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Commenting on cricket

Pradyuman Maheshwari

Pradyuman Maheshwari  

Depending on when you are reading this, India would’ve beaten or lost lost to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup. If history repeats itself, then the match should be ours. But as the late cricket board honcho Raj Singh Dungarpur would love to say on Doordarshan, cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties.

It indeed is. The outcome is tricky enough that a batting collapse by India is most often attributed to the match being fixed. Ditto with Pakistan. But this column isn’t about what happens on field, but off it, in television boxes.

There are commentators, and there are commentators. I still remember Dr Narottam Puri, who was once the hottest guy in the business. Those were also days when greats like Lala Amarnath would star in the box as experts. My favourite then was ML Jaisimha and, later, Farokh Engineer, but things changed dramatically when Star Sports and ESPN came into the picture.

Former India skipper and the ‘original’ Little Master Sunil Gavaskar has always been a cut above his contemporaries. He was among the first big-time cricketers to excel on television. His print columns have always been great reads, and his banter on the IPL Extraa Innings is super. If there’s a pecking order of the top cricketers-turned-commentators in English, my Top 3 would be: Sunil Gavaskar, Saurav Ganguly and Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Ganguly always spoke well at the post-match presentations as skipper. I don’t track the Hindi commentary much, but my favourite there as well is doubtlessly Navjot Singh Sidhu. In many ways, Sidhu transformed live cricket broadcast on satellite television. From the very safe, neutral commentary by Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri on ESPN-Star, Sidhu would wear the India colours on his sleeves. He brought in the ‘Hey, I am an Indian and I want Team India to win’ flavour into the craft, and no one was complaining. Add to it his one-liners, better known as ‘Sidhuisms’; purists of the game found them outlandish, but they’ve grown on us. Like front-page advertising jackets in newspapers.

My favourite non-cricketer commentators of all time has been Harsha Bhogle. A chemical engineer-turned-IIM-Ahmedabad graduate, Harsha started out as a radio commentator and was rated to have the sexiest voice on radio in Australia in the early 1990s. Those who spent time with him recall his photographic memory, but to me what makes him stand out is his on-screen friendly neighbour persona. The fact that he can double up reasonably well in Hindi adds to his utility for broadcasters.

There was Charu Sharma who was around for quite a bit, but he moved on, first as CEO of Royal Challengers in IPL from where, by his own admission, he was relieved of his duties because of the team’s poor performance in the inaugural edition of the tournament, before he hit the jackpot with Pro Kabaddi League, which his Mashaal Sports looks after. I didn’t think much of Charu as a commentator-presenter, but then you couldn’t have Harsha everywhere.

Harsha and my friend and former boss Ayaz Memon, and a few others, are possibly the last among the non-cricketing commentators who broadcasters will patronise. The emphasis is now on getting past players, even if they are the likes of Isa Guha, Anjum Chopra and Lisa Sthalekar. I do remember Anjum as a cricketer: she captained the team, and was the first Indian woman to score a hundred in an ODI. But are they striking on television? Not at all. Neither for the game, nor as ratings-generators.

The problem for the channel-wallahs is that there are enough opportunities now for cricketers to coach teams and play administrator at assorted levels. The monies are good too, I am told. I would love to see Rahul Dravid doing his bit, because unlike his team-mate VVS Laxman, he’s an excellent commentator (Laxman though has improved much in the last few years).

I am looking forward to Virender Sehwag this year, though he was never known to be a great talker. But nor was Kapil Dev, and he is among the most sought after experts on news television.

Broadcasters do realise that the role of a commentator is as critical as a judge of a reality show. You need to have more that excellent knowledge of the game, but you should articulate your thoughts well, and whenever necessary, have some fun on the mike.

How well Sehwag does remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I am getting set for the Big Match this evening. An India-Pakistan match does this to you. There are a couple of gems from Sidhu, from an India-Pak World Cup encounter that I can never forget. Sample this: 'The match is played between the ears as much as between the hands.' Or: 'Everyone, from a bellboy to the man in Parliament has one thing to say: you can lose to anyone but not to Pakistan!'

Hmmm. Mauka, Mauka!

The writer is a commentator and editor working across media. Tweets @pmahesh

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 1:14:48 AM |

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