Monday, March 23, 2009

The guys who hold the willy

I like the address. It's bang opposite MIG Cricket Club in Bandra. As the doorbell is rung, and those nervous moments before the door is opened elapse, I steal a glance at the MIG Cricket Club grounds across the road. Ahh...the sight of a lush green cricket field! The sight, that kept us Kendriya Vidyalaya kids glued to the very English 'Bodyline' TV series on DD in the early 90's. We sure were not following a single word of Jardine or Bradman, but cricket action in the sunny Britain fields, we sure were. So yes, I like the view from the doorbell too.

Gate opens, a lanky (by Indian standards) Jaideep escorts me in, introduces, cross-introduces Jatin (Stats editor) and Sreeram (Editor) to me. Jatin is primarily responsible for the numbers on the site, and though he claims he will become a CA someday, Jaideep and Sreeram have their doubts. "He is never going to leave...he will stick around to writing and cricket", claim his maytes. He was a Sachin Tendulkar bhakt till a few years ago, but now just smiles at the mention of this big cover story that rates Rahul Dravid as the Best Indian Test Cricketer of all times!! (Sachin is at No. 4, if you are wondering. And I feel so vindicated...yoo hoo!) Jaideep, a documentary maker, writer and director (he wrote and directed last year's very special 'Hulla') was one of the founding editors of the site (along with Ramki of Cartwheel Creative) and is still a major contributor for the site's topical features. These are the guys, sitting around a Satte-Pe-Satta style huge dining table, laptops perched comfortably, and smiling modestly, who run 'Holding Willey'.

Cricket writing in India, and as far as I know in other countries too, suffers from what could be called 'Radio Commentary Syndrome' - describing what happened, ball-by-ball, on the field. At its lamest, we see 'syndicated' columns by Gavaskar, Shastri and even Javagal Srinath(!) telling us which team should bat first on which ground, or playing petty blame-games post a match/series, and at its most adventurous, we have Harsha Bhogle and Ian Chappell, talking about bigger issues like ICC Politics, or the way we groom the game. But is anybody talking about the game itself? Does anyone realize the analytical potential of sports in general, the romance, nostalgia and perspective any sport deserves? Harsha Bhogle once wrote that it's a loss that so few of our sportsmen could write or express themselves, as these are the guys for whom success and failure in life/job/relations is not some abstract idea - they live and retire with these ideas. I mention this and Jaideep points me to the book review of Akash Chopra's 'Beyond the blues', on Holding Willey.

Sreeram and Jatin call their venture a work of pure 'passion', a word much in misuse now-a-days (did you see that car company calling itself 'passionate about innovation' or something!), but they mean well. See the range and quality of articles (Damith from SL writes about a 130-year school cricket rivalry, while Jonathan from WI lists all-time greatest Carribean cricketers), the collection of supporting caricatures (by Rajnikanth), and you'll know (if you know your cricket well) that much effort has gone into getting those quirks right - Dravid's sweat, Sehwag's head-scarf, and Azhar's upped-collar bring back memories of the days when these trends were still in the making. The look and feel of the site, the wooden logo, and even the site's 12th man - cricket anecdotes etc. are chosen to reward the cricket intellectual and, (un)intentionally, keep out the rediff-message-board groupies.

I suggest cricket, like Cinema and other mass-media has gone down dumbing-down gutter, and Jaideep almost jumps out of his seat to support the motion. "It's strange," he says, "since we believed that if anything could bridge the gap between the so-called masses and classes, then it had to be cricket. It's a game we all know the intricacies of, a game we all love discussing, strategizing and romancing about, and that's what became the seed of this site - a place where you get rewarded for your insights into the game, and not spoon-fed and insulted."

Sreeram and cricket go back, well, may be to his last birth. "I must've turned 8 or 9 when I realized that Cricket is optional....that you could really live and not watch or discuss or analyze it...until then I had never questioned it's religion-like existence in my family." Sreeram is also surprised by the lack of buzz surrounding HW, given the cricket-crazy country we live in.

That makes me wonder, for a fleeting moment during the conversation, whether our 'cricket crazy' tag is also a smart media-manipulation, a kind of 'good donkeys eat bad grass' sermon, turning us into whatever-suits-them-best? And now, when I (again) see the quality of HW's content, and relatively moderate traffic on the site, Jaideep's fears that 'we may love cricket but we hate analyzing it' ring half-true. Though I still think they suffer from more of a visibility rather than conversion problem, the fact remains that HW may find it hard to survive (or rise to its much-deserved stardom) if the real cricket-citizens (a term they coined!) don't turn up soon.

P.S. - Don't forget to check out the story behind the odd name of the site.