A mundane and meaningless exercise

Journalists ask the same, usual, hackneyed, beaten down, expected questions — and in response they receive answers that are, nothing new, earth shaking or sensational.

AMRIT MATHUR

MOST times a question is asked, and a microphone thrust into the face of a cricketer, the resultant answer is predictable. The journalists ask questions because they have to, match reports and cricket news require the quotes of the main performers, so that these pearls of wisdom are communicated to the readers.

With quotes being of such fundamental importance, media men chase players relentlessly, trying to extract one extra sentence out of their lips, one new angle to add spice to their report, one interesting observation. Normally, all these hopes are completely belied. Journalists ask the same, usual, hackneyed, beaten down, expected questions — and in response they receive answers that are, nothing new, earth shaking or sensational.

In fact so mundane and meaningless is the exchange that sometimes the experienced journalist, who has been through the drama for a length of time, knows how to beat the system. Like a clever road user who understands when to beat a traffic light (or take a short cut by driving a distance against the flow in a one-way lane) he manufactures the necessary quotes. He beats the system, nobody finds out, and even if someone did, it does not really matter.

With press conferences becoming boringly predictable (as a Bombay film where the hero will, we all know, clobber all the villains, and the police will put in an appearance after the matter has suitably concluded), not many take them too seriously. That is why Wasim Akram's response at a press conference the other day was so refreshing and grabbed attention. Stung by sharp criticism about Pakistan's sorry run, Akram started defending the team but sensing that this was not convincing enough, he added, with emphasis: "We are not sitting on our bums."

Which, I am sure, is an honest statement because any team performing poorly will not sit on its you-know-what. Akram's (front foot) strike injected life into a press conference which otherwise was dreadfully boring.

A pre-match interaction unfolds along these lines:

Captain, have you selected your team?

If it is a home series he will say we are waiting for the selectors who are yet to arrive and will assemble a few minutes before the toss. If abroad on tour the norm is the captain declares the team will only be finalised in the morning, after one final look at the wicket.

A post-match exchange is also a formality. The triumphant captain (all modesty) dedicates victory to his team, expresses satisfaction that everyone contributed, mentions every player who made double figures. The defeated captain is not as gracious, the last thing he wants after a sound walloping is sharp questions from an unfriendly mob, that too in the presence of TV cameras.

Yet this pain he must endure, and display dignity while doing so. What went wrong? someone wants to know. Well lots, growls the captain into the 20 microphones placed in front, adjusting his anti-glare shades and passing a weary hand over his 2 day old designer stubble. But tomorrow's another day, he points out. We are positive, looking forward to the next few games, not all is lost, we will bounce back and put up a better show.

Such statements have been made a million times, and will be repeated as often in the future. Likewise, ask a youngster about his ambition and he will promptly announce a noble intention to play for the country. Ask him the same question (after 10 years, 100 Tests and 10,000 runs) and he will modestly say he only aspires to carry on playing for India because there is no greater honour. Of course players have targets and goals to motivate them but most (for example, Tendulkar, S.R.) won't tell or will only talk cautiously about taking things as they come. Everyone secretly desires to be the best but it is the done thing to be discreet, conceal brash ambition and adopt a correct stance.

Press conferences, however unexciting, are a part of contemporary sport, they are indicators that sport is driven by the market (hence the 550 million dollar deals, the corporate wars and sponsorship rows) and the media. Cricket is hot khabar, everyone wants to know the latest, what is happening and why, and who better to speak than the participants themselves?

In the end, therefore, it all boils down to the players who must handle the sawaal-jawab. Players enjoy the attention and publicity, they realise remaining in the public eye, via the TV camera and the morning newspaper is immensely beneficial. Visibility has obvious advantages because a known, easily identifiable face with a right profile is a commercial cash card. Next time the player negotiates a deal, whether for footwear or tooth paste, he can leverage this favourably.

Yet, for all these pluses that reflect in the bank passbook, the media occasionally is a massive pain, more so because players lack training to cope with the googlies thrown up at them. Professional players are good at keeping the elbow up, they know how to get into line, keep the seam upright for outswing and when to leave the ball alone outside off stump. They are khiladis who work hard to improve, they spend countless hours practising and developing these cricket skills.

But when a cheeky journalist does sudden reverse swing they are caught out. The problem here is two fold, either the player is not comfortable because he does not know what to say. Or, which is worse, he does not know how to say what he has to say. Facing McGrath or Shoaib Akhtar is one thing, responding to TV cameras live, without stuttering, articulating your answer in lucid, precise words is art of a different kind. Which is why they'd be delighted if pesky journalists were banished from cricket grounds. Can that happen? As much chance as Shane Warne becoming a left-arm spinner.