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Just not cricket

 Nikhil D Thiyyar |  2015-05-03 23:00:39.0  |  New Delhi

Just not cricket

With the advent of the Indian Premier league (IPL) on India’s television screens, its boom time for cricketing commentators and ‘enthusiasts’ of every hue and shade. Whether it be the immensely enthusiastic Danny Morrison, the pretty Mayanti Langer, or the solid and sensible Nasser Hussain, there is a cricket commentator for almost everyone. Cricket commentary is a fine and exquisite art which has evolved over a period of time and the IPL has witnessed some fine moments of cricket commentary over the course of its eight seasons of existence.

However, fine commentary is no more the general rule. If there is a Harsha Bhogle at one end, there are the Sivaramakrishnans and Ravi Shastris on the other. And worse, in turning cricket into tamasha, some commentators make all effort to turn narration of the game sound similar to the chorus of popular folk traditions.

For the uninitiated here is a fine gem to sample. Rajat Bhatia was bowling gently for Delhi Daredevils, when Harsha Bhogle quipped wittily, “Any bowler has three pace variations – fast, medium and slow. But Rajat Bhatia has – slow, slower and slowest”. In an elegant and witty way Bhogle incisively commented on the exquisite control of pace that Bhatia was displaying during the match while also commenting on the immense irony that Bhatia had been dubbed a right-arm fast medium bowler by 

cricketing pundits. Bhatia like that former Indian cricketer Robin Singh is in reality a bowler who can’t definitely be called either a spinner or a medium pacer. In one simple statement Bhogle had expressed his views on the appetite for deficient dichotomies of black and white that cricket commentators seem to have in abundance. At the same time he displayed his grasp of the finer nuances of the cricketing game. And he did all of this in just a few elegant sentences. Such was and is Harsha Bhogle’s exemplary command over the nuances of the game that is cricket.

Unlike the talented Bhogle there was once upon a time a rare breed of commentators who plied their trade not on shiny LCD televisions but on simple transistor radios. This was during a time when Radios were the only source for the masses, who could not attend the game live-to catch the excitement of a cricket game. While radio commentary still exists in one form or the other the silken voice and immense knowledge of the commentators of that era has become ancient history. Commentators like Bhogle are an exception rather than the norm.

No longer is cricket commentary the unbiased and unhurried analysis of a beautiful game of cricket by someone as venerable and knowledgeable as Richie Benaud; a game of cricket played preferably at the majestic 

Melbourne cricket ground or for that matter the raucously enthusiastic environment of Eden Gardens. Instead today one has the misfortune of watching the likes of the dubious Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. Sivaramakrishnan (if one remembers him from his playing days at all) was a failed leg spinner who was dropped after a mere nine test matches because of poor form.

Sivaramakrishnan he of the not much wickets taken during his career fame has now morphed into a cliché`–spewing automaton masquerading as a cricket expert/ commentator in the IPL. What’s worse, commentators like Sivaramakrishnan throw aside qualities like a lack of bias to the wind and openly make no bones about where their bread and butter comes from. During a Chennai Super Kings and Kings eleven match last year, Sivaramakrishnan kept mum and sounded positively sad 

during the Kings eleven innings and like a patient of bipolar disorder became manically enthusiastic when Chennai Super Kings came on to bat.

So blatant was his bias/sycophancy to India cements and N Srinivasan that by the end of the match many cricket fans may have been excused if they got the impression that only Chennai Super Kings was playing. At this moment in this article the writer would like to acknowledge that cricket commentary is certainly not an issue of global importance that a single episode in it deserves to be labelled ‘cement gate’ on the lines of the watergate scandal. Nevertheless there was some grain of truth to the allegation that Sivaramakrishnan had put on a display of cricket commentary at its absolute worst. Fortunately or unfortunately Sivaramakrishnan is not the only incompetent commentator that the IPL has gifted to avid cricket fans.

Consider the likes of Navjyot Sidhu and Ravi Shastri. While Sidhu is known across the country for his crackpot witticisms, Shastri is infamous amongst cricket fans for stating the obvious. Some of the most recurring and repeated Shastri-isms are, “If India wants to win here, they will need to play well”. Shastri, who is usually the man mostly seen during presentation ceremonies, is known for his ability to leave the audience inadvertently in splits with his habit of stating the obvious. If losing a game isn’t bad enough, the first thing the captain of the losing side hears from him in the post match presentation is this line “You were outplayed in all three departments of the game”. It’s perhaps unkind but true to say that Ravi Shastri is the commentating equivalent of a sleeping pill, listen to him for 15 minutes and sleep will come quickly and swiftly to the most hard boiled of insomniacs. To the delight of ‘some’ cricket fans across the world, Shastri was last year appointed ‘Team Director’ of the Indian cricket team. One does not hear much from Shastri nowadays.

What explains this sharp deterioration in the quality of cricket commentary? Is it that sports channels and administrators are so fixated upon creating instant, incredible spectacles, that they have forgotten to hire and nurture quality commentators? To put it into perspective, what we seek from our commentators and writers  are insights into the sport, the thought process employed by a Team’s captain, the deviations from conventional strategies which have been employed. If all cricket fans cared about were baritoned laced white noise, most of them would probably watch their cricket matches with the mute button on.

Before we analyse why levels of cricket commentary have fallen faster than Icarus fell from the sky; it’s perhaps imperative to trace the journey of cricket commentary so far. How cricket commentators evolved from Richie Benaud into Navjyot Sidhu is an interesting albeit esoteric question to tackle for the cricketing purist. The record books tell us that the first cricket commentary occurred in 1922 in a Testimonial match for Charles Bannerman (Test cricket’s first centurion) at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The first commentator was someone called Lionell Watt and the first words of cricket commentary were spoken on the radio. In the year 1927, the first cricket commentary was broadcast on BBC in the Essex Vs New Zealand match at Leyton. Plum Warner, an ex-England player had the honour of being the first man or woman ever to do cricket commentary. His tenure as a commentator was however short-lived. He was replaced by F H Gillingham. Warner’s successor did not have an easy time either. Warner had the misfortune of being forced to offer commentary when rain had prevented play. Not knowing what to do Gillingham nervously took to reading out advertisement hoardings for the first hour. Unhappy with his performance, The BBC fired him too. Such were the exacting standards of commentating in sports those days.

Radio cricket commentary in India started in the early 1940’s when All India Radio invited ‘Bobby’ Talyarkhan to their fold. Talyarkhan was one of the earliest cricket commentators in India and also allegedly a notorious windbag. Nevertheless his radio commentaries played an important role in spreading word about the domestic cricket game and making the name of the players who played in the Bombay Pentangular cricket tournament popular throughout the country. According to noted cricket historian Ramachandra  Guha, Talyarkhan had “a fine command of English, a polished public speaking style and an ability to create a dramatic interest in the most boring of games”.

He reportedly disliked sharing the microphone and did the commentaries all alone throughout the day. Guha further writes that “Talyarkhan brought to cricket broadcasting a rich, fruity voice and a fund of anecdotes. He was ambitious and opinionated, with a voice that was ‘beer-soaked and forever cigarette-stained’. His self-control was superhuman, for he would speak without interruptions for hours, except for lunch and tea.”

The late 1950’s saw the emergence of Hindi cricket commentaries and despite the relatively slow start of Television in 1959 in Delhi, Hindi commentaries took the game of cricket to the hinterlands and the farthest corners of this country. Joga Rao ,Ravi Chaturvedi, Jasdev Singh, Manish Deb, Sushil Doshi, Skandgupt and MM Manjul were some known commentators who had a critical role in making the game accessible to the common man on the Indian street.
Cricket commentary has become much more fast-paced, with a panel of three new commentators appearing every half an hour or so. The frenetic pace of commentary can also be attributed to the fact that the game has also become frenetic. No longer is the luxury of watching Sunil Gavaskar pat a ball back to the bowler afforded to spectators; even test matches now see scores in excess of 400 in the third innings.

To be fair to the likes of Ravi Shastri and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, evolution of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, has ensured that there is an intense level of scrutiny which is accorded to cricket commentary in general. Everything which is said during a broadcast is listened to by millions and millions of cricket fans across the world on various mediums. Nevertheless given this reality it is sad that fans on most days have to make do with ordinary, sub-standard commentary. Unlike Richie Benaud, Harsha Bhogle, Rahul Dravid or Bobby Talyarkhan, most cricket commentators who now grace the game, have no great knowledge of its nuances, technical interplay or its history. With the advent of the shorter formats of the game, which are inextricably tied to commercial considerations, commentators have to understandably adhere accordingly. It is no longer uncommon to hear an Alan Wilkins erupt announce rather prosaically” that was a Brand XYZ six or a Brand ABC wicket”.

T20 cricket is a very fast-paced, eventful form of cricket and doesn’t really give a commentator the opportunity to go in-depth and into detail. Commentary in T20 cricket is more about adding to the levels of excitement in the game and making sure that the viewer does not reach for that remote control to switch channels. This is admittedly a difficult task as attention spans are not what they used to be.

Commentary, undeniably, varies with the format; and with more and more shorter versions of the game being played it seems unlikely that the informed, unbiased, languid and silken tones of yesteryears will grace our ears again. Who knows though? There may yet be a revival waiting for the art of cricket commentary. 

Nikhil D Thiyyar

Nikhil D Thiyyar

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