May 22, 2015

'Having female commentators is a boost for the women's game'

Lisa Sthalekar and Anjum Chopra talk about breaking into the boys club of the commentary box during the IPL

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In a departure from the norm, this season's IPL coverage has included as many as four women commentators, all former players - India's Anjum Chopra, England's Isa Guha and Australia's Melanie Jones and Lisa Sthalekar. Chopra and Sthalekar talk about their experiences in sharing the commentary box with the men.

How has your experience of commentating in the IPL been?
Anjum Chopra: Excellent. It has been a great opportunity, not only for us as women cricketers speaking on the biggest platform but also in world cricket. It has been a great revelation as women's cricket gets highlighted in totality. The way women's sport is today, it is going on a higher pedestal. A lot of people will recognise that if women can share a commentary box with men, they know about the sport, as they have played the sport.

Lisa Sthalekar: Last year I decided to leave my role at Cricket New South Wales where I was coaching as I wanted to get more involved in the media. I was lucky enough to do some work throughout the Australian summer on ABC Grandstand. One of the player managers asked me whether I would like to commentate in the IPL. I thought it would be the biggest thrill to commentate on the greatest T20 tournament. I didn't think it was going to happen and was a little hesitant, but he told me that the BCCI wanted to get a few women involved. I didn't quite think it would actually happen. When I got the call finally, I was over the moon, and I've thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.

Lisa Sthalekar: "We have been treated like any other commentator. We have not been put on a platform" © BCCI

Commentary is mostly dominated by men in cricket. It is seen as a "boys club". What was the reception in the commentary box?
LS: On my commentary team, I'd got Danny Morrison, who I had worked with in Australia. It was good to have a friendly face. The rest of the guys have been great. They made me feel very comfortable straightaway and were very welcoming. It is interesting, as they are used to a boys club. Sometimes the producer or the director would say, "Okay boys, you ready?" and I think, "Am I supposed to be ready for this bit or is it just the boys?" I think it has been a good learning curve for them as well.

AC: It is different. It is a shift or an add-on. I won't say I felt anything different with the male commentators in the same commentary box, as I had met them earlier, worked alongside them in some form - whether on the cricket field or in the commentary box. That made it slightly easier for me. I'm a very friendly person, so that makes it easy. The other side is that it did take a little bit of time to adjust.

Did you feel that as a woman commentator, there could be a danger of being stereotyped, especially as this was the IPL?
AC: I'll be very honest on this. It depends on how you want to get positioned. Do you want to go the glamour way, the hardcore professional way, or a mix of both? What is it that suits your personality, whether in front of the camera or behind it? Everybody has their areas they want to succeed in or their stronger points which they want to present. For me it is how you can bring out your best and what is suitable at that time. I feel that it can get into the stereotype angle easily because you may try to be a replica of something that has succeeded at the highest level. It is about your own belief, personality and your positioning as to how you want to get comfortable. It is my job to make it comfortable for the viewer.

"They [male commentators] have adjusted very well. There is no bias, and credit to them for welcoming us with open hearts"
Anjum Chopra

LS: It's about what you can bring to the table and everyone will take a different path. We all commentate differently. There's no right way or wrong way. It is our personality and how we bring it across. Since I arrived in India for the IPL, we have been treated like any other commentator. We have not been put on a platform and we have not gone down a level. Whatever the male commentators are getting, we are getting exactly the same. It is really refreshing.

Did your successful international careers come as a confidence booster when you went in to commentate?
LS: A commentator needs to know the game. It is our job to believe what we know. We have played the game at a high level and been very successful. So, bringing out knowledge in the men's game also brings out a different perspective as women look at things slightly differently.

AC: Having played recently has helped us. If I talk about the present generation, the latest entrant is Siddhesh Lad in the Mumbai Indians squad. I've played a lot of cricket in Mumbai and seen him come through the ranks of local cricket. So I can associate with him.

It is what you bring to the table. No two people analyse the game in the same way, though there are people playing cricket around the world. The way you present and read the game brings different opinions to the table. The way you communicate to the viewer or listener is the key.

Anjum Chopra: "I had worked alongside male cricketers in some form - whether on the cricket field or in the commentary box. That made it slightly easier for me" © India Today Group/Getty Images

Do you think this is the first step towards a bigger stage for women's cricket? For instance, do you see an IPL-style league for women in the future?
AC: I think so. That is required for the progression of the women's game at a higher level. The reason why so many sporting leagues have come up is that it is a way to catch the public eye. How it is worked out, the way it takes place and is to be marketed is the professionals' field of expertise. I think four of us commentating on the game will give a good fillip to the women's game.

LS: I can only talk about Australia and Cricket Australia has done a wonderful job with the Australian Cricketers Association to raise the bar for women's cricket. For this summer, they are looking to start a women's Big Bash League. It will have eight teams and a certain amount of matches will be televised on Channel Ten, which is free-to-air. I think it's important to telecast the women's game to a broader audience for it to grow globally.

My last game for Australia was in India and we were playing in the World Cup final. Fifty million Indians had tuned in to watch the Australians beat West Indies. You can imagine what the numbers would have been like if India had been in the final. There is a precedent there - that if women's cricket is televised, people would watch it. People are interested and they are impressed with the skill level. We just need to convince the broadcasters, directors and sponsors that women's cricket is the way forward and they are wonderful role models.

Do you think that your presence in the commentary box could be a pointer to how cricket coverage will evolve in the the future, with more women being invited into the box?
LS: I think the BCCI has done a wonderful job to get us involved. They've broken a lot of barriers. A lot of other countries and production houses can look at it. The feedback I'm getting is that it is working and we have been pretty good. We are not going to be everyone's cup of tea but the general response has been very good.

AC: It is for the other broadcasters to look at it in the right perspective. If they can take it to the next level, nothing like it. It is not that you put your hand up and say, "It is a woman's world." It is about adding to the sport. You want to give maximum entertainment to the person who is watching the game on television for three hours. It is also about how many other broadcasters can take the step that the BCCI has taken and extend it to future cricket games. BCCI has always taken the lead and this is the biggest positive step they have taken that has paid off. Other cricket boards should try and follow it.

Who is the commentator you have had most fun working with?
AC: I think Harsha Bhogle. He still gets the better of everyone. He is the lead commentator and he gets the lead role.

LS: When Danny Morrison's in the room, we have a lot of fun. We have had the "bowlologist", Damien Fleming as well. We love it when he pulls out a couple of his lines. We egg each other on to say certain things on the commentary team. It is a lot of fun, and hopefully it has come across well.

AC: It is also credit to the male commentators. They have adjusted very well, which is why the picture in totality comes out very well. There is no bias, and credit to them for welcoming us with open hearts.

We have already seen a top tennis pro, Andy Murray, hire a woman as coach in Amelie Mauresmo. Do you see a woman coach being involved with a men's cricket team in the future?
LS: I think there have been some instances in the past where it has happened. I know Charlotte Edwards was assisting coaches in Western Australia. We look at things from a different perspective. It might open the eyes of some men who look at the game in a certain way. It is important to get different perspectives. As a player, I always preferred to get advice from a lot of different sources. It is up to me to filter them. I definitely think there are opportunities. Every time I've done some coaching - I was a coach with New South Wales 2nd XI - I hope I provided a different perspective there. I think I was well received and I'd like to see that in the future. I don't know who is going to be the first one.

AC: It is the next level of progression for the women. If you are able to increase your knowledge base to a greater level and contribute to some player or some team, it is the sport that gets more recognition than the individual. No individual can become bigger than the sport, and as far as cricket is growing, the sport tends to grow and you as an individual are noticed for doing a good job.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75

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