AMRITBANI: Commentary, the uneasy player-expert relationship
Just as film folks talk films and politicians talk politics, cricketers, whether past or present, talk cricket. In dressing room and pavilion, in team bus, hotel and airports, conversation is invariably cricket-centric. Players follow the successes and setbacks of each other and keep a sharp eye on developments around them. One matter that engages them is keeping track of what others are saying, and most are wary of pronouncements made by microphone-wielding past players, now experts on various TV channels. The general stance of current players is past players chase quick acceptance and there is no easier way of getting publicity than rubbishing established stars and playing to the gallery. But in doing this they conveniently
forget their past, fail or ignore to appreciate pressures weighing on modern day icons living under enormous media glare, and expose themselves as observers innocent of contemporary reality. Present cricketers are also convinced much unfair criticism is a result of experts pursuing personal agendas, and the commentary booth becoming a platform for settling personal scores. Basically: We are soft targets, it is easy to take a swing at us and get away with it.
Incorrect, say commentators and experts defending themselves, we are only doing a professional job. Opinion and judgement is part of TV coverage, it is part of the commentator’s job just as criticism is part of the game. The only issue is players, used to treatment as Gods, are hyper sensitive – they forget good things that are said but get ballistic about anything remotely negative. Players’ reaction to this is similar to the startled/ shocked/angry response of a batsman who receives a waist high beamer in a one-day game. In their opinion, experts deliberately sex up reporting, become shrill and sensational when they should be objective and constructive. All this is part of a dangerous cycle: TV influences public opinion because of its reach, criticism on the networks stirs viewers, so experts are encouraged to go over the top.
Sharp opinion from past players, and the popularity of such programmes, has another dangerous dimension, which, once again, hurts current players. Chasing viewership ratings, and under pressure to present a fresh angle to cricket, TV producers are forced to manufacture programmes which defeat sane judgement and decency. Why else have a distasteful daily quest for culprits, even when the Indian team wins with ten overs to spare?
Inadvertently, TV runs the equivalent of cricket’s Rapidex education course through its panel of experts with free tuitions dispensed to students. Sitting at home, comfortably chewing wafers and drinking cola, people are taught the finer points of the game. This because commentary is not only about describing action on the field but explaining complicated technicalities of reverse swing, the effect of the afternoon breeze or evening dew, spike marks on the pitch and just about everything else. Of course these factors influence cricket but the danger is the average viewer, armed with this second hand knowledge, thinks he is smarter than the Indian captain!
Problem is TV creates excess supply of cricket knowledge, and as a result poor players live under constant threat of being assaulted with unwanted advise by strangers – they are really, really paranoid about any Tom, Dick or Harry walking up to offer tips and suggestions. Players
cringe when cornered in this fashion, deeply resent the unwelcome breach of privacy and such encounters are marked by sullen silence, a huge smirk and sneers — the intensity of these emotions linked to the level of decency of the player.
Amrit Mathur is the former media manager of BCCI