June 28, 2020
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Commentator’s Curse

Will our star TV experts ever relinquish their jarring partisanship?

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Commentator’s Curse
Commentator’s Curse

Before TV began to beam matches live into our drawing rooms, radio was the all-powerful medium that created images of a cricket match in the mind’s eye. My growing-up years were spent marvelling at the mesmeric qualities of John Arlott, who kept me glued to my transistor in following the fortunes of India—an average side with no pretensions of being an economic power—in the “fairytale” land of England.

Arlott’s “country burr” and lyrical prose on BBC Radio’s Test match special resonates in my ears even today when I think of India’s famous 1971 Oval win, or the double century the great Sunil Gavaskar scored at the same venue in 1979 that instilled pride in a nation then considered good for nothing. His tone may have been condescending but the praise was genuine and generous. Cricket was still to become a consumer product and India was not a brand yet.

In jarring contrast was the verbose Ravi Chaturvedi who drowned himself in sentimentality and broke down on the radio when India chased the then world record score of 403 in the Trinidad Test of the 1976-77 series. His words, “Yeh Nehru ka desh, Gandhi ka desh”, while describing India’s win on All India Radio did not sound jingoistic then, considering it was a moment to cherish in India’s long history of defeat and gloom. Unfortunately, the sentiments underlying Chaturvedi’s remarks, even then considered an aberration, have only magnified since.

Indeed, our past cricketing greats-turned-TV commentators seem to believe their job is not to add their nuanced understanding to the images of games we watch, but to voice their prejudices, jingoism and ultra-nationalism. Much as we all admire Sunil Gavaskar for his batting exploits, I hate to say, I find his comments on the game exasperating at times. Had a lesser known name mouthed similar, generic lines, his remarks would have been branded inane, even puerile. What is galling is that instead of objectively reporting and passing on his immense knowledge on technique and strategy, he routinely indulges in “gora-bashing”. Ravi Shastri, whose smug voice gives the impression that he and he alone knows what the game is all about, has his strong points, but most of the time he is guilty of flag-waving and projecting the Indian cricket team as a consumer brand without any blemish.

The Lord’s Test, which India lost, had a couple of terrible umpiring decisions which went against England at a very crucial stage of the final day. The HawkEye—which unfortunately India refuses to accept, thereby keeping lbws away from the purview of the drs—exposed the glaring umpiring errors but our great duo hypocritically kept mum, not delving on it beyond a passing mention. That is ideally how it should be, players and commentators should accept such errors as part of the game. But that’s not what Gavaskar and Shastri do when similar decisions go against India.

The famous Harsha Bhogle, who seems to suffer from verbal diarrhoea, may not be the agent provocateur but he very subtly turns the debate in the desired direction. Time and again, the trio has dissected even iffy and marginal umpiring errors that have gone against India, fuelling an angry reaction in India.

What Harold Larwood’s Bodyline attack could not achieve—severing of diplomatic ties between England and Australia—messrs Bhogle, Gavaskar and Shastri almost managed when India were in Australia last. Steve Bucknor’s admittedly poor decisions and the Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds row were portrayed live on TV as if they were deliberate incidents meant to undermine the rise of India by the “racist” White world.

This England-India series is a very important Test encounter and one wishes more voices like Nasser Hussain, David Lloyd and Sourav Ganguly would illumine our understanding of the duel. In fact, Ganguly has all the makings of a sharp, incisive critic of the game, though he needs to be more fluent and witty, qualities that make Hussain a listener’s delight.

Commentating on the 2005-06 series, the former England captain and now a respected voice on British television, Mike Atherton, had made this stunning revelation when he was in India: “Local commentators are asked not to mention sensitive subjects or controversial selection issues, no matter how germane they might be to the action...and with compliant commentators on board, they (the audience) will hear only what the bcci want them to hear.”

As a cricket fan, we need neutral voices, even a British perspective on the action in the middle, and not commentators masquerading as PR agents of the Indian board.

(The writer is Advisor, Sports, with the Hindustan Times)

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