As India were taking England apart last November, Australia were being clinically outclassed by the South Africans at Perth and then in Hobart, which prompted many observers – Australian, Indian and otherwise – to quickly channel their inner McGrath and pronounce that the Aussies would do well on their Indian tour in 2017 to lose only 0-4 without completely disintegrating like they did in 2013. As we stand few days away from the final Test of the series at Dharamsala, the prognosticators couldn't have been more wrong, reminding us, yet again, that man proposes and Test cricket disposes.
The quality of cricket in this series so far has been fabulous. Despite some of the visiting media screaming bloody murder about the pitches, the first three Tests have featured three different playing surfaces that have challenged both the batsmen and the bowlers. Pune was unquestionably a raging bunsen, Bengaluru provided variability in bounce, and Ranchi the best batting surface of the series yet. Steve Smith has opened up the gap between him and the rest of the great batsmen of this era; Ravindra Jadeja has surpassed his teammate Ravichandran Ashwin to be the best bowler in the world; Pat Cummins and Glenn Maxwell came in from the cold to make immense contributions; a fresh-faced Matt Renshaw has shown enough that he will be at the top of the order for a long while; Umesh Yadav has become India's pace spearhead when they tour next; Cheteshwar Pujara has compiled a first class season for the ages and proved he's the best player of spin in this land of spin; Wriddhiman Saha may have moved some to wonder “MS Who?”; Peter Handscomb, along with Shaun Marsh, fashioned a great escape; Nathan Lyon and Steven O'Keefe have performed outstandingly well while Josh Hazlewood has done, well, Josh Hazlewood things. India were ambushed at Pune, bounced back from a horrid first innings at Bengaluru on the backs of their pacers to draw level, and a fascinating draw took place at Ranchi.
And yet, the reporting on the series for the most part has been on pitch conspiracies, DRS, and shoulders. That the phenomenal quality of cricket that has taken place over twelve gripping days has basically been consigned to the back burner while reporters breathlessly filled the spaces with he-said-he-mocked-he-alleged-he-brainfaded is a disgrace.
But then what do we expect in this new era of social media stoked hyper-nationalism pervading every nook and cranny of our lives when two sides that already have had some bad history and respective media that play out the games for their audiences on their pages even before the teams step out on to the field?
In the February 2017 issue of The Cricket Monthly, a prescient essay by Peter English appeared in the lead up to the India-Australia series, which included the author's research in to how the media from the two countries covered the 2014-15 series in Australia. The results were as follows: “In the Australian publications, 23% of 700 articles included aspects of cheerleading, compared to 34% containing critical elements. The Indian newspapers had 14% of 565 stories with cheerleading aspects, while 29% had critical elements”. While Aussie newspapers carried higher percentage of critical elements, they also had higher amount of cheerleading aspects too.
It's not a new phenomenon. Some outlets and persons in the Australian cricket media have been viewed as doing the bidding for their national team for a while. Writing in the Guardian during the 2001 Ashes in England, the great Frank Keating took a few shots at the Australian cricket press and the cheerleading aspect to their reporting: “Waugh and his gloating squadron could all too readily be forced to stop believing their own publicity - which is being, it goes without saying, hysterically trumpeted back home by the day in swaggering ghosted columns and by their attendant band of one-eyed fans with laptops and microphones.”
By no means, the cheerleading of their respective national team is monopolised by Australian press. Every nation's cricket media, India included, indulge a fair bit in it. Having dabbled at cricket reporting over the last few years, I have been witness to open fawning over cricketers by media persons, and reporters falling head over heels to praise their respective national stars. It's nauseating, and more importantly, the reporters were shirking their responsibility of maintaining any sense of objectivity.
I went to Bengaluru to watch the second Test of this series, and since it ended on Day Four, the extra day allowed me to reacquaint with some of the journalists – from both countries – covering the series. Almost none of the talk I heard involved the great cricket we had just witnessed but the rights and wrongs of Smith looking to the dressing room for help with DRS, Kohli's allegations and what the two national boards and ICC were going to do.
There was incendiary reporting in some Australian outlets painting Kohli and Anil Kumble, and India with a broadbrush, and some of the responses from India fans and certain media persons was overtly – and disgustingly – racist to an Australian journalist. Social media fans the flames farther and faster, with an Aussie team official presumably calling Kohli the “worst bloke” and fans descending en masse on journalists. Just as things seemed to cool down, at Ranchi, Maxwell appeared to mock Kohli's shoulder injury, and Smith was misconstrued to have mocked Kohli. VVS Laxman wrongly inserted himself in to the situation, the fires were kept burning.
In all this, the great cricket both teams have played has been pushed to the margins. It is as if the journalists were more interested in off the field shenanigans than the action on the field which was more dramatic. Perhaps, it might be so because it is easier to paint the other side as evil and build a narrative for your own home audience than to observe the cricket closely and analyse it. As Peter English concluded in his essay, “Journalists produce more locally focused content, leaving the opposition under-reported and often misunderstood, especially at times of crisis and controversy. The angles might be critical or cheerleading, but the readers get what they want, to the detriment of knowledge they need.”
But I live in hope. I hope, with the series decider beginning in a few days, the journalists would actually pay the cricket its due attention without wasting any more ink on conspiracies and controversies, and celebrate the accomplishments of the players – from both sides – in what has been a hard fought Test series. I hope.