During IPL’s Season 9, the huge crowds that were characteristic of the previous eight seasons went missing. TVRs too went amiss and the water crisis in Maharashtra meant that Mumbai Indians and Rising Pune Supergiants lost their local support, as their ‘home’ matches were played away from home.
The thrills and the spills of T20 cricket were all there, though; the towering sixes, the brilliant catches and the nerve-racking finishes. But there was something more missing… the familiar, baritone voice of Harsha Bhogle, bringing the excitement of cricket to living rooms all over India in his own, inimitable style.
The engineer — he has a coveted business degree from IIM-Ahmedabad to boot — who has shunned a lucrative corporate career to look for fame and fortune in cricket was allegedly chucked out of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) commentary team just ahead of IPL 9 for dubious reasons. Bhogle, it is learnt, wasn’t even provided with a credible explanation for his expulsion.
It is assumed that the tweet of a Bollywood superstar — and the re-tweeting of the same by MS Dhoni — led to the disgraceful decision by the then swollen-headed bigwigs of the BCCI. It is also conjectured that his squabble with some officials of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, during a match in Nagpur, over the access to the commentators’ box through the VIP enclosure may have led to his sacking.
Be that as it may, cricket has lost — it is hoped temporarily — an intelligent and intellectual presence in the commentators’ box.
Cricket — a way of life
Cricket, it is said, is a way of life. It isn’t just a game. CLR James, the Trinidadian intellectual once wrote in his book, Beyond the Boundary, “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know”?
A glance at the history of the game over the last century and a half reveals the names of just a handful of cricketers who have been associated with the game, have treated it just as a game, and have yet succeeded. There is, however, a long list of players, umpires, administrators, writers and commentators who have sought deeper meaning from the game and have had their names inscribed in letters of gold on cricket’s ‘wall of fame’.
Neville Cardus, Alan McGilvray, John Arlott, Brian Johnston, EW Swanton, Jack Fingleton, Ray Robinson, Tony Cozier and many others have achieved legendary status for their exploits off the field rather than on it. Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Bill Lawry, Geoff Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar may be a few who have been as classy with the microphone as they have been at the crease.
Many of India’s best writers and commentators too have hardly ever played the game to any extent but have gained great renown. KN Prabhu, Berry Sarbadhikari, Dicky Rutnagar and some of the modern day writers/commentators are a case in point. They have not only earned the respect of well-known cricketers — both in India and abroad — but have had a long-lasting friendship with many of them.
Harsha Bhogle is a voracious reader and knows his cricket history, besides having mastered a few other subjects. He is brainy enough to have picked up nuances of the game at the highest level, having followed it closely for well-nigh two decades and a half. Moreover, his diction and facility with words are legend. Were these some of the reasons why people perceived him as a threat?
Commentators create ‘customer delight’
Cricket is now big business and the IPL itself is estimated to be worth US$ 4.5 billion. The idiot box has made it so. The Board, the franchises, the players and everyone else involved with the behemoth make money because of television rights and the huge, huge audiences at matches.
If one were to liken the game of cricket to a best-selling product, then the BCCI would be the marketing company and the players, the ingredients; the purer the better! The commentators would be customer relations executives, responsible for creating ‘customer delight’. Therefore, having the best commentators in the box would be prudent on BCCI’s part.
Both BCCI and Star TV have perhaps got it wrong when they cramp the commentators’ box with three ‘experts’. At a cricket match, two is company, three is a crowd! Ideally, one of those two commentators should be looking at the game objectively and creatively. He/she should be of the view that there’s much more to cricket than the game. The other should be a game ‘expert’, who can explain things to the ‘customer’ technically, using everyday language.
Arlott and Johnston handled the ‘creative’ side of the commentary in England with a lot of poise and panache. Once in an Ashes Test at Lord’s, ‘Johnners’ gave a pre-delivery description thus: “Lindsay Hassett hasn’t changed his field, except to hurry along two fellows crossing the sightscreen while carrying trays of beer.” In a John Player match at Swansea, Lancashire v Glamorgan, Clive Lloyd hit a six off Swart. Arlott said this of the shot: “He didn’t so much hit it as wave it good bye!”
Johnston was an incorrigible humourist. In the Headingley Test of 1961, he said: “There’s Neil Harvey standing at leg slip, his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle,” even as everybody in the commentators’ box collapsed in unrestrained laughter.
One fine summer’s day, a County match was meandering on without any excitement, and not even an appeal broke the calm at Lord’s. This was the time when a new Pope was to be appointed in the Vatican (after which, tradition has it that the election papers are burnt in a great white smoke to announce that the new Pope has been appointed). Suddenly, white smoke came out of a Chimney alongside Lord’s. Arlott, who was bored stiff, along with other reporters, in the Press Box said, “Ok boys, you can relax now. They have appointed EW Swanton as the new Pope.” This was received by a peal of laughter and applause.
Harsha Bhogle’s one-liners are witty too! Here are a few samples. In one match, as Dhoni smacked one ball after the other to the boundary and then Tendulkar caressed one over the cover ropes, he said: “We have a surgeon at one end and a butcher at the other!” On another occasion when Michael Clarke was caught out in the slips but waited for the umpire’s decision, he quipped: “I think he is waiting for tomorrow’s newspaper to declare him out.” And, a tribute to the greatness of ‘The Wall’: “Is there a more calming sight in the world than Rahul Dravid taking guard?”
A good commentator realises the fact that commentary on TV is an annotation and has to be different from radio’s ball-by-ball commentary. In the former, pictures dominate and the commentary has to flow at the subliminal level. Harsha Bhogle’s words don’t jar; they have the silkiness of a village stream flowing over little pebbles. Moreover, like the Australian commentators, he has learned the fine art of ‘pausing’ and also using the lull in play to entertain.
Indian cricket is in the revamp process
Indian cricket, for better or for worse, is being refurbished. One hopes things change for the good of the game and that there is more professionalism and transparency in the Board’s functioning.
One also hopes that talented persons — players, coaches, administrators, commentators etc — are not sidelined as per the whims and fancies of those in power; nor are celebs and politicians allowed to use their influence in cricketing matters.
There’s still hope, therefore, that IPL Season 10 may see Harsha Bhogle return to his rightful place in the commentators’ box. Let’s wait and see!