Suresh Saraiya has passed away.
For Indians of a certain generation, his voice was cricket’s voice. They clung on to his description of the day’s play, imitated his quirks – especially the English spoken in a distinctive Gujarati accent – and remembered him when they remembered India’s famous wins. After all it was Suresh bhai who had first brought them the great news.
I did not hear much of him on radio. Yet we shared a bond. He was a sweet uncle with whom one could share hours and hours of conversation. He never tired of talking cricket and could regale you with one hilarious anecdote after another.
I first met him at a Ranji Trophy game at the Wankhede Stadium in 2005-06. I think it was the second or third day. He was standing under the Garware Pavilion and inspecting the field. I had barely introduced myself than he began to talk about the way the groundsmen were rolling the pitch. I did not understand what he was getting at. I don’t remember his exact words but he said something to the effect of: You cannot roll the pitch for more than seven minutes. That’s the rule. These groundsmen have been rolling it for more time.
I was mildly taken aback. This was a cricketing rule that I had no idea about. But, as I was to later learn, Suresh bhai was one of the great students of the game. He never thought he had figured it all out and always said to me, “One must observe every blade of grass on the field.” It was his way of saying: one must never stop learning.
I never saw Suresh bhai sloppily dressed. Never. He was always tip-top, always wearing a tie from one of the tours he had covered. He must have had a whole wardrobe of ties; rarely did I see him repeat one.
He would also surprise me. Once he called me from the All India Radio office in Mumbai and said I must come there straight away. I asked him if there was a problem. He said everything was OK but that I should come to the office near VT straight away. An hour later I was introduced to one of the important producers of AIR. Suresh bhai was telling him that he should give me a tryout for commentary.
A few months later I was in Mohali covering the Ranji Trophy final between Punjab and Railways. At the end of the game I got a call from Suresh bhai. He said AIR were looking for someone in Chandigarh to do a post-match wrap up. He gave me a number of a producer there. A few hours later I was sitting in a studio and recording the summary of the game. Then I interviewed Sanjay Bangar, the winning captain, on air. I don’t know who heard it but it all felt surreal. All thanks to Suresh bhai.
We spent long hours chatting cricket, for that was his first love. He told me many stories but there was one that stands out.
India were playing West Indies in Calcutta in 1978. West Indies needed 335 to win in the final innings and were staring at defeat at 183 for 8 in the final session of the fifth day. The light was worsening and it seemed that Sew Shivnarine was the lone obstacle between India and victory.
That’s when the umpires felt it was too dark to play and took the players indoors. What happened next was something Suresh bhai had never expected. He was stunned. The crowd in Calcutta began lighting up the paper torches. Almost every member of the crowd held a torch and the stadium – until then a gloomy arena – was lit up. “It was like a thousand Diwalis,” Suresh bhai said.
The umpires brought the players back on. The torches were still flaming. Bedi got Marshall lbw. West Indies were nine down and there was mayhem in the stands. Just another wicket away. “It shows you what a crowd can do in cricket,” Suresh bhai said emotionally.
The torchlights didn’t hold up, though. Eventually it got darker and the match ended in a draw. But what a draw!
Suresh bhai had covered more than a hundred Test matches. He had been around cricket for a large part of his life. Cricket journalism is a profession that shatters some of your notions about the game. It exposes you to the murkier side and gradually eats away at the joys that made you a cricket fan in the first place. It can easily turn you into a know-it-all cynic.
Not Suresh bhai. I noticed not an ounce of cynicism in his voice, not a tinge of frustration. Suresh bhai never thought he had made it, he never thought it was time to stop learning. He was forever young, forever enthusiastic, forever willing to learn.
Indian cricket has lost a giant. May his soul rest in peace.