If you've been on social media for the past 24 hours, you wouldn't have missed it. Ravindra Jadeja's tweet, in modern parlance, can be called trolling; in a parallel universe, it's plain bullying.
For a few days now, discussions around Indian team's dipping performances have divided opinions. While critics have cautioned against lack of late-over ballast, intent, and death bowling, many, particularly in social media echo chambers, have panned the 'pessimism.'
In times of binary simplifications, the shrinking middle ground leaves precious little room for objectivity. Modern day cricketers are a product of same cloistered, self-serving ecosystem — one where their sense of entitlement is repeatedly bolstered, and in many cases perpetuated, by relentlessly servile media and public relations machinery.
It is this sense of entitlement that makes them think they are beyond reproach, and that one has to play cricket to talk cricket. Once that notion gets acceptance, the next logical criterion for critique are: How many matches has one played and how many runs/wickets one has to his/her name. It all goes downhill thereafter.
Sports broadcasting in India has, for the longest time, given credence to that notion, and that perhaps explains a next-to-nothing presence of an 'outsider' in the commentary box. It's there that the echo chambers are given shape, hero worship is passed off as 'analysis' and the obvious is stated as a 'revelation'. It's that sense of entitlement again — particularly in sub-continent's cricketer-turned-commentators — that makes them turn up as glorified cheerleaders in the commentary box.
It is important to note that three years back, when Harsha Bhogle lost his commentary contract with BCCI because a movie star didn't like him praising the valiant opposition and a cricket icon decided to flaunt his clout by way of retweeting it with a sardonic 'Nothing to add' caption, none of the former cricketers Bhogle spent decades with in the commentary box publicly uttered so much as a word of sympathy or solidarity. The broadcaster, Star Sports, in this case, didn't offer an explanation to the viewers either. The unwritten rule was thus cast in stone: Praise or Perish. One jingoistic campaign followed another, each progressively regressive, each fostering the belief that Indian fans are among the most unsporting louts whose sole skill lies in mocking the opposition.
In times when asking questions can be an instant anti-national activity, pliant consumerism is a small price to pay to save one's job, sanity, and patriotism. Sanjay Manjrekar happens to be an unlikely outlier in that sense. For an Indian cricketer, his autobiography is a refreshingly honest and humane account of his fears, failures, and insecurities. In an earlier interview to Firstpost, he accepted, with complete sincerity, that he is not proud of the Indian teams he was part of for much of his playing career. Once, in an off-the-cuff chat with this writer, Manjrekar explained how much he values the individuality and independence of his thoughts — much in the same mould as the late Peter Roebuck. An interesting admission, one must say, on two counts: First, for a former Indian cricketer (a species rarely known to look beyond self and his cultivated image) to actually have an organic, earnest interest in sportswriting is rare, and secondly, to try to model oneself on Roebuck, whose writings were far from being caramelised critique of his native team. So when Manjrekar — who has been selected by the ICC in the panel of commentators for the Cricket World Cup and not sent by BCCI or Star Sports — called Jadeja a "bits and pieces cricketer," one can assume he knew what he was saying.
"I am not a big fan of bits and pieces players which Jadeja is at this point of his career in 50-over cricket. In Test matches, he is a pure bowler. But in 50-over cricket, I would rather have a batsman and a spinner," Manjrekar had said.
The statement can, obviously, be debated on pure cricketing logic: Is Jadeja an all-condition batsman/bowler? Can he be trusted to bat 20 overs in a tense chase? Can he consistently bowl 10 overs in 50-over cricket? Wasn't he dropped after the Champions Trophy final because, for a cricketer of his experience and potential, he failed to deliver? If he really is as good as he thinks he is, why has he not got a game yet?
Of course, none of those answers fully represent Jadeja's utility. He is more than a sum of his parts, and if given an opportunity, he might turn a match on its head by a single spark of brilliance. However, for him to demand respect the way he did and go on an unwarranted tirade against a former cricketer is unbecoming of the sportsman he is.
It may, however, be unfair to pin the blame of this indiscretion on Jadeja alone. It's a function of the team culture he finds himself in. Four years back, at the 2015 World Cup, Virat Kohli went on an abusive rant against a senior journalist when he could have simply had a quiet word to sort out the misunderstanding. Three years back, MS Dhoni called Sam Ferris on the dais and engaged in an utterly obscene show of position when all the Australian journalist did was ask a legitimate question. Last year in South Africa, when asked about his constant changes in the playing XI, Kohli snapped back at the reporter with "How many have we won?" Around the same time, coach Ravi Shastri claimed that certain people in India are happy if the team loses. Later that year, in England, having lost the Test series 1-4, Kohli lost his cool when a journalist asked if he still thinks the team is the best traveling side in 15 years, as claimed by Shastri at the start of the year.
Now imagine Jadeja, clawing his way back in the limited-overs scheme of things, growing up in an atmosphere where the otherwise mutually symbiotic player-journalist equation is alarmingly edgy. Players don't talk, and questions are perceived as a personal affront. Funny thing is, this time the questions came not from an 'outsider', but by a former cricketer.
Fans, as is their wont, can't be expected to be neutral, and that's what makes them fans in the first place. They, and Jadeja, have every right to believe that Manjrekar is a bore behind the microphone, and may have a serious bout of "verbal diarrhoea." Distinguishing comment from commentary here is as vital as separating wheat from the chaff, and perhaps as painstaking. One must accept that commentators have a job to do, and one can't grudge Manjrekar for doing it. The reason why the likes of Michael Holding, Michael Atherton, and Nasser Hussain are widely respected, even by the Indian audience, is because they bring a spirit of probity that remains intrinsic to their observations. Their work stems from studious research, simple honesty, and an old-fashioned respect for their chosen profession. It's a bit rich for Indian fans to lament the lack of incisive analysis from homegrown commentators when the slightest hint of criticism of their heroes is reason enough for them to viciously troll the dissenter. When someone like Sachin Tendulkar is asked to prove his credentials for commenting on a bungling icon, what hope must the likes of Aakash Chopra and Sanjay Manjrekar have anyway?