A few moments before the match began, you heard a series of beeps on the radio. Short, sharp, penetrative. This was followed by a long beep. There was promise of excitement in those beeps, and if you were a schoolboy who dreamt of playing for India, it signalled the start of something guaranteed to burnish that dream. “This is All India Radio,” said the measured voice, “We now take you to Eden Gardens….” Suddenly you found yourself at the venue. It was magical.
The recent passing of the best Indian commentator of his time, Anant Setalvad, is a reminder of just how much we owe his tribe, a debt not always acknowledged. Before Hawkeye and Hotspot and Ultraedge, those sitting at home relied on the sharpness and skill of the radio commentator to bring the game to them. Generations put their faith in the voice coming out of a radio. Some charlatans — the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram was one — thrived, but the best served the game and the listeners well.
Setalvad was urbane, his voice crisp — decades later, I would still be able to recognise it if it were in a line-up with other voices. He was a lovely painter of verbal pictures, a remarkably calm presence among colleagues who made up in high pitched chatter what they lacked in technical knowhow.
This was especially true of the Hindi commentators. Some of them never paused, their flow like god’s love, having no beginning and no end. Still, it meant that the nation south of the Vindhyas learnt much of its Hindi — if not cricket — that way. Was the language imposition a planned move or did it simply work out that way? Bollywood films and Hindi cricket commentary helped many of us through our Hindi exams in school, the essays borrowing heavily from Sahir Ludhianvi and Sushil Doshi, the poet and the radio commentator respectively.
Radio fired the imagination. Even bad commentary — and some of it was indeed awful — forced you to see the action in your mind’s eye. I first ‘saw’ a Gundappa Viswanath square cut on radio before I saw it on the field of play. You quickly chose your favourite commentators just as you did with the players. And it was wonderful when the two came together in the same match, as, for example, Tony Cozier did on the 74-75 tour which saw Viswanath play some of his finest innings.
In another way, however, radio commentary suppressed imagination. Millions were handed pre-digested opinions by commentators who made up for all their weaknesses by their one undeniable strength: they were at the venue, you were not. That extra layer between you and the action was a semi-permeable membrane: the commentator could tell you what he saw, but you couldn’t argue back. You accepted both his description and his opinion.
As I was growing up, however, an important change in this relationship took place. Transistor radios became easily available. It allowed spectators at the ground to follow the game while listening to the commentary — much like they do in England now. The Bobby Talyarkhan style of ‘creative’ broadcasting faded out.
The changed dynamics led to a riot in a Mumbai Test when commentator Devraj Puri said something like “the ball was nowhere near the bat,” as Venkatraghavan was given out caught behind off Australia’s Alan Connolly. Such was the listeners’ faith in the infallibility of the commentator. Umpires made mistakes, commentators didn’t!
Before Setalvad, there was V.M. Chakrapani. He broadcast during India’s tour of Australia in ’67. I remember my mother, ear fixed to the radio, keeping scores as Farokh Engineer and Chandu Borde put on a partnership in a Test. Mother was the only lady I knew who kept scores and updated friends who were at work. She taught me the joy of listening to cricket. The sport was an audio treat before it became a visual one. When dad came back from work, they would discuss the day’s play. Opinions were based on what they had heard, to be reinforced (or not) by what they read in the newspapers the following day.
Ian Peebles has written about the impact of cricket as seen through 12-year-old eyes. That’s nothing compared to the impact of the game on six-year-old ears. Many years later, I met Chakrapani in Chennai, a tall man who moved easily and spoke in a beautiful radio voice.
I never met Setalvad or Pearson Surita, the man with the golden voice, but another favourite, Dicky Rutnagur became a friend. As of course did Harsha Bhogle who was such a treat on radio where he began. His manner of representing the listener at all times, thinking his thoughts, expressing his fears and exulting in his triumphs is a gift given to few. He is the last of a special tribe.