(The writer is a former colleague of Sidhanta Patnaik)
I went to sleep in a world where Sidhanta Patnaik was still around and woke up on June 1 to find it was a poorer place because he had gone.
To people who knew him through his work, Sidhanta was a dedicated, passionate and almost bordering on the obsessive, student of the game. I say ‘the game’ but to Sidhanta, it was ‘The’ game. He was a one-sport man. Whether Roger Federer waltzed on court, or Liverpool chased a dream, or there was the slightly less elevated pursuit of smelling what the Rock was cooking – Sidhanta was immune. He belonged wholly to cricket, and through his life’s work, he ensured that cricket will be beholden to him. He was only a chronicler of the game, not among those who play it, and yet so many felt such a connect to one man through one sport — in many cases, despite knowing him for a relatively short time.
Sidhanta not only championed the underdogs, he went out and told their stories. No trek was too arduous, no time too inconvenient, no transcript too boring. If you’ve been a journalist, it’s likely that you have at some point put off chasing a story if it involves too much legwork. Sidhanta, already having battled cancer once and sometimes unable to speak without an artificial aid, wouldn’t. It wasn’t because he didn’t have a “life” outside of work— it was because cricket was never a “job” for him.
His work has appeared in the Wisden India Almanack, the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the erstwhile Wisden India website, CricketNext, FirstPost, and the Economic Times among other places. His book, The Fire Burns Blue, co-authored with Karunya Keshav, is a landmark tome. But Sidhanta was much more than just his byline. For the Wisden India Almanack, he was heartbeat and engine room.
Women cricketers have spoken of how his presence at the ground and press conferences, where he was often the lone reporter, made a difference— sometimes just because they could see a warm, familiar face. More than one player said how he took his time to do “proper research” and knew the finer details of the players he was writing about. Often he was the only writer who knew these details. “He came across as someone who wasn’t just at the venue to have a match report going up,” one player said. “He would bother to create a personal rapport with the player.” He was also not afraid to criticise where he needed to, but as several women cricketers noted, he had the gift of constructive criticism that never got personal. “It was necessary to grow the game,” as one player put it.
Cricket journalism can turn you from fanboy to cynic quicker than the DRS clock counts down. It never did that to Sidhanta. He infected his colleagues with the joy that makes most people opt for a career in cricket journalism in the first place. There was a meticulousness to his passion that was astounding. He didn’t just follow, he remembered, he analysed, he contextualised knowledge. He could see a Kagiso Rabada at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup and recognise a special talent that deserved greater focus. Then when Rabada denied MS Dhoni a last-over win, Sidhanta was there to tell the story of the boy who grew up loving rock & roll music.
Once he was interested in a player, every cricketing fact about that player would be sought out and stored. And when that player made it big, you would have Sidhanta banging out a profile that told us who the player was, what the key landmarks in his career were, what made him special, what his school coach had to say about him. Sometimes even what the boy’s distant uncle had heard from a great of the game who happened to be passing by the said boy’s solitary nets session. All done while most in the cricket-writing world were still googling furiously. These pieces might have been written in a couple of hours, but they were built on years of tracking the levels of the game no one else did.
Sidhanta was among the co-founders and the editor-in-chief of Women’s CricZone, a website that exclusively covers women’s cricket. During the floods that ravaged the state of Kerala in August 2018, he drove efforts to raise funds through the website for Sajana S and Minnu Mani, two women cricketers whose homes had been destroyed by the floods.
To people who knew him outside of work, he was a loyal friend, a grounded and reassuring voice to turn to, and a man whose home and heart had a permanent “welcome” mat. For the past several months, Sidhanta had been battling cancer. It ate away at his insides, but it couldn’t make a dent in his spirit. The nature— the curse— of the disease when it strikes hard is that your existence turns into a daily endurance of pain. He seemed impervious. So much that it’s still a struggle to write of him in the past tense. Reason tells you that he’s at peace now, he’s better off than having to live out life as a prop on a bed. Reason be damned.
To say he bore the pain stoically would be inaccurate, because on meeting him during most of the illness, you felt you had to ask him to slow down. He would pull out a sneer that was at once damning (had you just dared ask him to slow down?) and heartening (he still had more energy than most healthy folk).
He found pure joy in the simple act of bat meeting ball which is why he discovered, much more readily than most, the fascination of domestic and age-group cricket. His writing on women’s cricket is immortalised forever thanks to the book he co-authored with Karunya, the only history of women’s cricket in India and the genre is fortunate to have had such dedicated persons chronicling it. The Fire Burns Blue is regarded as the reference point for women’s cricket in the country, and women cricketers will tell you what Sidhanta’s championing of their sport meant. He faced derision aplenty for tracking the women’s game. It had all the effect a butterfly would have on a charging bull.
But when he was convinced about something, he would be all in. It occasionally meant hours of bull-headed arguments too. I never did manage to convince him of AB de Villiers’ transcendental genius, or of the fact that perhaps not every cricketing story had the quality of great romance in it. I’m glad he managed to convince me to pay greater attention to women’s cricket.
One thing remained through any argument or discussion. He honoured love for the game wherever he found it. On the day he left us, the 2019 World Cup had it’s first double-header. It meant that we, his cricketing family, had tightly wedged in schedules that offered zero leeway. “I’ll have to go and do ball by ball commentary today,” I told Suresh Menon. “There’s nobody to exchange an off-day with.”
Suresh turned to me. “He would have understood,” he said. And he would have.
The cricket world will miss its foremost student of the game. I will just miss my friend. Who taught me to see beyond international cricket and the IPL. Who showed me how to remain positive in the most dire circumstances. We argued about the existence of God once. I told him, with some vehemence, ‘How can you believe in a benevolent God when he has given you this cancer?’ He told me, smile in place, that the original disease – in 2010 – had shaped how his career panned out. That he might not have met me because he might not have got into cricket journalism.
He offered support and love unconditionally to friends. He had an inbuilt knack of understanding people. He could make me smile through tears. He was the one person I didn’t have to seek validation from about my writing, or even an opinion. Because before I would tell him I’d written something he would have read it.
But it’s not just me who has lost a friend. Cricket has.