Pitch perfect

In a candid conversation with Harsha Bhogle, the listener discovers more about the man in the commentary box.

Updated - December 30, 2014 03:17 pm IST

Published - May 24, 2014 04:16 pm IST

For more than a decade, Harsha Bhogle has been one of the most recognisable faces of cricket-broadcasting. In this interview, the ace commentator and presenter opens up with rare candour on a number of issues. Excerpts:

You’ve been doing commentary for so many years. How do you avoid being repetitive?

You can’t prepare. If you do, you start falling into the trap of having favourite expressions and favourite words. A broadcast is not only about the game. It’s about having the ability to communicate the different moods that are on play. You must love the game as much as you love the language.

How much of that is natural?

I think your love for the game has to be pure. You can’t manufacture a love for cricket. On some days, it’s a little harder work. But, some people have some skills while others have other skills. You will find, over a period of time, that people have pet phrases and expressions that keep coming back.

In your case, ‘I just wonder’…

Someone once told me, ‘You are perpetually perplexed.’ Once, a couple of guys told me, ‘For heaven’s sake, can you stop saying ‘eventually’.’ It’s good to get that kind of feedback.

Do you make a conscious attempt to cut down on such phrases?

No. You don’t get up in the morning and think I won’t say ‘I wonder’. My place in the commentary box is different from that of other people. So, I can’t throw hard opinions at people. That’s why you’ll find words like ‘I wonder’.

Which commentators were your reference points when you began?

I started with the radio, which is a beautiful medium because you can use your voice a lot. You used your voice, your vocabulary, and painted a picture. It’s your responsibility to tell a certain story and keep the listener engrossed. You followed people like Anand Setalvad, Dicky Rutnagur. That was a nice era of radio commentary. Unfortunately in India, we look down on radio commentary. I do a lot of radio commentary in Australia every time I go there. I didn’t listen to a lot of overseas broadcast [while growing up] because I wasn’t big on shortwave, so I didn’t hear a lot of [John] Arlott and people like that. I wonder if kids starting today have any idols in radio broadcasting because we give them so much broadcast.

In a commentary box that has so many professional cricketers, what’s it like to be from a non-sporting background?

You play your role. A television crew is an ensemble cast; everyone has their role. The sound recordist has a different role as does the editor, the director, the summariser. I have always believed, very strongly, that there’s a role for a ball-by-ball caller, even in television. Increasingly, I am in the minority on that. There’s a role for someone who has to anchor a programme to keep it going. So we are like the midfielders in hockey — the good old hockey centre-half who stands there and distributes the ball. I think that’s my role. Come to think of it, there’s no centre-half in hockey anymore.

So you’ve never felt intimidated?

Thankfully, I have never been overawed. But, it’s also a very ego-less role. It has to be that way because you’re passing all the time and never scoring. A mistake many anchors make is to think they are the stars. They are never the stars. The star is always the game.

You are just story-tellers then.

That’s all. Our job is vastly over-glamourised. A commentator is just a story-teller who is given the great privilege of carrying a story from the ground to the home. You can never take yourself more seriously than that. Over the years, I have had people around me who — every time I started thinking I am somebody — pulled me back. Telecast is all about energy. My job is to provide that energy. The job of an anchor is also to understand the kind of personalities he is with. After a while, you have only that many commentators in the world and you understand them all.

Did your management background help?

Helped to look at the game differently, may be. It just gave me a lot of confidence. I read different things about what other people do. I have a vision beyond the cricket ground. I realise there’s a world outside.

How do you go about your job? Does commentary come naturally to you?

I work harder than anybody else because I am not an international cricketer or this good-looking hunk or model, I am not a woman. I have to try very hard to be acceptable because I am not a lot of things. Once I wrote an article saying, ‘I am defined by who I am not, not who I am.’

What about your voice? Do you constantly keep working on it?

I first discovered this in Std XI when my principal was selecting the debating team. There were remarks about each person. Under my name, there was ‘good voice’ and I said, ‘Oh, is that so?’ I think with age my voice has become a little deeper. But I don’t try anything. I won’t guzzle cans of cold cola, for instance.

Having been so close to the game for such a long time, does it sometimes make you lose perspective?

It definitely can. If you are watching only one team play all the time, it can numb you to performances by others. That’s why you must have multi-country commentators. Also, sometimes, you can be driven by trying to give the audience what it wants. But your actual role is to present an unbiased picture and get people to give their opinions. That’s why a good producer will always bring you back. To maintain perspective is very, very important, no doubt about that. It’s for the public to tell if we lose it sometimes.

How much of the content presented is driven by the producer?

A lot of it but it’s not cast in stone. So often, you tell your producer, ‘Listen, I am more comfortable about this. Why don’t I talk about this?’ The producer-driven thing is the wrap-around programme. But when the match is on, the producer can’t co-ordinate. The producer will put in packages. During the Asia Cup, we were showing a lot of analytics. It’s a new trend where the viewer is more intelligent than he’s been credited for all along. And so, you keep feeding trends and numbers so that the telecast becomes more interesting.

Is there an element of censorship in your job?

When I write an article on my blog, my views are mine and I am liable to my own views. The moment I say something really libellous on a television network, then the network is part of the offering. If someone wants to file something [a suit] against me, he/she will also file it against the network. So when you’re on a medium that’s not yours, you have to be careful. You will find that I am different in my commentary and very different in my articles.

During the recent spot-fixing controversy in the IPL, the broadcaster didn’t initiate any debates…

You have got to be very careful in a broadcast when you are presenting a point of view on something you have very little information about. I have been asked, for example, why I wasn’t talking about the sedition case. I have no idea what the truth is. There was a time when the news industry in India stood for the truth. So if you read something on a newspaper or heard something on a television channel, then you believed it. That’s no longer than the case. I was seeing something on television about fixing the other day, and I was blown apart by the tone and the method of it all. So, if I comment on that, my base itself is weak. I can only talk about big issues when I am very certain. And, if I am going on a public broadcast, then the broadcaster has got to be okay with that.

What about the broadcaster completely side-stepping the issue and not even trying to broach the subject?

You will find very few networks on cricket broadcast actually taking on matters of this sensitivity. So, for example, you won’t find anyone talking about why a Pakistan player shouldn’t be in the IPL. [These are] very sensitive matters that you have got to be careful not to inflame. In my case, I am very clear that my job here is not to be an opinion-maker, but to be a storyteller. I believe I am an opinion-maker on Twitter, in my articles. But, I have never ever been told, ‘You will not say this’. I have just been told, ‘Let’s not say something that might offend.’ That was a long time ago. In recent times, I haven’t been told that.

You have never been gagged by the BCCI?

There was a series when it was suggested that our role as a broadcaster was to take the game to the people and not be seen as a channel that will only talk controversy, because there are other mediums for that. To be honest, I don’t mind that very much. I was never contracted by the BCCI. I had series-by-series contracts with the producers. But I wasn’t told: ‘You will not say this, you will not say that’. May be because, I am not that kind of person anyway. I am not someone who believes I am the fans’ spokesperson. I just enjoy the game. I tell people that, and go home. So, I have been accused many times of skirting issues. Where I know facts, I have always taken a hard stance. Say, on Indian domestic cricket, I have always taken a very hard stance on India’s fascination with money as opposed to cricket. But, on match-fixing, I haven’t taken a hard stance because I don’t know enough.

There have been personal attacks against you on Twitter.

That’s one of the aspects of Twitter that bothered me. There are a lot of people around the world who are very ignorant, but I also understand that, because India is now flexing its muscles and becoming unpopular in the eyes of the world, they need to attack somebody. Who is the most visible person on Twitter? Me. You just ignore it because what Twitter has done is to provide a voice to anonymous people. It’s the most cowardly thing in the world — I can't think of anything else more cowardly — to hide behind an assumed name and attack people. But just as you have brave people, you have cowardly people in the world. And, Twitter is not a place for anyone who’s even mildly sensitive.

How seriously do you take it?

I went through a phase when I would get worked up and very upset, and I would wonder, ‘Why are people saying all these horrible things about me? I have never said horrible things about people ever’. Actually my son told me — it’s very good to be at an age when your son can guide you — not everyone is who you think they are. So I have become a lot more thick-skinned now. Everyone’s got a voice, which is the most beautiful thing about Twitter. But there are all kinds of people there.

Where do you seek validation? Do you seek it at all?

I would be lying if I said I don’t seek it. You want certain kinds of people to accept you. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. That you have 1.1 million followers on Twitter is validation enough. If you can build a career of 20-25 years on television, that’s validation enough. But from time to time, you do seek it.

You’ve hobnobbed with several heroes you grew up watching. Have their haloes dimmed for you?

I don’t know players very well, to be honest. I knew a generation of players — I mean the Azhar [Mohammad Azharuddin], Sachin [Tendulkar] generation — and that’s because my first Test match was also the first series Azharuddin played, and I played cricket with him. But that generation also had the Gavaskars and the Kapil Devs that you looked up to. The next generation of Sachin, Rahul [Dravid], and Sourav [Ganguly]… my best years coincided with their best years. Those were the years I was getting accepted as a television anchor, and I knew them very well. In a sense, I am very comfortable [with them] now because I don’t know the new crop that well.

Would you ever exercise restraint while criticising these players?

No, but you just felt bad because you knew them as individuals, because you respected them as individuals. When you respect a person, you start feeling for that person. So, in Australia when Rahul kept getting bowled in his last series, there was a part of you that genuinely wanted him to do well. When Sachin walked out to play his last Test innings, there’s a part of you that became a fan and said: ‘Give us an innings to remember.’ I don’t know if it will happen with this generation.

What do you make of commentators becoming increasingly jingoistic?

It worries me a little that to present a one-sided broadcast is increasingly being seen to be acceptable; to say ‘we’ on telecast instead of India or Australia or South Africa. But it’s a newer trend. You can’t be jingoistic on broadcast simply because if it’s an India-Pakistan game; there are people in India, in Pakistan, and neutrals in England watching it. You have got to be very careful and aware that you’re reaching out to a larger audience. Bill Lawry was a very pro-Australia commentator, but in a very endearing, acceptable manner. But now, everyone indulges in a lot of ‘us’. I don’t know if the audience likes it.

Do you see yourself as an insider privy to a lot of information?

Luckily I am not. Someone once asked me, ‘You know a lot of people in the Board. You must know what’s happening.’ I have met [N.] Srinivasan four times. That’s it. I must have met Niranjan Shah socially often, but never sat down and talked cricket. I have met Shashank Manohar twice. Sharad Pawar says hello and I say hello, but no more.

You wrote this intimate biography of Azharuddin. Did the match-fixing allegations shake you?

I saw the change in him. I felt let down. I still remember where I was when Azhar was banned. I was in the lobby of the Oberoi Hotel when the news came and it hit me. I remember writing a piece afterwards saying, ‘When you know a friend is going to die, in a sense you are waiting for the friend to die. But when the death comes, it still hurts.’ And that’s how I felt when it happened. I had done the book on Azhar in 1994-95. By 1996, I had started seeing the difference. But we still speak sometimes. When his son died, I called him up. I am very proud of the book I wrote. And, I am not afraid to tell people that one of the most generous, good-hearted cricketers I have ever met in life is Mohammad Azharuddin. But we all go our paths. I am not the person I was 25 years ago. The last time I spoke to him was at Sachin’s retirement party.

Have you had players sharing a word with you when you are critical of them?

They don’t and that disappoints me, you know (smiles). I am not a confrontational person. Some people derive their identity from being confrontational. And, you need those kinds of people in society. You can’t only be my kind of person. I am a good old Hyderabadi, yaar, I am a cheerful, happy person. I have never had someone coming and telling me, ‘How can you say that?’ I have chanced upon people saying: ‘What does he know?’ But that’s okay. That’s a defence mechanism from those who want to protect their constituency.

How important is it to actually play the game to understand it?

It depends on your role. If I were sitting and talking about what kind of shots should be played and should not be played, then yes. But, for the role I play, I think you should feel enough for the game. You should understand winning and losing, and you should be able to understand what the fan wants to hear.

Isn’t there an element of subjectivity there?

There’s subjectivity in Rajdeep Sardesai presenting the news because he picks the news. To that extent, subjectivity will always be there. In the course of time, you know what people want to hear and what they don’t want to hear. I know that on my telecast I can’t say, ‘How dare [BCCI Secretary] Sanjay Patel say that’. This is not the forum for it. I was asked by a news channel to give my view on match-fixing. I did it, but I won’t do it on a match-telecast.

How do you enhance your knowledge base?

I read a lot. I watch far less cricket than I used to. I probably watch a quarter of the cricket a genuine cricket-fan does. But I have always read the scorecard, so I know who’s doing what.

My wife [Anita] and I go and see some very successful people from other walks of life, these phenomenal achievers. If cricket is the only thing I did, I would think Virat Kohli is the greatest human being on the planet. But then, I meet [N.R.] Narayana Murthy. I meet company chairpersons and chief executives. I meet a pharma sales executive from Gulbarga who has got six districts to cover. He’s travelling so many days a year and what does he earn? When I meet people like those, it allows me to put things in perspective. It’s very important to me, the life outside cricket.

Just like player fatigue, is there a fatigue factor for commentators as well?

Till June 2015, I will be virtually doing only cricket. When you get tired, the right word doesn’t come immediately. I heard what Viswanathan Anand said. ‘If you are not physically fit, you aren’t mentally agile. And I find that on days when I haven’t slept well, the right word does not come. But you learn, just like [how] a batsman who has got a troublesome hamstring adjusts his game accordingly. On days when I am tired or when I know I am not a 100 per cent, I act a little to the camera. Because I know I don’t have the inner energy that I normally have. But I won’t venture into areas where I will have to search for words. The right words aren’t going to come. So we also have our off days. It’s like batting… if you aren’t feeling good, you just bat in the ‘V’.

Do you feel compelled to take extra care of your physical appearance?

If I don’t, I should because television is a visual medium. But, luckily, I neither look like a model nor a body-builder, nor an athlete. To that extent, I am better off. I actually feel for the girls who do the anchoring because they are under so much pressure to look good. And, I often tell these girls, ‘You know the difference between you and me is that I have never been under pressure to look good.’

What are your thoughts on some of the women — the ones stereotyped as ‘glam girls’ — who anchor the game without much knowledge of it?

I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for the viewer. But then, it depends on what the viewer expects.

What about people scoffing at them?

That’s a call for the networks to take on who their audience is. I have become a little accepting of other people knowing what they are doing. Initially, I was very unhappy with this. [But] I thought that wasn’t fair to people. If someone’s asks me to anchor a discussion on the Large Hadron Collider, I would feel inadequate, and say no. I marvel at people who are so inadequate and yet feel nothing about being there. And, you will find they aren’t good anchors anyway and so their shelf life is very short. Look at the people who came in merely looking good. Two years later, they are not anchors. You can only look good for that long and not say anything. I have also found that the particularly good-looking people are not very good anchors because they are more obsessed with how they look rather than what they say. After a while, it’s not the looks that matter. I keep telling a lot of people — and I am not joking — if how you look matters, I would have never been an anchor. It disappoints me, sometimes. If they come into our game and believe that they have the right to be there without knowing anything, yeah, it hurts and sometimes angers me. Because I see so many intelligent people out there who know the game and yet don’t get a break. And, here is someone who has never seen a game of cricket and is getting the opportunity to do cricket. I just think it’s unfair.

On that note, what about the shrinking space in cricket broadcast for people, such as you, who aren’t professional cricketers?

That’s very sad. If I started today, I would not get a Ranji Trophy match [to do commentary on]. I read such beautiful writing on cricket by people who haven’t played cricket. I am sure some of them could become excellent callers of the game. It pains me that television has space only for those who have played the game. I think there is still a role for those who haven’t.

Haven’t you batted for it?

Up to a point yes, because I can’t be seen to be protecting my constituency. The moment I say that I am on weak ground. Because people say, ‘See he’s not played, that’s why.’

How do you approximate viewer-tastes? Do you feel there’s pandering to baser tastes?

It is. But don’t forget, this game isn’t ours alone. Even on Twitter, I see people who believe the game belongs to them and nobody else. So, I went on one of these shows and I said, ‘The bad news for you is, you don’t count. The world of cricket is far bigger than you. The good game needs you because you are upholders of the tradition of the game, but you are in a very small minority.’ The game’s gone elsewhere. You can’t sit in Australia and write a column saying that you should have only Test cricket. The game would have been dead long ago. Of course, we have got great Test matches because the game is being kept alive by something else.

How much has commentary style evolved?

I was told by Star, for instance, that most of the people who watch a telecast have never been to the ground. So, they don’t understand the shape of a ground. They just know it is oval. But, if you say ‘Square-leg has moved a touch finer,’ you will be surprised by how very few people know what that means. That’s our audience. Our audience is not you guys who follow the game chatting with each other.

They asked some disturbing questions in the research presentation. ‘Who do you think you’re talking to’, for instance. For the last 12 months the amount of research that has gone into this telecast… where do you think all these analytics come from? Sanjay [Manjrekar], me, and Alan [Wilkins] have actually done dummy commentaries. When India was playing New Zealand, the broadcaster was Max. We sat in the studios and did dummy commentary trying out different styles. These have been researched and the research feedback has been coming in. The earlier style of commentary was every time a bowler runs in, you pause and then start again, thinking that if you cut into highlights, and a wicket falls and you can’t be talking something else. Now, the style has changed completely. When the bowler is running in, no one stops. Commentary styles have changed a lot. They will get slowly homogenised, but viewing cultures are different. So you will find, may be, that the Asian styles will start to emerge, England will still remain old-fashioned. Australia has changed already. Look at the Big Bash commentary where everyone is talking over everyone else! Obviously, it’s been accepted in Australia — three commentators in a T20 game. In Tests, three commentators work absolutely fine, especially with people like Shane Warne and Nasser Hussain. Commentary is good fun, you couldn’t ask for more.

How conversant are you with new technology?

I got a smart phone just 10 months back (laughs). As long as we know what can deliver, someone has to do that [the technical work]. But, I am learning. I have just set up my own website, www. harshabhogle.com. It’s rudimentary, and it’s just gone up. I like doing those video clips such as Out of the Box. In the position I am in, I have to do everything. I can’t say, ‘I am only a television anchor’, because the world can change and leave you behind. I keep telling people if T20 can leave V.V.S. Laxman behind, then anything can happen in the world. I have to know social media — I am not on Facebook yet — but I have to know video-blogging, I have to know how to make a point in 140 characters.

How much has your personal life changed? Do you still enjoy the things you did 20-25 years ago?

We don’t change much. Sometimes when I think what I did in the last 25 years, I don’t remember. But I am a very close family person. I like being with family more than anything else. My family has protected me a lot. I am a very sentiment-driven person. My first contract is still there, my first newspaper clipping is still there, my university cap is there. I sometimes fear for young kids. You know, when I meet young players, I tend to tell them, ‘Stay grounded. Have good people around you.’ My prescription for cricket is you must always have someone around you who, when the need comes, puts a hand around your shoulders to back you or gives a kick up your backside. I think the generation of Dravid, Laxman, [Anil] Kumble, Ganguly, Tendulkar, and [Javagal] Srinath… all came from a background where they had certain family-structures around. I fear, if a day comes when the family-structure starts to go, these very talented but very rich superstars will have no one to tell them, ‘Don’t go there’. I think the Board [BCCI] should do that, but only up to a point. Those are the conversations I have with these players. That’s why I get along very well with them. Virat is my son’s age. Sometimes, I just whatsapp him saying, ‘Great hundred, [but] remember feet on the ground.’

Live from the box:

The Asia Cup final between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Mirpur, Bangladesh: I am sitting in to the commentary box next to an impassive Ajesh Ramachandran, the broadcast producer for Star. He’s in everyone’s ears, whispering instructions on the microphone. Clearly, he’s the man controlling the action. Apart from the commentators, there is renowned statistician Mohandas Menon, a scorer, and another person working feverishly on the graphics. As Pakistan loses wickets in a clump, Ramachandran wants Rameez Raja to talk about “nerves”. There’s no shortage of banter with Raja doing a Misbah-ul-Haq impression that leaves Harsha Bhogle and Russel Arnold in splits. Arnold is evidently big on numbers, seeking out Menon’s expertise more than once. Meanwhile, Ramachandran asks for the ultra-slow motion during the drinks break. “Harsha, take us through the story of the match”. Bhogle gives a crisp summation of the action thus far as it unfolds in slo-mo. “Nice shot, but very long in terms of timing,” Ramachandran provides feedback to the man who cut the visuals. Besides a laptop, Ramachandran has a small monitor in front of him that flashes the live-score besides other numerical data. There is also a machine with multi-coloured buttons that helps Ramachandran connect with members of his crew. He has a cue-sheet that lists pre-set graphical packages of players’ performances.

Arun Lal and Wasim Akram await their turn to go on air. Sunil Gavaskar, though, has some time left and decides to take a nap. A countdown is given to the changeover — the process of one set of commentators being replaced. Ramachandran barely moves from his seat before the dinner interval. “My job is to step in every now and then and take the commentary forward,” says Ramachandran.

I tell him I want to click a few pictures of the set-up. Ramachandran tells me protocol doesn’t allow me to do that, but he nevertheless fixes the issue. He asks presenter Gautam Bhimani instead to capture the images and the latter graciously obliges.

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