August 17, 2011

Blame the BCCI, not Gavaskar and Shastri

The two commentators are merely the messengers. The problem is with the medium and the message, and the board wants to control all three

The day after England's win over India at Lord's, the Independent published an article by Angus Fraser on how the Middlesex staff coped with the extra rush on "People's Monday". With tickets costing a flat £20 and all four results still possible, the people responded with a record turnout, and Fraser's article detailed the backroom efforts, with all hands on deck, to sell the tickets in time for play. The article, affectionate and positive, was obviously written from an insider's perspective, and sure enough it had this line at the end: Angus Fraser is the former cricket correspondent at the Independent and current director of cricket at Middlesex. With that one line the newspaper both underlined the credibility of its reportage and answered upfront any question of bias.

In a slightly different scenario, and on a broader canvas, a similar disclaimer could have helped Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri avoid the sort of controversy they have found themselves in over the past fortnight. As India's tour of England has collapsed spectacularly, Indian journalists and fans - and, indeed, much of the British sports media - have blamed the BCCI for its inept management of the cricket team. Gavaskar and Shastri have been the most visible targets. Two of the country's best-known commentators, they are on the ESPN-Star Sports panel for the Indian broadcast, but are full-time employees of the BCCI, and are thus seen to have a conflict of interest.

Their role with the BCCI was formalised in 2009 but it has come into sharp focus on this tour, especially given the board's direct role in several issues, including DRS and the team's pre-tour preparations, that have influenced the series and dominated discussions. Gavaskar and Shastri have been adjudged to be ambivalent in their stand on these issues, unwilling to directly criticise the board, which pays their salaries. It has provoked a series of articles in the Indian media, including a cover story in a leading newsweekly, titled "Cricket's voice or BCCI's voice?" The issue bubbled over during the Trent Bridge Test in a sharp exchange, live and on screen, between Nasser Hussain and Ravi Shastri, when Hussain called the BCCI stand on DRS a "disgrace". Hussain's pithy line, repeated several times: I'm paid by ESPN to voice my opinion. The implication was not lost on the discerning viewer.

In their defence, Shastri and Gavaskar have said they are not bound by their contracts to refrain from criticising the BCCI and say they have done so in their syndicated newspaper columns.

In my book, the problem is not Gavaskar and Shastri in the first place. Their position is no better or worse than the prevailing state of Indian journalism, which is often seen as sensationalist and jingoistic, has formalised the practice of "paid news" (the phrase is self-explanatory), and is currently suffering a serious crisis of credibility. With a few exceptions, cricket coverage in India is one-dimensional, obsessed with the national team and its stars, and caters to the lowest common denominator. The Indian media has built the huge culture that fuels the cricket economy and is now feeding off it - there is no reason for it to change.

In any case, Gavaskar and Shastri are merely the messengers; the problem is with the medium and the message - and in Indian cricket the board controls all three. It runs a gravy train that involves almost everyone who's anyone in Indian cricket. Make that world cricket. India's coronation as a cricketing power took place in the span of a few months - from September 2007, when the team won the inaugural World Twenty20, to January 2008, by which time the IPL had sewn up more than $1.7 billion in revenues from the sale of franchise and TV rights. There was no shortage of evangelists to spread the gospel. Shastri led the way, calling Lalit Modi the Moses of world cricket, with Gavaskar, Kris Srikkanth, and even the usually reticent MAK Pataudi, jumping on board. You'd have thought that that sort of power would bring a certain level of assurance, but the bigger the BCCI got the more it sought to control things. The hired commentator was round the corner.

In this climate, would Gavaskar and Shastri appear less tainted (or more credible) if they were not employees of the BCCI but instead merely serving on one or other of its many committees? Would their reluctance, during this series, to join in the general BCCI-bashing then have been seen as fence-sitting, mature restraint, or the conflict of an unseen interest at play?

This may appear a cynical perspective, but the BCCI's operating practices don't help. Television rights - covering production and broadcast - to cricket in India are owned by Nimbus, which screens matches on its Neo channels. Production, including the composition of commentators' panels, is done with the BCCI aesthetic in mind (the board's logo is featured on the screen) and usually excludes, coincidentally or otherwise, commentators who have been critical of the board.

It would be best if the BCCI, instead of managing TV coverage by remote control, simply set up its own channel. It certainly has the finances to do so and the manpower. And its hired commentators, when loaned out to other channels, would then be deployed as the board's official spokesmen

The BCCI is not the only large sporting body to control television programming. Most top sports clubs have channels or supply programming that is tightly controlled and carefully scripted. Cricket's own precedent is Kerry Packer's World Series, and probably the most famous example is MUTV, run by Manchester United, whose clear bias would be an inspiration to the BCCI - the channel is known as "Pravda" for its one-eyed dissemination of events.

But there is a difference between what United does - or what, for example, Sahara Warriors Pune would possibly do on one of its owner's television channels - and what the BCCI does. The difference is in their mandate. One is a strictly commercial (family-owned) enterprise, its sole purpose the enhancement of its brand and the protection of its bottomline. The BCCI's mandate is far wider - it is the custodian of the game in India, responsible for everything from its nurturing at the grassroots to its flowering at the top.

The problem is not Gavaskar's and Shastri's employment status - though it is out of sync with established procedure overseas, where respected commentators like Hussain and Michael Atherton are contracted by the broadcaster and have been known to be critical of the ECB. In Australia, Channel 9's Mark Taylor is also an unpaid member of the CA board but is such an active member, and so often critical of his own board, that his objectivity has not yet been called into question. Neither Gavaskar nor Shastri is, or will really be seen as, a journalist, though they earn their salary as media men.

It would probably be best if the BCCI nailed its colours to the mast and, instead of managing TV coverage by remote control, simply set up its own channel. It certainly has the finances to do so and the manpower too. And its hired commentators, when loaned out to other channels, would then be deployed as the board's official spokesmen. It would be great if, for example, they could then explain logically and coherently the board's stand on issues such as team selection (selection meetings are almost never followed by press conferences), the IPL, the DRS, series against Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the apparent conflict of interest in N Srinivasan running the IPL and owning one of the teams involved.

If not, the future is here. There is a younger, more insightful, more connected commentator in the box who isn't pulling his punches. Sourav Ganguly isn't yet contracted to the BCCI, nor, given his other commitments, likely to be. How the board deals with him will be interesting - as it always has been.

Note: The third paragraph from the end had a reference to Sanjay Manjrekar, which was edited out after the article was first published.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo in India