Samir Chopra grew up with India’s many languages. Being a cricket fan advanced his linguistic education. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Beautiful Game (coming in February 2015 from HarperCollins), Samir reflects on a life of listening to the game.
I heard cricket in many accents.
In Indian English, the language of the cities and metropolis: the clipped middle-class intonations of All India Radio commentators like Ashish Ray and Narottam Puri, the dry drawl of the Nawab of Pataudi, the slight lilt of Dicky Rutnagur. There was the Hindi commentary of Sushil Doshi and Jasdev Singh; I did not understand every one of their flowery Sanskritized descriptions, but I could sense their excitement, well-practiced in their stints at hockey games.
When I discovered the BBC and Test Match Special on my short-wave radio, a new host of accents entertained me: I did not then know I was listening to distinctive regional variations of the English language in its homeland. On the far-end of the short-wave dial was Radio Australia and Australian accents: sometimes broader and tangier, reflecting a country background, sometimes the flatter urban varietal, closer to the English accent but still bearing unmistakable traces of the Strine.
The West Indies’ Reds Pereira and Tony Cozier – among others – introduced me to the Caribbean’s distinctive voices; I did not recognize then – and often still do not – the local variants of the Caribbean’s many accents though my years in New York City have taught me some differences between the broad Jamaican, the rustic Guyanese, and more clipped Antiguan or Bajan. (I have noticed a difference between the accents of say, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd, and the later generation of West Indian cricketers; the former’s bore the stamp of years spent playing and living in England.)
And then there is Urdu, which originated in the old undivided India, but became identified, for one reason or the other, as the language of neighbors across the border. These accents and languages all provided alternative idioms with which to understand and visualize cricket.
The first accents I had heard and associated with cricket were not those of the players; they were of those who described the game to us. The conversations and interviews of cricket players were terse and brief and clichéd; the commentator could speak at greater length. His tribe peddled endlessly in clichés too, but by virtue of greater exposure to them, I grew more familiar with their accents, ones used to express a wider range of topics.
Associating a new accent with cricket is instantly evocative; when I first heard Freddie Trueman’s northern Yorkshire variant, I sought to conjure up conversations in his times. All those stories by Neville Cardus about grizzled Yorkshiremen and Lancashiremen that said ‘tha’ and ‘nowt’ and all of the rest; now I had a voice to go with it. I could now imagine better the cultural differences between the English North and the South that had been verbally described to me so often, a division I had not been able to grasp when England had seemed one monolithic mass.
When I compared the Australian accents on the radio and television broadcasts of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to those on Channel Nine’s crew, I understood a little better the diversity of its cultural life, its city-country divide, and why some of its cricketers would be termed “bogans” and not others. The action was now conceptualized differently; the missing ‘h’ on the ‘got ‘im!’ spoke of a cricket so exciting a consonant had to be dropped.
I had seen the ‘maan’ of the Caribbean in text, described by Sunny Gavaskar in Sunny Days but once I had heard the Caribbean accent its placement became real; there were now sounds to go with the pictures of the cricket on the beaches, the loud, exuberant spectators in stadium stands; I could now hear the “Knock his head off Mikey!”, I could hear “Respect Gavaskar maan.” In 1996, I first encountered a South African commentator on television; unfortunately, I found Trevor Quirk insufferable, but I grew to love the South African accent anyway, because of a dear friend whom I met when we were post-doctoral fellows in Sydney. I ran together – in my mind – my friend and the South African players that spoke like him, personalizing them and reducing their anonymity.
Cricket’s accents helped me understand mine better. In 1979, after the conclusion of the epic Oval Test against England, Sunil Gavaskar and his captain Srinivas Venkatraghavan were interviewed on BBC. An English correspondent, within earshot but out of sight, had wondered what a pair of Welsh cricketers was doing talking about the game just concluded. Thus did I learn my Indian accent with its singsong intonations was akin to some kinds of British ones. Years later, after I had moved to the US, when my mongrel accent was described as an Irish brogue, I would be taken aback till I remembered the Sunny-Venkat interview.
Accents are markers of class. It was unflatteringly revelatory of my Anglophone middle-class Indian prejudices that I had once imagined the brand of cricket played by those who did not speak English the “right way” – or not at all – was a class lower than those that did; their cricketing sense was not as sophisticated if it was not expressed in English. Later, the suspicion grew: Was the colonial prejudice about the diminished cricketing intelligence of the Asian or West Indian cricketer grounded in the perception that the English they spoke was ‘different’?
Accents were markers of distance and diversity too, of the presence of several different cricketing cultures, embedded in different ‘home’ languages, in a supposedly unitary cricket world. It set me to thinking: What did English-speaking cricketers think when they heard ‘their game’ being described not in their language but in one in which the cricketing term could be occasionally discerned and heard? Did the game seem different to them when described thus? On a slightly mischievous note, a particularly effective form of sledging subcontinental teams could adopt would be to talk about an opponent batsman in say, Urdu, with enough English thrown in to let him know the conversation was about him.
I speak cricket in several different languages: ‘cultured’ English with writer friends; hybrid Hinglish with Indian cricket fans; jovial, rough and tumble Strine with Australian friends as I describe appalling or appealing cricketing performances as ‘shithouse’ or ‘crash hot’; Delhi slang with my Delhi friends. There are ‘cricketing languages’ I don’t understand: Sinhalese and Bengali for instance. To date, I have not heard a cricket broadcast in these but I look forward to the day I do.
Samir Chopra teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, and he regularly contributes to The Cordon at ESPNcricinfo. You can follow him on Twitter at @.