The sonorous thwack of the ball hitting the sweet spot of the Federer racket makes for great tennis; it also makes for great literature. When David Foster Wallace writes about tennis, when Norman Mailer writes about boxing, when Ernest Hemingway writes about bullfighting, sports writing ceases to be just about the sport.
"Sport is readymade, in a way, for literature," said Soumya Bhattacharya, author and editor of Hindustan Times Mumbai, at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival on Monday, while recounting some of these outstanding examples of sports literature.
Bhattacharya was on a panel discussing sports and literature, along with espncricinfo.com editor-in-chief Sambit Bal and writer Palash Mehrotra.
"The best sports writers have been outsiders," said Bal. "When Hemingway writes about bullfighting, he isn’t really exploring a sport but exploring human nature."
The essence of good writing often lies outside of the ring, the court, the pitch. "Sometimes it’s not about the actual match itself," said Mehrotra. "Sports writing in many ways takes you away from the actual sport."
And it is the distance, and the ability to see the sport in a broader context, that lifts it, in a way. "To me, that is the greater allure," said Bhattacharya, referring to the distancing. "Much of it is perception, and communicating that perception to readers."
Discussing the task of identifying and choosing talent to write for ESPN Cricinfo, Sambit Bal said it was not just about picking people familiar with the intricacies of the sport. "I look for the right kind of sensibility, so to speak," he said.
"I try to recruit people who aren’t necessarily sports journalists themselves… Sometimes you can take writers and make them journalists, but you can’t necessarily take journalists and make them writers."
There is also such a thing as being too deeply entrenched in the sport to be able to look in from the outside. "If your head is full of statistics… it can go against you," said Mehrotra. "What’s crucial is your passion for the sport."
And then there are times when distance from the writing can do you good too.
"Sometimes there is so much cricket in your life, you stop being a fan," said Bal. "On holidays I watch cricket as a fan again."