March 23, 2015

Not such an English game anymore

Increasing numbers of top-level cricketers are not comfortable expressing themselves in cricket's original tongue. It's an issue a game with global interests needs to take seriously

Players like Mohit Sharma reveal more about themselves when given the choice to speak in a language they are comfortable in © Getty Images

Mohit Sharma walked into the press tent in Hamilton, New Zealand, sat down looked around and said, "Hindi main theek hai, na?" (It's fine in Hindi, no?) The press gathered were largely Indian and agreed instantly. Mohit, fresh-faced, personable, looked across at the team's media manager, Dr RN Baba, and with a wicked smile on his face said, "Sir, Hindi main." (Sir, it's in Hindi.) Dr Baba's total lack of Hindi, the link language in the Indian dressing room, is a well-known fact. But it didn't matter, Dr Baba was not there to offer interpretation services, merely to direct proceedings in his unique sign-language-countdown sequence.

To hear both Mohit and, days later, Mohammed Shami reply to questions in their native language was to hear their personalities speak with openness and humour. About how the wicket-taking balls on highlights could, on other days, have been hit for six; the banding together of bowlers; the narrow percentages within the game; and the pressure from home expectation. Mohit and Shami's native language had freed them from the straitjacket of clichés about "good areas" the importance of "process" and "expressing" oneself. Having a cricketer speak in his own language allows him to share the game as he sees it with a wider audience.

At a fund-raising dinner for the LBW Trust in Sydney on Saturday night, writer and historian Mike Coward, speaking as master of ceremonies, made an observation that could only come from a global citizen of Planet Cricket. He said, "We tend to forget that cricket is a sport of the developing world."

The "we" Coward was referring to was the first world, where cricket - and the English language - has deep roots. For over a century, English carried the game's history, folklore and myths. Conversations around cricket's stories and mythology were, until a time, mostly conducted in English.

Now, however, in parts of the world where the game is a surging life force, players come to cricket before they come to English. These are the places where cricket has its biggest numbers and most fervent fan following. It happens to be a non-Anglophone world and it is growing. Think of Afghanistan, whom we have seen at the World Cup. Or Nepal, who turned up at the ICC World T20 last year. Or Papua New Guinea, the East Asia Pacific region's strongest team, who have received ODI status, finishing fourth in a World Cup qualifier tournament last year. Each country's cricket brings with it languages that cricket had never inhabited before - Pashto/Dari, Nepali, and a creole called Tok Pisin.

My colleague Jarrod Kimber helpfully passed on his notes from a Shapoor Zadran press conference at this World Cup: "Too much swing. Bouncer is good. Good for cuts and hooks. Dennis Lillee, Brett Lee, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Shoaib Akhtar. Waqar, Shoaib, Wasim, too much bounce, too much speed. I copied Shoaib Akhtar, even when I was a small boy I was running 38 steps. Too much hair. Height. Hair. Style. Speed, run-up, too much six."

John Wright spent five years as India coach, during which he picked up only three words of Hindi © AFP

Marvellous itself in its eccentricity, but so much more could have emerged if there was someone around who could instead have translated - if not from Pashto or Dari, at least from Urdu.

This lives alongside the unshakeable truism about how cricket can be a common language amongst people. It is an idea that works well between players and coaches in the dressing-room environment. New Zealander John Wright spent nearly five vibrant years as coach of India, speaking only three words of Hindi - "chalo", (let's go) "jaldi" (quick) and "AC bandh" (switch off the air conditioning). Dav Whatmore has coached Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and now works with Zimbabwe. Rahul Dravid's story of a century partnership between Under-19 tailenders neither of whom understand a word the other spoke remains priceless.

Cricket is the dressing room's common language, but outside it, at a multi-nation event with global attention, it is a player's own language that represents power and freedom. For a non-English speaker, having to express themselves in what is a largely alien language, on demand for television and the world's press, makes any Q&A session a dreadful chore. What is more, it reveals little, except the modern cricketer's mastery of anodyne homilies.

Chatting about the boundaries of language with my multi-lingual colleagues at ESPNcricinfo, (rough count: among ourselves we speak at least 15 languages), the story repeated itself across nations. At larger multi-nation events, the Sri Lankans are known to offer only those players who are fluent in English at press conferences. It tends to make younger Sinhala-speakers wary. Lahiru Thirimanne, for example, is said to be excellent one on one in his native tongue but freezes up with a mike in front of him.

When the Bangladeshis turned up at their pre-quarter-final press commitments, they answered questions in English and Bangla. As soon as Shakib Al Hasan and Mashrafe Mortaza, comfortable in English, switched to Bangla, the tone of their conversation became more personal, more detailed and relaxed. The Bangladeshi players not comfortable in English, this site's Bangladesh correspondent Mohammad Isam says, tended to speak in a lower tone and mumble a string of clichés. Some do try to take English classes as they find their way up the ladder.

Football speaks in many tongues at press conferences © Manchester United

With the Indians, Ajinkya Rahane who is tri-lingual, like many Indians, can handle Hindi and English, but is far more at ease in his native Marathi. The generation of players before him asked their friends among the reporters for help in conducting mock English Q&A sessions to get their vocabulary and fluency up to scratch.

Last season the Punjab Ranji Trophy team instituted an "English-speaking Sunday", where the entire team would only communicate in English - even for a bowler to curse a fielder for dropping a catch. It was meant as a challenge to get better at a language that they would have to use to deal with the wider world, and it ended with the team spending many Sundays doubling over in laughter.

The Indian team has always had several English speakers and others who only spoke their native languages - ones other than Hindi. On a 1990 tour of New Zealand, the opener WV Raman acted as interpreter for his team-mate Narendra Hirwani and translated a New Zealand broadcaster's questions from English to Hindi. This when Raman's native tongue was Tamil and his Hindi was rudimentary.

In other nation v nation sporting events, like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, where English is not the only language required to communicate, there are interpretation services on offer. So at the football World Cup, translations are offered at press conferences in as many as three languages if necessary: the two competing nations' languages as well as that of the host nation. At the Olympic Games, the IOC's two main languages, French and English, as well as that of the host nation, are heard in real-time through headphones. Both these events are held once every four years, over and done with in a fortnight (the Olympics) and six weeks (the World Cup); cricket's bilateral and multi-lingual calendar runs on a non-stop 12-month conveyor belt.

In cricket, trying to fit in a translation service that is suitable to all members - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and including the nine other Full Member nations - would make for at least a quibble a day

When asked about the sudden profusion of languages in the global game and the need for interpreters at ICC events, media spokesman Sami Ul Hasan said, "The ICC is always open to ideas, options and innovations, it is what we have always tried to do. But to every idea, every facility that is created, there is a cost involved and everything needs to be carefully weighted."

In cricket, where the primary identity of the sport is based on nation v nation competition, the proliferation of languages spoken turns into a political and administrative minefield. Trying to fit in a translation service that is suitable to all members - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and including the nine other Full Member nations and other ODI-playing countries at the very least - would make for at least a quibble a day. If not a bust-up over requiring constitutional amendments to do so.

Should the languages included be 15 or 50? And who from a member country decides what is the single national language that requires translating?

What will it be for India - only Hindi, or any other from among other 25 official languages? Which of the 11 South African or 16 Zimbabwean languages will require translation? Afrikaans or Zulu? Shona or Ndbele? And why not the others?

In the past, member boards have stepped in to translate for the benefit of touring journalists. During series in South Africa, I am told by ESPNcricinfo's Firdose Moonda, the Sri Lankan manager and the Pakistani media manager translated questions put to their players. Indian journalists have done so too, when asked, on overseas tours.

This may not be a burning issue, like that of umpiring or game-day regulations or the infernal DRS debate. Yet what this World Cup has done is stretch our minds as to how far cricket has moved beyond mere geographical borders and the gilded fences of convention and tradition. This Tower of Babel has grown strong enough to allow and require that different languages are spoken and are both heard and understood.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ramachandra on March 26, 2015, 3:34 GMT

    Well, press conferences its fine. Translators, regional languages, mother tongues any language you please to speak. But I feel where cricket is different is when the game is live. The toss, the half time chat, presentation ceremony chat. Football doesnt seem to have those. When its live you cant have a tranlsator, so the player feels he needs to speak English to look good on tv and so that non speakers of his language understand what he says. There, the need to learn English arose is what I feel.

    But it would be great to have players speaking Pashto or bengali live on tv for that matter. Press conference, its relatively easy as its not 'live tv'.

  • Dummy4 on March 26, 2015, 1:49 GMT

    One of these days it will be awesome to hear Ashwin run a press conference in Tamil!

  • Pierre on March 25, 2015, 19:14 GMT

    One oreason why England is keen to limit the geographical spread of cricket amongst other countries is that England is good at cricket, but no longer very good at it.

  • Rahman on March 25, 2015, 18:31 GMT

    Players, irrespective of the sport, talk about their game & other things surrounding that. They are not teaching English lessons. I have never felt sorry for the players who struggled to cope with English Q&A. In fact I appreciate the way they focus on QA and putting a brave face. On the other hand, I feel sorry for the organizers who fail miserably time and again for not allowing QA in players native language. As the author correctly pointed out we lose most of the fun & detailed interviews when the players are not comfortable in English. But the players are still lovable no matter how they speak English. How many of us love Rafal Nadal's English?? Definitely, I do. After all, sports itself is language and the players express well in it.

  • Sri on March 25, 2015, 14:02 GMT

    I definitely want to hear the players' views. And, I don't mind if they talk in other languages, if that makes them more fluent and accurate while expressing themselves. Cricketers have a lot to offer when they speak, I don't want to miss out any of it, just because they MUST speak in English.

    I watch cricket related things for the sake of the sport, not for assessing some one's English language skills. In cricket related events, English should not be relevant, if the situation demands it. IMHO.

  • Ash on March 25, 2015, 11:29 GMT

    Nice peice of writing there and it will defnietly impress Press from English speaking countries. But you are dealing with sports personnel here, where they learn and play the game with passion and unfortunately they are not aware that to play cricket one should learn English 'coz they need takeup Q&A from press in future. I guess ICC to take this language barrier seriously and add a new rule in their rule book as English langauge should be known mandatory for any International player if they wish to play cricket (if possible take up some exams to prove their profeciency). Why dont the players learn the Primary langauge of test playing nations which also helps local press............ :) :) :)

  • Dummy4 on March 25, 2015, 10:32 GMT

    @Mark Cooper - English is popular in Switzerland because of this. There are 4 official languages (with only 6 million people!) but if people from the Zurich branch office (German or Swiss German) meet up with colleagues from Geneva (French) then the polite solution is to speak English and thereby prevent anybody having an advantage.

  • udendra on March 25, 2015, 8:30 GMT

    Not only managers, but remember how captains translated for Ajantha Mendis in tv interviews?

  • ashok on March 25, 2015, 3:27 GMT

    whats the big deal? Hockey was found in Asia, but the entire world plays it. Football was initiated in Europe, but the entire world plays it now... Look players are players and not as press answering machine...

  • Philip on March 25, 2015, 2:58 GMT

    We don't actually know that English was cricket's "original" language. We don't even know where cricket's roots exactly lie. It has been suggested that the roots may be Flemish. Or French. They could equally be Celtic. Or Scandinavian. One old Celtic word for cricket is creagair which has a distinct connection with a Viking word for a hooked stick (remembering the first bats were not straight like they are today but looked rather more like hockey sticks). Which of these origins is correct? Maybe one or none or all of them. Nobody knows. As for interviews with players, they are usually such pointless exercises that they could be conducted in proto-Indo-European for all they truly matter. We certainly shouldn't require English-language skills as a criterion for international selection.

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