Please tell us about yourself
Most Indian men might request their wives for a cup of tea during a World Cup match. Mohandas Menon could ask his better half, Valsa, for Zaheer Khan’s strike rate.
Mohandas Menon spends approximately seventeen hours a day scanning sports papers, analysing data feeds, watching reruns of tests and ODIs, brushing up on biographies and culling all kinds of cricket data. He has even gone for 24 hours at a stretch, collating information and scoring for cricket matches across three different time zones. Ask him what his favourite sport is though, and the answer is: “Tennis, of course!”
bpb catches up with the very chatty Mr Menon, kingpin cricket statistician, who, just ahead of the World Cup shares with us a truckload of statistics, off-field gossip, inside tricks and the skinny on the commentary box that has the best cake in the world.
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What do you do?
Mohandas is India’s leading cricket statistician. As usual, he will be on the broadcasting team of the host channel, whipping up stats for Sunil Gavaskar or Harsha Bhogle. Valsa, who has worked for Neo Sports and Sony as a statistician during cricket telecasts, will this time hold fort in their Mumbai home, feeding their programme with data or digging out facts if her husband calls from the commentary box.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Starting off in the administrative and personnel department at Reliance twenty years ago, Mr Menon was an avid cricket fan who used to collect this data just for fun. “It started out as a hobby. I’d save BB Mama’s columns from Sportsweek.”
By the mid ‘90s, Indian television had begun to boom and websites like Cricinfo and Khel.com (formerly run by Prime Minister Modi’s social media manager, Rajesh Jain) were just starting out. “There’s no other way to describe it other than being at the right place at the right time. I started getting calls for cricket statistics from the top sites, publications and TV channels. Eventually, around the 1996 World Cup, I quit my job to pursue a full time career in sports statistics,” says Menon, who faced flak from his in-laws over the decision.
“I was always interested in cricket,” Valsa says. “Earlier, I was an occasional assistant to Mohan. As he became a professional statistician, it became a full-time job for me too.”
Mohandas is a mathematics and economics graduate. Valsa has a masters in psychology. After their marriage in 1988, cricket statistics became their life. Mohandas says, “I grew up in the 70s on Sportsweek magazine. BB Mama was a famous statistician of the time and his stuff would appear in Sportsweek. That’s how the bug bit me.”
His big break came during the 1987 Reliance World Cup. “I was a Reliance employee. The company was inviting some former players for the tournament. One of the players on the list was Jim Laker. I told them Laker was dead. They realised I knew cricket and involved me in the tournament.”
The couple have a 21-year-old son, Anirudh. He is interested in cricket and statistics but does not want to make it his profession. “He is doing his MCA (Master of Computer Applications),” says Mohandas. “But now and then he mails me saying, ‘Dad, you missed this or that’.”
Tell us about your work
Using his background in economics and math, Mr Menon developed a manual system to run numbers, relying heavily on his wife Valsa to help with data collection. “Ranji trophy, Duleep trophy, ODIs, tests, scoring. We’d watch every match. Every ball and run was noted and fed into the system.”
Soon enough, Menon found himself providing statistical data to sports journalists across the country, writing pieces for websites, television shows and even travelling across the globe to sit behind commentators like Harsha Bhogle, Toni Greig and Sunil Gavaskar, feeding them with information within seconds of them asking for it.
Says Nihal Koshie, Senior Assistant Editor at The Indian Express, “When it comes to statistics, Mohandas is like a gourmet chef who can whip up a five course dinner in the time it takes to cook Maggi noodles. He was our statistician when I worked at DNA in Mumbai and there was no query which ever left him stumped.”
We’re back with Mr Menon now, who is recounting a tale of when his skill was really put to the test. “I was in Ahmedabad in 2009 for a test match, and Murlidharan was bowling to Tendulkar. The air was tense in the commentary box. Gavaskar turned to me and asked when was the last time that the highest wicket taker had bowled to the highest run scorer of that period. I quickly ran the numbers and found that it was over a hundred years ago, in 1887. Of course, Gavaskar immediately used it, and it became quite a talking point.” He beams jovially.
Currently gearing up for the World Cup in Australia (he will travel as part of the Star Sports contingent), Mr Menon veers on the side of caution when we ask him for his tournament predictions. “Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have the best chances in my opinion. But then, there’s also the law of averages with the Indian cricket team. Considering they haven’t been doing so well, I’m hoping it will all even out during the World Cup!”
We probe him for juicy bits of gossip from inside the commentary box and his eyes light up. “You know, once Gavaskar confessed to being caught behind, but didn’t move because no one appealed from the other team. He went on to make 102 runs from 85 balls in that match!”
As we’re ending the interview, we thank the stats man for his time, and ask him to share his most interesting statistic. “No matter how many runs have been scored, or wickets taken, there’s only one highlight that everyone looks forward to in the commentary boxes in England.” We lean in closer, eager to get in on the secret. “What’s that?”
“What else? A really good English pastry! Nine times out of ten it’s polished before I can get there!”
You can spot Mohandas Menon seated behind the commentators during the World Cup matches furiously typing on his laptop, or follow his Twitter feed @mohanstatsman.
What are the requirements of this career?
The hectic pace of a commentary box is exhausting but satisfying. “You have 15-20 seconds to fish out the information,” Mohandas says. Days when there are simultaneous matches in two venues are the hardest. The toughest commentator to work with? “Tony Greig. He squeezes everything out of you. But I enjoy it,” Mohandas says.
Even on holiday, at least one of them carries a laptop with their cricket data. If anything fundamental has changed in all these years, it is his response to an India defeat. “Earlier I would be severely disappointed if India lost. Now it does not affect me that much.”