Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan had questioned the loyalty of “an Indian TV commentator” in a midnight tweet on March 24, 2016, following India’s providential one-run win against Bangladesh in the T20 World Cup. Although he hadn’t named anyone, Harsha Bhogle, a commentator in that match, sent a reply to Bachchan via a direct message on Twitter. He hurriedly put together 499 words on Facebook to explain the nuances of a cricket broadcast.
“It would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time,” Bachchan had tweeted. But Bhogle, the articulate chemical engineer, on “some people’s” guess ‘assumed’ that Bachchan was referring to him. So, he felt it was incumbent upon him to expatiate on the complexity of a cricket telecast.
Significantly, within minutes of Bachchan’s tweet, M.S. Dhoni wrote on Twitter: “Nothing to add.” It was interpreted as support for Bachchan and a criticism of Bhogle. And, lo and behold, an avalanche hit Bhogle that tumultuous night. Yet, till now, no one has explained for sure who Bachchan’s target was. The result of that midnight mayhem: Bhogle’s lovers and haters were split vertically.
A similar incident of a sharply divisive cricketing remark was witnessed after India’s 31-run defeat to pre-tournament favourites England on June 30 in the ongoing World Cup. Players-turned-commentators Sourav Ganguly, Sanjay Manjrekar, and Aakash Chopra questioned the ‘intent’ of Dhoni (42 not out off 31 balls) and Kedar Jadhav (12 not out off 13 balls) for not going for big shots in the last few overs as the required run rate mounted. Subsequently, a theory was floated—its origin unknown—that the Indian team had an eye on its run rate, thinking it might come handy for the semi-final qualification equation. In the event, India qualified as the top team of the league phase.
During the World Cup, Manjrekar had also made a comment on Ravindra Jadeja, the left-handed all-rounder. “I’m not a big fan of bits-and-pieces players which Jadeja is at this point of his career in 50-over cricket,” he said. Jadeja reacted sharply: “Still i have played twice the number of matches you have played and i m still playing (sic). Learn to respect ppl who have achieved. i have heard enough of your verbal diarrhoea,” he tweeted.
The slow scoring rate of India’s middle-order had been flagged earlier, after India’s narrow win against Afghanistan, when Sachin Tendulkar told a news channel: “I was also not happy with the partnership between Kedar and Dhoni…. We batted 34 overs of spin bowling and scored 119 runs…. There was no positive intent.”
However, passionate cricket fans venting on social media went only after Manjrekar, with a few saying they muted the sound of their TV sets when he came on air. Curiously, in this fevered heat of the World Cup, no one questions the integrity or capabilities of Dhoni or any other player. But, as expectations soar impossibly in cricket’s biggest show, a player or the team’s failure to live up to those creates incredible frustration and hastily pronounced harsh criticism.
Former India Test batsman Abbas Ali Baig and TV/radio commentators Narottam Puri and Ravi Chaturvedi feel intolerance towards commentators is increasing. “A commentator has the right to say what he feels like, according to his judgement, as long as he’s not being mean. He shouldn’t be penalised for that. There are too many views on social media, it’s inevitable. The situation is getting out of hand,” the once-debonair Baig tells Outlook.
Puri, an ENT surgeon-cum-commentator, agreed with Ganguly’s views after the loss to England. “He was absolutely right when he said there was no point in saving wickets. You [Manjrekar’s detractors] were not worried about that part, but took on Manjrekar, who is a little more vocal about everything. Nobody is criticising Ganguly while Manjrekar maybe guilty of his choice of words,” says Puri.
Compared to Indian commentators, those in other cricketing nations have much more freedom to criticise, and express strong opinions. Still, compared with the government’s instructions for commentators on Doordarshan about 30 years ago—a list of do’s and don’ts that barred them from criticising team selection and umpires—those describing the game now on private channels have much more freedom, says Puri.
“Before the 1987 World Cup, the government instructed us to refrain from calling it Reliance World Cup, the chief sponsor. But we argued that if tournaments could be called Benson & Hedges series in Australia and John Player League in England, why not Reliance World Cup, and won the day,” says Puri.
Veteran commentator Ravi Chaturvedi points out how TV commentary changed drastically after the rebel Kerry Packer series in Australia in 1977 as it became “more chatty”. “Before Packer, there used to be one commentator and one expert. Packer brought two commentators on Channel 9 and they talked even when the action was on. Earlier, commentators would stop as the bowler started his run-up,” recalls the professor of zoology. But he defends present-day Indian commentators: “It has become the norm that you can’t criticise players, who anyway don’t take criticism sportingly.”
If it was the Indian government earlier who tried to control commentators, in 2019 the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) rights partner reminded them midway through the World Cup that their “duty is not to judge or highlight mistakes” of umpires. It came after Michael Holding criticised the umpire for failing to spot a clear no ball that eventually led to Chris Gayle’s dismissal in the West Indies-Australia match (Australia won by 15 runs). When the ICC rights partner wrote to Holding about his comments, the West Indian fast bowling legend delivered a thunderbolt in his letter, writing that “commentators are being more and more compromised by controlling organisations to the point of censorship”.
While the ICC employs commentators for its tournaments, the BCCI hires them for bilateral series at home, the IPL, and domestic tournaments. That’s why when Bachchan tweeted against “an Indian commentator”, and Dhoni endorsed it, the BCCI may have been swayed/influenced to drop Bhogle for the 2016 IPL. Bhogle’s detailed explanation was not just to defend himself, but can be seen as a statement on behalf of all Indian commentators.
Later, Bhogle wrote: “The pictures are largely the same but the telecast goes to a fairly well-defined geographical zone. And obviously, to people who understand Hindi. There the commentary can be India-centric, but not biased. You can look at every situation from an Indian point of view; that is acceptable…something you cannot do on a world feed.”
Bhogle, a well-mannered Hyderabadi, even addressed passionate Indian fans: “I have always felt that people take commentary, and commentators, too seriously. We are merely storytellers, the players create the story. We don’t influence the game and our role is no more than to be a guide….”
Yet, Jadeja did take Manjrekar very seriously when he made his “bits-and-pieces” comment, while ignoring what he said in the same breath: “In Test matches, he is a pure bowler. But in 50-over cricket, I would rather have a batsman and a spinner.” Since Jadeja’s “verbal diarrhoea” tweet, there has been no reaction from the BCCI and the Indian team management, maybe because no one wants to distract the team’s focus till it was a World Cup title contender. But, since a BCCI code of conduct is firmly in place, it remains to be seen if any action would be taken against Jadeja, now that India has ended its WC campaign after losing the semi-final against New Zealand by 18 runs.
Manjrekar, who played 37 Tests and 74 ODIs, would not have had to face a royal roasting from fans had there been well-defined, strict guidelines for users of social media. In its absence, it is a chaotic free-for-all out there. Is it a surprise that Manjrekar, who proved to be a more successful commentator/writer than a Test batsman, trended for days on Twitter? Unsurprisingly, commenting on the furore, he tweeted: “Criticism, abuse?...I see only love for me on Twitter.”