Why Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri seem so constrained in telling the complete truth when the boys in blue are on the ground
The Mumbai duo rarely miss the BCCI line
The Myriad Sins Of Gavaskar and Shastri
As India lost the first two Tests against England by massive, reputation-busting margins—196 and 319 runs—you must have rubbed your eyes in disbelief at the performance of the team you love to back. This wasn’t what you had expected of a series billed as a clash of titans. Only a few months ago, India had spectacularly lifted the World Cup; it was crowned the No. 1 Test team late last year. So, really, what happened in England? To find answers to this, you must have been all ears when Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Sourav Ganguly and Harsha Bhogle voiced their views and analyses of the matches on the TV commentary by ESPN Star. You’d imagine that the credentials and credibility of this team of commentators could never be doubted.
Now, here are some facts, which you are likely to have overlooked in the gloom after India’s disastrous performance. One, Virender Sehwag played with a shoulder injury in the IPL, and possibly exacerbated the injury, necessitating surgery. Two, Zaheer Khan didn’t tour the West Indies because he was injured; he broke down with hamstring trouble on the first day of the series. Three, India got only one match to prepare for their most difficult challenge of the year—taking on England in England in a Test series. Four, half the team arrived in England from the West Indies; other key members, including Sachin Tendulkar, joined them from India. Five, the Indian Test team hadn’t played together for months.
This was right, that was right Indian players leave the field for tea after Bell was given out at Trent Bridge. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook Magazine August 15, 2011 Issue)
These facts severely indict the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which hasn’t nurtured its players, shielded them from injuries, kept them motivated, or given them enough time to adapt to unfamiliar English conditions. Former English captain and ESPN Star commentator Nasser Hussain said India had no respect for their No. 1 ranking. “It’s evident that some of India’s players are suffering from exhaustion of non-stop cricket whilst others are unfit despite being rested before the series.” This is the consensus among observers in England.
Now think hard and count the number of times you have heard the Indian commentators dissect the reasons behind the absence of Sehwag or the injury to Zaheer or the exhaustion of other Indian players. Shouldn’t the widely acclaimed observers of the sport—Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri—have at least questioned the BCCI’s penchant for having a packed calendar, hosting the IPL just days after the gruelling World Cup campaign and then following it with a West Indies tour? But Gavaskar doesn’t think an excess of cricket is a problem for the players. He said as much in his column: “There will be talk about preparation etc, but even if this Indian team had played five first-class games before the Test series they would have struggled as the technique is not there.”
Gavaskar is entitled to his opinion. But as a keen follower of the sport you must have felt a tad betrayed to hear Gavaskar and Shastri discuss at some length, as India collapsed in the second innings in second Test, the suitability of Mumbai’s Wasim Jaffer for the opener’s slot in the Indian team. And no, not the reasons why that spot had become available in the first place.
Gavaskar and Shastri won’t discuss such matters because of one crucial—and unmentioned—fact. Wonder what that is?
A brilliant Anderson delivery bowls Laxman at Trent Bridge
Gavaskar and Shastri are contracted by the BCCI for an annual fee of Rs 3.6 crore; the contract, quite crucially, is renewable every year. It entitles them to be on the commentary team at the events on Neo TV channel, rights-holders to BCCI-owned tournaments, and also at two other BCCI events—the IPL and Champions League T20 tournaments—the broadcasting rights for which are held by Sony Set Max and ESPN Star respectively. Is this then the reason why they are wary of raising issues that trail back uncomfortably to the BCCI, ask troubling questions of it or even criticise it? Can money influence people’s ability to speak the complete truth? Could pecuniary considerations colour their views?
Gavaskar’s former teammate, Kapil Dev, is deliberate in his choice of words: “If it is true Gavaskar and Shastri have a contract with the board, then it is their job to look after its interests. Why should they speak out against the board? Will anyone in Outlook write against Outlook? Will a Congress minister speak against his party in Parliament?” he told Outlook. Gavaskar admits there is a conflict of interest arising from his contract with the board and his role as commentator, but justifies it saying this phenomenon is commonplace in life and one could be honest in spite of it (see interview).
The channels, it seems, don’t have a choice in the matter of hiring Gavaskar and Shastri. They also provide them professional fees, independent of the BCCI’s payment. Says Harish Thawani of Nimbus, which owns Neo and produces cricket feed for BCCI, “Regardless of the arrangements they have with the BCCI, we pay the market fee to hire them, which is between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh a day.” Thawani says they’re happy to have Gavaskar and Shastri on board. “They are very professional, eloquent and among the best commentators in the world. Who wouldn’t want to hire them?”
Others see in this arrangement—a neat packet coming in from both the BCCI and Nimbus—a compelling reason why Gavaskar and Shastri might not want to criticise an overloaded cricket calendar. Their logic: the more the cricket matches involving India, the more money Gavaskar and Shastri stand to make.
Gavaskar explained to Outlook how the contract with the BCCI came about. Until 2008, Gavaskar and Shastri were working with ESPN Star (ESS) for a long time. Then the IPL was launched, and they were roped in by Lalit Modi for commentary. But they were not directly contracted with the BCCI—they were contracted with the World Sports Group, which in turn signed a contract with the BCCI to provide services for the IPL. When Modi was kicked out of the IPL and the BCCI last year, all decisions made by him were reviewed and the deal with the wsg was cancelled. The BCCI then signed up Gavaskar and Shastri directly. Pointing to the conflict of interest, a source said, “They won’t criticise the BCCI anyway—and certainly not on ESS, for which they work for BCCI at the Champions League.”
Tendulkar during his second innings knock of 56 at Trent Bridge
Gavaskar claims the BCCI doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind. But those familiar with the contract say that it follows a standard format, reiterating clauses one usually finds in agreements reached between two contracting parties. One of the clauses reportedly states that the two commentators—Gavaskar and Shastri—can’t work at cross-purposes with the BCCI. It’s time for the BCCI to clarify whether such a clause exists and whether it has the power to stifle them.
All these factors have increased the danger of the commentators turning into defenders of BCCI policies. This seems to have happened with Shastri, who didn’t respond to Outlook’s attempts to talk to him. The dashing commentator was a member of the icc’s Cricket Committee, which, in May this year, unanimously recommended the use of Decision Review System (drs) in all Tests, odis and Twenty20s. He never raised a dissenting voice then. But, as a commentator, Shastri is a vehement, aggressive opponent of the drs. During the second Test, he said on air that those who criticised India’s opposition to drs were jealous of its success. This led to a sharp exchange, again on air, with his colleague in the box, Nasser Hussain.
“Every commentary box in the world has its share of supremacists and propagandists, England and Australia no exception, but it’s extraordinary that the Indian board has made it institutional,” says Rahul Bhattacharya, cricket writer and novelist. “I look forward to the day that our recent retirees, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Javagal Srinath, and those soon to join them, become our pre-eminent opinion-makers.”
But as of now, Gavaskar and Shastri are the biggest voices in Indian cricket, the greatest of opinion-makers—and they don’t seem to be doing their duty. “It’s obvious that India are under-prepared for this tour,” a Test cricketer-writer with a large British newspaper told Outlook. “Half of them came straight from tour, some of them landed from India. The warm-up game was a disgrace. Yet there has been no explicit criticism of the BCCI for the scheduling by the two official commentators.” He further says that Sehwag could have had an operation early but opted to play on in the IPL. Ditto with Gambhir and Zaheer. “The BCCI can control this situation, but it’s not doing it. Gavaskar and Shastri don’t criticise this. And Shastri voted for the ICC Cricket Committee resolution on drs, didn’t he?” he asks. “That’s plain nonsense, isn’t it?”
Bishan Singh Bedi, a plain-speaker all his life, believes it’s absurd for the board to employ commentators. Bedi told Outlook, “It’s impossible for these guys to be neutral, unbiased! If the BCCI shifts its position on the drs, will these two also change their minds? Forget Gavaskar and Shastri, they’re just two individuals. There’s a greater problem when an institution behaves like this. The BCCI is being run in an irresponsible manner.” Mr Bedi, there goes your chance of a Rs 3.6-crore contract.
There’s been a sort of collateral damage in this embedded-commentator scenario—Harsha Bhogle. His proximity to the chosen two is affecting his image, though he’s not done commentary for events owned by the BCCI after 1999, except the IPL. He’s doing commentary for the England-India series, for ESS, which doesn’t own it. Bhogle says that it’s not his style to impose his views on the cricket expert, or to contradict or disprove him. “I cannot have an agenda, no anchor should, because my role is to be the viewer in the studio and present as many points of view as possible,” Bhogle said in a written statement to Outlook. “An anchor cannot be loud and opinionated, and so whether I agree or not with the views expressed in the studio is another issue.” Possibly this style, with no overt resistance to the views presented by the two experts, leads to him being tarred with the same brush.
Gavaskar has been seen as a defender of India in several forums for years—to be fair, when no one spoke for Indian cricket, he did. That perhaps explains his strident nationalism, veering towards jingoism, a style out of vogue in commentary boxes, as journalist Simon Wilde suggests (see box). He believes a TV channel shouldn’t hire commentators contracted to a cricket board, “not unless it gives them permission to publicly express reasoned and reasonable criticism of board policy should they wish to do so. They should also be obliged to state, when discussing board policy on air, that they have a potential conflict of interest as they receive payment from the board.”
Social commentator Santosh Desai says the system is to blame for the embedded commentators. As he told Outlook, “They’re paid to offer an opinion, but they’re unable to do so because they’re deeply compromised. But they’re in an industry, they’re part of a process of generating money. They then must glorify their paymasters. They can’t criticise them. The BCCI is a banana republic, it answers to no regulatory body.”
Peter Roebuck, cricket columnist, says the “conflict of interest is widespread in cricket—it’s not an Indian preserve.” But he says, in every part of life and in every country a fearless and independent media is needed to call power to account. “Where conflicts of interest exist, that is not possible. TV wants to sell its product but that ought not to require suppressing the critical faculty.... You cannot hunt with the hounds and run with the foxes,” he says.
Perhaps in the BCCI you can—at least some do.
By Rohit Mahajan in Nottingham and Northampton (Additional inputs by Anuradha Raman in Delhi and Saptarshi Ray in London)
Anyone who reads Gavaskar’s articles will agree that he is the only one who stands up against the racist, prejudiced and biased views of the ‘others’. As far as being a critic of BCCI is concerned, the world is enough for us. I did not watch Gavaskar play. I was born too late. But I am happy to know that he is there to voice his opinion against the likes of second-rate ex-players like Atherton and David Lloyd and other pundits who rate themselves as the guardians of cricket. Maybe that is not a yardstick to judge them, yet that is the kind of scale they use when it comes to judging us.
Kumar Sambalam, Delhi
I was a Gavaskar fan and even copied his batting style with some success when I was young! But the man is too money-minded and too loyal to his paymasters. No honest account will come from this.
S. Bhagwan, New York
What a scoop, Gavaskar and Shastri puppets of the BCCI. As usual, Indian fans have been taken for a ride.
M.J. Moses, Mumbai
How much is enough, messrs Gavaskar and Shastri? Did you really have to sell your soul to the devil? It’s not too late, why not join committed ex-cricketers like Kumble and Vengsarkar, prise control of the game from these avaricious crop of administrators.
Dilip Mahanty, Sydney
Gavaskar sees a white man’s conspiracy lurking behind every nook. Shastri struts about like a peacock and mouths platitudes and inanities. Bhogle rattles away incoherently, with feeble attempts at being witty and silly similes to prop up his statements. Given the poor state of commentating, it’s time we got rid of the entire lot and outsourced the talk.
Sankar Ramamurthy, Delhi
All you patriotic guys should read the UK tabloid press to see how TV ‘demi gods’ are ‘treated’ there. We are yet to learn proper journalism.
P. Hedaoo, Kuala Lumpur
Is the entire ruckus due to the fact that Gavaskar isn’t a saint? I wonder how many professionals are saints when they are working for an organisation.
Ashish K., Bangkok
Since every Indian is a cricket expert, the BCCI could try a new gimmick, putting ordinary people in the box.
Deendayal M. Lulla, Mumbai
I hang on to every word that Gavaskar and Shastri say, and I have never found them to be biased. A tad nationalistic maybe, but this is India time.
Aleya Jung, New York
The fact of the matter is the BCCI is a fat cow for politicians and connected ex-players to milk money. Personally, for me, during ipl whenever the duo was on, I muted the TV. What advice can a man who made 36 not out in 60 overs give today’s T20 players?
DR, New York
I pity poor Gavaskar, if he doesn’t get crores regularly, he will starve. Not only has the value of the rupee fallen but that of human values too.
Looks like the lynch mobs are running amok. Try listening to the Sky commentary team, has anyone asked what vested interests they are beholden to? All of them were remarkably silent about the ecb when Sir Allen Stanford was throwing his millions around—and we won’t even mention the cricketer’s wife on his lap in the stadium.
Charu Khopkar, Sydney
An offer was made to them that they could not refuse. If that calls for a bit of tongue-in-cheek discretion, why not?
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
More skeletons will surely tumble out of the closet. Wonder what’s next? Tendulkar being the next Tiger Woods?
Whether it is players or commentators, they are all paid servants of the BCCI.
Jayalakshmi C., on e-mail
Kapil is right, why should they speak out against the board? Bedi agrees it’s impossible for these guys to be unbiased! Harsha confesses anchors can’t be opinion-oriented! In this democratic country, no one has the freedom to express their honest opinion.
V.C. Partha, on e-mail
A cricket fanatic country like India should have read between the lines much before; no surprise, everyone ‘connected’ is on the loot roll.
Lucy Mek, on e-mail
Earlier these worthies were close to Lalit Modi and now they shun him. These two are always where the power is.
Jugal Kishore, Jabalpur
Regarding the spotlight Outlook has trained on Gavaskar and Shastri regarding conflicts of interest (Embedded Choristers, Aug 15), I ask, why nail only those two, though admittedly they were supposed to be our cricketing conscience-keepers? It was a total systemic failure, triggered by a mindless surrender to the ipl and its cash-richness. But let good sense prevail, let the establishment learn the hard way, as the deserved shock ought to have dinned in enough good sense.
S.P. Gupta, Agra
Gavaskar and Shastri’s voices belong both to cricket and the BCCI. They are the best-loved voices on Indian cricket in the electronic media. I don’t think there’s any clash of interest in their ipl links.
Col (retd) C.V. Venugopalan, Palakkad
The BCCI has done the unthinkable in world cricket: it has tamed two of the best brains in business. No wonder they haven’t uttered a single word against the board in their analysis of team India’s dismal performance.
Ram Sigh Gurung, on e-mail
Kapil Dev was being stupid when he defended Gavaskar and Shastri by questioning if a Congressman would speak against his party in Parliament. His comparison is all too facile, because Gavaskar on the one hand poses as an independent in his columns, but actually is a paid functionary of the board.
Lt Col (retd) S.P. Karir, on e-mail
I really don’t know why we still hold these two gentlemen in such high esteem. Both critics and sycophants, they pretty much embody the board today—an organisation where nepotism and corruption runs deep. And we were fools to think getting rid of Lalit Modi was the solution.
While allocating a considerable number of pages for cric controversies, why is outlook strangely silent about Team Anna and the high drama going on? And i'm waiting Arundhati Roy's views on this subject,LTTE and the banning of Arakshan. If not an essay,a column or opinion,perhaps?
I completly disagree with the writer of this article, I hang on to every word that Gavaskar and Shastri say, and I have never found them to be biased, a tad nationalistic maybe, but this is India time, India has been treated like garbage for the longest time by English speaking cricketing nations, this writer seems to be biased, as a matter of fact he has twisted words and gone to the extent of falsifying comments made by Gavaskar and Shastri.
The fact of matter is BCCI is a fat cow for politician, players like Gavaskar and Shastri to milk money. As BCCI is unaccounted for financial details, so obviously money flows like anything if you are well connected.
So you can never expect any morality from Shastri and Gavaskar. In fact after politcians now we have corruption coming into cricket anyway.
And with the type of money being offered (3.6 crores as reported), why would there people will worry for any conflict of interest and what not.
And personally, I may be odd man out, for IPL whenever Shastri/Gavaskar do the commentary, I usually mute the tv, as I do not think they have anything to offer for T20. You can tell a 20 year new player to do this and that when Gavaskar made "36 not out in 60 over". See this http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/65035.html
I pity poor Gavaskar,if he does'nt get the few crores(3.6) he will starve.Value of rupee has not only fallen but also human values too.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
You have dropped quite a few names - and I listened to most of those commentators. And I still consider Sunny and Shastri among the best that I have listened to. They have provided fanstastic insight about cricket and I am not swayed by any patriotic outporings.
You perhaps need to prove yourself a point that you are not a nationalist . And your fascination with the commentators all from the the white men's world would prove your point. I listened to Atherton and Naseer , but I never felt they were less patriotic than any other former cricketer from any nation.
Shastri and Gavaskar have continued for a very long time as leading TV commentators because they are liked by the TV audience. TV channels work on free market principles, they would have dropped the duo long time ago, if the TV audience had shared your views. They had more than a decade of experience as TV commentators before BCCI roped them in. So they never thrived because of BCCI connections. Both of them were star cricketers in their heyday and have got solid cricketing experience and credibility( Sunny was a cricketing genius unlike some of your favorite commentators ) to comment on the game, strategy and the technique. Don't trash their cricketing knowledge irrespective of how much they make from the media.
Is the duo's conflict of interest as commentators while on BCCI's payroll a cardinal sin that merits a cover story on the Outlook and a criticism from Mr. Magazine in the previous issue? Or is it because they are still earning a lot from the game that arouses envy of other former cricketers and journalists ? India has lost two recent test matches because of their cricketers' pathetic performance. Asking Shastri and Gavaskar to share the blame because of their muted criticism of BCCI ,the ultimate culprit(!) , is quite a convoluted rationale for making a cover story. What is the hidden agenda of the Outllok here?
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