A tweet by Sanjay Manjrekar on Tuesday gave an indication to an extent of the workings of cricket television in India and the tricky territory on which its commentators must operate.
The tweet was addressed to Sundar Raman, the IPL chief operating officer. It read: "Sundar, I have now been kicked off from studio for Ind/Aus by star. Don't you think this is a bit harsh? I have a contract with them." The tweet was deleted almost immediately and Manjrekar later explained via another tweet that it was a "segment of private chat that erroneously got onto twitter."
The India-Australia series that Manjrekar was referring to began with a T20 in Rajkot on Thursday. Manjrekar, who had been the studio host for Star Sports during India's home Test series against Australia in February-March, was not part of their television coverage this time. He has refused to say more on the issue. Sundar Raman, the COO of the IPL, was asked for his views on the matter but he has not responded at the time of writing.
Unlike Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, L Sivaramakrishnan and, in the case of the Australia series, Matthew Hayden, Manjrekar is not contracted to the BCCI. He is, like Harsha Bhogle, Shane Warne and Sourav Ganguly, on contract with Star, the media-rights holders for cricket played in India. While Star owns the media rights, production is handled by the BCCI - which means the board can decide the roster of commentators on its "world-feed" broadcast which is sent around the cricket-watching globe.
A Star India spokesperson told ESPNcricinfo that they were not aware of "any such message or tweet" and added, "Sanjay Manjrekar very much remains contracted with ESS and on the panel of cricket commentators for the network… Not all contracted commentators are used by the network in every game and every series for that matter." The spokesperson said it was "baseless" to assume that any commentator did not find himself as studio host following only one match in the India-Australia series and added that the BCCI had not given "any feedback on any specific commentator."
There is another incident similar to Manjrekar's featuring another disappearing commentator. Arun Lal, who had headed the Hindi commentary during the India-Australia Test series was contracted for the Champions LeagueT20. Yet he was never sighted on air during the tournament. The reason for his disappearance is said to have been his commentary stint during the Bangladesh Premier League and the suspicion that he may have a financial stake in the event. The Star India spokesperson said the channel's argument about Manjrekar applied to Lal's case as well.
Earlier this month, Star were the only bidders for title-rights sponsorship for India's 13 home matches this season. When asked if the deal would have helped them acquire greater leverage with the BCCI, the spokesperson said, "Star/ESS acquisition of the sponsorship is a totally unrelated matter. The network and the BCCI both have the common goal of delivering a high quality audio- video experience to the TV viewers in India and abroad."
Along with that goal, one of the key requirements for a BCCI world-feed commentator, apart from knowledge of cricket and reasonable grasp of English, is the willingness to avoid a list of taboo subjects during commentary. Ian Chappell declined an offer of a commentary stint because he was told he would have to follow BCCI restrictions.
Chappell told Hindustan Times on Tuesday that when he asked what the restrictions were he was told he couldn't talk about Indian selection, DRS or administrative matters. "I responded saying I didn't feel I could do my job properly under those circumstances and therefore declined the offer," Chappell said. The Hindustan Times report was referring to the ongoing limited-overs series, but Chappell's account of his turning down a commentary offer applied to the Border-Gavaskar series earlier in the year.
The impact of the restrictions during that series was reflected in the quality and tenor of the commentary - catches that went down after hitting MS Dhoni on the wrist and Virat Kohli on the chest were called "half chances" and there was no comment passed on the state of the pitch for the Delhi Test, which ended inside three days.
The IPL, known for its higher pitch of commentary, witnessed another episode of message control following an ebullient pre-match introduction of Kohli by Danny Morrison and HD Ackerman earlier this year. Both Morrison and Ackerman made references to Kohli as a "possible future captain" of India and "captain-in-waiting."
It is understood that the BCCI's commentary restrictions came into place at the start of the 2012-2013 home season and the four-Test series against England, which India lost 1-2 to give England their first Test series win in India after 28 years. As post-defeat discussions were about to begin on air, commentators in Nagpur were told that captaincy and selection were not to be talked about.
They were reprimanded "quite badly" for talking about what was a "selectors' decision." A commentators' roster for the play-off final was announced earlier than usual and neither man found himself on it. During the recently-concluded Champions League T20, the list of taboo topics included the sight of empty stands.
It is understood that the BCCI's commentary restrictions came into place at the start of the 2012-2013 home season and the four-Test series against England, which India lost 1-2 to give England their first Test series win in India after 28 years. As post-defeat discussions were about to begin on air, commentators in Nagpur were told that captaincy and selection were not to be talked about.
The board's move to control the message emanating out of cricket television in India was a Lalit Modi initiative begun in 2008 with the signing of Gavaskar and Shastri onto the BCCI payroll. It was then made mandatory for all rights holders to have Gavaskar and Shastri on commentary teams whenever India played at home. Even though Modi was excised by the BCCI, following the IPL's 2010 financial scandal, the template set in place by him has only been strengthened.
In December 2011, the BCCI terminated its broadcasting-rights contract with Nimbus - due to run until 2014 - and re-sold "media rights" to Star while retaining control of production. Its larger world-feed "message" is now broadcast by a team of commentators, who also happen to be prominent syndicated newspaper columnists. Their social media presence is also said to be closely monitored.
Manjrekar's reference to being "kicked off" the studio marks the next step of BCCI's message-management. There is a pecking order which is tacitly understood, with the BCCI-contracted commentators - Shastri, Gavaskar, Sivaramakrishnan - being the most powerful. Those at the top are given the leeway to pass an occasional, stray comment as a fair criticism or observation with the knowledge that they abide by the BCCI's larger philosophy. Those treated with suspicion are watched for their first error before being sidelined. Newcomers understand very quickly that if they speak their mind, it will be transmitted via loyal informants up the line.
The line of authority and the information about a commentator's status in the BCCI commentary box follows a very simple path - it is the producer who breaks the bad news to the commentator, if at all the news is to be broken. Above the producer is the BCCI's broadcast services director James Rego, who reports to Raman, who reports either to the board president's assistant Kasi Viswanathan or to the president N Srinivasan himself.
The atmosphere inside the commentary box is stilted. "I speak to people I can trust," says a commentator. "Those I don't trust, I don't talk to at all. I stay away from them. I have no conversation. I do my work and go home." Walking on eggshells is de rigueur in the BCCI commentary box. "You are not even allowed to have an opinion - even off air. There is such a lot of arbitrary power exercised," said another.
The best assessment comes from a third: "It feels like I am working not on the game itself, but in the grand Indian cricket commercial."
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Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo