Dicky Runtagur: The grand old man of sports writing

Dicky Rutnagur had seen it all, in a career that witnessed the ups and downs of Indian and world cricket across six decades, during which he had covered more than 300 Test matches.

Dicky Rutnagur, one of the most respected sports journalists, passed away in London on June 20. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the Grand Old Man of Indian cricket journalism.
“I would say Sachin [Tendulkar] is India’s greatest ever batsman but if I had to pick a batsman to play for my life, between the two I would pick [Sunil] Gavaskar and, all time, if I had to pick an Indian batsman to play for my life I would pick Vijay Merchant.”

Dicky Rutnagur had seen them all, in a career that witnessed the ups and downs of Indian and world cricket across six decades during which he had covered more than 300 Test matches. And his unbiased astuteness remains underlined by the above observation.

Cricket journalism, right from the days of Neville Cardus, has been guilty of colourful splashes of nostalgia. Through the loving lens of retrospection, the past appears rosiest. Those were, after all, the days when the fingers tapping the keys of the typewriter were full of youthful spark, the mind was impressionable enough to soak up the heady flavour of the times, and the era had the stamp of the chronicler’s own generation.

Hence, it is not uncommon for the greatest of sports commentators and writers to reflect about the cricketers of the good old days, with misty-eyed observations: “They were superior players.”

It takes a mind unhinged from the fetters of time to remain fresh enough for impressions of the past and present to mingle together, resulting in adroit analysis of attributes.

Rutnagur, who passed away in London on Thursday night, was a rare exception. He could weigh in with his immense experience without the sands of time rolling through the tilted view and loading it in favour of the past. Nor did the intervening years fog his distant memories and hence showcase only the virtues of the present. Such balance is rare. And till the end of his days at the age of 82, Rutnagur never tottered in this respect.

Rutnagur, who was suffering from cancer, was known for the riches of cricketing anecdotes, lavishly shared, made wholesome with heavy dollops of humour and rendered irresistibly pungent by the generous sprinklings of ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ — often used as  terms of brotherly endearment.

In the mid-1960s, he departed for the fertile fields of English cricket writing — perhaps more suited to his style of lean, sparse, true to life reportage without bells, whistles and embellishment. He churned out columns for The Daily Telegraph for four decades. But, often enough he could be spotted in Bombay, later Mumbai, with old cricketing buddies like Madhav Apte, Nari Contractor or Bapu Nadkarni, regaling one and all with tales of near and far cricket fields, all the while smoking away like a chimney and cracking delightful jokes.

Rutnagur’s first foray into sports journalism was during his days as a student of St Xaviers College, when his talents were discovered by the legendary Ron Hendricks, the Sports Editor of Bharat. Before his London days, he edited the Indian Cricket-Field Annual with Pearson Surita and Anandji Dossa. He also wrote for Hindustan Times, The Mail, The Hindu and Sport and Pastime.

He wrote and reported profusely, his wise voice rang out from the commentary box, and forever  remained a prankster and practical joker among his colleagues. Over the years, Rutnagur’s experiences became vast and remarkable. In the summer of 1968, Garry Sobers clobbered Malcolm Nash for six sixes in an over at Swansea. In early 1985, Ravi Shastri repeated the feat at the Wankhede Stadium, dispatching Tilak Raj six times over the ropes. Dicky Rutnagur was the only man who was present at both the grounds, witnessing the two landmark occasions.

Apart from cricket, Rutnagur wrote extensively on squash as well. He authored two books: Test Commentary (India v England 1976-77) and Khans Unlimited [History of squash in Pakistan]. He was also a certified table-tennis umpire.

His son Richard Rutnagur was an Oxford Blue and represented his University in 17 First-Class matches as a medium-pacer and a useful lower-order batsman.

Although a prolific writer on Test matches, Rutnagur remained an incurable romantic about domestic cricket, be it in India or the county games of England. Seldom was he happier than when watching low key county games in the English grounds. However, he did have strong views about the decline of the standard in First-Class cricket in India. As he put it in his colourful words: “You know you need a strong base of domestic cricket and we had it in India and they destroyed it, the bloody idiots.”

Rutnagur was awarded the Life Time achievement award by the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA) in 2010.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)