Suresh Saraiya, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday, was indeed the voice of cricket for millions of Indians who followed his inimitable style of commentary on All India Radio (AIR) for well over four decades. It is hard to believe that the man, who painted a vivid picture of India’s historic Test victories in the minds of radio listeners; be it from Auckland, Trinidad, London or his beloved Mumbai, is no more. India’s sports broadcasting fraternity has lost one of its pillars through the passing away of Suresh Saraiya (76). It will be a void hard to fill. In his unfortunate demise, a legacy has come to an end; one that began with his Test match commentary debut at the Brabourne Stadium in 1969 when India took on the Bill Lawry- led Australian team.
It seems only yesterday; in fact, a few days after he celebrated his 76th birthday on June 20 June that one had an opportunity to interact with him during the AGM of the Sports Journalists Association of Mumbai (SJAM). He looked hale and hearty then, although feeling slightly lonely. This loneliness is something that had haunted him ever since he lost his beloved wife, Meera (a fine AIR announcer herself) some years back. During this difficult period too, cricket commentary was Saraiya’s soothing balm.
Dilip Vengsarkar greets Suresh Saraiya on his 75th birthday at the Cricket Center on June 21, 2011. Photograph: Rajesh Waradkar
As fellow cricket commentators, the likes of yours truly, Dr Milind Tipnis and Vinit Garg, all many years junior to Sureshbhai (as he was affectionately called), looked up to him for inspiration and guidance. He was always there for us, be it with a word of advice here or a suggestion there. Suffice to say, time spent in his company was worth its weight in gold. For me personally, it was a dream come true when I got an opportunity to share the microphone with him for the first time during the India – England Test Match at Mohali in December, 2008. Imagine sitting alongside someone whom you idolised while growing up, listening to whose commentary you fell in love with the game. I had to pinch myself to believe that it was indeed happening. For sure, I was nervous but, he put me at ease. Doing commentary with him was always a learning experience. At the same time, it was a lot of fun for he had a unique sense of humour and plenty of anecdotes to relate. One also had the privilege of doing commentary along with him during the last Test match that he covered - the India vs West Indies Test at the renovated Wankhede Stadium last year; a match which ended in an exciting draw.
One remembers handing over the microphone to him with Sachin Tendulkar on the verge of achieving his century of centuries. All of us in the commentary box felt that the honour of describing the historic moment should be his. Alas, that was not destined to happen. Tendulkar fell six short of the magical mark and there was hushed silence at the Wankhede Stadium. Overcome by emotion, Sureshbhai, too was speechless for a few seconds before he pulled himself up and described what happened to the listeners.
Saraiya’s passion for the game was unmatched. As celebrated commentator, Harsha Bhogle said on Twitter, “I worked with so many commentators – few with this desire and preparation.” For a man who had done commentary of over a 100 Test matches and a few more limited overs internationals including four World Cups, his child-like enthusiasm on the eve of a match had to be seen to be believed. He would go to the ground, observe the conditions, speak to the curator, jot down all related information and match statistics in the big log book he used to carry. In short, he ensured that he was fully prepared much before the first ball was delivered. Saraiya was also very innovative as far as his commentary style was concerned. His English may not have been the most stylish, but he endeared himself to his listeners by constantly introducing new words and phrases. Arguably, he was the first amongst commentators from India, if not the world, to coin the term “delivery”. Also, while most commentators use the term, “from the edge of the crease,” he always referred to it as “from the corner of the crease.” Another aspect of Mr Saraiya’s personality was that he was always immaculately attired and had a huge collection of neck ties, an aspect that did rub off on quite a few of us in the commentary box.
During his University days, Saraiya played cricket for Wilson College and used to open the batting with Dilip Sardesai but cricket commentary was his calling and he pursued it with religious fervour. His mentor in the commentary box in many ways was the late Vijay Merchant with whom he shared the microphone on several occasions in the 1960s and early 1970s. His oratory skills took him places, to Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies apart from all major cricket centres in India. He had the distinction of being the first Indian commentator to do a live radio broadcast on Radio New Zealand when the Bishen Bedi-led Indian team played a series in that country in 1976. Legend has it that he had to pawn his wife’s ornaments to undertake that maiden trip to New Zealand. Saraiya was also there alongwith fellow Hindi commentator Ravi Chaturvedi to describe India’s historic six-wicket victory while chasing a then record target of 403 in the fourth innings of the third Test against West Indies at Port of Spain, Trinidad, that very year, followed by the final Test of the series that was to become infamous as ‘the bloodbath’ at Sabina Park, Kingston. Memories of the man are many. Sunil Gavaskar, for instance, will always remember Saraiya for giving him the first glimpse of his newly born son, Rohan, when he carried an album from India to the West Indies in 1976.
Even though Saraiya did a few commentary assignments for television, he essentially remained a radio man till the very end. It is ironic that his end came on a day when another Indian icon, the original superstar from Bollywood, Rajesh Khanna, passed away. RIP.
— The writer is an All India Radio and Doordarshan sports commentator