There’s a new kind of cricket pundit on the scene. He’s not on TV or in print, but in blogs and the social media.
“We are the masked vigilantes of cricket: writers, bloggers & tweeters, with no little pent-up bitterness. We are fed-up of having bland non-opinions being forced upon us, and so we have taken a stand. We do not submit to popular notions of censorship.” - From the website AlternativeCricket.com
Welcome to a world where conformism is met with raised eyebrows and political correctness with the hint of sneer. Ever since social networking sites became a big draw a few years ago, they have appropriated quite a few existing spaces besides creating turfs hitherto unheard of. Likes, shares, tweets, and retweets have become legitimate tools of validation.
Social networking has brought about a certain democratisation in content-dissemination: no longer is information pundit-driven and mainstream-specific. Its effect has been felt on cricket writing and broadcast, too. Offbeat, irreverent takes on conventional reportage has come as a welcome addition.
A few names on the blogosphere have created their own distinct identities and, thereby, acquired much popularity among the cricket-crazy. Subash Jayaraman (on Twitter as @thecricketcouch) of The Cricket Couch, Nishant Joshi (@AltCricket) of AlternativeCricket.com, and David Siddall (@WorldCricketW) of World Cricket Watch have been entertaining readers and listeners by blending the esoteric with the regular and serving it all with a generous peppering of fun.
Subash, who has been living in the U.S. for a decade-and-a-half and is “on the wrong side of 35”, is a Materials engineer in his day job. That, he adds in the same breath, is only to support his “cricket-addiction”. “I’m married but have no kids (which helps perpetuate my addiction) but we have two cats named ‘Wicket’ and ‘Maiden’. That’s the deal I made with my wife, who is American and doesn’t really care so much for cricket or any sport. (But) She has now travelled with me to The Lord’s, Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, and Wankhede in Mumbai and has watched Test matches.”
Growing up as the last of seven sons in Polur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, Subash’s life-long romance with cricket was initiated over innumerable weekend games. As a regular blogger, Subash discovered sometime in 2007 that most of the things he wrote ended up being about cricket. Sure enough, he decided to start a ‘cricket-only’ blog. In due course, he was asked to host a couple of podcast shows called ‘Boredwaani’ by Gaurav Sethi of the site ‘Bored Cricket Crazy Indians’. This provided him valuable expertise on the technicalities of doing a podcast.
Within a few weeks of The Cricket Couch site coming into being in April 2010, Subash posted his first ‘Couch Talk’, a podcast series, with Siddhartha Vaidyanathan — a journalist based in the U.S. — as his guest. He has done 96 more shows since, via “Skype to Phone, or Skype-to-Skype” — mostly out of his home at State College, Pennsylvania — featuring an eclectic guest list, including the likes of Wasim Akram, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid, Mike Brearley, commentator Harsha Bhogle, writers Dileep Premachandran, Sharda Ugra, and Gideon Haigh, and umpire Simon Taufel.
One of his chief grouses is that cricket analysis has always been hindered by the straitjacket of statistics. Subash’s emphasis, therefore, has been on “non-sexy areas of cricket that a routine fan doesn’t get exposed to”. “The idea was to cover cricket from the perspective of everything that surrounds cricket — the fans, writers, players, administrators, journalists, etc. I also wanted to tap into the areas of women in cricket (as players, fans, and also as journalists), mental health issues, and other social issues.”
A brief examination of the Couch Talk roster gives you a clearer picture of Subash’s vision. There is an episode that has former New Zealand fast bowler Iain O’ Brien baring his heart on his battle with depression. In another episode, Ugra talks about grappling with sexism at the workplace. Then there is Nishant Arora (Yuvraj Singh’s manager) and Umran Khan of Aces Middle East holding forth on player management.
The alternative cricket website has a socially conscious side as well, its founder Nishant tells you. The 25-year-old English citizen of Indian origin — originally from London — studies medicine in Hradec Králové, a small town about 100 miles outside Prague. As a compulsive cricket aficionado, Nishant would devour every single article on the game available on the Internet. After a “fallow streak of articles”, he realised that blogs were overtaking the mainstream in terms of quality.
So, Nishant roped in 20 of his favourite bloggers to write a book titled The Alternative Cricket Almanack 2011. It was a collection of anecdotes and personal stories, reviewing the cricketing year 2010. The site was up and running at around the same time. “It was a huge success and several of our contributors now write professionally. It helped smash the stigma of the blogger.” The book’s proceeds, he says, went towards a scholarship for promising cricketers in Afghanistan via the Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organisation. Alternative Cricket also works closely with the charity, Cricket Without Boundaries.
In collaboration with James Marsh, a British expatriate living in the Czech Republic, Nishant also produces regular podcasts called Radio Cricket. Alternative Cricket attracts a large fan base — it has more than 37,000 followers on Twitter and close to 6,000 on Facebook. On its followers’ list are present and former cricketers such as Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith, Stephen Fleming, and Sanjay Manjrekar.
Both Subash and Nishant acknowledge the assistance of Bharathram Pattabiraman (on Twitter as bagrat15), a cricket fan who transcribes their podcasts for free.
Siddall’s World Cricket Watch (WCW), which started in January 2009, has a similar back story. When the Englishman was pursuing his Masters at the University of Melbourne, “countless cricketing conversations” with his Australian friend Blaise Murphet resulted in the birth of WCW. “It started off very low key but we had writers from all over the world contributing stories,” recalls Siddall, 29, who is now relocating to London. About a year later, perhaps as the next logical step, WCW began to do a weekly podcast series titled ‘One Hand One Bounce’. Initially, its shows were recorded at a local community radio station, which offered its second studio for free for members aged below 26.
All the three attribute the freedom that comes with operating alone as the chief advantage of not being part of the mainstream. They, however, don’t see their respective sites competing with the traditional biggies in the business, say, ESPNCricinfo.
The obvious question is the commercial viability. The sale of the hugely popular Test Match Sofa — a loaded-with-cheek, alternative-commentary service in England — to The Cricketer magazine earlier this year was, among other things, seen as a move to ensure that the former stayed afloat. In the light of such constraints, how do these ventures — without the support of corporate behemoths — sustain themselves?
“The website makes a little money in advertising revenue. We record shows at my house and then guests are interviewed and recorded from all over the world via Skype. The set-up costs have been really tiny,” says Siddall. While podcast is WCW’s primary goal, partnering with bigger cricket sites in the future isn’t ruled out.
Subash doesn’t have a revenue model in mind but that isn’t worrying him. “Currently Couch Talk is published on ESPNCricinfo’s ‘The Cordon’ and they do pay me on a per-episode basis. I was just happy doing it as a hobby and now it pays a little bit. I’m not chasing the money.”
Subash, however, is open to the option of collating some of his interviews in the form of a book should a publisher be interested.
For his part, Nishant wants to play the long game to develop user-loyalty and respectability. “This summer we’ve worked closely with a couple of new applications, and run competitions with them. Our users and advertisers loved it.” Nishant claims he has thus far turned down over £20,000 in gambling advertisements besides offers to sell Alternative Cricket.
The other problem in an era of complex accreditation procedures is access to players and support staff. Siddall is media-accredited by Cricket Australia and gets to cover the team’s matches from the press box. Subash, on the other hand, has found different ways to work around the system. “Some players/coaches are accessible through social media platforms, others through their agents and websites. Some cricket reporters went out of their way to help me secure a few guests. It’s still hard to chase down the big names.”
User feedback, all of them feel, has been largely encouraging right from the outset. Siddall is grateful for the congratulatory e-mails he receives but has copped some “vitriol below the line”, too. Subash, for his part, is a believer in learning from criticism. “People would point out to me little verbal tics I have or if I didn’t pursue a line of questioning.”
Nishant has, by now, grown used to extreme reactions. “There are two extremes: death threats for poking fun at anything remotely within The Sachin Tendulkar Universe, and messages of gratitude. I was alarmed at the threats in the beginning, but eventually I learned to laugh.” He adds for good measure, “I’ve also received a good dozen marriage proposals (mostly from women).”