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Sunday, April 17, 2005

The dialect of a cricket writer

This article was first published in the Indian Express as "Windbag and the willow". Note how my blog helped me in forming the ideas that went into this piece; I'd explored the subject of cricketing cliches all through my blogging in March.

THE next time you watch a cricket match, listen to the phrases that pop into your head with every piece of action. Have you heard these words before? I don’t know about you, but I am assailed by familiar phrases and sentences when I watch cricket, and I recoil each time one pops into my head. I am a cricket journalist, and it is my job to describe every game of cricket that I write about in a fresh manner, to give the reader a clear picture of what happened. And yet, that is so difficult.

Cricket writing, and commentary, has a dialect of its own which consists of lazy shorthands, cliches that do not evoke what happened in the field of play, but regurgitate banal expressions that dull our mind. It is difficult to escape this dialect, to write outside it, because we have been exposed to it repeatedly over the decades, and we reflexively think in this dialect whenever we watch cricket.

Here are some of the common forms that it takes. One, there are the descriptions of play, or of a situation. These could consist of dead metaphors, like the batsmen being ‘‘on a leather hunt’’, ‘‘using the long handle’’ and ‘‘taking the bull by the horns’’, as the match ‘‘teeters on a knife’s edge’’, as the bowlers ‘‘feel the heat’’. They could be phrases that were innovative when first used in this context, but now evoke nothing, such as when we talk of batsmen ‘‘taking control of the situation’’ or ‘‘tearing apart’’ the bowling or ‘‘seizing the initiative’’, as bowlers try to ‘‘tempt the batsmen into indiscretion’’ and ‘‘snatch the momentum’’.

They could be common descriptions, such as of a man who plays a ‘‘captain’s innings’’ or another whose ‘‘feet are stuck to the crease’’, as the ‘‘the game meanders towards a draw’’. And then there’s the hyperbole: ‘‘it’s all happening here’’, the ball ‘‘sped to the boundary like a tracer bullet’’, and ‘‘when he hits it, it stays hit’’.

Two, there are the aphorisms. ‘‘Form is temporary, class is permanent,’’ they say, adding, ‘‘When you’re in form, make it count.’’ After every bad decision someone is sure to write, ‘‘It all evens out in the end.’’ (That is not just a cliche, but also false.) And every twist in a match is sure to be accompanied by talk of ‘‘glorious uncertainties of the game’’.

Three, there are the adjectives. Certain cricketing nouns always seem to go with particular adjectives, which is why we talk of ‘‘fiery spells’’, ‘‘elegant cover-drives’’, ‘‘crisp driving’’, ‘‘lionhearted spinners’’, ‘‘gritty customers’’ (also a dead metaphor), ‘‘needless run-outs’’ (which run-out isn’t?), and ‘‘metronomic accuracy’’. These are objectionable not because they are inaccurate, but because they do not convey the particulars of a circumstance. Michael Vaughan, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Yasir Hameed all play ‘‘elegant cover-drives’’ that are different from each other, and it becomes the duty of the cricket writer to convey that difference.

What shocks me as a reader, and saddens me as a writer, is how in many Indian publications mastery of this dialect is considered a virtue. And television has actually sanctified it. For celebrities-turned-commentators, in fact, who have received no training in writing or commentary, the easiest way to cope is to pick up such shorthand. And if you learn the dialect, you are at least never at loss for something to say, for every situation evokes a basket of cliches to choose from. Perhaps this is an art in itself, if an ignoble one, but it does the game, and its followers, a disservice.

Regardless of whether we are writers, and regardless of the context of cricket, the language we use reveals the way we think. Are our ways of thinking fresh? George Orwell, in his famous essay ‘‘Politics and the English Language’’, wrote: ‘‘Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.’’

Replace ‘‘political regeneration’’ with ‘‘the enjoyment of cricket’’ and that sentiment still holds. And that is why I get angry when people say that cricket is a dying sport. The game is not dying for faults of its own, but we are killing it with the ways in which we think about it, and speak about it.

Cricket is full of dramas, epiphanies, epic passages of play that reveal and celebrate the qualities that make us human. It is we who refuse to see cricket the way it is, and reduce it to banality.
amit varma, 7:16 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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