’
But with the ICC lobbying hard for the new four-day format, I asked him if he saw any cricketing reasons to reject the format. ‘I do not see any cricketing reasons for changing the five-day format’, he said.
For the past few years, the ICC has been giving lip service to the revival of test cricket. The day-night format seems to have done wonders to the game; with both day-night tests drawing healthy crowds as well as TV viewership. However, cricket boards have been skeptical about embracing the other two measures; especially the two-tier system which tends to put the finances of smaller teams in a jeopardy.
Mr. Menon, who had previously written in favor of the proposition, is not too sure about it now. He thinks, ‘there is a distinct possibility that the lesser teams will suffer. As it is, there are ten test playing countries. West Indies is anyway losing interest and Zimbabwe may or may not be there some years from now, so we are looking at seven-eight countries. The numbers are too few to make sense.’
Among the things that we spoke about, was the contentious issue of the Lodha report. ‘It is in BCCI’s interest to accept the Lodha panel suggestions. They could held in contempt of court. Justice Katju has got a lot of qualities but sobriety is not one of them. This (legal wrangle) could just be an irritant for the Supreme Court and send BCCI’s designs topsy turvy’, remarked Mr. Menon.
That the BCCI has vested interests in not accepting the report has been clear from day one but he believes, ‘the board messed it up gloriously. They could have sat down with the Lodha committee and explained things to them. But the BCCI, have been so used to getting their way over the years, (that) they actually did not believe that somebody would sit down and tell them that this was not how you did things.’
The conversation moved to Indian cricket and Kohli’s time at the helm of test cricket. ‘I am a great admirer of Kohli. I like how he has evolved from being the kind of player, the person he used to be, how much he respects the sport. Especially as a captain, you need someone who respects the sport. To my mind, he is an extremely good captain. He is young, a bit rash, he will make selection choices (and) he will make certain mistakes but it’s fine, that is how you learn.’
Asked about whether Dhoni should pass the baton to Kohli in One Days and T20; Mr. Menon said, ‘It is a personal decision. Dhoni is a mature chap, he is a clear thinking fellow and I would leave it to him. But if Dhoni decides to play in 2016, 2017 and decides to step down in 2018 or the board decides to drop him, then you would have wasted a lot of time. If you think he is good enough to play the 2019 World Cup, then you retain him. An established player must be given a chance to fail; a young player must be given a chance to succeed.’
He dismisses the Kohli- Sachin comparison by saying, ‘it is purely a media thing, it sells magazines and brings eye balls to TV’ but having said that, ‘all sport is about debate and argument. These endless arguments about one or the other is one of the charms of the sport.’
All this talk about cricket and how the game has evolved over the years, can make even the most experienced of journalists a bit nostalgic. Reminiscing about the pre-Google days when telex machines were the norm, Mr. Menon says, ‘Not everything on the Net is factual, not everything is correct. The basic (mantra) is you still double check everything, you still get your facts straight (and) you still talk to people. (But) the equipment has changed; the communication has changed.’
Having started his career at a time when telex machines were used in press box, he joked, ‘bribing a telex operator could get your copy through unless someone bribed him more., However, on the 1990 tour of New Zealand (Mohammad Azharuddin’s first tour as captain), he had to make do with fax machines as New Zealand had got rid of all telex machines. The fact that there weren’t enough fax machines either, posed a challenged. But lauding the changes over the years, Mr. Menon says, ‘Communication is the least of the problems now. Telephones are top class and reports using the net are virtually sent out as the last ball of the match is bowled.’
Digressing a little, we delved into ethics in sports journalism and tried to understand its importance. According to Mr. Menon, ‘if you are writing with an agenda, that is unethical. If you have a good sports editor, he will spot it in a moment and tell you.’
Sharing an anecdote from the Pakistan tour in the early 1990s, Mr. Menon says, ‘Corruption comes in different forms. Some of these players have played for a very long time and know how to get their point across. Kapil Dev dropped a bowler in the team (during the 1990 Pakistan tour) and called for Chetan Sharma who wasn’t in the original squad. The fact was he wanted to bring in a friend instead of a youngster.’
As a responsible journalist, Mr. Menon thinks ‘you should be able to keep the captain or the player separate from what he is as a person. The captain is corrupting you by hoping that you will write something in his support. Just as you (reporter) know what their weak points are, they (cricketers) know where your weaknesses are.’
A cordial soul, Mr. Menon spoke with the lavishness of a millionaire.
As I shook hands with him and walked back towards the door, I knew he had vindicated Mr. Rajan Bala’s premonition.
He has after all, become a big asset to the game and to journalism.