THE hosts are winning, the tourists are whining, and all's well with the world, but why on earth isn't Ravi Shastri doing commentary? "I wasn't asked," is the 36-year-old's laconic reply: "My services weren't required." But the buzz is that Shastri's exclusion is just the first sign of the big-bucks battle for Indian cricket's TV rights that's round the corner.On one side, Trans World International (TWI), who are producing the pictures for ESPN. And on the other, WorldTel, run by Shastri's pal and business partner Mark Mascarenhas. ESPN's five-year deal with the BCCI ends soon, and Mascarenhas, with the '96 World Cup behind him, is eyeing the crown jewel. Ergo: TWI has kept Shastri out to spite WorldTel.
"No way!" retorts Shastri, on rumours he's paying the price for his proximity to Mascarenhas—Sachin's multi-million dollar deal with WorldTel was negotiated by him. And then, almost as an afterthought, adds: "I don't know. I've no idea." But those familiar with Indian cricket's politics say that's just the case: "His commentary and business interests don't match."
Ideally, Shastri should be no problem for TWI or WorldTel because technically he's a freelancer, and anyway ESPN and Star Sports are now one. But the pitch is queered by two major domos of Indian cricket in the ring. BCCI boss-turned-ICC chief Jagmohan Dalmiya is close to Mascarenhas. And Dalmiya's friend-turned-foe Inder Singh Bindra is seen to be with TWI.
"In the battle for the BCCI crown last November, the bone of contention was the contract to sponsor Tests and one-dayers that Pepsi had signed with Bindra just before he remitted office. The lucrative contract shut out Coca-Cola with whom Mascarenhas had gotten closer," says a commentator. "It's a repeat-show with TV rights coming up for renewal: only, Shastri's the pawn."
TWI insiders say Shastri lost out after Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports, which is telecasting the series in Australia, insisted on three Aussie commentators (Ian Chap-pell, David Hookes and Keith Stackpole/Jeff Thomson) leaving space for only two Indians. Harsha Bhogle with his fresh contract with ESPN. And Gavaskar whose 10,122 runs, 34 tons and a contract with Murdoch's Star Sports triumphed over Shastri's 3,830 runs and 11 tons.
Shastri's says it's all right that he's not commentating on an India series for the first time in four years: "I'm a professional, this is just one series, there are several more coming." But given the strides he has made of late—"Richie Benaud is the best; after that it's you and Ian Chappell", Dalmiya pal Ali Bacher's surmise—Shastri's presence in the press box, writing columns syndicated by a company other than his own, instead of sitting in the commentators' den, makes for interesting viewing.
Will Indian fans never get to see him if WorldTel doesn't produce pictures? "I really don't know," is all Shastri says. But with DD, as in Prasar Bharati, suddenly emerging a major player in cricket telecast after winning the rights to the ICC Trophy in Dhaka, thanks to chairman Dalmiya, and with WorldTel asking for the least money to produce it, there are many who might rush to tell Shastri: "Don't worry."