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Getting paid to write about cricket is not all roses, Amit Varma reveals after having followed the Indian team around on their series against Pakistan
On March 10 this year, when Sachin Tendulkar was out for 94 in the first Test between India and Pakistan, most of the journalists in the Mohali press box heaved a collective sigh of relief. Most of us there were Indian. Why, then, were we relieved? Well, had Tendulkar made six more runs, he would reached his 35th Test century, thus breaking Sunil Gavaskar's record - and we would have had an extra story or two to file that evening. It meant extra work, and we were busy enough. Tendulkar could wait.
A travelling cricket journalist is an entirely different creature from a cricket fan. He approaches cricket in a different way, and watches a different game unfold. The things that motivate him, the things he celebrates, are quite apart from those of other fans. I covered the India-Pakistan series a couple of months ago for the Guardian, the British broadsheet, and also wrote for Cricinfo, my blog India Uncut, and this magazine. When it was over, I felt withdrawal symptoms, as if I had been addicted. What was my trip like? I hope to give you a sense of it in the rest of this piece.
Bigger than widescreen
The first match I covered from a press box was the first Test between India and England in 2001-02, at Mohali. When the first wicket fell, my neck reflexively craned forward in anticipation. A couple of seconds later I realised that I was actually waiting for the replay. How television spoils us.
Watching a game live at the ground has pleasures and challenges quite of its own. On television, we get details - we see the battle between batsman and bowler much closer than from the press box, from where we often can't distinguish between late swing and seam movement. But the detail is selected for us. At the ground, we get the larger picture, and it is up to us to focus on what we want: subtle changes in field placement; what the players do between overs; the ambience the players are playing in; how hot it is, how dark. Rahul Bhattacharya, in his book Pundits from Pakistan, described these two modes of viewing as the macro and the micro. That is exactly right.
At many press boxes, one gets both macro and micro. There are television sets, normally fixed somewhere high up, with their volume on mute. Live television is actually a couple of seconds slower than the action. So I can watch a ball being bowled on the field and can, just by turning my head, see it again on television. This is particularly useful at times when we aren't watching the play - when we're writing, for instance. A roar from the crowd often informs us that something as happened, and we can turn to the TV and see it 'live'. Most journalists spend a fair amount of time in the press box writing - particularly towards evening, as deadlines approach - so this is a useful facility
So many stories, so few sessions
One of the problems with being a travelling cricket journalist is that you don't always get to watch the cricket properly. This is especially true of reporters from the daily broadsheets, who are sometimes expected to file upto three stories a day. One, of course, is the match report; another reproduces or incorporates quotes from the press conference that is held at the end of each day's play; and the third could either be a diary, or a collection of snippets, or a mood piece, or any other story they can find - like an interview with a former star who may be around. There is tremendous competition among journalists, all of whom have the same brief, to come up with original stories to outdo each other. And often, as they scramble through the day for that elusive extra story, they don't watch as much cricket as they should. Does quality suffer? You, the reader, are the best judge of this.
The part of touring that I have come to fear the most is getting a press pass. I am told it is a smooth process in other countries; in Australia you get a pass at the start of the tour and that remains valid through the season, for every game. But the Indian cricket board's media office exists more to harass journalists than to help them, and I generally had to run around at every venue and grind my nose to get my passes, despite having done all the paperwork well in advance. It was especially difficult during the one-day series, where the matches were temporally so close and spatially so far apart; twice I had to catch a train on the evening of the day a game ended to get to another one.
The grind of cricket coverage normally begins the day before the game. The routine unfolds this way: the teams come to the ground, have nets and practice for a couple of hours, and then the captains give press conferences. The journalists generally have to file a preview, which could incorporate the quotes. Often the quotes form the basis of different pieces. So the journalists land up at the ground and watch the nets hoping for sudden insights: so-and-so may play instead of ho-and-ho, he batted much longer in the nets; mo-and-mo doesn't look fully fit, he was bowling with a half-run-up; and so on.
"How do you feel after your century?"
Every evening, around half an hour after the day's play, there is a press conference (PC). Normally the star player of the day from each side comes, but often one side may opt to skip it, and sometimes it isn't the star player who comes but someone else. These press conferences are often dominated by banal questions, but there is an art to asking questions as well, and different purposes are served by asking the right questions.
One purpose is to find a 'peg' around which to hang your story, a snazzy headline to draw the reader in. Now, "Sehwag says boys played well" draws nowhere near as many readers as "Sehwag says he wants to be captain." So the trick is to ask him a question like, "Would you like to be captain of India one day?" He will obviously say something to the effect of, "Yes, why not, every player dreams of it," and boom, from the distant future in the question, you infer the present, and write that Sourav Ganguly needs to look over his shoulder because Virender Sehwag is eyeing his job. This is a random, imagined example, but you'd be amazed at how many sensational headlines are manufactured out of answers to seemingly innocent questions like this. Keep your mind on this the next time a series is on, and you'll soon spot all these manufactured stories.
Questions are often planned at PCs to make a player happy. Ganguly, for example, is famous for having a coterie of journalists around him who are known as the Politburo. At PCs, the Politburo feeds him questions that lead to impressive quotes. For example, "All the boys fielded superbly, skipper. Tell us how you've moulded this strong unit together." This gives their man a chance to talk about the team's values and principles and so on, while ignoring the knotty questions of the two catches he dropped, the edgy 11 he made, and his side's slow over-rate.
The Politburo shields Ganguly in other ways as well: every time he fails, they write en masse about how VVS Laxman deserves to be dropped because of bad form. It's a flanking tactic. In return for their sycophancy, they get exclusive quotes from Ganguly, and team news before other reporters, thus giving them a competitive advantage. And a huge stake in his survival. As failure piled on failure for Ganguly during the recent series, they moped gloomily, knowing their days of privileged access could soon be over. Such are the games journalists play.
Just wanting to sleep
Covering cricket is incredibly exhausting. You get to the ground early, write through the day, and the very act of concentrating on the game is exhausting, especially if you're in an open-air press box in the heat of summer. The pieces that need to be filed pile up after the game, ensuring that you're filing late into the evening. There is no time to read what other journalists are writing, and often for the duration of a tour, the only cricket writer you're reading is yourself. You travel lots but see little, and there are times in the press box, towards the end of a tour, when all you want to do is sleep.
So imagine what it must be for the players, whose physical activity isn't restricted to the game. If play starts at 9.30am, the players are on the field at 8, doing fielding drills, jogging around, warming up. And an hour after the game you'll see them on the field, doing cool-down exercises. They work between Tests also, even on days when they travel. The mental strain on them - the need to always be alert, the pressure they take - adds to all of this. When they come to the press conference at the end of a day, the fatigue is visible, and the paunches aren't. Journalists have it easy in comparison.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches
Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind