Rajan Bala was a towering figure in Indian cricket journalism. I’ve been familiar with his byline almost right from the days I started reading about the game – over 20 years ago. The most recent article I read with his byline was a tribute he wrote to Raj Singh Dungarpur, who died last month. And now Mr Bala himself is gone – he didn’t have days enough on earth to release his last book, Days Well Spent.
All remembrances of those who’ve departed invariably turn into what encounters with them meant to us. Allow me to share some memories.
In early 2001, the number of reporters who’d congregated in Kolkata to cover the second Test against Australia had become alarming and untenable. The dotcoms hadn’t gone bust yet and they had a large representation in Kolkata. There was a dispute, followed by the announcement that dotcoms wouldn’t be allowed to cover the match.
I was working for a dotcom too, and I had to make desperate calls to get accreditation to cover the match. I was eventually advised that one way to get accreditation was to represent a small English newspaper published in Assam. I called the editor from the mobile phone of a colleague and committed a grave solecism in the presence of Mr Bala.
I asked the editor’s secretary: “Could I speak to the editor, please?”
Mr Bala was known to be generous with his advice, to both writers and cricketers. He pointed out my error, too; wishing to talk to the mighty editor, I should have said: “Could I speak with the editor, please?”
“Not ‘to’ the editor,” Mr Bala said. “He would be the one to speak to you, not you to him.”
Chastised, I also noted the deference all cricket writers had for him; one reporter, now himself a big shot, showed him what he’d written and asked for approval or advice. Mr Bala, readily enough, dispensed both.
Senior cricketers also seemed to be in awe of him; on another tour, in Sharjah, when Mr Bala posed an opinion-heavy question about why the Indian batsmen had struggled against Muttiah Muralitharan, Indian captain Sourav Ganguly replied with great respect, addressing him as Rajan-da.
The man who came to be known as the foremost Indian cricket writer built his career largely in the 1970s when he worked with big Madras- or Bangalore-based newspapers; through the next two decades, Mr Bala was the man almost every Indian cricket writer and even cricketer deferred to.
Mr Bala had the courage and confidence to take on authority, or to seek out players and advise them on the technicalities of the game. He took Sunil Gavaskar head-on; he wrote that Navjot Singh Sidhu was a “strokeless wonder”. Such was the power of his pen that Sidhu pasted the clipping on a mirror and vowed to prove Mr Bala wrong. When Sidhu started raining sixers at the 1987 World Cup, Mr Bala was perhaps gratified that he’d had some influence on Sidhu.
His colleagues remember that he always encouraged talented writers. Some people thought they saw signs of arrogance in his easy dispersal of advice to both cricketers and writers; indeed, people who deal only in certitudes, and make or break opinion, don’t usually brook opposition or, sometimes, even debate. But there can be little opposition to his status as the most influential writer who ever wrote on cricket in the English language in India.