An inspiring spirit fades out too soon
Deccan Chronicle| Dileep Premachandran
I first met him as a cancer survivor in February 2012.
After researching his life and times and talking extensively to those that had known him half a century earlier, David Frith wrote of Archie Jackson, the Scottish Australian cricketer who died of tuberculosis when just 23: "All those who had made his acquaintance shared the desire to be regarded as his intimate friends." I could say the same of Sidhanta Patnaik, a cricket writer who passed away at the age of 34 after an incredibly brave battle with cancer. He leaves behind a wife, a young daughter, his parents and sister, all of whom showed such fortitude and equanimity during such a harrowing time. There are hundreds of others too whose lives he touched. Some of them barely knew him, yet contributed towards his treatment because they were so inspired by his spirit.
I first met him as a cancer survivor in February 2012. Wisden India had just started functioning out of a temporary office when he waltzed in one morning asking for a job. He handed over a thick file of his work, which I didn’t even look at for two days because there was so much going on. He had no sort of journalism background, but despite various messages about the lack of opportunities, he just kept turning up at the office every day. Finally, I met him. His articles were very detailed and meticulously put together, but poorly written and structured. Even that didn’t faze him. "I’ve come to learn from you and your team," he told me. "If you hire me, I’ll make sure you never regret it." I never did.
When Suresh Menon took charge of the Wisden India Almanack, I gave him Sidhanta as his Man Friday. He was initially sceptical given his complete lack of experience. But within a week, he was sitting in my office telling me: "We’ve unearthed a gem with this boy." He was often insecure about the quality of his writing, especially when compared to his immediate peers. I told him it didn’t matter. Writing can be learned. But very few will ever have his Trojan work ethic, or his ability to think out of the box. Most of all though, he had tremendous empathy. Everything he wrote, a lot of it shining a light on the less glamorous side of the sport - women’s cricket, the Under-19s, the states that struggled in the Ranji Trophy - exhibited that.
In one of our earliest heart-to-hearts, he had asked me if I had any lessons to teach him. I didn’t want him to colour within lines I drew for him, so I told him that he only needed to remember one thing. It’s the final paragraph of Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. "Above all, I thank the players themselves," it says. "It is hard for me to express the feelings I have for them, and as I sit here back in the suburbs, I think about them all the time. I remember the first time I saw them in the field house, with no idea of what they would be like and how they would take to me, or, for that matter, how I would take to them. And I remember how I thought of them at the end, as kids that I adored."
Perhaps I didn’t need to show him that, because Sidhanta loved the sport and those that play it far more than most others did. Last year, when I went through a personal crisis and found myself isolated, he was one of the first to reach out to me. And even as his health started to fail, he would be the one comforting me and his friends, instead of the other way around. Last September, a couple of days after the doctors had almost given up on him, he asked for his laptop and wrote a feature on Hanuma Vihari, who was making his Test debut in England. It was exhaustively researched and eminently readable, and people were astonished when they learned it had been typed up in an Intensive Care Unit. The last time I saw him conscious, I was too choked with emotion to say anything. As I stroked his head and backed away towards the door, he half-sat and smiled, before giving me a thumbs up. That was Sidhanta.
In the prologue to his autobiography, Sir Garfield Sobers wrote: "For most of my international Test career I was playing for two - myself and my great friend Collie Smith who died one Saturday night in England in a car I was driving." In Jamaica, they still shed tears for Smith six decades after he died. Those of us that knew Sidhanta well now know that each time we go out to bat, metaphorically speaking, we’ll be playing for two.
(The author is a sports writer who was formerly Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India)