As well as watching matches, foreign reporters covering the cricket in India have an opportunity to sample the fare provided by their brethren in the local media and to observe developments as this country confronts its caricature and changes its reality. By and large, it has been an invigorating experience. However, the media hasn’t emerged unscathed from the liberation. Plain as day, it faces the formidable task of combining the trashiness of celebrity culture and the deification of the individual with its traditional role as the eyes and ears of the nation. As far as cricket is concerned, the strain is showing.
Alas, ignoble nationalism finds an outlet in every country. England’s yellow press is pockmarked with prurience and prejudice disguised as patriotism. Australia’s shock jocks serve the same purpose, endlessly banging the drum. Likewise, India’s 24-hour TV stations rely on outrage. All of them are dangerous not because they disturb liberal complacency but because they scrape the surface and inflame sentiment.
As much could be told from the coverage of the spat between Zaheer Khan and Ricky Ponting in the Mohali Test. All present agreed that Zaheer made some pointed remarks as the visiting captain (mark you) made his disconsolate way back to the pavilion. Everyone present accepted that Ponting heard the remarks and strode back to the Indian huddle to give them the benefit of his opinion. At such times, even the mildest of batsmen is vulnerable.
During the saga of the SCG Test of early 2008, too, the stations pushed the line hard. Reason took a back seat to rage. The possibility that India might have been partly to blame was swept aside. It became impossible to provide a balanced view. Competition is not always healthy. Left to its own devices, it can fuel paranoia, substitute hot opinion for calm analysis.
Of course, the cricket commentators do not stoop to conquer. Their voices are familiar and respected wherever the game is played. But they are compromised in a different way, not by the demand for extremity but conflicts of interest. Until the recent ructions, Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar served on the IPL governing council and also as commentators at the matches. In other words, they were both the bowler and the umpire. Viewers could not expect to hear any criticism of the IPL or Lalit Modi from these quarters. Moreover, IPL is a BCCI operation. Directly or indirectly, the commentators were on the BCCI payroll. And they were not alone. Harsha Bhogle was associated with the Mumbai Indians. Accordingly, he was poorly placed to cover any story about them, except the fluffiest. Perhaps they thought nothing could go wrong. If so, they had not spent much time studying Modi’s career or customs.
Inescapably, TV is part of the media. It is also part of the entertainment industry. It is the crossover that causes complications. Credibility demands that the senior voices retain their distance from authority to observe its ways better. Cricket corruption has in part been due to the greed of players, especially captains. Nor has illegal book-making helped. But it also revealed a failure by the media to do its job properly (less so this magazine). Significantly, the latest instance of corruption was exposed by investigative journos working for a well-resourced newspaper. Cricket is considerably in their debt. But aren’t all media people also investigators?
Already journalism is under threat from blogs where gossip can be presented as fact and rumour pose as truth. Authors of blogs need not concern themselves with trifles such as accountability, need not seek second sources. Instead, they feed the frenzy.
Crony club: Gavaskar, Shastri served on IPL council; Bhogle was with Mumbai Indians. That’s itself a commentary.(Photograph by AFP, FOTOCORP, From Outlook, November 01, 2010)
At such times, the only hope lies with the newspapers. As far as cricket is concerned, though, they too are rapidly losing ground. Capable and intrepid reporters continue to uncover stories and publish hard truths. That is the stuff of journalism. Left to their own devices, they could provide a sound critique of Indian cricket. But, unfortunately, they are not. Instead, they are undermined by a board that doesn’t feel the need to hire a media manager, disdained by a captain who didn’t feel obliged to attend a press conference after the Mohali Test, overwhelmed by the sound and fury and hemmed in by experts.
As far as the experts are concerned, the principle seems to be: the more the merrier and the shorter the better. Some of the columns contain an opening paragraph followed by the summation. It is a waste. In these circumstances, it’s impossible to establish an identity or develop an argument. Numerous past players contribute. Many of them are deep thinkers with interesting things to say. Instead they contribute a few words and move along. Perhaps the only exception is Sanjay Manjrekar, who has retained his independence and isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. His contributions are crucial.
In other countries, experts become genuine journalists and offer both knowledge and writing skills. Like the rest of us, they scratch away at their copy till it is serviceable. Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Nasser Hussein, Vic Marks, Mike Selvey, Derek Pringle, Mike Atherton and several Kiwis are respected not only as past players but as current professionals. Moreover, they understand the importance of the written word. The pen is not only mightier than the sword. The printed word has a permanence missing in the airwaves. Newspapers can cut to the quick. That is the reason tyrants close them down.
It’s hard to think of a single Indian past player working primarily for newspapers. Most of them seem to be brands. Better to have one columnist than five, one considered argument than 10 safe opinions. Otherwise, newspapers cannot provide the oversight that every nation and every game requires.
At one point in his excellent piece (Slips, A Silly Point), Roebuck writes: “Australia’s shock jocks serve the same purpose, endlessly banging the drum.” Is this supposed to deflect attention from Australian cricket journalists, mainly from the print media? The aforementioned orchestrated a stream of negative articles against the bcci, their pet hate, during and after the Sydney Test incident in 2008, and also when John Howard’s nomination for the top icc post was shot down. Australia’s “shock jocks” are, in general, cricket ignoramuses, who make a great deal of noise because their listeners follow football, rather than cricket. Charu Khopkar, Sydney
Roebuck is right; thank goodness someone has written something on the cringeworthy, deplorably low standards of journalism (most notably from a certain T.... clan of publications). He is right with the Zaheer-Ponting incident also—a non-issue, but if anyone was to be blamed, it had to be Zaheer. Incidentally, the Mitchell Johnson-Suleiman Benn incident at Perth a year back was even more exaggerated than one can imagine. All we sports lovers want is objectivity. Ajesh Nag, Bangalore
In Harsha Bhogle’s defence, I don’t recall his taking on his usual role in the commentary box when he was associated with the Mumbai Indians in ipl-1. But you have hit the bull’s eye with Shastri and Gavaskar. Their multiple roles represent a huge conflict of interest. Commentary during the three ipl years was loud, obnoxious and filled with ad slogans. M. Sharim, Bangalore
Glad to see Peter Roebuck in ‘form’ (Slips, A Silly Point, Nov 1). Indian media is owned by businessmen unknown to consumers of news and ‘opinions’. Paid news is just the small change of this evil. Selective reporting, even sensationalism, are quite common. A view from the outside like that of Roebuck is a much-needed corrective.
Good article, Roebuck, and absolutely accurate observations. I respect Manjrekar's opinions for the same reason as you do -- objective, sharp, and well articulated. I remember a few years ago when Sachin was experiencing a slump in his form and Manjrekar wrote an honest and insightful piece and was roundly ostracized by one and all. I also agree that the 2008 Monkeygate scandal and the series in Australia were poorly reported in the Indian media. I guess jingoism and economic growth/power go hand in hand, as amply demonstrated by history and current events.
I really enjoy reading the observations of former players in England and Australia (also NZ), particularly about the current Ashes series. Too bad former Indian players are nowhere in this league!
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