Sparring with commentators

Listen to an Indian player talk these days about Indian commentators and brotherhood is the last thing you get. Sarcasm, yes; bitterness, probably; dislike, unquestionably.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

"I mean, how do they know I don't value my India cap." — Indian player in South Africa.

Listen to an Indian player talk these days about Indian commentators and brotherhood is the last thing you get. Sarcasm, yes; bitterness, probably; dislike, unquestionably.

Players whine, commentators embellish. It's all rather amusing at times. No player enjoys criticism. Then when he gets older, he sits in front of microphone and it comes naturally to him. When the present lot get to sit in a booth, it's going to be interesting to see what they say.

The players have a point. One day against Australia, they're the Batliboi XI. A few matches later, against Pakistan, and they've become World Cup heroes. Hysteria back home is taken for granted, for the crowds are fuelled less by logic and more by emotion. Commentators they expect to be more reasonable.

The commentators have a point. No team, Pakistan aside, is as enigmatic as the Indians, a word used by John Wright to describe his team. They swing from mediocrity to magnificence in the same week, and constantly test a public's faith and a commentator's vocabulary. Often it seems their mind is elsewhere. Often they demand a generosity they don't deserve.

The commentator has to be neutral. He may have played with some in the team, tutored others, and lunched with even more. But in the box he is not expected to do any favours, he is a messenger who wears a cloak of impartiality. There are to be no holy cows, no state affiliations, no excuses.

Often that's what happens, often it doesn't. Commentators carry grudges, they attempt to influence selection, they play favourites; in the past this has been apparent. Ganguly is rarely well spoken of, neither was Azharuddin, though one might argue this was not always without reason. Still, occasionally the comments grate, the tone turns strident, the remarks border on the rude.

How far should commentators go is an impossible task. The rules that apply in Australia are not necessarily relevant in India, and vice versa. No country analyses, debates and chews over cricket, prior to a match and after it, with the intensity of India. Film is replayed so often, shots dissected, demeanour scrutinised, that commentators almost inevitably stray into forbidden areas in their need to add value. Cricket in India is personal and, alas, so is some of the commentary.

Playing to the gallery is a sin of vanity but not much more; except when the gallery is moved to smash players' windscreens, throw stones at their homes, the commentator must reflect on the power he owns. He is scarcely responsible for the behaviour of a few idiotic fans, but a certain judiciousness is not out of order. If commentary swings as wildly and emotionally as the Indian team's performance, then they are no better than the players they grumble about. Telling it like it is, is the weakest of defences.

The game in India has turned into a tamasha, it is more circus than sport. All talk of cricket being a religion is nonsense, for we desecrate our temples (grounds) and mock our idols. Competing television stations have embraced hype and hugged hoopla: all series are either battles, or wars, or muqabla. Stations breed animosity between teams, build up individual contests, create fake auras, all with the intent of seducing advertisers and attracting viewers. Then they send in shock troops in mini-shirts to conduct interviews. It is all quite unseemly.

The commentator is expert, he is supposed to be above such triviality, the sober member of the bandwagon. He is a cricketing fellow, who knows more about bouncing pitches, spinning fingers and footwork than we do. He is there to explain, analyse, interpret; most do that well (Gavaskar, Shastri, Manjrekar), but a few see their role as entertainer as well. Sidhu, for instance, is not without some wisdom, but in his apparent need to construct a larger-than-life image often loses his bearings. The players contend they have no issue with cricketing censure. That if commentators remain within the boundaries of technique and temperament, they will swallow it. That itself is a trifle disingenuous, for the mildest of disapproval is hard for some players to digest. Still, what irks them is when comments move beyond playing ability and into more sensitive areas. For instance: they play for money, or they don't practice, or they don't value their caps, or their attitude is woeful, or they're selfish.

Money is a favourite whip. For long, cricketers' endorsements have been out of proportion with their performance. It is not the players' fault. If corporate houses offer them obscene sums they would be stupid not to sign on the dotted line. The criticism is that they spend too much time doing ads, though to be fair considering the time spent travelling and touring it is amazing they can fit them in at all. Families will confirm how little they see of their sons.

But some players are incautious, less sensible when it comes to adjusting their schedules. Tendulkar, it transpires, did not do a single shoot between New Zealand and the World Cup, but some of the younger players perhaps are prone to get carried away. Cricket must come first.

The issue of practice, of attitude, is a harder one. Unless commentators sit in on every net session, it is hard to question the players' discipline. What happens in team meetings is private, and a team's intensity is not always visible. Performance is not always a reflection of practice, and that is nothing new. Still, were players to occasionally view their insipid performances from outside they might be appalled too.

Doubting a player's patriotism, suggesting he is disdainful of his cap, is a huge call to make, and, if wrong, hard to undo. It suggests an ability to read players' minds, to be privy to all their motivations, to know their most private ambitions, to understand completely what drives them. Commentators, former players themselves, must know that is impossible to tell.

This team is not necessarily better than teams before it, or for that matter worse. They are part of the same modest history, and capable of the same indifferent form, as teams that were once peopled by today's commentators. If commentators insist they valued their cap, they must extend the same grace to their successors.

Having played the game, and understood its difficulties, having endured the roller-coaster existence of being an object of Indian worship one day and derision the next, commentators know better the predicament of their successors. That said, they are not here to forgive every indiscretion, and every thoughtless shot, and there is much of that too.

This team is right when they say they do not deserve stones. That must stop. Are fathers to be jostled outside their homes and mothers to be heckled at market places for us to know this hysteria has gone too far? Praise must be tempered, and criticism too.

As India moves steadily towards a place in the final, we expect commentators to be wise, worthy and sensitive, not exaggerated, excitable and irrational. This may not be the best team in the world, but they are the best of us. It is something too often forgotten, even by writers like this one.