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The Cattle Farmer and the Rock Star
Sharda Ugra on ghostwriting the autobiographies of Yuvraj Singh and John Wright, two very different characters with similar reasons for wanting their stories told

Posted on June 17 Mon, 2013 By Editor


Ghostwriting is a mysterious, spectral enterprise that takes place around us all the time. It’s a bit like spying. It’s not just books; few politicians, business honchos or public figures write their own speeches. Even papal encyclicals – circular letters from the Pope to archbishops, bishops and his larger global flock – are mostly written by some silent scribbler in the Vatican. 
 
As a scribbler by profession (largely unsilent), Ghosting 101 for me began with “as told to” columns by athletes and the odd speech. For some, credit and co-authorship was provided; in others, it had to stay hidden. But these articles and speeches are, for sports journalists, the most gentle of warm-ups for the ghosting ultramarathon: the book project. 
 
Ultras leave you wrung out, crabby and fed up. You go through the same material about the same subject, who lives in your head for months and years and hogs the computer. Only later, when the book is released, is there true glee and relief, because you realise the reviews largely target the famous and you’re left well alone. I’ve completed and survived two ultras. The first, New Zealander John Wright’s memoirs as the Indian cricket team’s first overseas coach, called John Wright’s Indian Summers; and, more recently, Yuvraj Singh’s The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back, which focuses on the two exacting years he has had since 2011. 
 
Wright and Yuvraj actually had some tenuous connections: both were left-hand batsmen, and Wright was Yuvraj’s father, Yograj Singh’s only wicket, in Yograj’s sole Test. After that, though, come plentiful degrees of separation. The least of those is the difference between Chandigarh and Canterbury. Wright and Yuvraj’s incompatibilities spanned a few generations, was reflected in their batting styles and in their individual personalities. I’m not even sure whether Yuvraj and Wright got along, or even ‘got’ each other, when they first met.
 
Wright, a driven, hands-on and perpetually wound-up ‘outsider’, chose to dive into Indian cricket’s churning waters, and took every defeat personally. He came from rural New Zealand, was loathe to call attention to himself and spoke in low decibels with long pauses. Yuvraj was the new millennium Indian cricketer: a cocktail of mega-hitter, in-field prowler-acrobat and merry social animal. He was gum-chewing swagger mixed with don’t-piss-me-off drawl. One of the early conversations between cattle farmer and rock star was about the perils of fleeting fame, with references made to a pop group called the Bay City Rollers. Yuvraj, it’s said, nodded politely and departed.
 
Conversations with both men involved stories, strong opinions, insights and much laughing. Wright chuckled when asked what had first surprised him about the Indian team: “Their jogging is too slow.” Yuvraj revealed, with gloomy longing and youthful resignation, the brutal orders of the Indian team’s first fitness trainer:  “Sweets band kara di hai. (We can’t eat sweets any more).”
 
Five years separated the two books. Each time I was asked whether I wanted to be involved, it was also an invitation to take a closer look at Indian cricket’s undercarriage and understand the mechanics of its hundreds of moving parts. Those offers cannot ever be refused. The memories contained in the two books have changed both men’s lives. Wright’s five years with India will never leave him. Yuvraj’s turbulent cycle of injury, success and illness has redefined the man. The routes they took towards putting their lives on page, though, were very distinct.
 
Yuvraj’s book was put out in less than a year since his return to India following his cancer treatment in the US. The actual work took eight months and many forms: taping sessions, listening to and watching his audio and video diaries during his illness, and interviewing doctors, family and team-mates, before the chapters emerged. His friend, and now manager, Nishant Arora, helped cull information and facts from his childhood, and spoke to staff at the Indianapolis hospital and the community of people Yuvraj had interacted with in the US.  
 
In order to be out in time, the project had to be a clockwork operation, and so, taping had to begin quickly, even as Yuvraj, a cricketer of strength and physicality, had been turned into a lumbering shell post-chemotherapy. His booming voice was pitched low and the longest he could speak for at a time was around an hour, after which he would need a break. Before and after taping, he would play table tennis with his friends, panting between points. He would retch between conversations, leave the room, throw up and return. The taping was scattered over weeks, and, as the sessions rolled on, Yuvraj found his new ‘normal’, reunited with his appetite, went on holiday and returned to training. At every interview, you could see the cancer chrysalis flaking away a little more. He put on weight but regained his roar. At the last taping session, he was not just healthier and fitter, but looked younger. From cancer, Yuvraj had extracted an old vitality. In many ways, Yuvraj’s loudmouth, top-volume public self overpowers much personal minutiae. From his rumbling, intonation-less voice came an exceptional recall of experience and an actor’s sense of timing during narration. He recounted incidents from his childhood and his career, the tone of conversations, what the day felt like. Humour to Yuvraj is a means of engagement. But even when separated from his jocular self — as he had to be when talking about cancer — he spoke like he bat: openly, freely, without hesitation, with an expansive, inclusive world view. Yuvraj went through every chapter as it turned up. He had ventured onto thin, personal ice and there was every chance chunks of it would require papering over. A fractured home, a tough apprenticeship with his father, Test struggles, wondering whether he could be a father after chemo. To see that turned into cold print can be disturbing. But Yuvraj had spoken like he wanted himself heard: the changes were minimal, mostly factual. When there were a few hairy delays before publication, he asked why. Proofing, he was told. Which is? Making sure that everything was fine, commas and full stops et al in the right place. Yuvraj grinned: “If there won’t be mistakes with full stops and commas in my book, which book can they possibly be in?”
 
While Yuvraj’s book was high speed, Wright’s came at a more deliberate pace. At the start, Wright handed over a black leather box-briefcase with nearly five years of diaries, letters, photographs and official papers of his time in India. They had copious, minute observations about coaching, selection, India, its cricketers, homesickness. He had noted down astonishment, adversity, happiness, frustration, melancholy, celebration. During his time off in India, Wright, music-lover and more than capable guitarist, wrote songs. Like songwriters must, he crafted verbal snapshots in his diaries. What should have been a mundane bus ride from Kanpur to Lucknow was the subject of just one of them. After a win, he wrote, the team bus to Lucknow would be throbbing with raucous chatter, pounding music. Defeat travelled with the excess baggage of heavy silence. Looking out the window, Wright was reminded of the distance between his family — thousands of miles away — and him; surrounded by “the boys” and their paraphernalia, by this other kind of family, everyone jammed in between their luggage. In this careering bus, racing away behind the whirling red light of the team’s pilot car, covered by a canopy of stars, there was contentment under the night sky over India. (Bloody hell, if cricketers start writing like this, I thought, we journos are dead). What followed the briefcase trawl was taping week. We did it in long sessions, 10am to 6pm every day, with Test match-like lunch and tea breaks. When we were finished, we had 24 hours of conversation. Before he left for New Zealand, Wright handed over a long list of people who would round off, add to, or rectify his recollection of events. There was an impressive range of people in that list: from the Eden Gardens masseur to the chief financial officer at Infosys. The book was, then, put together, one email at a time, back and forth between India and New Zealand, adding up to hundreds of emails.
 
Beyond the bucks from book sales and a few digs at old/new enemies, there, surely, lies a deeper reason why athletes want their stories told. Closure, perhaps; or even a self-promotional chest-thump for those who believe fate has shortchanged their legacy. Yuvraj and Wright’s reasons belonged to the same place: a sharing of experience. Wright wanted to reveal the marvel of the places he’d been in all the madness and glory of Indian cricket. In his acknowledgements, he names every single Indian cricketer he worked with. Yuvraj was reaching out through and beyond cricket. We’re in this together, let’s kick every damn beast, it’s possible. 
 
Transmitting their belief to the real world becomes the task of the ‘medium’ – the ghostwriters/ co-authors/the ‘With’s’, the ‘And’s’. It is the professional trader in words who must give shape to the tumult of a sporting life. Once the material in an ultra is sifted through, the core of the writing project lies in locating the subject’s ‘voice’ and staying faithful to it. Transcribing taped sessions, while tedious, helps in familiarising speech patterns and choices of vocabulary. Yuvraj’s sentences were short, staccato, with the weight of his truth. Behind Wright’s self-deprecation lay sucker punches and jargon-buster clarity.
 
Now that the books are done, in hindsight, I think it would be close to impossible to take on an ultramarathon without either affinity or respect for the subject. A key commandment? Abandon your ego and your own stylistic imprints, replicate the narrator’s own voice. The book, after all, belongs not to you but to the sportsman whose life it contains. It is he who must speak, authentically and credibly, to the reader and hold their attention. That’s what you’re there for.
 
For a lark, I tell Wright, now coach of the Mumbai Indians, about working on this piece. We josh about the trouble he could run into and his failsafe fallback, “misrepresentation”. He has a better suggestion. “I’ll just say I have no idea who this woman is,” he laughs, “She must be a ghost.”
 




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