Coronavirus: Broadcasters, groundsmen among hardest-hit by cricket shutdown

Those who work on the peripheries of the game — groundsmen and broadcast professionals — are among the most affected with the pandemic bringing the game to a standstill.

A cameraman shoots an exhibition cricket match played under newly installed floodlights at the ACA-VDCA stadium in Visakhapatnam, to test the light intensity. While a majority of Indian cricketers — international and first-class — are planning on how to keep themselves fit during the lockdown, most of those who work tirelessly on the peripheries of cricket are struggling to stay afloat.   -  K. R. Deepak

Naresh Manjrekar has been a constant at cricket stadia whenever the Men in Blue — or in whites — take the field for a high-profile cricket match in India. You may have never seen Manjrekar — or most of his colleagues in the broadcast crew — on camera but all of us enjoy a game of cricket live on television through their eyes.

Manjrekar is one of the top 20-odd cricket broadcast camerapersons in India. Having worked in the entertainment industry for more than two decades, Manjrekar has settled into cricket broadcast for the last 10 years. Not just because of his “passion” for cricket but also considering finances.

“All the cameramen are freelancers, be it films or serials or sports. The difference between then and now is when you work for a reputed production house like the BCCI, payments are prompt. Not once do you have to wait or remind them,” says Manjrekar.

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But for the last six weeks, ever since he returned from Lucknow after India’s ODI series against South Africa was abandoned, cricket — or angles — is not top-most on his mind. As he tries to relax at his family home in Madh Island, a fishermen’s grove off the coast of Mumbai, he can’t help but think of how to settle the last few pending instalments of an apartment he has bought in Mira Road, a far-off western suburb in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

“Since I am a freelancer, I didn’t want to even try for a home loan so I planned for it with whatever little investments I had. Since the possession is due in August, I had planned to settle the dues after being paid for the IPL, but now with IPL definitely not happening before August, I am not sure what I am going to do,” adds Manjrekar.

Naresh Manjrekar, one of the top 20-odd cricket broadcast camerapersons in India, in action. Manjrekar’s concerns — despite him having been a well-travelled professional — are perfectly understood with the world at large, especially India, heading into an economic downturn. Manjrekar is among the 100 to 150 broadcast professionals involved in high profile cricket telecast in India.   -  Special Arrangement

 

The 58-year-old is not alone. While a majority of Indian cricketers — international and first-class — are planning on how to keep themselves fit during the lockdown, most of those who work tirelessly on the peripheries of cricket are struggling to stay afloat. Be it an experienced cameraperson like Manjrekar or a groundsman — maali, for that matter — at Gorer Math, the iconic Kolkata maidan which has been a breeding ground for budding cricketers for more than a century — those who strive to make cricket happen are among the hardest hit due to the pandemic.

With the COVID-19 outbreak forcing India into a lockdown, sport in itself has come to a standstill. Be it a choc-a-bloc IPL game at Chepauk in Chennai or a summer vacation intra-family serious game of cricket at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, all of it has come to a halt.

Manjrekar’s concerns — despite him having been a well-travelled professional — are perfectly understood with the world at large, especially India, heading into an economic downturn. Manjrekar is among the 100 to 150 broadcast professionals involved in high-profile cricket telecast in India. Most of these personnel, however, work as freelancers, just like thousands of maalis at cricket grounds across the length and breadth of the country.

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While the curators and groundsmen who are employed by their respective state associations have been taken care of during these turbulent times, it’s the daily wagers who mow the grass, water the wickets while living in tents of clubs who are severely affected. Most of them in metros are migrants. While some are paid a fixed monthly remuneration which is meagre, most rely heavily on the tips they receive from those who book the grounds for a friendly or competitive club game.

“It’s these groundsmen who are struggling like anything,” stresses Nadim Memon, a veteran curator who is also an elected member of the Mumbai Cricket Association’s apex council. “Some of them could leave for their respective hometowns just before the lockdown started, so for the last month or so, we at the MCA have been trying to help the clubs by roping in a few daily-wagers to keep the grounds in shape. But now with the inter-state movement having begun, it will be difficult to find daily-wagers and keep maidans in shape.”

Groundsmen do their best to keep the ground match ready during a Ranji Trophy encounter between Bengal and Delhi at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. While the curators and groundsmen who are employed by their respective state associations have been taken care of during these turbulent times, it’s the daily wagers who mow the grass, water the wickets while living in tents of clubs who are severely affected.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

 

Thankfully, with the BCCI having stressed on the state associations to give financial security to curators and groundsmen, the top rung of the groundsmen’s ladder is yet to be affected. Samandar Singh Chauhan, the head curator at the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association, raves as to how the MPCA officialdom and administrators have ensured that those who are employed by the state association are taken care of. In a state as large as Madhya Pradesh, the state association looks after the daily maintenance of at least a dozen grounds across the state. “Barring the Holkar Stadium in Indore, all the other grounds are in areas that are unaffected. But to ensure our main stadium is maintained properly, the MPCA has given passes for a few of us to come and go freely,” Chauhan says from Indore, one of the most severely hit cities in India.

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“And the association has even disbursed advance salaries for all the groundsmen to help them have cash at disposal. From the little information I have about other states, most associations have been taking care of their groundsmen and curators very well nowadays.”

That’s been one of the welcome changes in Indian cricket over the last decade. With the IPL’s broadcast deals resulting in the share of the state associations hitting the roof, most associations offer permanent jobs and other facilities, including provident fund and health insurance, to its curators and groundsmen. Since the benefits don’t trickle down to those on the maidans, most of those at the bottom of the pile are struggling to make ends meet.

The scene is no different in the broadcasting arena, admits Aakash Chopra, one of the busiest cricketer-turned-commentators. “Some of the commentators do have long-term or contracts based on a minimum number of days per year, but most of the commentators — just like others in the broadcast team — work on freelance basis,” Chopra says.

“Obviously, it’s going to be painful for everyone, but I would say we are still the blessed ones, being fairly high on the food chain. I can understand the plight of some of those in the society and in our broadcast team, those who work for at least a day before the match and after a game to ensure it’s televised properly, all of them are freelancers. When there is no game, they don’t get paid. All of us are going to suffer and it’s all going to be about how much ability you have to take a hit.”

While some have created alternate avenues — Chopra, for instance, has struck a deal to commentate for an online cricket game — other professionals at the top of the pile are being forced to relax. Hemant Buch — a leading cricket producer and director across the globe — for instance was concerned about hardly spending any time at home in Gurugram this year.

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After a gig as a consultant in the first quarter, Buch was committed to be involved with the IPL (March-May), Sri Lanka’s home season (July-September) followed by the Caribbean Premier League (September), the T20 World Cup in Australia (October-November) and Mzansi Super League in South Africa (November-December).

“Obviously, it’s going to be painful for everyone, but I would say we are still the blessed ones, being fairly high on the food chain. I can understand the plight of some of those in the society and in our broadcast team, those who work for at least a day before the match and after a game to ensure it’s televised properly, all of them are freelancers. When there is no game, they don’t get paid. All of us are going to suffer and it’s all going to be about how much ability you have to take a hit,” says Aakash Chopra, one of the busiest cricketer-turned-commentators.   -  PTI

 

“It was supposed to be such a busy sporting year, not just cricket but even other sport, with big events lined up virtually all through the year. But now we just don’t know when we will be able to leave home, forget about working,” says Buch, one of the most experienced cricket broadcasters.

With huge money at stake for live sport, broadcasters across disciplines and across the globe are desperate to resume live, albeit without any spectators. Even cricket administrators across the globe have been contemplating resumption of international cricket before the year-end to cater to the television audience and retain their commercial interests.

But Buch isn’t sure if it would be wise to resume international sport before the vaccine comes into place. “If you have to start any time before a vaccine, we will have to find new measures to work. Obviously, masks and gloves will be the new normal. People are also saying that A/c or cold may also contribute (for virus’ spread); that’s something that we will have to look at carefully because whatever you do, with the kind of equipment involved, air-conditioning is a must in a broadcast environment,” he says.

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Besides, he underlines that logistical costs — with airline tickets likely to be way too costlier with the reduction of passengers in an aircraft and the possibility of self-isolation after landing overseas — it would lead to budgets escalating way too much. While he terms the current scenario as a “science fiction with nobody knowing what’s lying ahead”, he has a word of caution before resuming sport.

“The only practical possibility till a vaccine comes in is to do a franchise-based tournament — like an IPL or a Big Bash — without overseas players, with one venue and one hotel and try and organise the logistics accordingly. Even then there will be a risk, but that’s the only possibility as of now, with limited broadcast professionals.”