As cricket types go, Harsha Bhogle is so saccharine sweet, Maneka Gandhi would have issued a health warning had she been food minister. Grinning ear to ear like a schoolboy who got the toffee he wanted, with a gee-whiz twinkle, he lays it on thick and heavy on air. His adjective-laden newspaper column doesn’t hurt a fly. In person, he is the archetypal Hyderabadi, his ‘tehzeeb’ shining through even after all these years of living in big, bad Bombay. On Twitter, @bhogleharsha uses the word ‘lovely’ once every six-ball over.
Over two decades, the ‘independent’ voice, as opposed to cricketers turned empire-builders, had patted every donkey drop that had come his way—match-fixing, monkeygate, Lalit Modi, DRS, conflict of interest, N. Srinivasan—with a dead bat even a BCCI apologist would have failed to muster. Yet, what could the harmless babbler have done to irritate India’s cricket administrators or players so much that he is watching the ninth edition of the IPL, whose auction he had conducted two months ago from the ramparts of his apartment in Mumbai, from our side of the TV screen?
The final stone may have been hurled at 12.53 am on March 24, after India’s last-over win against Bangladesh in the T20 World Cup, when @SrBachchan, showing greater alacrity than when he responded to the Panama Papers, tweeted: “T2184-With all due respects, it would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time.” In later comments, he explicated: “Fed up ho gaye yaar... I mean it’s the limit...it’s just so annoying and frustrating...jab dekho unki tareef karte rehte hain.”
For those likely to be confused if Big B was accusing the Little Master (Sunil Gavaskar) of such internationalism, he said no!!!!!!!! with approximately as many exclamation marks. Not Manjrekar either. Ergo, a la Sherlock Holmes, when all other possibilities had been eliminated, whoever remained in the commentary box at the time must be the anti-national, id est Harsha Bhogle. Bharat mata ki jai. Mahendra Singh Dhoni retweeted Bachchan, saying: “Nothing to add”, implying he and possibly other players shared AB’s sentiment.
Harsha Bhogle with Amitabh Bachchan at a media event for the Champions League T20 in 2010
The hand of a couple of senior cricketers is heavy in l’affaire Bhogle. On a recent flight, one senior player, whose physical fitness has repeatedly come under question, is believed to have confronted him about his utterances on the team. Another senior cricketer, also from the same zone, is believed to have stepped in to play peacemaker so that things didn’t get out of hand, but word of this mid-air conflagration is reported to have got around to BCCI bosses.
“For all the rapport he had built up over the years, Harsha was getting bad vibes from the Indian team lately,” a well-placed source told Outlook. “After he wrote or said something about one or more players a few weeks ago, a top player sent him a text message in the middle of the night. Essentially, it said something like ‘How dare you say this about me?’ BCCI officials, who are taking cognisance of players feedback and social media reactions on commentators, seem to have reacted.”
It surprises many that ‘Mr Nice Guy’ should be the first to pay the price for that new spirit of vigil—and like this. “I did not find anything hyper-critical in Bhogle’s commentary. If anything, he has been less critical than he could have been at times,” says veteran commentator Narottam Puri, who dismisses player criticism as the cause of the exit. “Harsha was featured in the IPL promos. His flights were booked. His hotel rooms were booked. I think there is some other reason why he is not on Sony Max.”
Another version, reported by The Indian Express, which runs his weekly column, is that during India’s opening WT20 game in Nagpur on March 15, Bhogle, who was doing both the English and the Hindi commentary, had a heated exchange with a Vidarbha Cricket Association official over a closed door at the Jamtha Stadium, as a result of which the 54-year-old had to go up and down several flights of stairs repeatedly to do commentary. This apparently reached the ears of BCCI president Shashank Manohar, who hails from Nagpur.
“There are two boxes at the Jamtha Stadium, the VCA president’s box and the BCCI president’s box. Even if they are vacant, no one is allowed to sit there or pass through them. We apply this rule stringently,” a VCA official told Outlook. “When Harsha requested a gateman to open the door, so that he could walk across from the English commentary box to the Hindi one, he was told to take permission from the VCA president [Prakash Dixit]. Harsha retorted in anger and in frustration kicked the door a couple of times.”
Taken together, the two incidents nine days apart seem to have pressed pause to a broadcasting career that, unlike his hair, had defied the laws of gravity. “Harsha Bhogle’s removal is unimportant in itself but useful as a window into the workings of the BCCI and the curious relationship between public sport and patriotism,” wrote the scholar Mukul Kesavan. “The arbitrariness and opaqueness isn’t a surprise. All totalitarian regimes are organised around the whims of the Great Panjandrum.”
That’s the irony of the decommissioning, which all things considered, relates to a private contract between a private individual and a private broadcaster, in this case Sony Max. It comes when the functioning of the BCCI is being put through the blender by the Supreme Court week after week. And it pretty nearly confirms what the ‘Report of the Supreme Court Committee on Reforms in Cricket’, as the Justice Lodha committee was called, said: “Even in regard to cricket commentary, games organised by the BCCI have a contractual condition that there can be no criticism of the BCCI or its selection process, thereby curtailing an exercise of free speech.”
Understandably, the BCCI has been allergic to criticism in recent years. Veteran Australian commentator Ian Chappell has preferred to sit out of India tours because of the conditions laid down by it with the host broadcaster on what he could or could not say. Says spin legend Bishan Singh Bedi: “Four commentators can have four different opinions, but BCCI wants them to have the same opinion. Commentators have brought this upon themselves. I have sympathy for Harsha but nothing beyond that because he and his ilk have allowed this situation to come.” West Indian commentator Tony Cozier told Outlook: “Like the BCCI, the WICB also controls who would be on the commentary panel, crew etc.”
Neither BCCI president Manohar, secretary Anurag Thakur, or vice-president Rajiv Shukla have commented on benching Bhogle. Says cricket writer Prem Panicker: “It is not about how good or bad you are as a commentator. It is about basic professionalism on the part of the Board.... Till date, nobody appears to have called Harsha that you are no longer an employee and given him a reason. That reason doesn’t have to be given to the public, but the employee deserves that the employer tells him why he is being sacked.”
BCCI sources, however, say it is all very normal, even though his commentary schedule had been worked out and his flights booked. “The Board as a matter of policy has decided to give opportunities to young commentators, who are also not as expensive as Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri or Bhogle. We have decided to hire commentators on a case-to-case basis, not for all 365 days of the year. This is being done to cut costs.”
That the country’s richest sporting body too needs to cut costs in this brazen manner must comfort many business houses. It would certainly comfort Harsha Bhogle himself. In 1992, recalls the veteran Hindi commentator Ravi Chaturvedi, Bhogle and the late Suresh Saraiya had spent their own money to fly down to South Africa to cover the series for All India Radio. That BCCI, circa 2016, cannot afford him will be news.
The decommissioning of Harsha Bhogle underlines a TV culture where broadcasters value compliance of stars over the competence of commentators. Bhogle played cricket for Osmania University but that’s small change when everyone around you has belted thousands of runs in international cricket. “Non-cricketer commentators have to show 150 per cent of their talent and cricketers get accepted even if they show only 70 per cent of their capability,” says veteran commentator Sushil Doshi.
With BCCI showing him the door for the IPL, whose rights are with Sony Max, the question is what awaits Bhogle, who is contracted to Star Sports? Does Star, which has a monopoly over cricket rights in India from the BCCI, have it in it to override the objections of players and administrators and use Bhogle, or will it sacrifice him? Star Sports had no response, but many believe that Bhogle will swallow this and worm his way back, for the stakes are high.
Chisti Mujahid, the Delhi-born Pakistani commentator who was once dropped at the last minute by Radio Pakistan for the 1999 World Cup, offers solace: “I would tell Harsha that if nothing else, he could come over to Pakistan to do commentary. I am with him.... He can always go to court, but I would not advise him to do so.”
So, what kind of commentary would satisfy Bachchan, Dhoni and the BCCI? Mukul Kesavan had this suggestion: “The commentary team should be led by Bachchan and his famous baritone. For the drearier passages of the game—a long partnership by the enemy, for example—Anupam Kher could take over to ratchet up patriotic support for our soldiers.... Better still, Indian fast bowlers could run in to the rhythmic chant of Bharat mata ki jai, all catches could be appealed with ‘Vande Mataram’ and umpires heedless of Mother India’s needs could be punished by being publicly immobilised in stocks erected for that purpose in the stadium after the match.”
The Hot Spot
Other commentators too have had run-INS with cricket boards/teams
Tony Cozier sues WICB chief Tony Cozier, who has written on cricket for over 50 years, is known for calling a spade a spade. Cozier, 75, a few weeks ago sued West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president Whycliffe “Dave”Cameron for defamation in the Caribbean. “He had said that I was not seeing well because I had reached a certain age. But my optometrist had cleared me. I have sued him and the case is in Barbados High Court,” Cozier told Outlook from the Caribbean. “I think the WICB is angry with what I write and not me being on the TV commentary panel. It had told the TV company that I should not be on the panel.”
Nasser Hussain vs Ravi Shastri spat 2011
Shastri and Hussain had an on-air spat over umpire’s Decision Review System (DRS) when Harbhajan Singh was declared LBW off pacer Stuart Broad in the second Test at Trent Bridge in 2011. The ball had hit Harbhajan’s bat first. Hussain said, “Using incomplete DRS is disgraceful by BCCI.” Shastri reacted: “What right does he have to say this?” The BCCI has been opposing the DRS by saying that the system was not foolproof. Shastri said that the English board was jealous of IPL and BCCI’s riches. “The bottomline is that they [England] have never been bloody No.1 in Test cricket.”
Mark Nicholas vs West Indies team On March 3, 2016, well-known TV commentator Mark Nicholas wrote that the “West Indies are short of brains but have IPL history in their ranks”. That spurred on the Windies to raise their game and go on to win the ICC World Twenty20 title a month later in India. “How could you describe people as having no brains? Even animals have brains,” Darren Sammy said after winning the final in Calcutta. Reacting quickly, Nicholas, a former Hampshire first-class cricketer, wrote: “I regret it and apologise for it.” He also said he holds Sammy “in the highest regard”.
Ian Chappell axes BCCI’s commentary offer Former Australia captain Ian Chappell in 2013 declined an offer to be part of a commentary panel for the India-Australia ODI series because the BCCI wanted him (and others) to not discuss selection matters, DRS and administrative issues. Although ESPN, the broadcaster, had sent the offer, the BCCI was controlling the commentators. “I emailed back [to ESPN] to ask what these restrictions were and was told: ‘I couldn’t talk about selection, DRS or administrative matters. I responded [by] saying I didn’t feel I could do my job properly under those circumstances....”