Chai with Sachin Tendulkar, lunch with Harbhajan: sports journalist Sharda Ugra's career is enviable
Her career is every sports enthusiast’s dream job
Sharda Ugra’s career is what dreams are made of is you’re a sports enthusiast. The sports journalist spent an hour during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa with Sachin Tendulkar and the rest of the team at their hotel with snacks, tea and chit chat. Joked around with Harbhajan Singh as he ate lunch. Interviewed Mike Gatting on the lawns of Eden Gardens.
As one of the first women in India to pursue this, hers was an unconventional career path at that time.
Ugra grew up loving two things – sports and words. With a back-up plan to become a librarian, she began trying her luck as a college student, somehow summoning the courage to call up Imran Khan for a post-match interview.
Not only did he agree, he even left her tickets at the hotel to watch the match. The piece was published in a local Bombay paper. “Thinking about it now, how did we do that!? He was a massive star and we were big fans. That’s what it was like at the time, simplicity in the approach and rapport you built with players,” she says.
In this complete boy’s club, there was no gatekeeping, no bodyguards, locks and keys. As long as you were professional and got the job done.
She kept that as a mantra for the first few years of her now 3-decade-long career. “I was very conscious of being a female in a male-dominated environment. I dressed down to the point of complete invisibility,” she says. Prodded further about the need to blend in, she explains the stereotype that prevailed at that time in cricket.
There are two branches – serious, sober and sane was the perception of male fans (“which we know they’re not”) and women at sports events were groupies. “In my mind, I had to counter this narrative. I had to make it a point that I am a professional, I’ve come to work and I don’t want to marry any of you.”
Her moment of liberation came when she had gone to cover Wimbledon. “I’d keep telling myself don’t become the ‘aurat’ at a sports event. So I didn’t ask anything worried that people would think it’s silly.”
In an interaction with tennis legend Boris Becker, an English journalist asked him why he spits so much. “Here I am worried about staying professional and repeatedly telling myself don’t ask stupid questions. And then there are guys like this that are shamelessly asking one duffer question after another. What am I worried about?”
As a sports journalist, Ugra has watched generations of cricketers and team captains come and go. The camaraderie she has with them has remained even after their retirement.
But it’s different now. The sport has blown up to superstardom and a distance has created between reporters and celebrity players.
Ugra observes that the rise of TV news channels has allowed people to pick up snippets of conversations and run them for their daylong programs. “There’s a suspicion now that wasn’t there earlier. There weren’t individual managers and PR people. There was a team manager and you could go up to them and say you want to speak to the captain. Even just walk up to the players themselves and talk to them, ask for an interview. It was a lot more open. But I understand the distance now,” says Ugra.
“Every time I meet someone from the previous generations we treat each other like ‘Arrey! So good to see you!’ When Yuvraj Singh retired, I saw Harbhajan at a media room and I said ‘can you give me comment on his retirement, and he laughed and said ‘Pehle main lunch khaloon?’ You have that kind of informality. The younger reporters get so jealous when I tell them,” laughs the sports journalist, reminiscing over the relationships she has built over the years.
It’s been 30 years since her first gig with Mid-day. Ugra’s an author and the Senior Editor at ESPN Cricinfo. There’s no restraint in her work anymore, she’s at the top of her game. “After 30 years, I’ve reached aunty age now. I don’t give a shit.”