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Will cricket on our TV look the same ever again?

AS A creature of instinct, Kapil Dev always did wear his heart on his sleeve. The same loose-limbed sleeve from which he derived his springy action - with the ball as with the bat. Any credibility gap here, between bat and ball, Kapil Dev bridged with the Viv Richards scale of catch he took in his superathletic stride. The accent, unfailingly, was on attack in Kapil's cricket. That is why, where it came to defending his standing, Kapil proved vulnerable. At the end of it all, Kapil Dev certainly had his countless fans empathising with him in a spirit of: ``There is no justice in this world.'' TV had saved his soul - almost.

It was as India had its first glimpse of sophisticated action- packed TV that Kapil Dev arrived on the international scene with the three- Test series in Pakistan during October-November 1978. To this extent, the entire range of Kapil's achievement (434 Test wickets and all) has been on TV. As TV coverage improved beyond recognition, so did Kapil Dev grow, prospectively, as the world's best all-rounder. That the same TV should have proved Kapil's `undoing' in 2000 A.D. is a happening that fills one with a sadness defying description. Yes, I sail against the viewer wind in asserting that the face-off with Karan Thapar did the image of Kapil Dev damage - in the long bowling run. The BBC show certainly won Kapil spot sympathy. But it also planted the seed of fatal doubt in viewer-mind, as Kapil failed, directly, to respond to that loaded Karan Thapar query, urging Dev to ``put his hand on his heart''. I say Karan Thapar had one, and only one, objective in pitchforking Kapil Dev into TV prominence. This was to shatter the man. And you will have noticed that Karan Thapar, ultimately, succeeded in his TV-celebrity aim. Once he got Kapil to turn on the waterworks, see how indulgently Karan Thapar softened his approach to Dev.

I have dealt here with the cause celebre that the media turned Kapil Dev into because I believe that it is TV that is going to determine the future of the game in India, come the Asia Cup. Tomorrow is not just another day. It is D-day - deciding day. Never in its nascent passage into our drawing-room has TV found itself under the dimension of challenge it does in this Asia Cup. STAR Sports it is this time in - we have Harsha Bhogle alongside Sunil Gavaskar, so could Ramiz Raja be far behind the mike? But, from Pakistan, the sober Ramiz Raja has the southpawing Aamir Sohail to keep him telecommentating company! Joining this foursome (from Sri Lanka) is Ranjit Fernando, level-headed as they come. TWI is producing the show, so ``Over to Ravi Shastri!'' willy-nilly it has to be - as the quintessential freelance! That is how Harsha Bhogle sketched the Asia Cup telescene to me as I ran him to Indian cricket camp-following earth at Pune.

How unenviable is the setting in which they are going to do the Dhaka Asia Cup telecommentary! It is a moment grim enough for Sunny and Ravi to forget all about their `dhake-ki-malmal' rivalry in the box. It is verily a telescene in which, if Sunny is first, he is that only among commentating equals. In fact, it would not be a bad idea for this commentary panel to go into a brainstorming huddle, before the Asia Cup gets going tomorrow afternoon. A powwow to work out how they are going to coordinate and correlate in `addressing' tricky problems that crop up - against what is truly an extraordinary background in the game with the maligned name. This is one one-day tournament no telecaster dare approach mindlessly, treating it as a job of work. On the contrary, it is commentary job that calls for rare savoir-faire and savoir-vivre - something that should not be lost on even Aamir Sohail. I once heard Aamir Sohail have a tele-tete- a-tete with Ian Chappell and was agreeably amazed by the softness with which this combative, competitive performer spoke. All that has happened in Pakistan - in the witch-hunting wake of the Qayyum Report - should act as a mentally sobering influence on the most mercurial of commentators.

Am I guilty of overstating the enormity of the threat posed to the game's viewing future, in India, on TV? Well, it is best for all commentators to pull their punches to start with - after that, of course, it is but a game, a game in which things, inevitably, will settle into a certain momentum for things to find their own rhythm. As for India, the Aunt Sally-style mudslinging we have lately had, in our cricket, does not provide the best `sightscreen' backdrop against which to go into this Asia Cup. But then cricket officials would not be cricket officials, in our country, unless they indulged in a public dogfight, would they?

The astonishing thing about Indian cricket is how consistently it has survived the bumbledom that is officialdom. For all the cloud-cover cast on India's 3-2 victory over South Africa by the spectacle of the Cronjes - Bertha and Hansie - putting something by for a rainy day, I believe that there was some intrinsic merit in the way Sourav Ganguly uplifted his team, after the depths it had plumbed under Sachin Tendulkar in Australia. Sourav, in my estimate, led India with `Pepsinewy' aptitude in the one-dayers against South Africa. Ganguly is clearly a no-nonsense leader of men. There has been so much nonsense spouted, recently, from the Indian cricket podium that Sourav needs to set the balance right the only way he knows to do - the cricketing way.

But our cricketers, by a peculiar conspiracy of circumstances, can now look only as assured as the Asia Cup commentators let them be. Here is where Ramiz Raja, Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Aamir Sohail, Ranjit Fernando and Harsha Bhogle have a rare rescue role to play, in resurrecting the game, by weighing their words with care every centimetre of the way. I say this not without some experience as a commentator myself. Progressively, I discovered that, on radio, the art was to wait for 10 seconds, or so, before committing yourself on any ticklish point. To my delight, by the device of being able to hear my own commentary through putting on an earphone while speaking, I found that this 10-second gap I gave, before speaking out, hardly showed - at least on radio. If anything, such a `breather', I found, permitted me to foreclose the possibility of a `visual' error. TV, as distinct from radio, is pre-eminently a visual medium.

But, even here, a five-second gap - before possibly saying something likely to be tinged with emotion - could help save the situation. No point in saying that to Tony Greig at this age and stage. But Aamir Sohail, being new to the job, is hopefully prepared to hear and learn.

The rest are too seasoned to need any guidelines. Sunil Gavaskar, for his part, has already demonstrated, vis-a-vis Geoffrey Boycott, how this five-second gap could be tellingly employed to score points on TV. But no telecaster, in this Asia Cup, is there to score points. He is there to assist the game of cricket in the huge task of recapturing its sonorous aura on the small screen. How one wishes they had got over someone like Richie Benaud to talk to the commentary team - before this Asia Cup got under way.

For the Asia Cup telecasters, as `team members', are charged, this time out, with the kind of inspirational task that cries out for, say, a Vijay Merchant from a different `no-win' situation in a different era. As Chairman of Selectors, I recall Vijay Merchant's wanting (inside a closed CCI room with not one intruder present) the whole Indian touring team (of no-hopers) that he had helped pick, early in 1971.

The pep talk that Vijay Merchant came up with, on that occasion, so galvanised one Sunil Gavaskar that, as a stripling, Sunny boy came up with 774 runs from 8 innings in 4 Tests (ave 154.80) - with a scoreline of 65 and 67 not out; 116 and 64 not out; 1 and 117 not out; 124 and 220.

Today Sunil Gavaskar and his co-commentators, in this Asia Cup, would do well to keep - at the back of their mind all the time - that there are those who believe that cricket, on our television set, can never look the same again. Such `set' thinking they have to prove radically wrong - as ones telecast in the mould. To the extent television rises to the occasion in cricket's hour of peril will players - there in the middle - be encouraged to deliver. The two are intertwined as never before, now in Dhaka. Cricketers want to get back the feel of being watched, as before, for their skills. Telecasters have to carry the conviction of one-day cricket being worth viewing all the way - as before. The words must match the action. They always did. They have to do so even more now - or never! It is a moment in which we want `vision' on television.


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