Transcript: Couch Talk 43 with Gaurav Kalra

Couch Talk Episode 43 (play)

Guest: Gaurav Kalra, Sports Editor, CNN IBN

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman – Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the sports editor at CNN IBN, Mr. Gaurav Kalra. We’ll be talking about cricket in India, journalism in general and his views on some of the happenings in cricket. Welcome to the show, Mr. Kalra!

Gaurav Kalra– ‘Gaurav’ would be fine, Subash! Thank you!

SJ– Alright, excellent! You worked with TWI generating content like news bulletins, broadcasts etc, before you started your work as sports editor at CNN IBN, and I think that was in 2005, correct?

GK – Yes. I also had a period in the interim, between 2001 and 2005 where I worked for Quintus which was the television arm of Wisden, which all of us cricket nuts know about. And I did a fair amount of cricket programming for them. That was a 4 year stint between TWI and this current position.

SJ– So, tell us what does the job of a sports editor of television network really entail? What is a typical day like?

GK– Subash, it can vary from day to day, as you can imagine, just as the news does. But, largely, my look out is sports content on CNN IBN. I have the job of overseeing the content, for which I have a team of reporters and producers. We have a brief to produce a bulletin every evening, which looks at sports and every morning at half past 7. On days of special events such as the IPL or Olympics or a big cricket series, we do special programming. My look out really is to look at every bit of sports content that goes on CNN IBN and offer it direction if I can, and to do what journalists do – to stay in touch with cricketers, try and get interviews with them…why just cricketers, try and stay in touch with all sportsmen and women; come up with programming ideas, look at production and how we can improve what we put on air. It is both an editorial and a role in which we look at creation of content from a production point of view that television requires.

SJ– Coming to coverage of cricket in India, as someone watching it as a fan, I feel that the reporting has turned into more personality-driven than actual reporting of the news. There seems to be more interest in cricket from the angle of speculation and gossip than providing news. What is your take on this?

GK– To a certain extent, I’d concede that. One point that has to be understood is that there is cricket media and there is “cricket media”, and there is enormous amount of cricket media in India. To be honest with you, I concede to a certain degree that there is a lot of speculation, and sometimes innuendo; we are driven by a bit of a celebrity culture not just in cricket, but in all forms of news in India. But, I believe that there are some, and I would add ourselves among those, who try to chart their own path, try to look at the game itself and look at the issues around the game and try to look at the situation that the game throws up. You have to concede as a cricket fan that is not just about the cover driving and the sharp slip catching and things of that nature. It is also about the enormous amount of politics that surrounds cricket in India and the very opaque cricket board that does not communicate with the press and has possibly the most awful relationship that a cricket board can have with a press. All of those are contributing factors, Subash, to the point that you are making. But, I do concede that this is a point that news television has to look at very seriously.

SJ– I was going to ask you the question – the opaque cricket board. There was a time in the 90s when if the BCCI had any announcements or selection committee had a team to announce, they would organize press conferences. What happened was that it became a tamasha, it became free-for-all, and BCCI discontinued the entire process of having press conferences. Don’t you think the media has to shoulder some of the blame for why the BCCI is actually opaque?

GK– Let me give you the scenario, as it stands right now. Some of what you are saying may be true. These are  jobs of professional management. I have been lucky enough to cover cricket around the world. And, let me be honest with you, the cricket press is brutal around the world. It is not that the cricket press in India is brutal not just with the players, but with the administrators as well.

One, the BCCI has never had a very professional man as their media manager. That creates a situation like the one you saw in Australia during the press conferences, and I’m sure you have kept an eye on those things. What happened was that Mr. Walia was completely unaware of how to handle the media. Just doing simple things like calling a reporter to ask a question. You can easily do that. it is a bit like an orchestra manager. You just stand and go “Gaurav Kalra, you are up…. Next, Mr Vikram Gupta from Aaj Tak…. Next, so-and-so from Mumbai Mirror… Next…” And you ask the questions and control it. if there is somebody who can do that, I bet you that there will be some more calmness to the proceedings.

Second thing that is driving to this is the “Boss, you shut up, okay?” incident with Srikkanth. And, that was again an example how shambolic this board [BCCI] is when it comes to managing the media. There are differing view on the selection. It was a contentious selection. He needed to sit in an office and needed to speak to the cricket press, explaining, or if not explaining, doing what he was doing outside. Instead, it became a complete tomfoolery, where nobody got anything and in the end, Srikkanth just blew his stock.

The other thing is, if you just log on or subscribe to the media releases of countries such as Australia, England, South Africa etc, one of the thing you notice is that they don’t necessarily have press conferences to explain selections. But, when they send out a release, for instance – “We have selected this team. We have left out A, B and C, and we have picked D, E and F instead. There will be a short paragraph that the selectors have used explaining the logic that they used in those selections. That is completely missing from the BCCI. What they do is, they send us a 15 man list. “That is the team for the Asia Cup.” After that, it is your imagination, Subash. Then, it is your opinion against mine. Why is it that Tendulkar wanted to play the Asia Cup? I have A opinion, you have B opinion. But the chairman of selectors thought of a reason that they thought he was fit, but that they did not bother to explain that reason even in written. Forget doing a press conference, just do what Australia and England do. I think these are the areas that this cricket board will have to look at, and the disconnect between the cricket press and the board.

SJ– I agree that for a board that is as big as it is, they need to have a professional PR arm. I don’t know what is the wisdom behind not having it, but they certainly should. You brought up the whole brouhaha about the “Boss, you shut up. Ok?” After that, the chief of selectors, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, he was on your network, CNN IBN, being interviewed by your reporter – Sanjeeb Mukherjea. I had a few issues with that interview.

No.1 – I understand that there was no explanation given as the team was announced. And, Mukherjea had about 20 minutes of conversation with chairman of selectors. My first issue – forget about the team – he kept calling the chairman of selectors “Cheeka”. I don’t know what relationship Mukherjea has with Srikkanth off air, but, isn’t that crossing some line of professionalism? Is there a line of professionalism in covering cricket in India? If so, where does one draw that line?

GK– I don’t know how many questions you will ask me on this interview, but I will try to answer each of them as best as I can. As you remember, I wasn’t conducting the interview. And, it was live television, which was a very important factor. While a lot of the points that have been made subsequently, and I know this has got a lot of traction on blog-space.

SJ– My point is, he is still a chairman of selectors, and (Mukherjea) is still a reporter of CNN IBN that is calling him “Cheeka”…

GK– I am not giving this as an excuse, but am trying to give you an explanation for what was going on. Before Kris Srikkanth became chairman of selectors, for 4 years or so, he was the cricket analyst on CNN IBN . We all have an extremely close relation with Kris Srikkanth, and that is not to say that it is an unprofessional relationship, but it is an extremely close relationship built on the number of years we have worked with him. You can imagine how many programs you would’ve done with us in 4 years. In that period, we developed a kind of term for him, while he was on the show, where we used to call him “Cheeka Sir”. It became a term of endearment, because he was our cricket analyst, you know the kind of personality that he is –he was vivacious, he had that. so, we had this term for him. This was something that I struggled while interviewing him as well. I struggled to call him “Mr. Srikkanth”. You can read that as unprofessional, Subash. What I am trying to tell you is, put yourself in our position, where for a number of years, we have called him a certain thing, and that kind of language still seeps into our occasional interviews that we do with him sometimes.

Now, that language at the time he was using became overtly aggressive and things of that kind. In retrospect, there was a point there. I keep on going back to this main issue, but the central point remains that it was an extremely hot selection at that time, very contentious and the incident that had happened before this, where he had blown his top off at a reporter for asking what was a perfectly legitimate question, Sanjeeb decided that at that moment we perhaps needed to question him in a slightly more aggressive manner than we usually do. In fact, with Srikkanth, we have been accused of doing exactly the opposite. If you see the cricket media around, we get accused of actually being the channel that Srikkanth leaks things to, which is the farthest thing from the truth. I can tell you in complete confidence, that in 4 years, we have never had one bit of selection known to us because Kris Srikkanth has chosen to tell us that. so, yes, that is an interview that we have reflected on a couple of times. I have spoken to Sanjeeb about it as well. On reflection, perhaps there was an overt aggression in that interview. But, sometimes, live television does not allow you the second chance on reflection that you like to have.

SJ– I give you that. But, it may have an aggressive tone to it, which is fine, happens. Live telecast doesn’t give you a second chance. But, the fact is– he had a second chance and he kept going back to appointment as Virat Kohli as vice-captain. He kept asking him what the reason was, and Srikkanth explained it in his own words – futuristic views. But, Mukherjea wasn’t satisfied with it, and wanted to know whether it was a snub to Gautam Gambhir. And he kept asking the question for three or four times. It was a valid question, for the first time. Why keep going back to the same thing? The tone doesn’t matter. Why keep going to the same question? Are we to believe that in further on, when there is hot selection topic, and the selector comes on air, the tone of the interview would be different?

GK– I can’t answer for what is going to happen on live television on another case. The point that you concede yourself is the important one to frame this on. That was perhaps a valid question to ask one, twice, and maybe you are not satisfied with the answer, and you know that you will have to accept me saying, that sometimes in live news situation there comes a point where you don’t necessarily make the right judgement call. This is a very minor thing as compared to the thing that has happened on live television. We all got to accept that and move on. What will happen in future when this kind of situation happens again —

SJ– Because you are the sports editor and he comes under your responsibility and purview.

GK– That is right, that is absolutely right. I was not doing the interview at that time. When it happens, a scenario of this kind again, will we be just as aggressive? Perhaps not. That’s the beauty of any form of life – you learn lessons.

SJ– It is more satisfying to hear that from a sports editor. I mean, as a fan, who is watching it, it was pretty grating. I will move on from that.

There is a question from a dear friend of yours – Kartikeya Date. You guys have gone back-and-forth on this. He published a blog post from you regarding the job of the selectors. His question is – What are the limits to a selector’s job. And, do you believe that these selectors can select the best team at any given point of time. And, if you are given another set of selectors, could they, in good faith, select a different set of players from the ones selected? If so, then what implication would that have for the criticism of selectors?

GK– I think this is something that I elaborated on. I believe that the selection in India, especially with the fact that there are professional selectors, they must be up for scrutiny. What I wrote in my blog is that I believe that there was trend in selections for over a year, they were not being true to their jobs. I believed that because I noticed incident after incident for over an year. Now, you may, as an observer of the game, from a distance, believe that I was wrong. That is fair enough. I’m willing to concede that. yes, the selectors could’ve chosen in good faith, but it is my belief that they did not choose it in good faith, and actually they gave up a large part of their responsibility.

Can I give an example? I believe, that, when the 4th test was about to begin in Australia, the fact that India had lost 7 straight test matches [abroad] needed the chairman of selectors to go down to Australia if the need be, or have conference call with the team management and say “We believe that as a team, as a tour selection committee, you have abdicated certain responsibilities, and we believe that as the national selectors, we will now choose a team. This has precedence in cricket – good and bad,” The chairman of selectors must put his foot down and select the XI even when the team is on tour. So, that is a bit of garbage once the squad is selected, and the chairman of selectors has no say.

They did not do anything of the kind, and the same team played, which I believe was a shocking scenario. I don’t know what to say. It is shocking to think that the same team without Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane played in that test match. I thought it was an absolute and utter disgrace and that is why it reached a point where I was forced to write that piece. So, I believe, yes, they can make errors on good faith, they can make errors on judgement. But, that piece was the culmination of a year and a half of instances that reflected poorly on that selection committee. There has been so much talked about Sanjeeb’s interview, and how that was ill-mannered and all that. if you look at some of the posts that Kartikeya puts out, while aggression does not worry me in the least because I deal with this every day, some of the language he uses every day, some of the suggestions he makes are quite frankly extremely pompous, and very poor taste. And, that is OK. People have the right to do that. That is just the nature of the beast… these days. The reason that I thought I would write back to him, was because I thought there was certain amount of clarification that i needed to make on the first post. I did that, and I have withdrawn myself from the conversation subsequent to that because i would much rather be called crude and mediocre and all if you live in India  and understand the craft of Indian journalism as it works over here. Unfortunately, I don’t think Kartikeya has any idea about of how difficult it is to work in Indian cricket journalism situation.

SJ– Please, enlighten us – how does it really work, the craft of Indian cricket journalism?

GK– I’ll try to elaborate that with examples. There has been the IPL, for instance, for the last 5 or 6 years, which has challenged the cricket journalists in many ways a cricket journalist will never have thought of. You have to understand things such as sweat-equity, share holding pattern, you have to work with corporates which you have never done in the past and understand how the system works in the past. You have to build sources, and if you look back at the last 3 – 4 years, some of the muck that has been exposed in the IPL, are because of this overt cricket journalism that everyone seem to find so abominable. It is because of the work done by cricket journalists. You can look back at some of the exposes that have been made on the functioning of the IPL and how the Kochi franchise was put together, how the Flintoff auction story was broken – all of this is a strong reflection of what i call the craft of Indian cricket journalism.

Yes, we make mistakes in those overt situations where a story is developing rapidly. But, trust me, this is live television, you have to acknowledge mistakes and we do that all the time. You have to learn from them, we do that all the time. Hopefully you will not make the same mistake the next time. But that also does not happen – you make the same mistake again.

This is a difficult one to keep saying “we” about because I don’t represent the cricket press. When I say “we”, I mean team CNN IBN., and nothing else.

SJ– What are the inherent checks and balances that you have in your journalistic profession and in CNN IBN news reporting practices?

GK– We have a very robust system of checks and balances. The word “source” is very badly misused in Indian journalism. I’m very careful to say “Indian journalism”, not just Indian cricket journalism. Over time, I have encouraged, and some of the reporters have done this themselves, developed a bunch of very reliable sources. I’ll give you an example – the Flintoff fixing story, which by the way Sanjeeb broke. The story wasn’t put out on air till the time we had an irrefutable document that said that this email exchange took place between Mr. Lalit Modi and Mr. N. Srinivasan. That document was not denied by the Chennai Super Kings. It was subsequently been acknowledged by Lalit Modi as a mistake, which is laughable. Very rarely does a story go out which does not check out.

Sometimes, we, for instance, on selection – what happens on selection day. You get a kind of psephologists wind, when so and so is in line for selection. We knew 3 or 4 days before the West Indies series in India that Harbhajan Singh was on the way out, that he did not enjoy the support of the majority of the selection committee. But, things can turn. You write it, or put it out in a certain manner, that “Sources: Harbhajan Singh unlikely to be selected for the series against the West indies” if you are that sure. If you are not sure, “Harbhajan Singh faces stiff opposition within selection committee”. So, these are the kind of checks and balances that you run.  The fact that we haven’t really been sued for a large amount of money in the last 6 years proves that our sources hold good.

SJ– That is another question, this one is from another good friend of yours, Shrikant. You have written about DRS on your blog on what are your views on DRS now? It’s been shown to have certain number of flaws in the way it is implemented and it cannot be equally applied in all countries due to whatever export restrictions etc etc. How has your thinking changed? you are a major proponent of the DRS.

GK– I’m surprised that is such a tame question from Shrikant. This is from @homertweets?

SJ– Yes!

GK– He’s suddenly become very nice to me. Can I take that question after I give you an aside?

SJ– Sure!

GK– There are two aspects to this. One, is that as an on-air anchor, which is a part of my responsibilities as a sports editor at CNN IBN, I have a different role. As a blogger, that is completely my space. As an on-air anchor, i always ask questions. I very rarely ever express an opinion, unless I am put into that position in a discussion with 5 or 6 other people and I’m asked to offer an opinion. That distinction is important. What I write on my blog is actually not my personal blog. That is my blog-space, but that is run by IBN Live. This was another one of Kartikeya’s problems, and I thought that was quite childish, but fine. The blog is somewhere where I express my opinions. I write my opinion, I don’t impose my opinion when I am anchoring, which is the distinction I make because there are cricketers and analysts who are answering questions at that time and it is not my position for offering opinion. That is one distinction that I wish you will put in this when you put it on.

On the DRS question. If Shrikant looks at the blogs that I’ve written and see the last one that I’ve written on DRS, where I concede certain problems regarding the system. I completely concede that I was a huge DRS proponent. However, after the incidents that happened in Sri Lanka, where Shaun Marsh was given out LBW when he clearly wasn’t [Note: it was Phil Hughes] and the HotSpot failures in England, I did review that position. I don’t think I need to elaborate that often, you can link to that blog here.

SJ– “Douse the DRS Fire” ?

GK– That’s right. I’ll tell you one thing – I had several problems with the position the BCCI took on the DRS. One was the position taken by Ravi Shastri, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous. One day, he sits in the cricket committee on the ICC which makes the recommendations, the press releases are available on the website, that DRS must be implemented with immediate effect. And, the ICC’s cricket committee unanimously votes for the DRS to be trialled. And as he gets into the commentary box, he takes up a completely opposite position, where he says that it does not work and all of that. so, that was one of the points I made in one of my earlier DRS blogs.

The other thing was, once it started to contribute to howlers, rather than correct them, then obviously that position needed to be reviewed. But, I made another point – the problems with the DRS would not have been known till the time you actually played cricket under it. If you keep on testing it in a laboratory, sports can offer you situations that none of us can imagine. As a result, it needed to be put up there and clearly the technology was found, in some cases I have it from very reliable sources in the production in Sri Lanka, that the technology used was extremely poor than the technology that was available. I can’t talk on this as lucidly as Kartikeya can, because he has really studied this, that is something that I admire. But, the technology used wasn’t as reliable in Sri Lanka. There was better technology available, but for cost concerns, it wasn’t used. At the moment, either there should be a standardisation of every test match being played with hot-spot and ball-tracking of same technology, or none at all. This is my current position on DRS. I don’t believe that any other sport in the world allows its participants to choose its playing conditions. And, cricket is doing a huge mistake by doing that. It allows one team to pick DRS, and one team to not. I think it is a mish-mash and it serves no purpose. That’s why I believe that it is important to get the technology sorted and re-introduce it as a standard technology for all test matches and One Day cricket around the world.

SJ– That is a very fair position. You talked about the distinction of being an on-air anchor and then as a blogger. Questions from Benjamin Prabhu– There has been an exponential increase in the number of cricket blogs. What purpose do you think does it serve, as a sports editor, do they really matter?

GK– I think they matter a lot. To be honest, I’m not very much of an internet person. I am not on Facebook, which some people believe is absolutely scandalous. Now, I’ve learnt a hell-of-a-lot from reading blogs. It is very important for journalists to get inputs from non-journalists. For example, we keep reading the stuff you have done with various people on The Couch, and that’s excellent. It is very good for me, as a professional journalists, to just look that up. For instance, if I am doing a story on the problem of depression in cricket, I will definitely refer to what you have done with Iain O’Brien! (SJ- Thank You!) It’s the same with a blog that I read – was it Shrikant and you, who had done on possible reasons that the T20 was organized in South Africa just before the IPL?

SJ– yes.

GK – That was very speculative, by the way, Subash. You would’ve done any cricket journalist proud, because you had no evidence to back up what was written! But, it made sense, it was logical. It is the same way with what Kartikeya has written. And I have not just put that out, but I have put that out on my twitter page so people who follow me can read it. In fact, the savagery that he inflicted on me, I put it out on the twitter page all the time, without fail, every time. It would be foolish of me, as a cricket journalist to think that it would be only me who can understand this sport. I think there are a lot of people out there who have a deep understanding of the game, its nuances, and of the personalities involved and are doing good work. I think, that work should be acknowledged. It plays a very important role.

SJ– A couple of questions, and I will let you go. Going back to sports journalism, this is from Shrikant, and something that I wanted to ask myself – What is the depth of knowledge about a particular sport required to become a journalist in that sport? Especially, in India, are they there to enlighten us, to guide the discussion, or to report on the personalities and aggravate us?

GK– Basically, Shrikant and you are asking me what it would mean for a journalist to promote himself from being a mere jhola?

SJ– Those are his words that he sent to you…

GK- Those are good words as well! Once again, it is a difficult one for me to answer because I am being put in the position of a kind of spokesperson for the cricket media.

SJ– You just give me your personal opinion.

GK– In the last 10-15 years, there has been an explosion in media in India. What that has meant is – there were, at one point, a large number of jobs available because people used to run newspapers, run network, magazines and all that. since those jobs became available, and this is not just specific to cricket, a lot of people were hired who weren’t quite ready to do the jobs that they were asked to do, which meant, of instance, in The Hindu newspaper, there was a system in which you worked 10 years or so before you cover an international series. You watched 7 or 8 years of domestic cricket. That was another time. This is a new time. So, up to a certain extent I concede what Shrikant is saying – there is a lack of depth of knowledge of the sport that several people are covering. That maybe true with me as well. I am quite happy to, sometimes, look at certain things that I’ve done on-air and I think that perhaps I should learn a little bit more about that subject before I go up on it the next time. It is true.

In television there are certain other aspects of the job that you need. One is that you need to cultivate your sources, [it’s] very important. I keep saying this to you because this is something that I work with everyday. You need to have a limitless amount of energy, because it is a job that demands almost physical labour of you. You are a traveller – you have been to Melbourne, Trinidad etc. You’ve seen many TV reporters. Basically, they are trying to upload huge amounts of material on to the internet from wherever they are, to make it to prime-time and all that. They don’t necessarily have the time to reflect on their work. They just do it.

But I think, there is, slowly, a more nuanced viewer out there as well. I am feeling that, when I see it on twitter and places of that kind, the responses that I get to my blogs or to something that I’ve done on TV. I do a lot on TV and I get a response on twitter, saying “What kind of idiotic questions is that? That is not a comparison that you are supposed to make. This is not…” I think there is scope, definitely for a huge amount of improvement for journalists for a lot, of people including ourselves in the business.

There are different kinds of reporters. Some of us are trying to be better than we are right now, and some of us are quite content to be where we are right now. That is reporting. The other side is, there is a lot of television being done in India right now, which is largely using cricket as an entertainment tool. That is television that I find personally, extremely troubling. If I find the coverage of IPL on SET MAX, I disagree with the way that the coverage is structured. But, there is very little that I can do about it, except to look at the quality of our coverage. And in that, I’m pretty sure that we are always trying to improve. Not just with the editorial content, but with the production content that we put out.

SJ– One last personal question and then I’ll let you go. This comes from Siva, on twitter as @atlasdanced – you have a lot of former players coming on your show. Some may have had some shady things going on around them. When they come on your show, do you feel odd, just a personal question,  when they talk about legends like Dravid who has had a spotless, phenomenal career?

GK– I’m not sure if we’ve had too many people on the channel who has had a history of shady dealings or something of that nature. One other thing is that we take great pride in the choice of analysts that CNN IBN puts out is largely, I think you wouldn’t find them to be shady. I think, if you look at our current set of analysts, for instance, Harsha Bhogle is one of our analyst, as is Sanjay Manjrekar, as is Anil Kumble.

SJ– No, I’m not asking the most prominent ones. There are times when you bring on somebody and… I’m not naming names…

GK– I understand what you are saying. I’ll tell you one thing – sometimes, a story acquires a life of its own, that in live television people come on which you look back on retrospectively and you have huge arguments with your senior staff saying ‘Why did we put up a person of this kind on air?’ That can happen. Largely, as a principle, the people that we have put on have a credibility, their opinion is respected. They take position on issues without being abusive and without using colourful words about players. I think that is the most we can do – that the people we put out are people of high calibre and integrity.

SJ– On that note, thank you for coming on the show. That was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

GK– Thank you Subash, thank you very much!

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman