Attitude Inflation, and the quality of broadcasting

Amit Varma

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

6.50pm IST - `Even a man can be a gynaecologist'

I got a heap of mails from people after my last post ('Cricket journalist? But have you played cricket'), mostly from people who haven't, like me, played much cricket, and who consider that no impediment to writing about it. Hmmm ... one nice cosy club we'll form while ex-cricketers-cum-celebrity-columnists snicker in a corner, boasting about how they've been there, done that and got the endorsements. A number of people came up with further analogies of kinds of journalists who don't have to be practitioners in the fields they write about, like food critics, film reviewers and journos on the television beat. (Joey Alcock recalled watching a news broadcast in which Kerry Packer barked at the journalist asking him questions, "Do you own a TV station? Well, then who the hell are you?") Nigel Robinson summed up my point succintly: "Even a man can be a gynaecologist."

Neil Drysdale, a Scottish rugby and cricket writer, said that in Scotland they call this the "Show Us Your Medals" syndrome. Ranjan Grover and Vikram V wrote in saying that journalists are partly to blame for being on the receiving end of this attitude, because too many ignorant journalists, the kind of rookies I spoke about in my last piece, tend to ask half-arsed questions at press conferences and make knee-jerk comments after a bad performance without understanding the subtleties involved. I quite agree that this happens - the easiest thing for a lazy journalist to do is to be critical of a losing team or a failing player, especially as, with hindsight, it is always easy to find out what went wrong.

An aside - Indian selectors, and Attitude Inflation

I have blogged earlier about how Indian sportspeople get so much vitriol from their fans (`Why Indian fans treat their sporting heroes so harshly'), but Indian selectors get an even rawer end of the stick - they are always ridiculed, no matter what they do. Every time after an Indian team selection is announced, virtually every national newspaper criticises it vehemently, and most cricket journalists make righteous comments to the effect of, "Oh, X should have been picked instead of Y." (The Xs and Ys will of course differ; even in the media, there is never a consensus on this.) The fact is that in every selection 10 to 12 players are guaranteed of a place in the squad, and there will be seven or eight players in contention for the other four or five places. Each of them will be a reasonable choice, for different reasons, and the selectors will exercise their prerogative to pick the men they think are right for the job, and it is the journalists' prerogative to express disagreement over this, in a reasoned manner. But the vituperative derision the selectors are regularly subjected to is unjustified.

It is a common belief that selection in India is done on the basis of zonal quotas. I'm not sure if this is so. Although the selectors are selected on a zonal basis - a reasonable procedure, as it ensures that between them they are familiar with players from the entire country - there appears to be no quota system in the game. After all, how many players are there in the Indian side from the central zone? And how many from the East, besides Sourav Ganguly? Over the last decade, in fact, I can recall just one truly bizarre selection, that of Noel David for the series against West Indies in 1996-97. Apart from that, pretty much all selectorial picks have been reasonable - some have been rewards for domestic performance, and some have been punts, of which a few, like the selection of Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan for the 2000 ICC KnockOut, have worked superbly. (In 1996 when Sourav Ganguly was selected for India's tour to England, I and some of my colleagues at Channel [V], where I then worked, cribbed for hours about how he was picked because of a zonal quota. See how it turned out.)

A couple of months ago, my colleagues at Wisden Cricinfo, and some of our contributors, put on selectorial hats to pick our Rest of the World XIs to take on Australia. Twenty-two of us picked two teams each, one for each format of the game, and none of these 44 teams matched any other, or, indeed, the composite XIs that emerged. That underscored the subjectivity involved, and how it is impossible for selectors to satisfy everyone. (I wrote about it here; no feedback on that subject, please!)

Bret Stephens of the Jerusalem Post recently coined a term, in a different context, which I think explains why so many Indian fans hold such strong opinions on players and selectors: Attitude Inflation. He wrote:

If you don't actually have to do something about your attitudes you're likelier to have more of them, and they are bound to be both more extravagant and more unrealistic. People who are in no position to end world hunger and bring about peace in the Middle East can endlessly carry on about ending world hunger and bringing peace to the Middle East. Doing so means only that they're declaring themselves the sorts of folk who deplore hunger and war. But statesmen who must actually wrestle with issues of cost, capacity, local difficulties and unintended consequences tend to have more realistic, and therefore restrained, attitudes.

Stephens's piece was written in the context of foreign policy, but this kind of Attitude Inflation is rampant among cricket fans, especially subcontinental ones. They don't have to go out and play themselves - some wouldn't even know how to grip a bat - and are never going to called upon to bear the responsibility of selecting a national team, and their attitudes often are, as Stephens put it, "extravagant and ... unrealistic". (It's not just players and selectors, but journalists like me, with a public email address, who are on the receiving end of these attitudes.) And when such fans become cricket journalists, they acquire a characteristic of the Left parties in India: power without responsibility.

No wonder, then, that when such a journalist asks a stupid question to a cricketer, the response, often thought and not verbalised, is "well, how much cricket have you played, mate?" Added to this is the tendency of many journalists, under pressure to produce regular newsbreaks for their employers, to not care about the cricket itself, but fish around for sensational scoops (as I'd earlier blogged here.) The ignorance and irresponsibilty of the journalist concerned may provoke the response that brings his cricketing inexperience into focus, which then becomes the handle by which all journalists are kept in their place - unfortunately so. To reiterate what I said in my last post, journalists should only be judged by their journalistic work, and not their biodata.

Aside from that aside ... The changing face of sports broadcasting

I received many mails over the last week focussing on sports broadcasting. One was from a fellow writer who wished to remain unnamed. He wrote: "Have you realised that the entry barrier for cricketers as commentators is so low while a non-first-class cricketer has to be awesome today to get a break? In the last three years, look at the number of cricketers who have got breaks and the number of others who have."

Television, of course, is a visual medium, so one can understand the logic of broadcasting companies - audiences feel comfortable with a known face, who is, in a sense, already a brand. But this essentially means that a non-cricketer, no matter how talented, has virtually no chance of becoming a sports broadcaster. As the gentleman I quoted above wrote, "Couldn't there be a Cozier, an Arlott, a McGilvray in today's generation?" What I feel sad about is not that the broadcasting companies don't ask themselves that question, but that much of the audience doesn't seem to care either.

The quality of broadcasting, naturally, has suffered because of this shift towards commentators who are better at playing the game than in communicating its drama. Vamsi Kommasani writes in to say:

The art of commentary has become more reactionary than insightful, and the reactions (both appreciative and derisive) are becoming more violent in their nature and the fluctuations more extreme ... TV commentary should focus more on the subtleties and nuances and historical traces of the game and less on an audio rendering of what can plainly be seen on the screen. The medium affords the commentator the luxury of digression without taking anything away from the action. A great exponent of this is Richie Benaud; and, in the younger brigade, Harsha Bhogle.

Benaud's example, of course, makes it clear that some ex-cricketers have turned out to be excellent commentators (just as some non-cricketers have). Is there a particular kind of ex-cricketer who is suited for broadcasting? Kenneth Owen and Christopher Beghin point out that former captains often land up in commentary boxes, and while Christopher bemoans this shift, Kenneth reasons, "I actually think it is former captains who transfer best [to commentary] - Channel 4 in the UK shows this very well - ... because captains have to think about all facets of the game, whereas the fast bowler generally only has to concentrate on where he pitches the ball and how to get the batsman out - not that this is an easy task, of course!"

Shankar Mazumdar makes an interesting observation, when he writes, "it appears to me that ex-players who were naturally gifted make the worst commentators, while those that were dedicated students of the game even while they played are a treat to listen to for their insights ... [Mansur Ali Khan] Pataudi once said that naturally gifted players make the worst coaches - and we saw that through the transition from Kapil [Dev] (who I'm a huge fan of as a player) to [John] Wright." And the one from Javed Miandad to Bob Woolmer, if I may add to that.

Pataudi, in an interview in the March 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, had made just the same point about captains. "Great players don't necessarily make great captains," he had said. "The trouble with natural cricketers is that they never have to think about the game. Everything comes so easily to them. You ask them to coach someone and they wouldn't know what to do." And commentary?

Wait ... it could get worse

Actually, a fair number of non-cricketers have been getting breaks in sports broadcasting recently - and they've all been glamourous celebrities. I had blogged earlier about how this influx of an assorted mix of TV stars and Bollywood wannabes is ruining sports broadcasting in India, so I won't rant about it now, but the thought strikes me: will we, one day, actually miss these ex-cricketers-turned-commentators we crib about so much today?

Your favourite Indian cricket writers

Many of the people who wrote in to me mentioned who their favourite Indian cricket writers were - mostly in support of the point that the best writers are often non-cricketers - and I was delighted to find that so many of you share the same taste as me. The names that cropped up most: Rohit Brijnath, Harsha Bhogle, Ramachandra Guha and Sambit Bal (my colleague at Wisden Cricinfo). A couple of people asked me about the Indian cricket writers I like. Well, besides the gentlemen named above, others I enjoy reading are Mukul Kesavan, who rarely writes on cricket, Rahul Bhattacharya, who is absconding these days, and Sharda Ugra, who stepped so smoothly into Brijnath's unisex shoes at India Today, and writes with eloquence on sports other than cricket as well.

One more sports blog: Ubersportingpundit.com, run by Scott Wickstein.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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