A current Indian writer once commented on his favourite cricketer, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, thus: “He was the best expert commentator I’ve ever heard: sharp, sardonic and shrewd, but I’m glad he didn’t make it a living because it left my memories of him intact. I didn’t have to watch him age into a professional hack. Looking at Richie Benaud on Channel 9 peddling memorabilia, it’s impossible to believe he ever played cricket”. Most observers in the cricketing world, however, appear not to share this line of reasoning. As a corollary, they would much prefer their commentators to be readily recognisable ex-players.
A consequence of such an attitude among both television networks and audiences, is that the non-playing professional broadcaster has all but disappeared from commentary boxes worldwide. While it can be a pleasure to hear Ian Chappell on the finer points of captaincy or even Wasim Akram’s bowling insights on air, by and large the quality of cricket broadcasting has suffered for this shift. The ex-cricketer might well have enough wisdom garnered from his playing days to share, and lend a certain aura to the proceedings; but, as with sitcoms, every cast of characters in the box needs a “straight man”, someone to focus solely on presentation.
This has been particularly apparent in the cricket I’ve watched over the last couple of months. For me, the standout commentator in the coverage of Pakistan’s recent Tour of New Zealand, among names such as Simon Doull, Mark Richardson and Shane Bond, was Grant Nisbett. Equally, I have grown to appreciate Alan Wilkins as a member of ESPN’s World Cup commentary team. Both Wilkins and Nisbett have been in the Broadcasting business since the 1980s, and have even provided commentary on rugby, tennis and golf between them. Their more illustrious colleagues, by contrast, have often come across collectively as an old-boys’ club whose love for cricket doesn’t always translate into good coverage of a mainstream sport.
The English sports reporter, Brian Viner, in describing how broadcasters such as John Arlott and Desmond Lynam were a major part of his viewing experiences of cricket and football, noted that “[they] managed to convey the notion that it was only a game while at the same time encouraging the feeling that it mattered more than anything”. The sheer amount of meaningless cricket fixtures might have taken its toll on today’s commentators, putting to rest any romantic ideals of the role they play; but still, a great sporting moment is often illuminated and etched in memory because the person behind the mic was able to capture the very moment perfectly. This is where one’s broadcasting – as opposed to sporting – credentials make the difference.
Careers in journalism and the radio were once key routes to a television commentator’s post. The decline in their importance, in cricket’s scheme of things, has perhaps contributed significantly to the entry barrier for non-players. After all, some of the best players-turned-commentators such as Benaud, Chappell and Mike Atherton, have done their time as journalists. Harsha Bhogle famously graduated to television after stints with All India Radio, and ABC Radio in Australia; he and Tony Cozier are often cited as being the last of a dying breed.
While Cozier is less visible these days (as a result of the West Indies’ complete decline as a cricketing force), Bhogle’s celebrity status surprisingly hasn’t been the springboard for attracting more local talent for television in India. Although, there was a reality show a few years ago called Harsha Ki Khoj – The Hunt for the next Harsha – whose winner, Anand Narasimhan, has since made it as an anchorman.
A couple of recent events in the sporting world could be seen as reaffirmation of the way things have been. In the same week in which he was banned following his involvment in the spot-fixing controversy, Salman Butt was signed on as a TV expert for the World Cup by Channel 5 in Pakistan. And, legendary football pundit Andy Gray was snapped up by TalkSport soon after being banished from Sky Sports following the on-air sexism storm. The world of TV programming is extremely competitive, and channels obviously feel that big names and known faces are the way to bring viewers in.
But where there is saturation there is also a void; the emergence of the excellent Test Match Sofa ( http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/480852.html), in which a group of cricket tragics provide “alternative cricket commentary” online, is a pointer to the possibility of a brewing counter-culture. Perhaps the non-playing experts haven’t disappeared, they’ve just gone underground.
Written by Suhas Cadambi