Transcript: Couch Talk with Anjali Doshi

Couch Talk 187 (Play)

Guest: Anjali Doshi, “Tendulkar in Wisden: An Anthology”

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is Anjali Doshi, who is the editor of “Tendulkar in Wisden: An Anthology”. She talks about the idea behind it, the process of distilling 24 years of writing on Tendulkar in Wisden, her own experiences of covering Tendulkar and discusses the Sachin phenomenon that transformed from being about a great player to the level of infallible. Welcome to the show, Anjali!

Anjali Doshi (AD)– Hello, Subash. Thank you so much for having me!

SJ– Absolutely my pleasure for having you on.

Tendulkar In Wisden: An Anthology, edited by you – isn’t this the first time a living cricketer’s Wisden anthology has been published? Usually it is done for the greats of the game well after their playing careers are over and have actually passed…

AD– The previous anthologies were done on (WG) Grace, (Sir Don) Bradman and more recently on Richie Benaud. They have had a couple of anthologies on countries, like Wisden On India. We haven’t done anything on a living cricketer. The idea that Bloomsbury had in mind was that they didn’t want to time it in a way that it was too soon after his retirement because there was reams and reams of stuff published then. So, the idea was to take a step back, get perspective on his career. What is fascinating is, especially for me, as I was doing the research on the anthology was to see how it was evolving, how his career evolved in real time through the Wisden Almanacks. That was interesting to see, him slowly developing and coming in to his own as a player. It was exciting. The idea of the anthology was to create something that was more timeless than a reckless urgency of 24 hour news cycle and weekly magazine and online replicas.

SJ– When you decided to do this, what was your original mental map of the book looking like? I am sure it has gone through iterations. What does the final form look like, as compared to the earlier ones, is there much difference at all or is it completely different from what you started out on originally?

AD–  Good question.  I was very clear about one thing, which is that I did not want to simply draw out the chronological map of Tendulkar’s career. So, I started with that premise. Then, of course, the challenge was to think of themes and try and organize it in that way. Some phases of his career will lend themselves to a chronograph sort of theme. What I was keen on was highlighting themes that I felt very salient to his career. That was how it began. Along the way, I had to be really clear about what I was willing to leave out if I was going the thematic route. When someone has 665 international appearances, the idea is not to catalogue each one. Then, you just have to pick and choose. When I went with the themes, I had to also look at what fit with the theme I was trying to bring out and focus on.

SJ– What were some of the things that you found difficult to leave out? Obviously, with such a long and remarkable career, there is always a temptation to include a lot more than what you want to leave out. I am sure there were lines you had to draw to leave something out, but you were not comfortable leaving out.

AD– There were a few innings that I missed out. There was one where he had 4/45 in Dhaka against Pakistan in Wills Cup. More important one was the innings in Sharjah in the finals he played in 1998 against Australia, which I had to leave out, but the previous innings that got India in the finals features in the 10 best innings. somehow the other innings, the one in the finals does not get the full match report. The decisions like that, which sounds terribly geeky, but this is a book about cricket statistics as well. The idea was to convey a breath and to convey themes, but not going to the pernickety details about things that may not convey the story. I just wanted to remind myself that it was OK to do that.

I was also clear on what I really wanted to focus on. Since Wisden has a wealth of wonderful literature and the prose is so beautiful, I was clear that as far as the feature pieces go, I didn’t want to tamper with them. I didn’t want to cut things. Where I felt I could make those cuts were in the match reports. The ideas was to convey the essence that Tendulkar played in those matches. And so, it was OK to focus on him and leave out on the details without obviously diluting the story itself. Those were the challenges.

SJ– Tendulkar, as a cricketer, person, inspiration, role model, etc, that is all there. But, Tendulkar can be seen through the prism of numbers as well – that has some brilliant numbers, obviously. On that theme, the book has 248 pages – which is his highest Test score. Did Bradman’s Wisden Anthology have 334? And, whose idea was it to have 248 pages, and did you always work with that being the final count or was it happenstance?

AD– I would like to say it was deliberate and carefully planned, like a major orchestrated thing; but it was a complete happenstance. Wisden Anthology on Bradman does not have 334 pages, I am pretty sure, it is less than 300 and maybe less than 248. I might have to check that after this. That was completely by chance. All I was asked to deliver was an 80000 word manuscript and it ended up begin closer to 100000 words and then I cut it down after the first draft. That was my brief, that was all I was told.

SJ– You grew up in India, in Mumbai, and so it is unavoidable that you were a Sachin Tendulkar fan at that time that you grew up. You have covered him as a journalist as well, on top of it. How difficult it is to isolate your emotions, your fundamental emotions as a fan, when you put together a book? There will always be certain leanings towards certain innings that you fondly look back on, whereas it may not be that much more deserving. How do you balance that when you make a summary of a career?

AD– I am a student of anthropology, and the one thing that anthropology teaches you is that it is really not possible to be objective. Anthropology long gave up the idea that journalism seems to hold on to. I think more people in journalism are acting like it is just not possible, what we are is a make-up of our memories, our emotions, how we develop as people as well. I have to separate those things. It is hard even as you step on to a cricket field or into the press box to let go completely of the fan who grew up falling in love with the game to then become the journalist who becomes someone who is meant to be very critical and turns on the critical gaze on anything that you are looking at. I don’t think I even attempted to achieve some great level of objectivity with this project. In some ways I saw it, reflecting back after having done my script that this is my chance to create the ultimate scrap-book on Sachin. I have a scrap book as a teenager, growing up in Mumbai, with all the precious cutting, from newspapers and Sportstar – I had a proper Sachin scrap-book. This is just the more professional sophisticated version of that.

SJ– With that background, you have a chapter called the “10 Best Innings” which includes 3 ODI innings and 7 Test innings (out of 7, 5 were pre-2000). Your fandom, growing up, covering him, how much of that played a role in you choosing those 10? Was it just you exercising your personal choices? How did you come up with that list?

AD– I initially drew up a list of 20, and then I kind of pared it down, and thought about it. I had some help from the team at Wisden, because this is what they do. It was just help with ideas and opinions that I sought from people who are used to doing this quite a bit. Between the three or four of us that were talking about this, we eventually decided upon the final list. They were quite happy with my selections. I was also quite sure that I didn’t want each of them to be a century, because there have been some fantastic innings that he had played that are not centuries, that is important to reflect. Even though Wisden may be the ultimate book of statistics, it need not be a statistical obsession or a statistical pursuit to have a perfect number in there. I was quite sure that a couple of 90s meant more than a lot of his 100s.

SJ– Yes, I listened to your podcast with Peter Miller last week or the week before. You mentioned about the two 90s, one was the 90 vs Australia in the World Cup, and the other vs Pakistan?

AD– Yes, that is right. Coming back to your earlier question, about objectivity and your own personal takes when you are doing a book that was supposedly meant to be objective. I had such fond memories of that 90 that for me, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan just captured it so beautifully, like a drama, every emotion that one felt while watching that innings, every memory that you connected with it and the way he did it going back and forth – that was one of my favourite piece in the book. I was watching on TV, I was not on the ground. The drama of the inning, I can still feel it.

SJ– I was a college student at that time, in India and I was watching on TV as well. I remember the entire World Cup, including the 60 in the semi final and then the collapse of the team and the fire in the stands at Eden Gardens. It was a very sad day for Indian cricket and Indian cricket fan who followed the World Cup and Tendulkar.

Everybody has their own favourite Tendulkar story, whether on the field or off the field, etc. You have covered him as a journalist, you have edited an anthology on him, you have had access to him, You have seen him as a fan in a stadium and on TV etc. What is your favourite Tendulkar story?

AD– I have two favourite stories. I will get the professional one out of the way first – the 103 he got at Chennai in 2008 and spoke at the press conference about the whole innings and what it meant to him. it was a 4th inning run chase – not his strength, he has been criticised quite a bit. That echoes of that innings with the 136 against Pakistan in 1999 at the same venue. Then, step away from all of that, the Mumbai attacks. In many ways, that whole day has a lot of resonance for me, personally. Then, he came to the press conference and visibly see how emotional he was. That was one of my favourite moment in a professional kind of setting, when you are in a press box and interacting with the cricketer at a press conference.

The other, the personal story – when he was completing 20 years, and there was a massive drive to get a Tendulkar interview. I was the cricket editor for NDTV at that time, and there was a massive chase on to get Sachin. Everyone was trying to get him. Of course I was part of that bandwagon as well. I was trying to reach him, i was getting in touch with his manager, who contacted him. Finally, I said I am just going to land up, not literally at his doorstep, but at the building where he lives. It was a classic case of a journalist talking. I knew he was at the nets, because I was covering the nets. This was for a game in Mumbai for a series against Australia. I just left the nets early and I posted myself outside his building and thought I am just going to wait here. The way to do it is face to face and was tired of trying to text and reach through a third party. It did eventually work out. That was the classic case of a journalist talking celebrity, one that I am not entirely proud of.

SJ– But you got the job done.

AD– Yes, I got the job done. Why I really like the story was not because of who I was for the story but how gracious he was. He could have been really pissed off for someone showing up at his doorstep and kind of accosting him into an interview request, one of hundreds. He was really calm, and said that “we could do it, let me try and figure out a date.” and took it from there. He didn’t get upset, not that I expected him to be, but he was well within his right to be upset had he wanted to.

SJ– I want to talk about another aspect of it, the Sachin Tendulkar phenomena. He was earmarked for greatness very early in his career and he kept his date with it. There was a point in time where Sachin Tendulkar, possible the greatest batsman ever, the greatest Indian batsman etc, he morphs himself into God – infallible, untouchable. Where do you believe that transition happened? Was it to do with the profusion of the internet in India? Do you know where to put a finger on it?

AD– I say somewhere in the book that his story runs and connects with aspirational apects in post-liberalization India. I think that happens somewhere in the mid to late 90s. The 1996 World Cup was the beginning of it. I feel very clearly in my mind that that is where the Legend of Sachin started to gain massive momentum. That is when it took off. The internet and our obsession of looking westward and wanting to excel on a global stage was happening at some level at IT and a couple of different arenas. This was one person in the world of sports, and (Vishwanathan) Anand of course, who were really able to showcase their talent and beat the best at their game on their day. Sachin at some level I suppose, not to take anything away from Anand’s achievement, was an individual in a team game. He was the individual that was winning the team the game. Secondly, the place that cricket has in the Indian consciousness.

SJ– I think in the post-1999, the 136 against Pakistan, after that there is a very clear change in how Tendulkar goes about his cricket. He had the captaincy when he goes to Australia, and then he comes back dejected with the team and says he is going to focus on his game – batting – and that is to score runs for his team. There is a clear demarcation in his career where he goes from aggressive young batsman that is taking on all comers to a guy who has understood his game inside and out and just interested in scoring runs, no matter how they come – you just have to score runs. When going through all the writing about Tendulkar, did you see how his cricket is described pre-2000 to post-2000?

AD– Yes, very clearly. So many of the pieces talk about his evolution. Rahul Bhattacharya’s piece mentions ‘from the run machine to the accumulator’. From the destructive batsman he becomes an accumulator. To some people it seemed a mechanistic kind of a game.

SJ– In my point of view, that is unfair, because he has just distilled it down to a science rather than art, where you have the freedom to expect anything that you want, but he distilled it down to science where he realises his areas and how to go about it. and so he still scores with the same consistency with the same averages but taking a lot less risk. I thought that the post-2000 Tendulkar was mentally more gratifying than the pre-2000, which was emotionally more gratifying.

AD– I understand that the change in the trajectory and the approach to the game can evoke this nostalgia for what Tendulkar was in the ‘90s – explosive, destructive, dramatic and incredibly dramatic to watch. It was nothing that symbolises it better than the 90 vs Australia in the 1996 World Cup. In a lot of ways that was the essence of how he was playing. And then, later on, you see the shift and you feel like he has switched gears – from 5th gear to maybe 3 and a half. The two pieces where you get a clear sense of how Sachin viewed it himself, and within the team are the pieces from Rahul Dravid and Sachin’s interview with Sambit Bal. I am with them on that, in the sense that I am with you on that, that I don’t see the transition as a bad thing but quite interesting in his story. What I also found interesting in his interview with Sambit is he is kind of reluctant to mention – Sambit keeps pushing him about his age and if he is slowing down and if his reflexes have slowed down – but Tendulkar is not willing to admit that. You wonder if all those injures and the age also determined a change in his approach. He refuses to address it that way.

SJ– I have read the interview before as well, and have read it since I got the book for 4 or 5 times, trying to understand what Sambit is trying to accomplish there and what Tendulkar is trying to say. Without really knowing what is going on in Tendulkar’s mind, you have to take it on his word, which is that, “Listen, the oppositions know your game to and they are going to adapt, too. So, if I have to change too. if I continue playing the same way, then the opposition are not doing their work. i kind of take that approach to it.” He has not completely shut down that aspect of his game where he goes after the bowling. Every ten innings or so he will show you that “I still got it”, like in the 175 against Australia in Hyderabad. “i still got it, I choose not to show it to you.”, which I thought was fantastic. As a Tendulkar fan, cricket fan, reading it, there was a thought – in media, generally, it is easier to write about a personality. The post-2000 Tendulkar pushed people to write about the cricket – the way he was batting, rather than his personality, the boy on a burning deck. I don’t think justice was done to what he was doing on the field, especially post-2000. What is your view on that?

AD– I agree with you. That is such an interesting facet to the story and how he changes as a cricketer. There is some kind of an unrealistic expectation, that cricketers and people are sort of bounded like some unchanging entities who will always remain the same. That is why we remember them and that is what we love about them. They are not, they adapt and they learn, hey age and have to change their approach. We know one approach is better than the other, and I say that in the introduction. While I observe this story would with interest, I don’t agree with it.

SJ– Lastly, Sachin Tendulkar – he happened at such a confluence and convergence of events in time and space that has led to this anthology. Would you think it would be really hard for someone else to come and replica in the next generation or 5 generations from now to capture the imagination of the largest cricket market and become a global icon, and at the same time be the top-2 greatest batsman of all time.

AD– I have been thinking about it, especially with the World T20 going on right now, and Virat Kohli, and how everyone is just heaping praise upon him which is very well deserved, of course. But it does make you question how fleeting these things have become and how long they live on, but they never really…. Calling Virat the Bradman of T20 cricket etc. It made me think of whether Sunil Gavaskar thought about this kind of things when people were beating the drum about Tendulkar in the ‘90s. I feel like the development of the Tendulkar story, given the convergence of how things worked then – which is, at the base of the media wasn’t as big, there was no social media and we had only just been introduced to satellite and cable television. The development of that story happened at a much slower pace than Virat Kohli’s right now. I don’t know if Virat is currently the flavour of the season – from the fan perspective, not talking about his talent – but, I think that is kind of a story that you wait and see how it develops. Things feel so fragmented right now, in terms of our attention, which it didn’t in the recent ‘90s. Growing up in the ‘90s, I didn’t feel like my attention was so scattered, or that there were so many demands for my attention. Tendulkar had the whole stakes of my interest in cricket. I don’t know now if a teenager growing up in India right now about Virat Kohli. Do they connect with the man emotionally like the generations did with Tendulkar in the ‘90s? I don’t feel like can answer that question right now, we will have to wait.

SJ– That is true.

By the way, I am in the anthology as well, not by name, but named as a friend in one of the retirement pieces. I will let you go back and figure out which one that is.

AD– Dileep’s piece? No. 4 has left the building? I really love that piece; I love the last line to it. “No. 4 has left the building and he’s taken the best years of our lives with him”, that is kind of how I felt.

SJ– On that note, Anjali, thank you so much for being on the show. I wish you all the best.

AD– Thank you so much, Subash. Thank you so much for having me!

SJ– It is an absolute pleasure!