The act of watching a cricket match in the information age is incomplete without a smartphone in hand, tweeting or posting on Facebook about the game unfolding in front of you. It is incomplete without knowing what records Virat Kohli broke during yet another successful run-chase or how often Rohit Sharma hits the ball over a fence or how many dot balls Jasprit Bumrah bowls during the death overs. Even for a casual observer of the game, the statistics that keep rolling on the screen can be unmissable.
It was not always this way, of course. There used to be a time when kids had to wait for weekly sports magazines or newspapers to read the score of a cricket match. And one iconic statistician BB Mama, a legendary name in Mumbai cricket circles in the 1970s, used to delight readers with his columns in SportsWeek. The story goes that he used to send his statistical columns over post to his editors and when the weekly came out in print, young sports fans with an eye for numbers would cut them out.
One such kid who grew up inspired by BB Mama is Mohandas Menon, India’s premier cricket statistician.
“I used to be a huge fan of [BB Mama], I cut his articles out from the weekly and added more columns to it by myself and make my own information hub, you could say,” Menon told Scroll.in. “This was how I cultivated my interest but for the longest time, this was just a hobby and nothing else.”
Right place, right time
Born in 1958, Menon grew up in Bombay where his love for numbers dovetailed perfectly with the thriving cricket culture in the city. “There is no other sport that youngsters loved as much as cricket in Bombay. Thinking back, if I was growing up somewhere else I am not sure I would have had this level of interest. That along with BB Mama’s articles triggered the whole journey for me,” he said.
“I had an interest in historical figures, dates. That always stuck with me. At the back of my mind, this was always there and then the right opportunity came along in the 90s.”
Cricket broadcast in India, for the longest time, meant matches on Doordarshan. It was basic, low-grade sports production where the need for a statistician was not significant. But, starting with the impact of the 1983 World Cup followed by the rise of a certain Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar to go with the business acumen of BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya, things changed big time in Indian cricket. There was a demand from public for quality content. In 1993, change was afoot as Trans World International stepped in to produce matches. And with some help from another pioneer-in-the making, Harsha Bhogle, Menon’s life was about to change.
“Cricket was being shown with statistics on screen; not all what is now going on your screen these days but at that point it was the best standard of coverage. TWI were the first to do this and they started an office in 1994-’95 in Delhi and, thanks to them, I actually got involved professionally in cricket,” Menon said.
“Earlier it was just amateur stuff. They started doing a lot of programs like Gillette World of Sports and they involved me in these projects. I was actually recommended by Harsha, who was already there [with TWI]. That’s how it started professionally. I was working with Reliance till that point of time, from 1982 to mid-90s and from the World Cup that happened in India in 1996, I went full-time.”
It was not an easy decision for this Economics graduate to leave a secure full-time job.
“I was in my mid-30s. I was looking after admin, human resources in Reliance. I used to get a lot of calls from TWI, asking if I can do some work for them on and off. And since I was working full-time with Reliance then, it became very difficult for me to manage both and that’s the time I just took a decision. Since I was getting so much work, I thought I will take a chance and leave Reliance. I had to talk to my family, my wife and then I made the jump,” he said.
And with it, came the opportunity of a lifetime for Menon. Just as cricket broadcast entered a new era, Menon’s journey started taking him places.
“In the early 2000s, I got a contract from ESPN to tour with them for various series outside India. They used to do their own customisation for matches in England, Australia, New Zealand; they had their own programs. Again, thanks to Harsha, I was able to get through this. By then, it became a full time journey. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Once that contract came to an end in 2008, Menon has become a freelancer which opened up more new avenues as he worked with multiple broadcasters like TEN Sports, Star Sports based on where the game was happening. And with BCCI starting its own production, work kept coming Menon’s way.
Menon’s wife Valsa helps him maintaining the exhaustive database of every cricketing event from around the world, but during the broadcast he is own man.
“I prefer to work alone because my wavelength matches with my wavelength,” the 62-year-old said.
Real-time nature of broadcast
Menon understands the need to keep himself attuned with technology.
“With how television broadcast works, in terms of having a pre-show, post-show, the studio shows etc, it’s always good to have graphics that convey as much information because it is easier for the viewer to lap it up,” Menon said.
“The beauty of statistics is that what you want to say in five minutes, you can just put up a graphic for about 10 seconds, that conveys the point better. It registers in your head far more easier than somebody talking to you and you forget how the conversation even started.”
And the key to being good at what at he does, like it is for the greatest cricketers, is the ability to think on his feet and anticipate what’s coming at him during the breakneck pace of a broadcast.
“That’s the thing people usually don’t understand [about my work],” he said. “It is real-time. There are times when we do get a hint of what to prepare for in advance. Over a period of time, the databases we have, are attuned to the kind of real-time work we do. Within a matter of a minute, we can come up with. But when I started, if someone asked for a stat in the morning, you will get your answer back in the evening! Now, it’s totally instantaneous.”
“I have been able to adapt to this because I can generally anticipate the kind of queries I will get from a commentator. Every commentator has their own way of putting up a query. I have worked with most of them and I know what to expect. It is very much about anticipation. And when they start a particular topic, I know where it’s going to lead.”
“For example if Sunny bhai is talking about a particular match; the moment he starts the topic, I know exactly which match he is talking about and I keep that scorecard ready; so that any additional information he needs I immediately pass it on,” Menon added.
It is not just the broadcast work that keeps him busy. Selectors are in regular touch with him when time comes to select teams, to help them with domestic cricket statistics. When BCCI had announced pension schemes, he helped former domestic players obtain their overall career figures as many of them did not know how they fared. In fact, this downtime without live cricket is so rare for him that he is excited about finally fine-tuning his databases; something he had been wanting to do for a while.
And how does he keep going after all these years?
“Cricket is played round the year now. Earlier we had a concept of a season, there is nothing like that today. So, work is plenty. BCCI now produces domestic games too for which I have a full database - Ranji, Duleep, Irani - all the scores. Even now, before the South Africa series started I was doing the knockout games in Ranji Trophy for Star Sports.”
Indeed, the world of cricket statistics these days is no longer an unknown entity. Plenty of youngsters take up the profession, knowing that there is a demand for constantly producing statistics to keep the fans engaged. It wasn’t always the case, however, as Menon recalled making his leap of faith.
“I could say as a statistician in India I was the first one to do it at that point of time; the first one to take this risk,” he said. And it is a risk that has paid off for a man who has become synonymous with cricket statistics in India.