Venkat Ananth

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RIP Chesters, we will miss you

On March 22nd, the eve of the first semi-final between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I made that phone call to Colombo, to discuss events that have unfolded in the past two days - chaos, change and a supposed overhaul that Sri Lanka cricket has chosen to undertake. The man on the other side was a cricket writer ever so dedicated that even at 75, he sacrificed time with his wife on the outskirts of Colombo, Moratuwa to be precise, to fulfill his eternal passion. I promised him to return a call once the World Cup was done and dusted with, the frenzy had settled, a leisurely phone call to catch up on lost days with him. That, would sadly, be my last call to Trevor "Chesters" Chesterfield, for I learnt this afternoon that he was no more, and his loss, yet to sink in personally. A loss, that should resonate with a majority of our clique, for we've lost a man who lived for the game we all love the most, passionate as ever and importantly, a romantic.

 

My first encounter with Chesters was in 2007, when I visited Sri Lanka on a research trip for my impending book. It wasn't quite a pre-planned appointment with him, but as I started meeting several legends of Ceylon cricket - the likes of the late Channa Gunasekara, Abdul Lafir and the likes, it became evident that Chesters was going to be an important source in understanding the finer details about the game in that country from a neutral perspective, the unique premise and perspective he brought as a New Zealander, who lived in South Africa for many years, before settling down in Sri Lanka and importantly, as someone whose seen the game from the sort of adjacency, many would dream of. I still recall that day, that auto-ride from Bambalapittiya, Colombo 4 to Moratuwa (his house was somewhere close to the  Angulana railway station), a suburb on the Galle Road, dressed in an Manchester United replica shirt, which by the way became a problem as soon as I managed to locate and enter his house, and till the last time I conversed with him, he said he'll forever despise me for wearing that jersey and committing "blasphemy" in his words, coming by a profuse dislike, slightly bordering on hate, for sports other than cricket.

 

That aside, I knew I was meeting someone I had heard about, read his works occasionally, waking up to his columns in The Indian Express, usually dispatches from Sri Lanka and words that made you think as a cricket lover, low on hyperboles and more intense content, engaging to read and appreciate. I remember visiting his library, rich of resources that many of us would look back and envy, cricket books we might never hear of in profound company of some of the Bibles of the game - CLR James, Neville Cardus and even Ramachandra Guha, the Wisdens, stacked next to each other, meticulously arranged per the year, scorecards, basically, an entire treasure.

 

I still remember the fact that India were playing a Test match in Bangladesh when I visited him, piling on runs by the minute, and while I'd planned out an interview with Chesters, it turned out to be an intense-yet-casual conversation about cricket, mainly Sri Lanka and South Africa, with a lot of generic references to game at-large and often, would veer into a territory, we might miss Chesters the most for - anecdotes. The stories ranged from the inane matter of how he eventually settled for an email address that went "lbwbambrose@gmail.com" to covering the Vietnam War as a correspondent for a news agency, when he was working in London, to even the politics of the Sri Lankan civil war and how they might impact the cricket in the country. The story of Chesters' email address as narrated to me goes that during a conversation with the late Pakistan and South Africa coach Bob Woolmer, who noticed a limp in Chesters' walk after an accident he suffered, said, "Hey, that's more like leg-before bowled Ambrose".

 

Chesters simply laughed and told me, "Now, that's an e-mail address, Venkat." A lot of email exchanges and chats followed to that very address, and that I just can't forget that typically Sinhalese Hari Hari Hondai Hondai (okay okay fine fine) that he'd occasionally come up with to break a chat conversation we'd never agree upon (which by the way, was a lot with me). These are small things, I am will no doubt miss, the sudden popping up of a chat-window following a Manchester United defeat saying "VENKAT!" and my reply, "Hi Chesters!" would be responded by a typical Chesters' message, "Your Red scums and numbskulls have been thrashed today and who is that forever angry deluded man, I forget his name (an obvious reference to Sir Alex Ferguson)?", again, might not agree with those, but for sure, miss them. As I remember my other interactions with Chesters, I can vividly recall him calling limited-overs cricket, "slogs", and for one, never liked them - for he was lived the life of a true Test cricket lover. I once asked him why he used that term and his reply were, "What do you expect a batsman to do in a one-day game, Venkat? Play forward defensives with a dead bat?", maybe they did, but for Chesters, anything the batsman swung across the line was a slog - that's how traditional and old-fashioned he was, in a good, lovable way, of course.

 

And as someone who followed Sri Lankan cricket rather closely, Chesters was my go to man for most information. Often, there'd be some of the most unbiased, yet brutally honest views on the state of affairs of the game in that country, ranging from chaos, corruption and nepotism in the already politicised cricketing administration in Sri Lanka, or selection issues or even about younger talents coming through. Though, Trevor was never the darling of the establishment, and he made no bones about it honestly, his views on SL cricket were widely appreciated, even by his critics. His pieces on the need for reforms in Sri Lankan domestic cricket, along with Sidath Wettimuny's blueprint, has been the fundamental foundations on which the first-class game has evolved in Sri Lanka today. Today, is a massive loss for Sri Lankan cricket its followers, for we've lost someone who was a voice of reason, a voice of sanity in an otherwise chaotic cricketing community.

 

Towards the last three years, as I got to know him better, Chesters was not in the pink of health. He had a fall that effectively relegated his abilities to move around and get regular check-ups done, and in spite of that, he'd keep writing columns for The Island in Sri Lanka and Cricketnext.com in India, most of them frank, with strong at times unpopular views, but ones he believed in and stuck to, till his last breath. He also authored a novella, set in the background of the Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka in 2005, the saddest part being it remains unpublished till date. A fine effort at fiction writing, unfortunately, had no takers. Also, he was editing the biography of one of Ceylon's finest batsmen - Channa Gunasekara, another legend whose story deserved to be told, especially about Sri Lankan cricket, set in the late 40s and early 50s, again, overlooked by publishers in Sri Lanka due to supposedly poor commercial value in the market. Every time I'd speak to Trevor, I'd ask him if he was coming to India, especially Mumbai in the next few months, and typically, he'd say, "I'd love to come to India, Venkat, but I can't afford the trip" and at times, he was literally writing his pieces to make ends meet.

 

I'd say Trevor Chesterfield meant a lot to me personally, not just as someone I looked up to, but as a father figure, as he once told me, he read every piece of mine I wrote for The Hindustan Times, my previous employers and he'd regularly write back to me, with criticisms and at times appreciations, which I would admit has made me a much better thinker of the game, its larger implications, that just extended beyond board-rooms and the cricket pitch, at levels you'd never have forced yourself to think about and question things critically, tips and suggestions you can't look for in a Journalism school. That's what Chesters means to me and today, as I always did before, I feel immensely privileged and lucky to have known Trevor, early in my short career as a cricket writer.

 

Also, when I spoke to him about my Masters' degree once I received it, he asked me if I wanted to continue as a cricket writer, for which I said, not really, with a desire to move on to a career in policy-think-tanks et al. Pat came a typically witty Chesters' reply, "Venkat, you can make a diplomat out of a cricket writer, but can't take the cricket writer from a diplomat," which I thought was pertinent, given that I may never end up giving cricket writing, if anything not pursue it full-time.

 

Cricket today will be a poorer sport for it lost a man whose devotion to a sport was nothing short of unflinching and only typified by, if not anything, his email signature, which said a lot - "Cricket is life...what comes after are mere details." Sadly, his demise this afternoon has left cricket journalism a void impossible to fill for a while, that Cardusian romantic, who saw cricket writing as more than just a day job, a love affair that fittingly saw it's end immediately after the World Cup, with his beloved New Zealanders making it to the Semis. Sadly, this also marks the end of an era in cricket journalism, and personally, a loss as I wrote before, yet to sink in.

 

Trevor Chesterfield, Rest in Peace. Wherever you are Chesters, enjoy the cricket.

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