November 15, 2012

India's board flexes its muscles because it can

How else to explain its lack of consistency over granting accreditation to the press?

"She said she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use"

-- Elvis Costello, "Brilliant Mistake"

Beating around the bush is one of life's more pointless cop-outs, as Mr Costello would doubtless concur, so let's slap those cards on the table. My affection for the immigrant-bashing, BBC-baiting, vindictive rag otherwise known as the Daily Mail is roughly on a par with my penchant for prejudice, opera, rectal examinations, and the entire oeuvre of the Bay City Rollers (especially "Shang-A-Lang"). This doesn't mean, though, that defending Britain's second-best-selling daily newspaper is either contradictory or against my religion.

Rewind to the opening day of the 2011 Edgbaston Test between England and India, to a piece written by the paper's estimable and esteemed chief sportswriter, Martin Samuel. His way into the story was not what you would call conventional. Then again, Samuel, crowned Sportswriter of the Year four times by the Sports Journalists Association of Great Britain and recently voted Britain's foremost sportswriter by readers of the UK Press Gazette, didn't get where he is today by embracing orthodoxy.

"As a sheepdog, Ci has one rather unfortunate disadvantage," he wrote. "From an early age, he has been terrified of sheep. He stands before them, trembling, and the moment the herd advances, turns tail and flees […] And you might then think, reading this, that poor Ci has endured the worst day in the field of any living thing in Britain this summer; but you would be wrong. India, Thursday, post-lunch, third Test at Edgbaston. Beats him hands down. Old Ci sprinting down the lane, sheep in hot pursuit, would make this lot look positively combative. To be fair, he is probably better at catching, too."

Then came perhaps the most grievous sin of all: Samuel dared to criticise Rahul Dravid, who had contrived to drop both Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan: "Now we know why Rahul Dravid is called The Wall. It's because balls bounce off him."

Those who take sport too seriously might decry those sentiments as excessive mickey-taking, at worst ungracious and inhospitable. Those who have sport in proportion might call it good clean fun, a bit of a giggle, a priceless example of how humour can be deployed to sweeten the acid of the overriding point. However, humour, as we know, does not always travel well.

On October 24 this year, the ECB wrote to the BCCI, requesting accreditation for Samuel and his Mail colleagues for the impending hostilities. This was granted, with one exception. That missive from Edgbaston had been brought to the BCCI's attention. It was not, an email from the board insisted, "in good taste".

Not in "good taste"? Samuel, quite rightly, was gobsmacked. Quite properly, neither he nor his employers were about to take any of this lying down. The ECB and the Mail protested; the paper also made representations, through Colin Gibson at the ICC and, via its managing editor, to the Indian High Commission. That Gibson was once sports editor of the Mail encouraged hopes for a speedy resolution, yet the deadlock remained.

It is the inconsistency that jars. After England had romped home at Trent Bridge to go two-up in the rubber, the Sun's John Etheridge warranted that many of the tourists "look shell-shocked and not up for the fight". I don't know about you, but I find it hard to conceive of a more damning criticism of a team of professional sportsmen than accusing them of not having the wherewithal or desire to put up a fight. In libel cases, fair comment is the litmus test for our learned friends, which is why any attempt by the BCCI or the Indian team to sue the Sun would have been doomed to failure, even in England, the destination of choice for the libel tourist. Besides, few who watched the match in question would have taken much, if any, issue with Etheridge. Some, indeed, regarded his tirade as rather tame.

What, then, of Peter Hayter, long-time cricket correspondent of the Mail's (younger) sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, who warranted that India's walloping at Edgbaston was the inevitable upshot for a side "unfit, unready and largely apparently unfussed". Again, this seemed a good deal more insulting than likening the tourists' fielding to a mediocre sheepdog.

IT TOOK more than a week of negotiations for the BCCI to retreat and relent. As a consequence, Samuel flew out to Ahmedabad on Monday. When we spoke, he remained staunchly regretless. It was "fair comment", he insisted. And yes, he "would write the same again in similar circumstances".

His comments, nonetheless, were scarcely more inflammatory than those of several Indian journalists covering that grotesquely one-sided Pataudi Trophy series. "India's lack of energy, intensity and focus in all departments was a significant contributor," the habitually judicious and fair-minded Sharda Ugra wrote on this site, of the tourists' humiliation at Trent Bridge. Reporting on that record mauling in Birmingham for the Times of India, Bobilli Vijay Kumar went one better than Samuel, likening Suresh Raina to a "scampering bunny".

So Samuel's failing, it seems reasonable to conclude, lay in not being Indian. Criticism always hurts more when it emanates from without. Hence the growing tendency of English f***ball clubs, padded to the gills with in-house programme- and website editors and PR flunkies, to ban reporters who have the temerity to suggest that not everything in the garden is rosy.

Martin Johnson's fabled condemnation of Mike Gatting's 1986-87 Ashes tourists involved the trifling fact that they "can't bat, can't bowl and can't field". Not unnaturally, Gatting and company bristled and bridled, but rather than pout and mope, they turned that anger to their advantage

These are dangerous times for sportswriters, for journalists period. In England, home to the planet's most relentlessly competitive newspaper market, and hence many of its less savoury tactics, the phone-hacking activities of several of the profession's leading practitioners have seen calls for statutory regulation gain unprecedented momentum. Further curbs on press freedom are eminently possible. At a time when governments worldwide are seeking with ever greater fervour to quell the vaguest murmur of dissent, reinforced by a mushrooming army of damage controllers bent on keeping the public as clueless as possible; a time when the BBC, a hugely powerful media tentacle paid for by taxpayers, cancels a programme whose makers had the bare-faced audacity to attempt to tell the truth about a national icon, the consequences for democracy could be fearful.

As he celebrated his successful and largely lone battle to prove that Lance Armstrong was a fraud of Stanfordian proportions, David Walsh, the Sunday Times' chief sportswriter, alighted last week on the quandary that now confronts his breed. "People always used to say I was the cynic… but I'm the only one who wasn't cynical, because all the guys who had a sense that he was cheating but thought it was too much trouble to investigate it, that it would make their lives messy - to me they are the cynics."

In the same interview, Walsh trained his sights on what he calls "fans with typewriters". Look at the BBC's coverage of the Olympics, he urged: "It seems to me that the more it went on, the more commentators didn't try to hide the fact that they felt they were fans, not serious journalists working at a very serious event. In the cycling that happened to a degree. Because the Armstrong story was deemed to be so good, so remarkable, an inspiration to countless millions, who wants to rain on that parade? Who wants to be the one to say, 'Hold on, it may not be what it seems'? Journalists then began acting like fans with typewriters. It was far better to write about the angel with wheels."

What, then, of perhaps the most notorious cricket-related journalistic damnation of all? I'm referring, of course, to Martin Johnson's fabled condemnation of Mike Gatting's 1986-87 Ashes tourists, whose only problem leading into the first Test, attested the Independent's man on the spot, was the trifling fact that they "can't bat, can't bowl and can't field". Not unnaturally, Gatting and company bristled and bridled, but rather than pout and mope, they turned that anger to their advantage. Mockery came all too easily to the England XIs of that era: here was another point to prove. And prove it they jolly well did, in the best, and only, manner possible: by beating the opposition.

At no time, to my almost certain knowledge, did the Test and County Cricket Board even consider suing Johnson's employer. So why did the BCCI act as they did over Samuel? Two reasons spring most readily to mind: 1) Because he works for England's most influential newspaper, thus maximising the number of points to be scored via this latest shameless bit of muscle-flexing; 2) Because they could. It does not seem too big a stretch to suggest that the board's decision to bar photo agencies and supply their own images was born of a similar philosophy, not least since Mark Getty, the man behind Getty Images, was until recently* the Wisden Group's majority shareholder. As English institutions go, they don't get much hardier than the Mail and the thick yellow book.

As Walter Hammond said to Don Bradman at the Gabba in 1946, after the latter had declined to accept Jack Ikin's word that he had caught him for 18, what an effin' way to start a series.

02:14:08 GMT, 17 November 2012: Amended from "is the Wisden Group's majority shareholder"

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton