It speaks for the current state (and priorities) of journalism in Bangalore and elsewhere, that the news of one of India’s most knowledgeable cricket correspondents Rajan Bala—formerly of Deccan Herald, Indian Express, The Asian Age—struggling for life in one of the City’s speciality hospitals, should barely make it to the pages of any one of the publications he represented.
Mr Bala went into a coma after suffering a cardiac arrest while in the studios of News9, the Bangalore-centric news channel of the TV9 group two Saturdays ago. Maybe the health of journalists is of no interest to readers, but Rajan Bala, like K.N. Prabhu before him, was no mere hack. As a writer, he was, he is, an iconic figure before cricket writing became a joke at the hands of lesser folk. As a wordsmith, he was an inspiration.
A tribute and a prayer.
By SUNAAD RAGHURAM
As the sad news came filtering in that the great cricket writer and journalist Rajan Bala has been lying comatose after a cardiac arrest, at the Fortis Hospital in Seshadripuram, for over a week now, I achingly remembered sitting in class at Mysore’s Sharada Vilasa college in the early 1980s, on one of the wooden benches, perhaps as aged as a cask at a Scottish distillery, my twitchy mind invariably tuning itself off the lecturer’s frequency and sailing gently into the tremendously inviting and comforting world of cricket.
And cricket writing.
Rajan Bala was our hero. The final word on the game.
A guru who sent home through his writings, news and views on cricket and cricketers, which we received with reverential servitude. A man whose words on cricket were read with the same awe and fascination a child in the Himalayas would have for the formation of the sun-kissed mountains.
Rajan Bala’s cricketing sentences, to us, were formed with the same grandiose exuberance and well roundedness, the same authenticity and confidence.
To me, especially, his use of the English language, handled with phenomenal mastery, the strange novelty of certain archaic, out-of-use phrases he employed, like ‘methinks’, to denote a sense of personal opinion about someone or something; his ability to create extraordinarily catchy headlines; ‘By Lord’s, it’s India’, bringing home the news of an Indian victory on English soil in 1986 or the most memorable, ‘Marshall Law declared at Kanpur’, when speedster Malcolm Marshall rocked the ill fated Indian batting lineup during the 1983 India-West Indies test, with even Sunil Gavaskar’s bat being embarrassingly knocked out of his hands as he tried to fend towards square, were something to be feverishly discussed with friends over spicy churumuri near Ballal circle, dished out by the even-now-in-business, Dharmalingam, the Sanath Jayasuriya look-alike!
One day in 1985, I crazily travelled to Bangalore and went looking for Rajan Bala at the KSCA stadium while a Duleep Trophy game was on between South and West Zone. I knew he would be there somewhere, because I had read his report of the first day’s play in the Indian Express!
A few nervous enquiries later; I had never seen him in flesh and blood until then after all; one of the groundsmen wearing a khaki uniform pointed in the direction of a portly man with a receding hair line smoking a pipe, and engrossed in clanking the day’s report on a clearly derelict type writer placed on an old table in the administration office of the stadium.
A nervous ‘excuse me’, a few uncertain steps in his direction and he looked up.
“Hello,” his voice rose above the clatter of the Remington and a wave of his hand bid me to sit down.
“Pull up a chair,” he said. I was so excited and happy to be in his midst, the cricketing equivalent of a bowler bagging a wicket off his first ball on debut!
The day’s report was over soon and so was my introduction. He seemed amused when I shakily told him that I aspired to be a sports reporter and that my first love was cricket.
“Come tomorrow. Let’s chat,” he said before walking away from the room, presumably to beat the deadline at the office.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth got a big score the next day and after he got out, I remember him smoking, sitting on the parapet wall of the dressing room, wearing a lungi! As I took in this funny sight and hung around the pavilion area—back then, the KSCA was not really the fortress it is now and I could quite easily gain access—I was greeted by Rajan Bala who said, “So you are from Mysore, you said.”
“My uncle was the director of CFTRI,” he began. “Dr Swaminathan. I remember spending a few of my summer holidays in his house on, what road is that…ah, Geetha road,” he smiled, reminiscing. I for one found it so terribly improbable, in my rather infantile imagination, that a globe trotter like Rajan Bala could have even visited Mysore or played around on Geetha road, of all the roads in the world!
As we talked and I got a bit bolder to keep a conversation going with him, in walked into our midst, the venerable M. Chinnaswamy after whom the KSCA stadium is now named.
“So how are you, you irascible old man,” joked Bala, with one of the doyens of Karnataka cricket. I could easily make out that Rajan Bala had a certain presence born of tremendous confidence in himself and his role as a cricket writer, a certain way with words, a certain form of appeal, a certain ease with people, even with terribly important men like Chinnaswamy; not to mention cricketers, one of whom, I distinctly remember, was the promising opener Carlton Saldanha, who sat in close proximity to us that day, with a sense of well proportioned acquaintance with the imposing journalist.
Cricket journalist Joseph Hoover, who was one of the youngsters in the 1980s groomed by Rajan Bala, tells me simply, emphatically, that there has never been an Indian journalist with the cricketing knowledge of Rajan Bala.
“His strength as a writer of cricketing matters was way ahead of the others in his tribe, the knowledge stemming from his innate, instinctive talent as an observer of the game; as a formidable opener himself for Calcutta University in the good old days when he was very hard to get out; his voraciousness as a reader of books, not just on cricket but on most subjects ordinary men couldn’t even think of; English literature, science, philosophy and even business journals. He had some 3000 books in his personal library.”
Rajan Bala in his heyday could sit with a man like Sunil Gavaskar and discuss the importance of footwork at a cricket crease, and more than once had he pointed out a tiny chink or two in the otherwise impregnable armour of the legendary opening batsmen, which ordinary journalists, either couldn’t even detect or were afraid to tell.
When a pompous cricketer once took offence when a flaw was pointed out in his batting and said that journalists did not have the right to talk about technique because they hadn’t played the game at the highest level, Rajan Bala quoted Neville Cardus who had once said, “I may not have laid an egg but I can tell when I see a bad one!”
That’s how much cricket literature Bala knew.
Rajan Bala belonged to another era of cricket reporting, an era when journalists did not fall over each other to please cricketers “because we were not expected to write about a cricketer’s underwear! Most of today’s cricket journalists have unfortunately become chamchas of cricketers, who feel happy in their status as non-playing members of the team,” he once remarked with cold sarcasm.
It’s the Great Umpire above who will decide whether Mr Rajan Bala will come out of his coma and open his eyes ever again to the world. If that happens, the news would be that a man, who batted so fantastically, capably, all his life with a pen in hand, and carved out masterly strokes all around the wicket of life, to think of a turn of phrase, is ready to play ball again.
Otherwise, it would be that he played out his last over before draw of stumps, in silent anticipation of another game. Somewhere else. On some other ground that He wills.
If you ever went by what the Vedantic sage Shankaracharya propounded: ‘Punarapi maranam, punarapi jananam…’
I’m sure Rajan Bala would have read this philosophy too.