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  • The Edict

On Cricket, Ashoka and More: An Interview with S.K. Ritadhi

By Samhith Shankar and Aditya Padinjat


Imagine the average Tuesday evening at Ashoka. The 4:40 class has just got over, those who have class soon are steeling themselves for the next 90 minutes, and the campus is slowly ticking over from the academic to the social. If you were to stroll from Library Café towards the Dhaba during this time, you might hear the crisp, satisfying sound of hard leather knocking on willow, pads being worn and taken off, and cries of “shot!” and “bowled!”. The cricket team is practising. But the cricket team is often joined by another person– a person who has now become a sort of de-facto member of the team as well– Professor S.K. Ritadhi. In the build-up to Ashoka Cricket Super Sixes (which Professor Ritadhi will be playing in), we sat down with him to discuss his love story with cricket, his experiences with cricket at Ashoka, and much more.


We met Professor Ritadhi on a (relatively) cool Friday night outside Dosai. Having arrived slightly ahead of time, we wandered over to the slopes overlooking the nets, hoping to perhaps catch a glimpse of Professor Ritadhi practising with his ACSS team. As it so happened, he wasn’t with the team that day, but he briskly strode over to us and began chatting. We started in familiar places, asking him where his love for cricket came from. 


We were impressed from the very beginning with Professor Ritadhi’s razor-sharp recollection of his first encounters with the gentleman’s game– much better than either of us could recall. “The first time I played with a tennis ball I was six. Four years later I took up the leather ball, and never looked back! I remember almost every single match that I have played. In 1998, at eleven years old, I played an intra-club match for the first time.”


“[The] first match I remember watching on television was at the 1992 World Cup; Ajay Jadeja took a perfect tumbling catch against Australia.” We shared a knowing look because some of our earliest memories of watching cricket are also from our first World Cup.


“In ‘93, I remember watching Mohammad Azharuddin’s 182* against England at Eden Gardens. Azhar had his love story with Eden Gardens and Calcutta, and we had our love story with Azhar!”


“Cricket is a huge family thing. When my father finished at JNU, his farewell was a cricket match! Though he stuck to tennis-ball cricket for most of his life. My first cousin was a proper cricketer, he’s played in the first division leagues and he was a part of his University team as well. The most interesting figure is my maternal uncle. He used to play in the mohalla matches, with a tennis ball that’s called khep by the locals, and get paid for that. In my maternal grandmother's house, most of the clocks are prizes that he won from cricket matches!”


We were curious about cricket culture in 90s Calcutta, where Professor was growing up, and his journey to becoming a cricket fanatic. Speaking about watching cricket as a child, he says, “Our generation grew up without the IPL, and cricket in general wasn’t televised nearly as much. The season was also far more spread out, so whenever there was a match it was very relevant—all eyes were glued to the screen.”


“The culture within the club was strict, and that’s when the rigour came around, with consistent, arduous practice. I quickly learnt that club-level leather-ball cricket was a completely different game from the tennis ball cricket that I had played until then. At the beginning, I had this habit of hitting the ball in the air, and the club coaches told me I should go back to playing on the streets if that’s how I wanted to hit! Another thing is that you not only have to bat and bowl but also field, so you have to take much better care of your body and learn a whole new skill set. All these factors helped me inculcate discipline into my game.”


As ardent ISL watchers, we couldn’t resist but ask about the football-versus-cricket debate in Kolkata. “Football culture is more watching-centric, and people who watch a lot of football never end up playing it! The quality of cricket in India has been fairly high but once the cable networks came in people realised the gap between Indian football and football abroad, and the craze died down a bit. Especially in my circles, cricket was by far the sport of choice, at least when it comes to playing.”


We knew that Professor Ritadhi was a major proponent of test cricket and not so much a fan of the shorter formats. We had a feeling he might have an angry “The game’s gone!” argument to make, but we were completely wrong! Professor ended up educating us about the differences between playing with the white and red balls—insights we could never gain by just watching the game.


“I’ve actually played most of my white-ball cricket at Ashoka. The ball is much harder, swings a bit more initially, but also stops swinging quite soon. The biggest difference comes for the fielders because the hard white ball hurts your hand quite a bit. If you’re playing white-ball cricket you need to focus on your finger positioning to avoid injuries.”


“If you’re a bowler, you’ll always prefer playing with the red ball because it continues swinging later into the match. The shift to white-ball cricket has majorly hurt bowlers' control over the game and has given batsmen a disproportionate amount of leverage. I’ve really lost interest in white ball cricket over the years– I barely watch it now because it's become a batsman's game.”


“When we were young, there was no T20 but people said similar stuff about One-Day cricket. Players who only played only One Day were not taken seriously. In the India-Australia 2001 series– you’d remember it for VVS Laxman’s 281– India won the Test series and then we were battered in the One-Day series, but nobody cared too much about that loss. We were still celebrating the Test series, that was way more important. Just as people say, “You can't be a hero only playing T20” in the current day, they used to say “You can’t be a hero playing only white-ball cricket” back in the 90s.”


To add a little bit of controversy to our chat, we asked Professor about his opinions on ‘Mankading’ and ended up having an unplanned conversation about the spirit of the game.


“It’s a fine line, especially when it comes to warning. I would personally warn the batsman before Mankading, but I wouldn’t mind being Mankaded without warning. There’s a Shane Warne quote in his autobiography, from when he was player-coach for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL’s first season. Talking about the fair play award, he said, “I don’t care if we finish last in the fair play standings, all I care about is the league table!””


“Mankading is just denying the batsman from taking an unfair advantage, and no one should criticise that—especially in the name of ‘spirit of the game’. If something is against the spirit of the game, there’s probably a law which restricts it– such as bowling beamers. I don’t really understand players and pundits and fans talking about things like spirit.”


Having lingered on cricket and life for long enough, the conversation then turned to what we had intended to discuss– Professor Ritadhi’s experiences of cricket at Ashoka. Even though he began his term at Ashoka during the era of online classes, his love for the game was evident as he regularly asked about the culture of cricket at Ashoka and whether people played on campus. Then campus opened up and the game quickly entered his world again, even in this small corner of Sonipat. Having newly arrived on campus, Professor Ritadhi put out a call for in-person Office Hours at Fuel Zone. The sheet was filled up in mere minutes. Ten minutes later, another email dropped into his inbox. It was a student in his class, inviting him to come practice with the team. Since going for that first practice session, Professor Ritadhi has not looked back and regularly practices with the team till date. “The team is really good,” he says, “We have one fast bowler, Amit (a PhD student), and I haven’t played a better fast bowler than him. His accuracy, the movement that he gets, his rhythm– it’s amazing. It’s a lot of fun playing with Nishant as well, it’s great to watch him bat, and it’s been great to see him transition from a fast bowler to a spinner as well.”

 

Professor Ritadhi’s love of cricket, however, is not just one of simple merriment– it is also of improvement. He tells us stories of his duels with Professor Amin, who bowled but didn’t bat. Professor Ritadhi encouraged him to bat, and soon a tough session ensued where Professor Ritadhi tried to break Professor Amin’s defence. “For me, cricket is a challenge between the batter and the bowler. The main thing is the challenge,” he says. “There’s no fun if you’re bowling and the batter is missing every ball, or the bowler is bowling and you can hit every ball for six. I would always like that challenge. That’s what makes it so fun.”  He also reflects on the campus’ culture of sports. “One thing I really like about Ashoka is the sports scene, not just cricket. It’s a very small campus but on most days, you’d not find the common sports areas from 6-9 in the evening empty. I really like that vibrant culture, and I wish it stays that way.”

 

Eventually, the conversation moved over to what will be taking up much of his time this weekend– the upcoming edition of Ashoka Cricket Super Sixes where he will be turning out for Yograj Cricket Academy. While admitting to not being a huge fan of tennis ball cricket, he is excited for the tournament. “You should play it to just enjoy it,” he says, “Forget about winning and losing. There is a charm which even the team doesn’t get from playing in front of a large audience.” He extends this even to the commentators of the last year, who loudly calculated that the “average age of the field has gone up” as he strode out to bat. 


The charm of ACSS is not just in the sport. “What I really cherish about ACSS is that it helped me meet a lot of people outside of economics,” he notes. He fondly remembers his team in 2022, Mylapore– whose roster included Sandeep Bhaiya, the owner of Fuel Zone, and Meher, an alumnus who returned and spoke in his Finance and the Economy class. Meher, who is from Kashmir, also introduced him to many Kashmiri students on campus. “The biggest takeaway from ACSS, more than the cricket, is the interactions I got to have with people beyond the immediate social circle I had– that was very special for me.” Professor Ritadhi will be looking to turn his runner-up medal from 2022 into a winning one this year.

 

Through practising with the team, Professor Ritadhi is in a unique position as a professor who has spent significant amounts of time interacting with students outside of the classroom. When asked what this has taught him about his students, he ponders over the question for a bit and tells us, “It’s a bit challenging, in a way, to keep those two separate– that has its own challenges. In a way, the cricket team is also reflective of the median Ashoka student, which is something I’ve realized over time. People are very enthusiastic on day one of the class, but that enthusiasm wanes very quickly. The top 30% of Ashoka students are great, but you do see things falling off. Last semester, for example, very few played after Diwali, which is something you see very much in the classroom as well.”

 

Perhaps the most striking feature of talking to Professor Ritadhi was the way he punctuated the discussion about life with cricket, drawing on it for learnings and lessons. As our conversation winded to a close, he provided us with an adage from an old coach in Calcutta, “It doesn’t matter how you start your career, it matters how you end it.” He then launched into the story of Sunil Gavaskar’s final innings in Test cricket– 96 in a narrow defeat on a minefield in Bangalore. He isn’t recollecting the tragedies of cricket– he is, in fact, providing us with some apposite advice. The anecdote proves to be a truly Gavaskar-esque way of ending our conversation– simple and well-executed, and sharing the credit around. “There’s a core group of 6-7 people, they’re great,” he says. “Very frankly, I basically don’t leave campus, and had it not been for cricket I don’t think I would have been able to sustain myself. I’m very grateful to Ashoka to actually have the facilities, they’ve actually been really supportive in terms of equipment, I’m very grateful to the team for letting me play with them even though they know that I won’t join them professionally.” 


The cricket team at Ashoka has been a space for Professor Ritadhi to find and sustain himself– hopefully, a trend which will continue for teams in the future.  

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