November 11, 2013

'You keep thinking of different ways to tell stories'

Hemant Buch, vice-president of production at Ten Sports, talks about the challenges of directing live sports, the du Plessis ball-tampering incident, his relationships with commentators, and why cameras pick out pretty girls in the stands

Excerpts from the interview

Subash Jayaraman: You started your career in sports as a reporter but now you are vice-president of production with TEN Sports and you have directed cricket broadcasts for many years. Can you take us through your journey from being a reporter to now?

Hemant Buch: I played sports all my life, in school and in college. When the time came to move on to the real world I always wondered what I was fit for. In the end, I took the path of least resistance - I got into sports journalism! I hadn't written a word in my life before then. Mr Krishnaswamy, who was the sports editor of the Pioneer, and Mr G Rajaraman, who was the deputy sports editor, gave me the job.

In about a year or a year and a half, I was getting bored with the whole newspaper thing. To me, it was slow progress. That was the time television was starting its move into India.

An old colleague from the print industry turned up at the Pioneer and whispered in my ear, "Do you want a job with a television channel?" I said, "I was thinking of it, but how did you know?"

I worked at TVI for a year. It is a good channel but it didn't get off well. TWI (Trans World International), which is the television wing of the IMG (International Management Group), was in the same building. A year later I got a call from there, asking if I wanted to join. That is when I got into mainstream sports television.

SJ: How did you come to direct cricket broadcasts? What qualifies someone to become a director of a cricket telecast?

HB: TWI used to produce domestic cricket in India for ESPN at one point. In 1996, when I joined TWI, we did domestic cricket.

That was nothing like the telecast you see now. It was a four-camera coverage, small lenses, post-produced into a 52-minute episode. A four- or five-day domestic cricket game would be condensed into 52 minutes. I remember people coming up to me and saying "Boss, I scored 92 runs and you showed just one boundary and the out." I'd reply, "You should have hit more boundaries." I can only put so much into a 52-minute show.

We used to make that show and I used to direct. Then I started producing cricket. Producing cricket is a different skill from directing it, because it is more about where you arrange things. The director is the guy who cuts the pictures, he actually calls the shots. The producer is the guy who sets it all up, who helps the director in his actual mission. I used to do that job for a long time.

Four years back, it was decided that I should go and direct myself. I was pushed into it. It is a hard job. You sit at one place for 12-14 hours and keep talking and keep listening and keep watching. You can't afford to let your concentration go.

There are no qualifications to becoming a director. You need an understanding of the game. You need to be able to tell a story. You need to be able to listen and talk at the same time. That sounds strange, but listening and talking at the same time is a really difficult task. If you manage to do that, you are qualified to be one part of the director. The rest is knowing cricket and knowing how to tell a story and knowing how to put everything together.

SJ: What are your primary responsibilities as a cricket director?

HB: People think that these blokes get to travel all around the world and stay at nice hotels and chill out, see the players and come back. The things actually start a lot earlier - three days before the game - when spreading the rig happens. You put the things together, you put the equipment, you lay miles and miles of cables, you lay down tons and tons of equipment. There are checks that happen over the next couple of days and then you come to the actual match.

On the day of the game, you ideally have a studio show, which is one or one and a half hours before the game. You come into the ground about two hours before the show. For a 10am game, you might have a 5.30am call time to leave the hotel. And then you finish pretty late - about two or two and a half hours after the game.

You check everything before the start of the game, you set everything up, you do your studio show, you talk to your anchor, you talk to the producer, the producer makes the running order for you, and you look at all the pieces that are coming up and you coordinate with the anchor and carry on.

You do the studio show, the toss, the pitch report. You are talking to your anchor in the studio and you are talking to the anchor down on the field, preparing them for the interviews and making sure that everything happens on time. You hit your breaks on time and you need to start play on time.

In the meantime, you check whether animations for outs and not-outs are well prepared, with the correct button in a situation when the umpire gives his decision. You talk with the third umpire and make sure all the communications are okay. All those things are done before you go on air for the first ball.

After that, you are in the game. You are looking at 40, 50 or 60 different monitors, depending on the size of the telecast. You have about 20 to 35 cameras, you have different replay outputs. You are looking at these all the time and calling the shots. You have to select the shot online from all the shots that are available to you.

You are thinking of a story to tell. You are talking to your replay guy, "We are thinking of this, we need to prepare for this." You are talking to your graphics guy. Like, for example, Sachin Tendulkar has scored 1400 runs in South Africa, but at Cape Town, his record is worse than elsewhere - why? That is the kind of story for the commentators to take forward. So I tell the commentators that I have this story ready for you. Just set it up and I will play the graphics so that will prove your point.

The entire telecast works as a team. But you are the guy who is the conductor of the orchestra, so to speak.

SJ: You mentioned communicating with the commentators. How frequent and regular is that communication?

HB: They have me in their ears at every point that they are commentating. They are listening to me calling each shot, calling each graphic and calling each replay. And there is this "lazy button", which you press so that the rest of the world doesn't hear and they can ask me for certain things. They may have seen something on the field that they may want to highlight, which happens a lot.

For example, I want to see Sohail Tanvir's action. He bowls off the wrong foot. Let's have a look at the action. So I tell the replay guys that this is what this commentator wants to see, so just bring it up for me.

"I like Test matches, because it allow me a canvas to tell a story. I have five days to make a story work. The pitch changes, a player evolves, there is time for graphics to come in, there is time for Hawk-Eye to come in. There is time when things move slowly"

For example, you are talking about Hawk-Eye, or any other graphic. Everything is a two-way communication with the commentators and the director. I let the commentators know what they could be talking about, or what ideas might make the story more interesting. Everything is about the storytelling. Direction is about telling a story so that the viewers can get the best viewing experience.

SJ: How does your work differ day to day?

HB: The story is dictated by what is happening on the field. Today, Ahmed Shahzad might score, tomorrow Sachin Tendulkar might, and day after tomorrow Misbah-ul-Haq might retire. All these are stories that you are telling. The stories are relevant to that day. You keep thinking of different ways of telling different stories, of telling more stories, because you can't have the same stories ad nauseam.

You don't have a blueprint. It happens in your head. It happens in front of you and you go by instinct. You go by what story the commentators want to tell, because they are your sutradhar (narrator).

SJ: In the recent Pakistan v South Africa Test match where you were directing, there was the alleged ball-tampering incident. What is the protocol there?

HB: There is really no protocol. You are supposed to be an honest storyteller and are supposed to show people what happens on the field. If something happens on the field which is a story which needs to be told, then you try and tell it. You shouldn't really be hiding things, nor should you be making things up. Usually, what happens is that the commentators see things much clearer, because they look at things from up top and they are the guys who have played a lot of cricket. They know what is happening. They are able to read the situation and they call for things. As was the case here, one of the commentators realised that something was happening.

SJ: In this particular case, where Faf du Plessis seemed to be rubbing the ball possibly on the zipper, once the commentator alerted you, did you have to go back to the footage, or was somebody's camera on the player and you got the footage of it? How did that pan out?

HB: Cameras are always on the players. Again, in this situation, I don't know what exactly was happening. My viewpoint in this case or any other case would be to show the pictures and let people make up their minds themselves. You shouldn't be bending people's opinions. This is a matter that has been dealt with by the match referee, and I really don't want to go into the nitty-gritties for various reasons.

SJ: Pretty much during any broadcast, especially in the subcontinent, almost every two to four minutes there are ten-second shots of pretty girls from the crowd. Who makes that call? Why would you, when a cricket match is going on with 40,000 fans watching, suddenly focus on a couple of pretty girls?

HB: At the end of the day, the director calls the shots. Shots are offered by different cameramen, and shots of some girls might be offered, some of guys with teddy bears might go on, as you might have seen in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is all about the director's personal taste and the crew that he has got. I don't know if it distracts or attracts. If there are shots of only girls in the crowd all the time, then yes, you might say that it is not politically correct. If there are different shots, in some cases there are pretty girls, then I see nothing wrong in it.

If someone feels embarrassed and if somebody doesn't want to be in the shot and you insist on putting them in the shot, I don't think that is a cool thing to do. But if you come to watch a game and you are a part of the viewing experience and you get shot, I don't think - unless it is two people or one person being shown over and over again - it is much of an issue.

I had the pleasure of watching the NBA finals in LA and Boston a couple of years back, and they have the Kiss Cam. Different places have different morals and different viewpoints. I wouldn't moralise on either end. I won't put anyone on air who doesn't want to be on air.

SJ: What was the first international match you directed?

HB: Pakistan v Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi. That was a Test, which was good because it gives you time to get into the match. You have time to understand what is going on, time to tell the story, time to listen to people. A Test match and a T20 are poles apart. ODIs also are very hectic. It is good to start with a Test match.

SJ: Do you prefer working with one format or another because of the pace at which it moves?

HB: I like all three formats. All three formats have different strengths. I like Test matches, because it allows me a canvas to tell a story. I have five days to make a story work. The pitch changes, there are different things to be told. A player evolves. He may be a hero in one innings and a zero in the next. He has got time, even if he is struggling, to go out and make a century. There is time for graphics to come in, there is time for Hawk-Eye to come in. Plus, Test cricket has a lot more history. Because of the long time that the game has been played over, there are more stories to tell. When things go right there is nothing like a Test match to direct.

The game that I did recently, the second Test in Harare, was one of the most satisfying games that I had ever done. I didn't have any equipment to play around with. It was very basic. The match itself was so good that the story became better and better and better.

SJ: Harsha Bhogle said that the way a commentator does his job depends a lot on the quality of the producer and the director. What are the things you try to do so to make sure your commentary is top-notch?

HB: The big advantage that I had was working with Tony Greig to start with. Tony knew television. There are a few others around the world as well - Mike Haysman, Ian Bishop, Ian Chappell. Tony Greig came through the Channel Nine school. There were a lot of things to learn from him - how to set up things with the commentators, how to tell them beforehand what things to put on, what to keep in your kitty so that the commentator can set it up before putting the graphic in.

A lot of times what happens is that you have a fantastic graphic that you just put in and the commentator talks about it and it goes off and doesn't have the impact that it should. Whereas, if a commentator sets it up like this: "I thought that Sachin Tendulkar would have the best record at this ground. But do you know who it really is?" You scratch your head and think. Then we put the graphic up and show that Mahela Jayawardene had the best record at that ground, for example. There is a surprise, the story is told. It is good to work with people who know television and who know what goes on behind the scene, so that they can embellish things, so that they can talk about pictures - that is an art.

There are some commentators who could be difficult. Tony was not easy on me to start with; we used to have a lot of arguments. But at the end of the day he respected me and I respected him. There is nothing wrong with having arguments. You should be able to tell the commentator, "Look, this is where I think you could do better." He should be in a position to tell you, "No, I think you should do this." The moment you stop learning and evolving, that is the moment things become a little bit dreary.

SJ: What is the most memorable match or series that you have directed?

HB: I will go with the recent Zimbabwe v Pakistan one. It is not a glamourous series. I didn't have a lot of tools to play with. That shows you why I remember it so fondly. The cricket was great.

Zimbabwe were in disarray. They hadn't got their money. Every day was a worry. Will they would turn up and play the next day? The match was shifted from Bulawayo to Harare because the board didn't have money to pay for the hotels. You could see that the team was such a massive underdog. You could see that the players didn't even know if they were going to get paid. And yet they came up with such a massive effort in the end, upstaging a country like Pakistan, who had some really big guns like Misbah, Younis Khan and Saeed Ajmal. It made life worthwhile there.

When I sent a camera into the dressing room, I saw the celebrations, I saw what it meant to them. It was more than just a victory. They are not going to play a match for a long time after this win. It was a last-chance saloon for them. I could have picked an India series, but I think this is what cricket is about. That series will always be in the forefront of my mind.