Rajan Bala is Indian cricket journalism’s elder statesman. He has been covering cricket from before the time any of the current Indian squad were born. He has written a few books on Indian cricket, the most recent of them being Covers Are Off. Visualize a man with a pipe comparing Ken Barrington and Rahul Dravid; rattling off names who have been forgotten by even their countrymen; giving unsolicited yet sound technical advice and just writing, writing and writing for the Asian Age, and you have a mental picture of Rajan Bala. Erase the pipe and that is how the non-smoking Rajan Bala looks now.
Till two years back, he was writing far too regularly for the Asian Age. I wondered why. He had nothing much to say and with his slightly 60s way of writing would be a pain in the mornings. If you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you’d find a preachy article extolling all virtues known to the queen and her courtiers. But it never made you keep away from his articles, just like it never makes you keep away from the Asian Age. There is something wonderfully monarchal about both him and the newspaper. They have their own time zone, their own values. Occasionally they let others have a glimpse but quickly continue prancing about in their personal space, inconsiderate to the nether world. And you don’t feel slighted!
The sports page, apart from Bala’s article, is generally avoidable. R. Mohan writes often and he too sleep-walks his part. But they are completely different to one another. When Mohan writes cricket, it is current affairs. When Bala writes current affairs, don’t miss it. He had once digressed from his area of experience and tresspassed into the incredibly boring world of Bollywood. This dangerous cocktail of the potentially tepid subject had “damp squib” written all over it in dancing lights. He wondered, who was the better among the three Khans!
If Rajan Bala has to worry about three Bollywood men to fill a column, then it meant there was just nothing to report – which was perhaps a perfectly honest appraisal of the previous day in question. I felt when he commented on a young player or the present system of cricket, he was compassionate – a quality which if normal sports journalists have, they conceal well. He never wrote, “those were the days”. But in some ways he did mean it that way. News channels have made the job difficult for print journalists. Newspapers come once in a day, and sadly they come the next day (wonder if they still have “Better never than late” stuck on display boards in their offices). However, at times, they are required to fill an odd void – after all, how much mediocrity do you expect TV to provide. Hence, Rajan Bala came under the mike and the camera, showcasing the SMS – that SMS – from Greg Chappell.
When I had read that article, there seemed nothing to suggest it was big news. It was an interesting, well-written piece, and was current affairs for a change. Bala reasoned that since in a way, like Bishen Bedi said, it was “all over”, he might reproduce the contents of the message for public perusal. There is no way he could have predicted the rise in his star status by the evening! Recently, the regularity of his articles have gone from “always” and “often” to “rarely”. He has stopped writing on non-cricketing issues, which is a real pity because it means someone else is doing it. Thankfully, M.J. Akbar writes on cricket occasionally. Kuldip Nayar writes on politics regularly, but hope he has no plans to write on cricket the way he did last week lambasting India’s World Cup. Seema Mustafa and Olga Tellis are the only ones not to venture into the village green as yet, but with Mustafa’s Brian Glanvillesque cynicism, the day is not far.
As for Rajan Bala, he has too much knowledge and empathy for scandal and television. He is among the last batches of quintessential print writers and hopefully he’ll continue to be that. His name, when unnecessarily translated to Kannada means King’s tail. This appears apt for what he has been doing over the years with the royal game.