Sports star

A tribute to Nirmal Shekar (1956-2017), former sports editor of The Hindu.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

Nirmal Shekar.

Nirmal Shekar.

“VIJAY, can you do a piece on Sachin [Tendulkar] for tomorrow’s edition? Crisp as always. Will block space and ensure good display.” His instructions on phone would be clear. Just like his writing.

Nirmal Shekar, as he always claimed with pride, was a “pro”. And the pro from Chennai was giving me a good 10 hours to work on my story and deliver. He would respond with a “good stuff” message if he liked the story. Those two words meant a lot to most of us in The Hindu ’s sports department. It was not easy to please the pro.

He was not the conventional sports scribe. Not at all. He did not support press-release journalism. Neither did he appreciate the run-of-the-mill so-and-so beat, so–and-so stuff. He did not believe in staid match reports. “Where is the colour, the ambience, the excitement? Your passion for the game must reflect in your report,” he would say. He would forget that not everyone could present a story like he could.

Nirmal was a writer. Not a reporter. “I don’t like press conferences,” he told me during our first meeting in 1987. “Press conferences do not give you room for creativity,” was his argument. Creative writing. That was his forte. It mirrored in his teaching.

Priyansh R., my colleague in the Delhi office, was one of Nirmal’s favourite students. The bright young man shared his views on his former teacher.

“When I recall my time at the Asian College of Journalism, Nirmal Shekar’s sports writing module stands out in memory. It was not just about the pleasure of being in the company of a widely appreciated writer but also about his genial presence, which put you at ease the moment he entered the room. Each lecture could have taken place anywhere—in a cafe, a park or a stadium. He appreciated the fact that his students dearly loved sport and he would throw questions at us like any other sports fan. Never would he speak from a pedestal. There were countless moments when he deferred to the judgement of a younger mind. It was his gift for encouraging others to speak their mind that makes me fondly remember the time we had together at the Asian College of Journalism. I am glad my association with him did not end there,” said Priyansh of his 60-year-old teacher.

The cricket author Gulu Ezekiel, his long-time friend now based in Delhi, was distraught at losing a “wonderful” human being. He said: “On my very first day on the job (Bertram tournament, Loyola college, Madras, August 19, 1982) with Indian Express , I was a total rookie and had no clue how to go about the job. Nirmal Shekar was a year senior to me in the profession and was with The Hindu . He stepped forward and guided me through the week-long event, giving me tips, support and encouragement. Even after 35 years the memory is so fresh it seems just like yesterday. Such generosity of spirit is very rare in our dog-eat-dog world. We covered many events together during my stint in Madras (1982-91), particularly the local football league, a sport he specialised in before concentrating on tennis. And whenever Nirmal went to Wimbledon and the Australian Open from the mid 1980s he would very kindly carry packages to and from the many penfriends I maintained around the cricket world during the pre-Internet days. Golden memories.”

Nirmal’s coverage of Nehru Cup football earned him lavish praise from the sports scribes’ fraternity. His reports left the reader in a trance, craving for more. Mind you, those were days when we enjoyed the freedom to write 1,200 words as a match report. He would have made you enjoy even a wrestling contest if he were to cover one.

‘In sport as in life’ As the cricketer W.V. Raman so beautifully wrote in Sportstar : “David Frost, the versatile British media personality, made the words ‘Hello, good evening and welcome’ his signature while hosting his shows on television. Similarly, the late Nirmal Shekar made the phrase ‘in sport as in life’ his signature. It was not that he was limited in his vocabulary. Instead, he brought in various elements to add colour to every sporting event he covered. You have to acknowledge that adding colour to Grand Slam tennis events in the print medium takes special talent.”

When Nirmal took over as the head of the department in 2004, he made it known that he preferred analytical reporting. “Don’t editorialise,” he insisted, but went out of his way to give the reporter the freedom to express his opinion too. “Avoid mundane style of reporting,” was his only demand from reporters. He firmly believed that if you loved the sport you would present it to the reader in a delightful form. Like he did.

His dispatches from Wimbledon were eagerly followed—he covered 28 editions of the Grand Slam event in London. The tennis star Leander Paes wrote in Sportstar : “Nirmal supported me right through my budding career. He was there at the Australian Open when I was runner-up in the juniors. He was there in Chandigarh when I made my Davis Cup debut. He was in Wimbledon when I won the junior title.”

Nirmal loved heroes and was eloquent in his writings on the legends of the game. Boxing was his favourite even though he wrote extensively on tennis. His column in The Hindu had a huge following. He would ask some of us to contribute quotes for the column. He mentioned me in what became his farewell column. It was a privilege indeed.

Of late, Nirmal had lost much interest in sport. “Too commercial and lacking in fervour and class,” he said of sport in general, and especially of cricket. For him, the best cricket was played in the 1960s and 1970s and the West Indies team of Clive Lloyd was his all-time favourite.

The news of his passing away (on February 1) was shocking and heart-breaking. We had met in Chennai last September, and he looked a tad tired as we (my Mumbai colleague G. Viswanath and I) recalled the good old times over a cup of coffee. “Very few pros left,” he had said as he parted with a warm handshake. He was the top pro no doubt. Will miss you my friend. RIP.

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