BCCI restrictions on TV commentators October 12, 2013

Have an opinion? Think again

One of the requirements for a BCCI commentator is the willingness to avoid a list of taboo subjects, including Indian selection, DRS or administrative matters

A tweet by Sanjay Manjrekar on Tuesday gave an indication to an extent of the workings of cricket television in India and the tricky territory on which its commentators must operate.

The tweet was addressed to Sundar Raman, the IPL chief operating officer. It read: "Sundar, I have now been kicked off from studio for Ind/Aus by star. Don't you think this is a bit harsh? I have a contract with them." The tweet was deleted almost immediately and Manjrekar later explained via another tweet that it was a "segment of private chat that erroneously got onto twitter."

The India-Australia series that Manjrekar was referring to began with a T20 in Rajkot on Thursday. Manjrekar, who had been the studio host for Star Sports during India's home Test series against Australia in February-March, was not part of their television coverage this time. He has refused to say more on the issue. Sundar Raman, the COO of the IPL, was asked for his views on the matter but he has not responded at the time of writing.

Unlike Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, L Sivaramakrishnan and, in the case of the Australia series, Matthew Hayden, Manjrekar is not contracted to the BCCI. He is, like Harsha Bhogle, Shane Warne and Sourav Ganguly, on contract with Star, the media-rights holders for cricket played in India. While Star owns the media rights, production is handled by the BCCI - which means the board can decide the roster of commentators on its "world-feed" broadcast which is sent around the cricket-watching globe.

A Star India spokesperson told ESPNcricinfo that they were not aware of "any such message or tweet" and added, "Sanjay Manjrekar very much remains contracted with ESS and on the panel of cricket commentators for the network… Not all contracted commentators are used by the network in every game and every series for that matter." The spokesperson said it was "baseless" to assume that any commentator did not find himself as studio host following only one match in the India-Australia series and added that the BCCI had not given "any feedback on any specific commentator."

There is another incident similar to Manjrekar's featuring another disappearing commentator. Arun Lal, who had headed the Hindi commentary during the India-Australia Test series was contracted for the Champions LeagueT20. Yet he was never sighted on air during the tournament. The reason for his disappearance is said to have been his commentary stint during the Bangladesh Premier League and the suspicion that he may have a financial stake in the event. The Star India spokesperson said the channel's argument about Manjrekar applied to Lal's case as well.

Earlier this month, Star were the only bidders for title-rights sponsorship for India's 13 home matches this season. When asked if the deal would have helped them acquire greater leverage with the BCCI, the spokesperson said, "Star/ESS acquisition of the sponsorship is a totally unrelated matter. The network and the BCCI both have the common goal of delivering a high quality audio- video experience to the TV viewers in India and abroad."

Along with that goal, one of the key requirements for a BCCI world-feed commentator, apart from knowledge of cricket and reasonable grasp of English, is the willingness to avoid a list of taboo subjects during commentary. Ian Chappell declined an offer of a commentary stint because he was told he would have to follow BCCI restrictions.

Chappell told Hindustan Times on Tuesday that when he asked what the restrictions were he was told he couldn't talk about Indian selection, DRS or administrative matters. "I responded saying I didn't feel I could do my job properly under those circumstances and therefore declined the offer," Chappell said. The Hindustan Times report was referring to the ongoing limited-overs series, but Chappell's account of his turning down a commentary offer applied to the Border-Gavaskar series earlier in the year.

The impact of the restrictions during that series was reflected in the quality and tenor of the commentary - catches that went down after hitting MS Dhoni on the wrist and Virat Kohli on the chest were called "half chances" and there was no comment passed on the state of the pitch for the Delhi Test, which ended inside three days.

The IPL, known for its higher pitch of commentary, witnessed another episode of message control following an ebullient pre-match introduction of Kohli by Danny Morrison and HD Ackerman earlier this year. Both Morrison and Ackerman made references to Kohli as a "possible future captain" of India and "captain-in-waiting."

It is understood that the BCCI's commentary restrictions came into place at the start of the 2012-2013 home season and the four-Test series against England, which India lost 1-2 to give England their first Test series win in India after 28 years. As post-defeat discussions were about to begin on air, commentators in Nagpur were told that captaincy and selection were not to be talked about.

They were reprimanded "quite badly" for talking about what was a "selectors' decision." A commentators' roster for the play-off final was announced earlier than usual and neither man found himself on it. During the recently-concluded Champions League T20, the list of taboo topics included the sight of empty stands.

It is understood that the BCCI's commentary restrictions came into place at the start of the 2012-2013 home season and the four-Test series against England, which India lost 1-2 to give England their first Test series win in India after 28 years. As post-defeat discussions were about to begin on air, commentators in Nagpur were told that captaincy and selection were not to be talked about.

The board's move to control the message emanating out of cricket television in India was a Lalit Modi initiative begun in 2008 with the signing of Gavaskar and Shastri onto the BCCI payroll. It was then made mandatory for all rights holders to have Gavaskar and Shastri on commentary teams whenever India played at home. Even though Modi was excised by the BCCI, following the IPL's 2010 financial scandal, the template set in place by him has only been strengthened.

In December 2011, the BCCI terminated its broadcasting-rights contract with Nimbus - due to run until 2014 - and re-sold "media rights" to Star while retaining control of production. Its larger world-feed "message" is now broadcast by a team of commentators, who also happen to be prominent syndicated newspaper columnists. Their social media presence is also said to be closely monitored.

Manjrekar's reference to being "kicked off" the studio marks the next step of BCCI's message-management. There is a pecking order which is tacitly understood, with the BCCI-contracted commentators - Shastri, Gavaskar, Sivaramakrishnan - being the most powerful. Those at the top are given the leeway to pass an occasional, stray comment as a fair criticism or observation with the knowledge that they abide by the BCCI's larger philosophy. Those treated with suspicion are watched for their first error before being sidelined. Newcomers understand very quickly that if they speak their mind, it will be transmitted via loyal informants up the line.

The line of authority and the information about a commentator's status in the BCCI commentary box follows a very simple path - it is the producer who breaks the bad news to the commentator, if at all the news is to be broken. Above the producer is the BCCI's broadcast services director James Rego, who reports to Raman, who reports either to the board president's assistant Kasi Viswanathan or to the president N Srinivasan himself.

The atmosphere inside the commentary box is stilted. "I speak to people I can trust," says a commentator. "Those I don't trust, I don't talk to at all. I stay away from them. I have no conversation. I do my work and go home." Walking on eggshells is de rigueur in the BCCI commentary box. "You are not even allowed to have an opinion - even off air. There is such a lot of arbitrary power exercised," said another.

The best assessment comes from a third: "It feels like I am working not on the game itself, but in the grand Indian cricket commercial."

ESPN Software is no longer an ESPN-owned company and is believed to be re-branding in the future, following News Corporation's buyout of ESPN's 50% of the ESPN-Star Sports joint venture. ESPN, which owns ESPNcricinfo, is not a title sponsor of Indian cricket.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 19, 2013, 17:09 GMT

    As I kept suspecting, THIS IS THE EXACT CASE !!! Its better for me to mute the TV & ON the All India Radio commentary ! Atleast I'd be hearing some sensible commentary with meaning criticism. If you keep suppressing the negatives, then you are double crossing ! As simple as that !

  • Harmon on October 17, 2013, 23:30 GMT

    Oh so espncricinfo allowed my prev comment hoping to mitigate the criticism and to be seen as someone who allow free speech. They will allow expression of criticism but will not allow actual criticism. They will allow me to say that their policy of moderation is wrong but will not actually allow me to post rebuttals to nasty comments made by other fans, usually Eng & Aus. Would they allow me to take names? Would they allow me to say that 5Wombats, Biggus, Si Baker are among the most notorious, acidic & repulsive posters here? A no of times they have posted extremely shocking comments but even after numerous attempts my posts to them are not published. So letting me say that their policy of comments moderation is bad is no good unless they actually allow me to deal with these guys in the language they best understand.

  • Harmon on October 17, 2013, 20:16 GMT

    So espncricinfo is talking about fair speech and freedom of expression and is criticizing if BCCI has on its roll ppl who follow its guidelines? Would any org in the world like to have ppl on its roll if they were publicly criticizing their own org? Does it happen anywhere? Does anyone recall what ECB did to KP when he indulged in totally private communication with his friends? What did ECB did to KP when he wanted to focus on IPL? What did CA do to Warner when he defended himself vs some nasty guys on twitter?

    Talking about espncricinfo itself, do they allow free speech? Why do they moderate comments here? They can use automated software that will reject any comments that use objectionable words but they should allow other comments to get through no matter what they may say but no, espncricinfo itself heavily censors comments. Worse, the policy is not standard. Someone can make fun of millions of Ind fans, someone can call us GHASTILIES & that is ok.

    It is pot vs kettle here.

  • Kannan on October 16, 2013, 7:42 GMT

    When one is employed by a Company, isn't it reasonable to expect that that Company expects that the employee adhere to certain topics and not discuss certain topics related to the Company's working? Isn't it reasonable that the Company expects that the employee stays away from controversy involving the Company that may project it in poor light? This happens all the time, everywhere, all around the world, so what is wrong if BCCI does it? What is wrong if the BCCI regulates information so that incorrect impressions are not created, like Virat being the captain-in-waiting, etc? One normally hears of dead Indian wickets from the international press, but the international press failed to comment on the sporting fast wicket with plenty of bounce that was prepared at Pune. Why is that? It is true that there is a concerted effort by certain quarters in India and abroad to project BCCI and India in a bad light. There is nothing wrong in combating such efforts through protective measures!

  • kannan on October 15, 2013, 5:22 GMT

    The actions of BCCI remind me of the erstwhile Gestapo and the East German secret services; suppress all discontent, stifle dissenting voices, treat everyone with contempt and onwards with the propaganda machine. Sad state of affairs, in a democratic country. It's high time that bcci is made accountable by the govt and bring it under the purview of the rti act. Btw, we all know what happened to the Gestapo.

  • Anil on October 15, 2013, 4:27 GMT

    The other day i heard L.Siva say "the Indians have almost catched up with the required run rate"

  • Srinivas on October 14, 2013, 21:02 GMT

    @anshu.s, you are welcome bro. Can't agree more again. And the other thing is, even if IPL destroys cricket, it is still worth it. Here it is: The game is always bigger than a player but people's lives are always bigger than the game itself. IPL gave life to so many poor Indians. If this IPL destroys cricket/test cricket/odi cricket, I won't be bitter or worry too much (mind you, I'm an ardent test cricket fan and a deep admirer of Rahul Dravid). Cricket is just a game at the end of the day. Why should we worry if it gets destroyed because of IPL or BigBash or BPL, as long as they can give hope and respectable life to many poor people across the globe? That doesn't mean I will not fight for test cricket's survival. But still, if test cricket has to die finally, so be it. I'm happy as long as people's standard of life improves.

  • Dummy4 on October 14, 2013, 13:30 GMT

    Bodies controlling sport are not by any stretch of imagination required to be democratic in their operations. Any organisation that employs people has every right to specify what areas are "off-limits" for an employee - one wonders how long a ESPNCricInfo writer would last if he/she consciously defied the organisation's stated policies.

    Also, too much is made of Ian Chappell's refusal to adhere to commentary guidelines. Chappell has never been a particularly good commentator anyway, having built his reputation purely by playing the "maverick", by making controversial if not outrageous statements - one being his criticism of the Indian squad in 2011 for saying they wanted to win the World Cup for Tendulkar !

  • Bala on October 14, 2013, 13:21 GMT

    Is the BCCI thinking they can really suppress controversial topics by stopping its puppet commentators from speaking something that is way too obvious for the rest of the 1.2 billion people of India? Indian public is so knowledgeable about cricket, that it only takes some 4-5 college-goers to get together and they can provide way better commentary and more astute analysis than the BCCI puppet show. It would be naive of BCCI to think that if its commentators don't tell something, the people are not going to know. All these gimmicks increases my belief day by day that the big great fall is nearing for the BCCI. As they say, the light that's going to fade out is the one that shines the brightest.

  • Dummy4 on October 14, 2013, 12:50 GMT

    BCCI bashing is the flavor of month/year/decade! I have to admit that whilst I am no fan of BCCI, but at the same time I find too many articles written by eminent journalists who only want to play to the galleries by trashing BCCI. The cricket world needs to face one thing - BCCI is a very powerful body controlling most of the finances of world cricket. Arrogance, is hence, expected. When you have power, you want to get your way. Which is what BCCI is doing. The fact that BCCI is not media savvy may be one of their many shortcomings. But that does not mean that BCCI is all shortcomings and has no merits. Why don't we have some balanced articles where one can also possibly speculate the reasons behind the apparent "diktats" of BCCI?