Sharda Ugra has written about cricket for more than twenty years, publishing her work in both popular and academic outlets in India, England, and Australia. Currently senior editor for ESPNcricinfo, Sharda has also worked as a ghostwriter on two cricket memoirs: John Wright’s Indian Summers (2007), an account of the former New Zealand captain’s tenure as coach of the Indian national team, and Yuvraj Singh’s The Test of My Life (2013), the story of the Indian all-rounder’s treatment for lung cancer in 2011-12. In this interview, Sharda talks about the experience of ghostwriting a sports memoir.
The two memoirs you worked on were very different books, and your subjects had different approaches to working with you.
Absolutely. Yuvraj’s book was done at much faster pace, because it had be out in a pretty short time. He had come to the come to the United States for his cancer treatment in Indianapolis, where the doctor who had worked on Lance Armstrong, Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, looked after his case. And he was back in April , and the book had to be out in under a year. John Wright’s book took a longer time, because it was done in a much more methodical manner.
And Wright was much more methodical about archiving his life, correct?
Yes, he had collected an enormous amount of material. He had a big, black leather briefcase, in which he had every single paper that he had collected in India. He had written diaries on his computer. We all used to joke that he was the first Indian cricket team coach who had a computer. This was in 2000-2001, when a coach having a laptop was a great leap in technology. But he just sat on the computer and took notes and wrote letters. He wasn’t doing strategy on the computer, because that had been done. The players were already out on the field.
So he had taken very, very detailed notes about his life in India. He didn’t have a house, so he basically lived out of that suitcase. He had photographs, letters, doodles, songs. He had everything. And we had to take all that material and bring it down to something that told the story of his experience and all the things he wanted to say. He was moved by his experience in India. He was enriched by it, I think. And that’s what came through in the book.
Yuvraj did have an audio and video diary, but it was a much more spontaneous – almost a therapeutic thing for him to talk through what the cancer had done to him.
In a magazine essay, you describe the process of ghostwriting two memoirs – and you’re not very positive about the experience. You talk about it as being grueling. Why was that?
[laughs] I hope I don’t sound too down about it. But it’s like the person lives in your head, because you are trying to bring his life, his voice, his emotion onto the page. That’s why I said that ghostwriting is like breaking stones. It’s great when it’s over, but when you’re doing it, it’s like breaking stones with a little hammer. That’s why it’s grueling. It’s like doing a PhD thesis at high speed. That’s the only thing in your head. It’s all the time. Eventually, you need to remember that you have to be the other person’s voice. Your own individual voice or style shouldn’t show. You have to be transparent.
In the article, I said it’s like running an ultra-marathon. You feel like you’re doing it forever. And then at one point it’s over, and the book’s out. You realize that if you’ve done a good job, it is that person’s book – and people believe that it’s his book. And you’re just unimportant at the end of it all.
It’s a good experience. I got along with both guys with whom I did the books. As grueling as it might have been, it was good to be a part of that.
You write that your experience in ghosting the two books allowed you to get a “closer look at Indian cricket’s undercarriage.” That’s somewhat surprising, given your decades of experience covering cricket. What were some of things that surprised you in the process of working on these books?
In cricket, a lot of things happen that you’re not told about. Sometimes you find out, sometimes you don’t. You never really know what’s going through a player’s or coach’s head in a tournament. When I read Wright’s diaries, it was like the world had opened up. These are everyday people with extraordinary skills who are put into a pressure-cooker environment. How do they deal with it?
One of the things you do learn is how so many things are random acts of God, if I can use that phrase. The chances of victory or defeat are very slim. Many things are a stroke of good fortune. You just put your head down and work as hard as you can, and then hope that fate moves your way, because you are playing a sport in which – like all sports – the margin of error is very small. You find out how much people go through. Watching cricket ten years ago you didn’t have that much emotion showing through. You didn’t see them celebrating or showing disappointment that much.
You find out a lot of things, like how the Indian team in the last World Cup wasn’t served its lunch before the semi-final with Pakistan. So it walked on to the field in the biggest match of the tournament, having eaten just a sandwich. You find out big things and you find out little things. And it’s not something you learn as a journalist, because you’re following so many other story threads that are of larger interest to your readers. You find out a lot of things about the way that the sport works, and how people can be either astonishingly generous or astonishingly petty. It’s a great experience, and I learned huge things from doing these books.
Why do you think athletes want to tell their stories?
If, for example, you are an athlete who by nature has been introspective and self-deprecating, and you have had a very long, rich experience, you do want to talk about it. Yes, there is the whole sense that this something an athlete can put energy into and make some money out of it. But I think that there is also this matter of telling. I think that’s why John Wright did his book. He recorded things, he had them on paper, on his computer. It had been a – I wouldn’t say a life-changing experience, because he stayed pretty much the same – but it had been a key experience in his life. He wanted to share it. He wanted people in New Zealand, firstly, to know what it was like. He said that they don’t understand what Indian cricket was, how big Indian cricket was. They had no idea what was going on.
For Yuvraj, the book was almost like his friend, to whom he had something to say all the time.
Sharda, you have spoken in interviews about your own experiences as one of the first women to cover cricket in the late 80s and early 90s. Given that you are something of a pioneering figure, you have a compelling and even important story to tell. Have you ever been tempted to write your own life story?
[laughs] Not really. I’m too lazy.
What I would definitely like to do at some point is write something, not a whole book about my life. It wasn’t that big. It’s not that important. But maybe something to do with what it was like being in that time, growing up in the 80s, being a journalist before the Internet. Possibly in a longish essay – maybe I’d do that.
If women who want to cover sport, if they need sort of – I don’t know, it sounds kind of boastful. It sounds like I’ve carved a life-path lesson for them, the five-steps-of-success sort of thing. I think I’ll just be quiet and do my work.
You just said, “Well, my life wasn’t that important,” and you said earlier that athletes are ordinary people. Have you ever come across an athlete, when faced with the opportunity to present his own life, responds like you did and says, “No, I’m just an ordinary person. No one would be interested in my life.”
No. You never meet an athlete who says, “People don’t want to hear about my life.”
What I find really fascinating, what I really want to understand, is the whole business of competitiveness. How can some people be competitive and others not? Athletes, all athletes —you don’t even have to be a good athlete – anyone who is playing professional sport is such a competitor inside, and it’s the degree of competitiveness that I think makes you successful or not successful. I’m very interested to find out what it is that ticks someone off as a competitor. You know, I was quite a wimp, a really bad athlete. I’m fitter now than when I was a teenager. When I used to play badminton, I hated playing singles. I could not bear it. I just thought it was terrible to be on the court alone. I loved playing doubles. I loved having someone beside me, someone to say about, “Oh, they played rubbish. I played good, but still we lost.” I’m just not competitive. So that’s why I find the competitive side of athletes really interesting.
Yuvraj, for example, when he does a press conference, he’ll be sort of sitting, answering questions, and he’ll be chatty and making jokes. If he’s in a good mood, everything’s “ha-ha” and nice. And then somebody says something to him that is – they’re not trying to bait him – they say something about the Indian team, and you see him change. He raises his eyebrow, he sits up, his entire personality changes in that one minute. This whole Mr. Gum-Chewing Lazy Boy just turns. You can see him become the competitor. You can see it. It happens in front of your face, and you think, “Oh God, he’s off again.”
Similarly with John Wright, who’s this very relaxed, easy-going person. But do not push them competitively about anything, because you can actually see it switch.
Samir Chopra wrote a great piece about having a conversation with Rahul Dravid. They were talking about this, that, and the other, and then Samir reached a point where he said, “Then I saw the guy who got 10,000 Test runs.” He could see it. I find it fantastic. I don’t know how it happens, but you just see it. I’m really curious about that. I really want to know what makes them that way.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor for ESPNcricinfo. She is co-author of Yuvraj Singh’s memoir The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back and John Wright’s Indian Summers.