India’s cricket commentators

I believe the right thing to do for English commentators would be to call Shastri and Gavaskar’s conduct disgraceful.

Avirook Sen August 11, 2011

I write this as I eagerly look forward to the beginning of the third Test between India and England. The number one Test ranking in the world is at stake: if India lose at Edgbaston, they get pushed off their perch. But that isn’t why I’ll be watching.

A little backgrounder is in order. During the last India-England Test, (literate) commentator and former England captain Nasser Hussain took issue with the (unlettered) commentator and former Indian captain Ravi Shastri, over the use of the Decision Review System (DRS). Shastri had attacked his colleague for airing a strong view supporting the use of DRS. In an argument heard live by millions, Hussain told Shastri that he was doing his job; that the broadcaster pays him precisely because he has an opinion. The broadcaster pays Shastri, too. But Shastri’s real employers were revealed last week. The Indian board, it turns out, pays Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar Rs36 million each annually to be their mouthpieces in the commentary box. The broadcasters pay them fees in addition. In fact, no broadcaster can drop them from a commentary team for games played in India: that is the nature of their contract with the board. In return, they have agreed to hawk their employer’s line whenever they are in the box, criticise umpiring decisions that go against India and outshout any critical murmurs.

As far as conflict of interest goes, the case is far too clear-cut to be made again. We have only Shastri’s and Gavaskar’s word that the opinions they express are unfettered by their tidy contracts with the board. But the argument spirals down on to itself pretty neatly. The most infuriating part of this story is the manner in which the two former Mumbai cricketers have cast themselves as upholders of the proud tradition of Indian cricket, and worse, the honour of the country. Gavaskar’s comments in this area are particularly cringe-inducing. When MS Dhoni’s gesture of recalling Ian Bell after a controversial run-out in the last game was being hailed as an act of great sportsmanship, our little master of deceit growled, “Why must it always be India that has to show sportsman’s spirit?”

Shastri appears on television as if always on the verge of saying something of great import, and invariably ends up saying something either completely inconsequential or downright petty. The English media (including commentators) were apparently jealous of India’s success, he said in the lead up to the spat between him and Hussain. Till the news of the pay cheque came along, a credulous public might well have believed that the views of its two stalwarts were, even if biased, evidence of a just about tolerable brand of poorly articulated patriotism. The Indian board doesn’t have many fans in India, viewed as they are as greedy, corrupt and political. Gavaskar and Shastri don’t deserve a reputation that is any better.

It must be said here that the intentions of other boards in the subcontinent aren’t any more honourable. The Pakistan board can barely pay its players, so thought control, through paid for commentary, is probably low on the priority list. Plus, the landscape is too volatile for any steady opinion building. Sri Lanka, though, is different. I could be wrong, but there aren’t any pay cheques waiting for its commentators. Instead, unless they say ‘His Excellency the President’ about 18 times every match day, and speak of the ‘dawn of the new era of peace’, they could be made to pay. His Excellency’s men are everywhere, alert to anything other than the deathly boring descriptions that his countrymen might serve up.

As for me, I will be alert to whatever stalwarts Shastri and Gavaskar dish out over the coming five days. The opportunity to view (proven) hypocrisy live is hard to pass up. I will also be interested in what the English commentators sharing the box with Shastri and Gavaskar have to say. Particularly Nasser Hussain. Unless there’s been a quick redrawing of contracts, he is still paid to voice his opinion on important cricketing issues. In the age of television, the integrity of the commentary box must surely be maintained.

I believe the right thing to do for the English commentators would be to call Shastri and Gavaskar’s conduct disgraceful and press for explanations on air. If the two of them leave in embarrassment (unlikely) or indignation (more plausible), then Hussain and co. would immediately qualify for India’s highest civilian award — even if they are never considered for positions in the IPL’s commentary teams.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2011.