By Azhikkakath Joseph Antony
Team work strings success together, especially in sports. Now and then there comes a larger than life captain, on whose singular strength an entire squad surges ahead. One such titan, now departed for the Elysian Fields, was The Hindu’s late Sports Editor, Srinivasaraghavan Krishnan, known popularly as ‘Kichan.’
Invited to assume the mantle of sports editor of one of India’s oldest dailies, he was initially reluctant. Gone were the days when he could ‘horse around’ and his serious nature surfaced. For, he had been entrusted with a huge responsibility and sure enough, he rose to the task.
“Kichan was a forward-looking boss,” recalled R. Mohan. “To keep the morale of his reporting team high, he ensured each correspondent went abroad at least once a year to cover one of the ‘lesser’ sports such as volleyball or basketball. Writers on cricket, tennis and hockey did so quite often.
“He commanded the loyalty of his team, firmly yet tactfully tackling their egos and temperaments. A buffer between management and the sports editorial, he backed his men to the hilt. A wonderful host, he’d invariably pick up the tab when we’d go out for drinks every week or fortnight,” the doyen of cricket reporting remembered.
When Mohan finished covering 250 Test matches in his globetrotting career, he was pleasantly surprised to see the milestone prominently displayed in a box item on the sports pages the very next day.
So was the Rotary Club’s felicitation of Mohan for Vocational Excellence highlighted with a photograph and an accompanying report. Both revealed Kichan took pride in his team-member’s achievements. Incidentally, the two had watched India’s heartbreaking defeat off a last-ball six at Sharjah.
Kichan’s day at the newspaper’s Mount Road headquarters began by bowing in homage to an image of S. Parthasarathy. A former Editor of the now 142-year-old publication, known for his sterling qualities and like many good people before and after him, Parthasarathy had died young.
If the nephew was eager to emulate his uncle, he may have even exceeded the elder, leaving doubts if Kichan was a prince in his previous birth ! With a stern exterior for a front, his gruff voice insisted that beneficiaries be silent on his many acts of kindness.
His generosity was a reminder of Mother Teresa’s line, “Give, but give till it hurts.” So much so that in later years, close relatives fought with him to curb his largesse, fearing he’d go bankrupt !
Every Diwali, he’d gift his section attenders a shirt-trouser set and foot the stitching costs too. In addition he’d fork out Rs. 500 or 1000 to each of them every month from his own pocket. Through his good offices, some even had their relatives recruited to various affiliates of the publishing house.
His man Friday once lost Rs. 50,000 after he cashed Kichan’s cheque at a bank. He made up the shortfall by borrowing it and handed over the full amount to his boss. By the evening, word had spread of the missing money.
When the Sports Editor got wind of it, he gave his ‘personal assistant (PA)’ an equivalent amount the very next morning and insisted he return the borrowed money. “Money lost is lost,” Kichan declared nonchalantly, brushing aside his personal loss.
When this youngster began construction of his house, the Sports Editor gave him a Rs. 50,000 advance with which a borewell was dug and work began. Without a care for position or hierarchy, the department head would place his hand on his shoulder and would point to a chair, when the subordinate stood diffidently, some distance away. Off-duty, boss and ‘PA’ would often visit a Mylapore temple to feed the poor.
While Kichan was not free of flaws, with an odd favourite or two, he was by and large fair. Coverage of sports seen as small or insignificant such as carrom or kho-kho made that evident. Every sport’s National-level tournament had a reporter and photographer from his team covering it.
Meticulous planning ensured reportage, especially of widely followed sports, was from start to finish, even if an event ran for a week, fortnight, month or even longer. If a reporter failed to file a day’s dispatch or the desk inadvertently missed its publication, the fireworks were bound to follow.
The results of a match or tournament were sacrosanct and had to be carried in full. This often resulted in even children buying the newspaper, simply to see their name in it, regardless of whether they had won or lost !
Critics complained about huge column space being set aside for horse racing. Not many knew that according to independent market surveys, the equestrian sport stood second only to cricket in terms of followers.Wisdom of such extensive coverage was borne out by the consequences of just one attempt to undermine it.
In later years, it was decided to stop ‘track notes,’ a move he would have strongly resisted. An essential ingredient of racing coverage, it contained timings clocked by horses in early morning training, which punters depended on heavily. Circulation of the paper dropped by 2000 copies a day in Malakpet area alone, where the Hyderabad Race Club is located!
To add muscle to in-depth analysis, he enlisted Prakash Padukone to cover badminton, Michael Ferreira for billiards, Bobby Sinha for bridge and Manuel Aaron for chess, among others. Sunil Gavaskar’s weekly piece in the Saturday Sports Special had a wide following too. So was material sourced from international experts in tennis, cricket and other sports.
If sports pages sprang to life through high-quality images, Kichan wouldn’t hesitate to pay huge prices for razor sharp photographs from the likes of Patrick Eagar or Adrian Murrell. Nor was he averse to picking up articles from leading feature agencies such as Compass or the New York Times Service.
International standard articles were perhaps a challenge to The Hindu’s own correspondents for whom bylines were gold dust. A reporter had to win his spurs through original stories, which were genuinely exclusive or written well. Not surprisingly, it took him or her quite a while to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing his or her name in print above an article.
With Kichan in the saddle, Sportstar was revamped by The Hindu group. Its centre-spread posters soon became a hit not just with sports lovers, but even leading cricketers of the day. When it was re-launched in different avatars, almost every city saw the presence of sports greats at the functions.
Under his stewardship, the glossy, all-colour, only-sports magazine, one of its kind in the world, touched dizzying heights. It left Australian spin legend Shane Warne wondering if it was published from India!
Generally a no-nonsense person, his man-management was a lesson for many. He never got personal when he pulled someone up. The strongest condemnation in 12 years that this correspondent got for bungling was, “What kind of a reporter are you?” Most importantly, in minutes after the rap, the foul-up was forgiven and forgotten.
At a time when the press workers union, affiliated to the state’s ruling party, breathed fire, he came down on the unionists like a ton of bricks when they tried to browbeat his sub-editors. So was he courageous to stand by published reports, even with litigation likely.
Quite capable of seeing through the strong-arm tactics often used by sports officialdom to get aggrieved sportsmen to retract their allegations, in Kichan’s eyes a rebuttal was not just admittance of guilt but a lack of confidence in his man on the field. He never dropped names of the several cricket celebrities he knew personally.
A man of few words, his instructions were curt, his conversations short. He was however a man of his word, delivering on what he said he would. While reporters and the desk were free to call him anytime of the day or night, he took particular care never to call anyone beyond 9 P.M. or before 9 A.M..
When his innings at the helm ended in 2003, he showed much grace in parting, individually calling those he cared for, to bid farewell. His passing on May 4, 2019 left the world poorer of not just a spotlight-shunning stalwart but also a strict yet magnanimous patriarch, for whom the well-being of his flock was paramount.