India slip where they shouldn't
What if Ricky Ponting had kept the Indian media waiting for an hour and a half at the end of an ODI which Australia had lost by over a hundred runs? Cue carpet-bombing on television and screaming headlines in newspapers the following morning about shoddy Australian behaviour. Stern editorials would have discussed how visiting captains had lost their grip on cricket's post-colonial realities.
All India's captain MS Dhoni and his manager Ranjib Biswal got on Sunday was a boycott of their delayed media briefing by a handful of written press. Television reporters patiently waited it out, possibly given the intense competition.
Why should this matter at all to the general public or India's fans? Reporters and their deadlines do not fall into their area of interest. They support the team and on Sunday would have cursed the fates, the umpire and the light-headed Indian batting and moved on to their lives and their jobs.
The cricket media's job, though, is to report, analyse, appreciate and assess the good, the bad and the ugly of the team they are assigned to follow. When it comes to its mandatory media duties, this Indian team management is fast approaching ugly.
This has nothing to do with normal slip-ups or the team struggling to turn up in the gloom of defeat. Those can be understood, laughed over, sympathised with. The day before the 2008 Asia Cup final, coach Gary Kirsten was halfway to the team's Karachi hotel before realising that the team's media commitments had been forgotten. Accompanied by baggage man Russel Radhakrishnan, he returned to the ground, apologised to the waiting pack and got the session going.
Colombo, though, was not a one-off; incidents of this kind have happened several times on Dhoni's watch.
On one of the days of the Kolkata Test against South Africa earlier this year, India didn't send in a player for the post-play conference, despite two centurions to pick from. Nor did they offer an explanation as to why India had no one to speak for them after what had been a very good day. During a boring Test versus Sri Lanka in Ahmadabad last year, the Indians had also given one daily briefing a miss. At the end of that game, journalists waited for two hours before the football match ended and the captain turned up to speak.
All this was preceded by the memorable show of 'team unity' at the 2009 World Twenty20 in Nottingham. In response to wild stories about an injury to Virender Sehwag, the entire squad and support staff massed behind Dhoni as he read a statement, slapped his hands on the table, stood up and dramatically left the room. Some teammates had reportedly advised him to avoid this charade but he chose to go his way.
It was not so much a show of solidarity but one of petulance against the existence of a rapidly multiplying and complicated news media that follows the Indians. Dhoni's tactic of refusing one-on-one interviews works for him because he shows no preference to either the serious or the sensation-seeking journalist. But to play around with what is part of the essential conduct of international cricket is to show all journalists neither basic courtesy nor respect.
It is here that the senior management of the Indian team - or manager Ranjib Biswal - needs to step in and enforce the basic rules the boards sign up to during international matches.
"At a time like this, management has to intervene, and have someone stand in for the captain," says Delhi Daredevils' chief operating officer, Amrit Mathur, who travelled extensively as manager with the Indians. "You have the coach or a senior player step in and not keep the media waiting. The rest can play football. It's just part of a team's responsibility."
Rather than manage the situation, though, Biswal played goalkeeper in Colombo. His excuse was that the match was supposed to end at 10:15 pm anyway, so the least the journalists could do was kill time. In such a situation, the message sent out to the younger players in the group could hardly have included the need to respect media commitments.
The media's needs may not concern everyone but a disregard for professionalism by India's No. 1 sports team should. Even India's goodwill among its peers is beginning to fray. When Kumar Sangakkara said, "We don't try and hide behind the press or hide behind our board," he wasn't talking about the Sri Lankans.
The BCCI will not hire a professional media manager but Biswal was expected to play the part and also supply the annual vote. He happens to be president of the Orissa Cricket Association, a former national selector and a former first-class cricketer. Understanding all sides of Indian cricket should have him do better than allow cricketers in his charge to try to get bigger than their sport.
The size of the media contingent, one of the reasons often cited for the Indian team's deteriorating relationship with the media, is immaterial. At sport's biggest event, the football World Cup - where managers of both teams turn up for the media conference within half an hour of the final whistle - nearly 100 English reporters were devoted entirely to covering England's matches in South Africa.
At the Olympics, all athletes must walk from their competition space through a mixed zone, where journalists stand calling out to them, and then to a possible news conference in a 600-seater auditorium. Michael Phelps must answer questions from red-top tabloid and venerable broadsheet; Roger Federer lost the 2009 Australian Open final to Rafael Nadal, broke down on court and still turned up to answer questions. Tiger Woods knows he's going to be asked about his divorce at his next event.
They may want to sulk or keep reporters waiting for 90 minutes as punishment for negative, slanted or over-the-top stories, but it will not be one of their options. It shouldn't be one for the Indian cricket team either.
Tennis has actually instituted fines for ducking media briefings. Serena and Venus Williams were fined $4000 each for missing a 2010 Wimbledon press conference after losing a doubles match. On the ATP tour, the higher the ranking, the higher the fine if a player fails to show up at a post-match conference. Last June, LeBron James was fined $25,000 for missing a post-game news conference after his Cleveland Cavaliers team lost the NBA Eastern Conference finals to the Orlando Magic. Fines come in when basic conduct begins to slip.
India's is slipping - and not merely on the field.