December 3, 2013

'We don't know what goes on in Dhoni's mind'

Veteran cricket journalist Clayton Murzello talks about the the way media coverage of cricket has evolved in India, and the issue of the press' access to cricketers

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: You have been covering cricket for such a long time. One thing I want to know first is: how has the Indian cricket media changed over your career? It used to be very print-oriented but now it is TV-centric, and you have competition from websites such as ESPNcricinfo. So how has your job changed and how has the cricket media transformed over the years?

Clayton Murzello: Firstly Subash, the transformation has been exciting for the followers of the game. That is what matters, actually. For a large extent, the cricket coverage for the fans today has become exciting. So that has to be good. The power of television and the internet has done massive amount of good for the game. So if you and me are fans of the game, we'd be very happy to be in this era.

SJ: From a media person's perspective, how has that transformation affected you?

CM: It has been exciting and it has been challenging. Life without a challenge wouldn't be fun. I look at it from that angle. The problem is when things get trivialised, and that I don't think a cricket follower enjoys too much. For example, during the 2003 World Cup, or maybe a little later, there was a programme on TV called Cricket Villain (Match ke Mujrim) in Hindi, where they used to dissect the performances in the game - which is fine, but they also used to dissect the guy who did not do well. Now in a game where you fail more often than you succeed, I thought that was quite unfair. At times the media today doesn't treat cricket as a game. They treat it like it's another day at the office where things could go wrong. I think, in many ways, media do not treat cricket as a game now. So that's changed in my job.

SJ: As someone who grew up and worked in an era where you catered to the thoughtful cricket fan, this must be quite jarring to the system and yet, you have to compete with this. How do you adapt to that change in situation?

CM: First thing is, you go with the flow. You see on a day-to-day basis what the reader wants. You to try to give him the best you can offer. The competition is there and it's challenging. You have got to do more than what TV does. That is exciting because there are some things you can do in print that TV can't do, but basically the fan is in a better position and that's quite satisfying.

The pressures of the job, they have changed, certainly. It makes me nostalgic. Fifteen years ago, I could go on a cricket tour and I could just approach a player without an agent coming into play or the BCCI guidelines, and the player would take the call as to whether he wanted to talk to me or not. I think that was a good system, whereas now it has changed, it is more structured, more army-like.

SJ: TV journalism is pretty much "gotcha!" journalism. They are always trying to get a player to say something headline-worthy. Is the army-like, structured thing because of that? I'm trying to understand what brought about this change.

CM: I'd say that the needs have changed. Players have become more guarded because of TV. The personal touch is lacking. You don't get as close to the players as you would 15 years ago. That is something you have got to accept because in this scenario, you can't please everyone.

My problem is that the board isn't doing enough to improve media relations. For example, I'm told, "Dhoni is a great captain". Fine, he is a great captain but he doesn't give interviews. We don't know what goes on in his mind. Apart from the usual match-related press conferences, Dhoni doesn't give any interviews. I would like a scenario where the board says, "Tomorrow we are making the Indian captain available for ten minutes per media house."

SJ: Was it the media that got worse or was it the board that got strict with these things? Where was it that the balance between the media and the board went off kilter?

CM: I think what changed it was when Jagmohan Dalmiya became president [of the BCCI] again in 2001. He stopped any media interactions with the chief selector. I maybe wrong here, but I think after the interaction with selectors was stopped, everyone followed suit and just kept quiet. I think Chandu Borde was the last chairman of selectors who spoke with the media after every selection committee meeting. That resumed when Kiran More became the chairman, but it wasn't all that regular.

On one occasion, after a game against Zimbabwe in Nagpur, Chandu Borde was grilled and it was quite ridiculous, because I think the media were unfair to him. I think Dalmiya took a note of that and stopped all interactions between the media and the chief selector and it trickled down to the players as well.

I understand the board's line of thinking here - that you cannot please every media house or every media person. But overall I think they can improve relations with the media. You open a newspaper any day and you see an article that is anti-BCCI. Some people say they [board] are thick-skinned and they are not bothered, but I think somewhere down the line they have to improve the media relations.

I'll tell you a story from India's tour of Sri Lanka in 1998. I was working for Mid-Day and I still continue to do so, and I had to concentrate on post-match interviews. We were an afternoon tabloid newspaper and we had to give something different from the morning newspapers.

I remember being the only journalist to go over to the team dressing rooms and wait outside the door for the captains to come out. Arjuna Ranatunga was leading Sri Lanka then and I had a problem getting to the dressing room because of the security, especially at the Premadasa Stadium. I explained my problem to Arjuna and he said, "Why don't you do one thing? Instead of coming all the way to the dressing room after the match, why don't you just go back to the hotel and get me on the phone there and I'll speak to you about the match?" Can you imagine any captain doing that today? But then, those were the good days.

SJ: I have only heard about how, for lack of a better word, predatory the Indian TV media could be, but at the Sachin Tendulkar post-retirement press conference I got to see it first hand. There were about 400-500 credentialled media people and the only ones that got to ask a question of Sachin were the ones with TV cameras. How are you, as a print journalist, to do your job when 1) access is restricted, and 2) whenever there is access, it is taken away by people with TV cameras? With the way TV media approaches it, what advice would you give someone who is entering print journalism in India?

CM: I don't know whether I'm in any position to give any sort of advice. What I'd say is, "Go with the flow and make the best use of any opportunity coming your way." You spoke about this specific press conference and you are absolutely right. I don't really know what you would do. You saw many journalists with their hands up, with questions for Tendulkar, and they didn't get a chance. I think they should have had a separate press conference for the electronic media and one for the print media. I think they could have handled it better. What we saw was quite disgraceful. They had a separate session for TV after the press conference. So why not have an exclusive press conference for the print media?

"Fifteen years ago, I could go on a cricket tour and I could just approach a player without an agent coming into play or the BCCI guidelines, and the player would take the call as to whether he wanted to talk to me or not. I think that was a good system, whereas now it has changed, it is more structured, more army-like"

SJ: I want to talk a little about Mumbai cricket. Not exactly the nitty gritty of the players and selections and all that, but an overall view of things. You always hear about when there is a bright new young talent coming through in Mumbai. The word gets around and you get to hear from people on television, like Sunny Gavaskar and Sanjay Manjrekar. I want to understand from you, as someone who has covered cricket in Mumbai for so long - how does this news network work in Mumbai? How does the word get around?

CM: I have always felt it, and many others have too: the heart of Mumbai's success is in its club structure. When a player scores heavily in the club circuit, he gets known and he gets watched, by selectors, groundsmen and club secretaries, and then the word gets to the media. That's how players are exposed [to the outside world] at a very young age. That's where Mumbai cricket is different.

But I am not willing to say everything is rosy in Mumbai cricket. Yeah, we have won the Ranji Trophy 40 times but the club structure is not as good as it should be. I don't think club loyalty exists now. This is pulling Mumbai cricket back now. They need to look at the club structure in spite of the 40 Ranji trophies and see the bad things there. There is a new format from this year, where they have done away with the monsoon flavour of the Kanga league. I'm not too sure whether that's the right move, but we can't be too cynical about things also. We'll have to give it two or three years to see how it goes. I thought the Kanga league was a very important part of Mumbai cricket, although it lost its importance over the last ten years. I think the administrators should have done things to improve it rather than completely take away the monsoon flavour.

SJ: A question from listener Abhijit Banare: We often forget the other side of Mumbai cricket. You hear about players like Tendulkar that were spotted at a very young age and went on to fulfill all expectations. But a lot of careers go nowhere because of the pressures that come with the cut-throat competition that is Mumbai cricket. How do these pressures affect young cricketers in Mumbai cricket?

CM: That's a very good point. In the past there used to be a lot of mentoring that went on in those tents in the maidans. You can ask anyone in Mumbai cricket and they will tell you that they were not short of mentors. There is a shortage of mentors now and that's not good news. The young cricketer in many ways has to fend for himself. To a point, players must fend for themselves, but you need those mentors and backers to tell you when you are wrong and encourage you when you are going well. I think that's lacking in Mumbai cricket now, and that's not good news. The MCA has to build a good environment around club cricket to ensure what was experienced in the past is experienced now.

SJ: What would be some of the things you would like to see MCA do?

CM: Well, I'd like to see more players encouraged to come into the administrative fold of the MCA. I don't see that happening. You need the right kind of players. I don't mean to just bring in players to run Mumbai cricket. That won't work. You need administrators as well but you need a fair amount of good cricketers to come in to lead the way. It is really sad to see someone like Dilip Vengsarkar not having anything to do with the association. He should be your cricket operations man, but he is nowhere in the association. He didn't even stand for the elections this year.

SJ: In terms of the involvement of the ex-cricketers that you had in the '80s and the '90s, you hear of things like Sunny Gavaskar taking an active interest in Tendulkar and giving him advice, pads etc. Is there still that kind of involvement? Are the Mumbai Ranji players and the Mumbai players representing India still in touch with their Mumbai club roots?

CM: The main thing is that the first-class cricketers don't play enough club cricket, which used to happen in the past. However big a player you were, you had to play for your club. You wanted to play for your club. I don't think that exists anymore, and so there is no interaction between the senior and junior players. This is what I feel. I don't think club cricketers are benefiting from their senior players. Because senior players don't turn up; they don't have the time to turn up. The schedule is such that the senior players cannot play club cricket at times. You can't blame them. That's why I'd like to see an enhanced version of the Kanga league, where the normal club cricketers get to rub shoulders with their seniors.

SJ: I want to talk about Sachin Tendulkar. Mid-Day was the first newspaper to carry an article about him, back in 1987-88 I think, and also Mid-Day organised that TV interview of Tendulkar that Tom Alter did back then. Your newspaper career has pretty much coincided with Tendulkar's career. What has been your relationship with Tendulkar from the time he was 16-17 years old to now when he has retired?

CM: We have had a really good professional relationship. I don't think I can claim to be his friend, which many people feel. A lot of people pull my leg at the office about this, but I'm tired of telling them that I'm not his friend and I just enjoy a good professional relationship with him. I think that relationship has been fostered with trust, like any relationship. We understand each other's pressures. I didn't push him for anything if he was in the middle of a series. Look, if Tendulkar didn't want to talk to you, he will not talk to you. He will always put his cricket first.

He has been really good to our newspaper. Sachin spoke to us quite often, even late at night. He did everything possible to assist us and I'm really grateful for that.

I recently got out a book on him and he was kind enough to write an introduction and he was very generous with his words. Practically every year he granted me an interview in those 24 years. Well, not 24 years, since I first interviewed him only in 1990. I've been interviewing him regularly since 1994. I used to cover Ranji Trophy a lot. After every day's play, I used to wait outside the dressing room to get his views on the day. Maybe that helped!

SJ: Any final thoughts, Clayton?

CM: I just wish the board does something about the media limitations and improves the relations. Actually the board sometimes has to project the good they are doing. They are doing a lot of good in Indian cricket. Sure, there are a lot of anti-BCCI pieces floating around but the board is actually doing some good work. If they improve the relationship with the media, people will get to know the good work they are doing.