How ESPN-STAR `raised the bar'

HIS May 10 column certainly had Harsha Bhogle `Hitting Hard' at the cricket writing fraternity in India.


HIS May 10 column certainly had Harsha Bhogle `Hitting Hard' at the cricket writing fraternity in India. But that is a Feature theme for another day. What column concerns me is Bhogle noting that "television raised the bar in the middle to late nineties''. It did. But could espnstar, at least while beaming to India, contest the point that it "lowered the bar'' in the last couple of years? Via the instant ` cricketicking' persona of Navjot Singh Sidhu? Who shall deny that Navjot Singh brings the same style of erudition and background to cricket commentary that Khushwant Singh did to magazine editing? Yet no one lowered magazine editing standards, in India, like Khushwant Singh did.

Navjot Sidhu... all espnstar style . — Pic. RAMESH SHARMA-

Where once (under the venerable A.S. Raman) it was dancing celebrity Yamini Krishnamurthi on `The Illustrated Weekly Of India' Cover, it now was Shakila Banu Bhopali! If in the bargain basement Khushwant sold the magazine like never before, so does Navjot Singh Sidhu jell, on espnstar, like no telly commentator before him. That is the precise reason espnstar chose to stay with Sherry through its troubled World Cup span. His espnstar rivals could make light of Sherry's commentary. Not of his popularity. If making such a ready concession to popular sentiment is okay by a cricket-centric and English-oriented channel like espnstar, why berate Sony, Ruby and Mandi for focusing on ` body language' beyond the cricket field?

At least SonyMax laid no pretence to being anything but crickety ` variety entertainment' with its pre-eminently filmi vocabulary. There were no fewer than 28 TV commentators doing duty during the World Cup. If SonyMax chose to zero in on the more mediocre ones among the lot, this was in Sexy Shot tune with the tone of the channel. At least SonyMax did it with greater flair than does TEN Sports as it invites the telebuff to be a `Fitness Beach' comber while crick-watching. Where Sanjay is all TEN technique, Sherry is all espnstar style. How many college-going boys and girls swear by Sherry where others swear at him! They are to be heard quoting `Sidhuisms' verbatim.

Sherry, in fact, is a cult figure with the country's youth. Something even espnstar could not afford to wish away. We saw how the bar-raising espnstar did not budge a centimetre on Navjot Sidhu when our World Cup team, Gang-led by Dada, wanted Sherry taken off the screen. For the way Navjot came out against Sourav & Co after that 9-wicket mauling at the paws of the Kangaroos. Here was espnstar, already finding the going heavy without the visuals of the World Cup. There was our Sou-in-one skip demanding his pound sterling of Sherry flesh.

Predictably, espnstar just had Sherry sitting tight. Not wanting Navjot to get up even when Harsha brought in that leopard ` live'. Cornered, Sherry did lose poise for a while. Yet, really speaking, you could no more get Sherry to change his com shots than the leopard its Harsh spots. Indeed, if it is turbaned excellence espnstar wants in the box, it has Maninder Singh on the Jason Dasey tap. But then Maninder, in essence, is a turbaned Sanjay. While Navjot is now the picture of turbaned eloquence, now ` turbanal' as `turbanal' could be. This inventive `weakness' of Navjot Sidhu is his innovative strength in English commentary on our philistine telescreen.

If English yardsticks alone mattered, NDTV's `24 x 7' would not have struggled to touch 1% in the TAM ratings the way it did during the April 20-26 phase. Deprived of the STAR crutch, Prannoy Roy is still finding the helicopter landing rough. His English `24 x 7' perhaps has a captive viewership in the more British South. Elsewhere, Prannoy's Hindi `NDTV India' cornered 3% in TAM reckoning. Where the `Star News' that Prannoy Roy had left — as a channel now coming through exclusively in Hindi — shot up to 17% viewership (in the April 20-26 TAM tier). Offering stiff competition to the Hindi pioneering Zee News (19%). Even ` Sahara Samay' clinched 9%. All this while Sonia Varma failed signally to report (in ` Cinema India') on the extent to which NDTV's Abhigyan Prakash is hooked on Poonam Dhillon! Still India Today's `Aaj Tak' remained the sturdy Hindi leader at 46% --- following the great gains it had made with its spot coverage of the World Cup. At its World Cup peak, `Aaj Tak' had tipped the viewing scale at 52%.

These TAM figures are relevant to the hard fact of Hindi news channels eating into the vitals of a predominantly English commentated game. A substantial share of espnstar's abiding English clout (with the Indian viewership) does rest on the colourful telly unfolding of Sherry. Where it gets to matching Sherry in populist appeal, a Boycs alone (when fully fit) is ` game' enough for the task. Sherry, meanwhile, is espnstar's ready Sardar answer to any momentary 46% lady viewership that Sardarni Mandi might spirit away.

Where Mandira was at once transparent and transient, Navjot is a solid part of the espnstar commentary dispensation geared to India. Love him or hate him, ignore you cannot Sherry.Harsha himself is now something of a phenom on espnstar. But no one blends fluency with popularity (on espnstar) in the unique andaaz Navjot does. Even while being suited and booted, Navjot could break into a vocal bhangra any moment. No doubt, on Indian television, Navjot has "lowered the bar''. This, ironically, is what makes Navjot Singh Sidhu the matinee idol of cricket commentary in India. How to rein in Navjot during the Pakistan-India face-off in the offing is strictly espnstar's spot of bother. Just bring Navjot Singh and Aamir Sohail face to face and see how the sparks fly!