Dr. Narottam Puri’s mellifluous voice was an added attraction to follow cricket on the radio – SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA
Q) How was your preparation for the matches?
A) There were two things. One is that, in those days we didn’t have statisticians. I was one of the first people to do television statistics work in 1966 for the match between Board President’s XI and Gary Sobers-led West Indies, which was the very first match that was telecast live in India. My father was the commentator in English. Joga Rao was the commentator in Hindi. Maharaja Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad was the expert and I was a statistician. In those days, there were no computers. So every statistic had to be compiled. During the early days of my commentary, starting from 1971, we didn’t have statisticians. Most of the Ranji Trophy games and Test matches, there were no statisticians except for Anandji Dossa in Mumbai. Later Sudhir Vaidya, H.R. Gopalakrishna in Bangalore and various statisticians started coming up.
You needed to have this kind of data available to you to be able to fill in gaps during the match, particularly for those phases, when nothing was happening.
For example, if rain had occurred, and you knew it was a passing shower, then what do you do? There was this one gentleman who was doing Hindi commentary, read the scorecard three times because he didn’t know how else to fill the time. The producer of the program couldn’t take us back to the studio because we knew it was a passing shower.
Second thing, I, by nature, wanted to have a little more information about everything that possibly could be related to the match. It later helped me create the sports quiz conducted for 18 years on Doordarshan. I was fortunate in the sense that I had a decent memory and you remember things that you are in love with. There was never a day when I went for commentary without doing my homework, like a student.
Q) Though it is not the case in India, radio cricket commentary in many countries is very popular. How do you think it has evolved worldwide?
A) I think the game of cricket owes part of its popularity to radio broadcasting. Before television came it was the only medium and even when television came the reach was pretty limited. And even now, I would say radio commentary has a great role to play. What has happened in all over the world is that like for example, the Test Match Special of BBC, has been maintained at a certain standard. What attracts listeners is the rapport you develop with them and the use of, as I described, the prerequisites of being a good commentator.
Secondly, you need some kind of a persistence. What has happened historically in India is that someone like Talyarkhan dictated that if he’s doing the commentary, nobody else will commentate and he was the only commentator. This, of course, changed in ’48. But after that, unfortunately All India Radio became a little too democratic. So people who were good were often clubbed with people who were indifferent or less than good. And it was a democratic kind of a distribution that everybody will get two Test matches each. Even during my career, this is what happened irrespective of how you were rated by the Audience Research Unit of All India Radio or Television later. So, what happened was that that degree of connect that was necessary for the commentator to develop with the listener did not occur.
When it did occur, for example, Jasdev Singh and hockey, it was a long-lasting one. This wouldn’t have happened if Jasdev was himself not working for All India Radio and if he was an external person, he would have also got two matches and then somebody else would have been fitted in.
In the Test Match Special or ABC Radio, you will find the same people over a period of time and they were given the entire series to cover. So for example, in the great names that come to mind are John Arlott, Trevor Bailey, Brian Johnston from BBC special. Later, Christopher Martin Jenkins. In ABC we had Alan McGilvray, Michael Charlton, and Lindsey Hasset. So, there was it. It’s like having Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor all together with you and then deciding that these three are the best and therefore, will continue. That didn’t happen in India.
I am not very much in touch with All India Radio now, but, listen to it. Part of the reason is that I think standards over a period of time have fallen. But part of the reason for that is because I don’t think people are that much serious about radio broadcasting in India, it’s a sad, sad fact. But I think the specialisation element, the love that was there earlier in the powers that be who take decisions about these things isn’t there or if it is there, I don’t know much because I’ve kind of disassociated myself with it.
Q) Your personal liking or association with some of the fascinating commentators you have shared the mic with. Or maybe you have enjoyed listening to them?
A) If I were to say listening, yes, I would get up at five in the morning. Try and find enough reception to catch ABC Radio and listen to Alan McGilvray. I thought he was super, he was an outstanding commentator and he and Lindsay Hassett too made a great impression on my mind. Those are from Australia. From the UK I think that raspy, very intelligent and how should I say very distinctive voice and descriptive appeal of John Arlott from BBC was something that I enjoyed tremendously. I also liked Brian Johnston, particularly for his voice quality. But if I were to say, over the two who were appealing to me the most during my growing up years from the international community, I would say John Arlott and Alan McGilvray. Those days, of course, experts used to be separate from commentators, and Lindsay Hassett would be more like an expert, just as Jimmy Swanton or Trevor Bailey were on BBC ‘Test Match Special’.
Q) Your favourites among the Indians..
A) From India, obviously, I was influenced to a great extent by my father (Devraj Puri), Berry Sarbadhikari and Pearson Surita. One reason was that all three of them played a decent level of cricket. Pearson Surita and Berry Sarbadhikari played up to the University level. Berry slightly more, he was a wicket-keeper. And Surita used to bowl left-arm spin, and the language was outstanding. My father, of course, played a higher grade of cricket. But again, the language was something that appealed to me. And their ability to understand what did the public want was very important. And they quickly grasped the fundamentals without having any guidance at all. And these three had the greatest influence on me as I started getting into the commentators’ box more often. There were some from my father’s era who had also done commentary with him and then they did with me. I had very high regard for Anand Setalvad. I think he was a terrific commentator. From South India, I had the pleasure of doing commentary with two, who did commentary with my dad too. Balu Alaganan and Anand Rao, both were very good. I thought Balu was underrated. Balu was a very good cricketer. And if memory serves me, right, he captained Tamil Nadu, which was Madras back then in Ranji Trophy. I thought he was an underrated commentator. I liked him a lot, thorough gentlemen. And so was Anand Rao, a very thorough gentleman. So, the other person who I thought had a lot of knowledge, and whom I liked quite a bit, with whom I did commentary, was Dicky Rutnagur. Dicky’s repertoire was large because he was essentially a journalist who also did radio commentary. And since he was very widely travelled, I think his knowledge base was extensive. So those would be the ones that left a very deep impression on me and I have very fond memories of that. One other last name that I would like to remember would be Raj Singh Dungarpur. You know, Raj Singh did not do commentary with my dad, but he did with me. We went on the tour to Australia also together. And Raj Singh, of course, was very knowledgeable, had a good voice command, nice. language skills, and was genuinely a cricket lover.
Q) What are the attributes of a good radio commentator. I mean, would it be voice or knowledge of the game or diction?
A) Those three attributes are a must, first of all, knowledge of the game, second command over the language. The third is, of course, you know, ability to create a picture through your words. But the two attributes which are difficult to define are number one would be a love for the sport that you’re describing. You must actually be romantically involved. I would put this as nothing short of that. You have to really be in love with that particular sport that you’re covering. If you’ve played it to some level, that’s great. But that’s important. The second thing is, particularly in earlier days now it’s not so important was a knowledge of the principles of broadcasting because those days, you know, you didn’t have soundproof rooms where you were broadcasting and you had mics, which were used more in, you know, marriage functions in all. So, later on, the lapel mics, the lip mics came into being, but there were no computers to, you know, drown out the voice or improve the voice quality etc. So you had to learn when to keep quiet when the crowd was shouting, you’re not to shout beyond the crowd. So when the crowd sound merged into the microphon, another mic called the effects microphone takes over. So those were things that were handled by an engineer who was sitting in the commentators’ box behind us, and he would increase and decrease the volume from one mic to the other. It was all manual. So you had to know what kind of a mic you were using and what kind of surrounding you were in. This came with experience. I learned a lot about these things. Because I used to observe these during the earlier days from the 50s onwards, when I used to be in the box. And secondly, I learned a lot by watching and actually querying a lot of these things from one of the greatest broadcasters India has produced – Melville de Mello.
Q) Can you for us pick the most memorable moment of your career on the mic?
A) You have got me stumped here. I certainly can remember a moment which was both very memorable in a way but also very embarrassing. We were in Melbourne in (February) 1981. It was the 1980-81 series. Sunil Gavaskar was the captain. And we had lost the first Test in Sydney in about two and a half to three days. And we barely survived at Adelaide thanks to the heroics of Sandeep Patil, supported ably by Shivlal Yadav. Sandy got 176 or something like that (174). And in Melbourne, I remember Vishy (G.R. Viswanath) got a hundred (114) and Kapil (Dev) took five for 28 in the final innings with a very badly injured thigh. India went on to win that match and level the series. We hadn’t done much of anything of note in Australia if you take aside those two wins that Bishan Bedi’s side had (in 1977-78) but then Australia was not at full par (in 77-78). But this was a full Australian side and to beat them in their own bad backyard, and square the series was a great opportunity. So we were in the stands and I happened to be the commentator along with Raj Singh in English. Ravi (Chaturvedi) and Jasdev were the Hindi commentators. And I’d also shared the mic for a bit with Lindsey Hasset for Radio Australia and then came that moment which I didn’t realise when we won. I was wearing a red pullover and I probably subconsciously stood from the my sitting position with the mic in hand and I was shouting away giving this news home. And at night I saw the highlights and there was Richie Benaud describing in one succinct sentence “And there goes an excited Indian commentator giving the glad news back home.” The greatest commentator of all times on television, as far as I’m concerned, had this to say about me.
Q) Was it improper for a commentator to express emotions?
A) I’d always prided myself, like most of my generation did, that we were impartial observers of the game. It was India versus Australia. It was not me versus you kind of thing. But you know those were different days and you felt very, very sad or ebullient in your moods, depending on how the team was doing because you were more or less a part of the team. I felt a little bit more because those days no doctors used to travel so I was unofficially very often consulted by the players. And I remember that morning Yashpal Sharma coming to my room and saying “Doc come and have a look at Kapil’s thigh.” His thigh was pretty bad. I told him that I don’t think you can play and he said “No, I’m going to play”. He did pick up five for 28. (Karsan) Ghavri had taken a couple of wickets at the fag end of the previous day, and we won that Test. So that’s definitely a lot of good memories. There are many such ones, but that stands out partly for my own fallibility and being caught on the camera as also for the satisfaction of India having beaten Australia and leveled the series.
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