Transcript: Couch Talk 46 with Dileep Premachandran

Couch Talk Episode 46 (play)

Guest: Dileep Premachandran, Wisden India

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the Editor of the newly formed Wisden India, Dileep Premchandran. We will be talking about the goals and objectives of  Wisden India, how they intend to compete for the cricket fan’s interest in India, how Wisden India may be different from its parent organization, their new website etc. Welcome to the show, Dileep. I assume it’s a pretty hectic time there with the recent website launch?

Dileep Premachandran– We’ve been doing this since February. It’s been fun and now it is out there in a beta version. People have had their opinions and we’ve taken a lot of those on board. So, over the coming days and weeks, you will see lots of changes.

SJ– Why Wisden India? Why now? And, how will it be different from the parent Wisden Almanack itself?

DP– I think it will be very different from the parent organization, simply because the market that we are addressing is completely different. Why now? Because most people accept that India is the center of the cricket world right now both in commercial terms and in terms of people watching, the number of people who watch the sport. I don’t think anyone can afford to ignore that. This is a good time. Internet connectivity too has improved out-of-sight over the last few years., the previous incarnation, started at around 2001-02, when that happened the internet wasn’t all pervasive in India. You had it in few of the big cities. In the smaller towns, and even in the cities, the connection speeds were terrible. It wasn’t as though people logged in every morning to check their news online, which has become customary at least among a certain section of society now.

SJ– In your Wisden India launch speech, you said, “We intend to listen to the fans, because we believe they matter.” So, what are your initial steps that you have taken to meet the stated goal, and what can we expect in the future?

DP– The first steps that we have taken immediately post-launch is to listen to what the fans say, whether that is directly to us on Twitter or Facebook or through fan-forums that we’ve been following, that is mainly been on the look and feel; mainly on what they like and don’t. Several of those changes have already been implemented, and several more are on the way. Basically, we are very keen to have a website that represents the fan. That is not just the Indian fan, but a cricket fan worldwide.

We intend to make the website fun for them to use, that gives them greater interactivity, which they can personalize completely eventually, according to their interest. For example, if you are a fan who is into the Chennai Super Kings in India, and don’t want to see New Zealand – Zimbabwe test match news high up on the page, we will eventually allow you to do that. A lot of those things are not going to happen today or tomorrow, I must emphasize that. It is a part of the long term goal – to give you something that will be tailored to your specific need. I don’t want to think of fans as one big lump, because we know that is not the case. You and I, just taking two individuals, within cricket our interests would be drastically different.

SJ– You mentioned about Wisden, the earlier version, the it had a phalanx of writers, many of them Indians, and you were one of those. That was before Cricinfo was bought off by ESPN and became ESPNcricinfo. Do you think Wisden missed a chance of entering the Indian market at a much earlier time?

DP–  Maybe they did, but that’s not  call that I’m equipped to make because I’m not a businessman or someone with a head for these things. Those kinds of strategic calls are for other people to make and I’m not sure of the reason why it didn’t work at that time, but, the original website, the one thing I can say is that we had a lot of good writings and writers on there. The reason it didn’t work out was because India wasn’t ready yet for that, especially in terms of connectivity.

SJ– So, what kind of talent have you assembled together for Wisden India?

DP– We believe we have a strong in-house editorial team. I’ve got Anand Vasu heading the website, he’s a managing editor. He’s come over from Sports Illustrated. I’ve got R. Kaushik, who has probably covered more tests and ODIs than any other active Indian journalist right now. He’s been on the road pretty much since 1996 and has done 5 World Cups and more than a 100 Indian test matches.  I’ve got Shamya Dasgupta, who was the Sports Editor of NewsX TV channel. Saurabh Somani has come over from cricbuzz, and I write when I can. We’ve got Suresh Menon in charge of The Almanack. The first edition will be out in November. In-house talent-wise we can compete with pretty much anyone.

SJ– How do you intend to catch up in the race for readers’ interest with other cricket publications, magazines and websites in India as well as around the world. You can address within India because that is your biggest market.

DP– I think, in the long run, there is no secret to that – you will live and die by your content. If your writing, or the way you write it, or the way the page is laid out is not attractive or appealing to people, you are going to sink without a trace. That is what the internet has taught us over the past 15-20 years. A lot of people have content, they may not have known how to present it properly, or they haven’t known how to reach across to a reader. All these things matter. The one thing we can focus on is our writing – make sure that is as good as possible, make sure it is as free of bias. I don’t think anyone can be completely free of bias, but we will try as much as we can, to stay clear of being accused of peddling any particular line.

The second thing is to make a site that is accessible to everyone that is both fun and informative. Most importantly, one that interacts with the fans. Interactivity is something that we will be focusing a lot over the coming months. I’ve spoken to you at lengths for a separate project, won’t bring it up now. There are very many things that we are looking in that regard- fan blogs, or just getting the fan feedback about the site, about what they feel like seeing in terms of content. I’m not saying all of that will be implemented right away, but in phases, most of those requests have been taken on board.

SJ– Let’s get to the Almanack. You said that it will be out in November. That is basically your main output, print publication. How are you similar or different from Wisden Almanack?

DP– We are completely different. When you see the Almanack in November, the layout maybe the same – the size, format (notes from the editor, details scorecards) etc. But, in terms of content, you will see next to no-cross over it all. It’s very much an Almanack tailored for Indian sub-continent, and India in particular.

SJ– Ok! A question from A Cricketing Buddha – Australian version of the Wisden Almanack – given its demise at the height of Aussie Cricketing powers, is there a concern for the longevity of the Indian brand?

DP– Not really, no. Because, the numbers you are talking about in Australia are far, far fewer than the numbers here. I think you have more cricket fans packed into Chepauk on one busy afternoon than the population of a small Australian town! So, I’m not really worried about that. the numbers are completely different.

SJ– Let me briefly address the website – How does the website that you recently launched play into the ambitions of Wisden India? We’ve already had so many different websites covering cricket in so many different perspectives within India. This is a question from Lubber Chappal as well, who wants to know how one survives when running a parallel cricket website when you have huge cricket portals like Cricinfo and others around.

DP– That is a good question. Like I said earlier, you will live and die by your content. We’re quite sure of that if we’re not up to scratch fairly early on, we won’t last. And that is true of any site, because you already have Cricinfo out there with 20+ million unique users every month. And you’ve got a lot of others which are fairly established, like CricketNext, and many others. So, it boils down to what you can offer to the readers. I believe that if we can write strongly, and break enough stories, and analyze stories the right way, do it better than others – then we will have a good readership. I’m not necessarily saying that readers will leave other websites, but they may read both of them together.

SJ– How does having this website play into your overall goal as an establishment, your annual publishing of the Almanack. Like, along with the Almanack, the Wisden Extra where you engage the readership more than once a year. Do you have anything of that sort in the pipeline as well?

DP– Yes, we do. And you will see the first of those out by the 30th of June. I won’t say what it is, but it is definitely aimed at the Indian market and you will see that at the end of the month. What is the relevance of the website for an online publisher – I think that is hugely relevant. The world is moving more and more towards the new media. I don’t just mean websites, I mean twitter, Facebook, all those other things that I’m barely familiar with – pinterest and all. A lot of my juniors know a far more than what I do. I think that is the future, and if you just ignore that, you just get left behind.

SJ– Here is a question from Shrikant – How do you position yourself in covering the non-glamorous cricket in India? A lot other cricket websites and other outlets spend a lot of time and effort covering the Indian cricket team, the IPL, but very little has been spoken about the age-group cricket, the women’s cricket in India, and even to an extent – the domestic tournament, the Ranji Trophy. Will Wisden India follow established patterns, or will they actually do what a cricketing publication should be focusing on – which is the actual cricket, the nuts-and-bolts of it at different levels?

DP– We will be focusing on cricket at every level. We are in the process of talking to a few sponsors on how we can cover schools’ cricket. But, to address Shrikant’s question about how we are going to cover domestic cricket, less glamorous cricket, you can already see from the Wisden India site for the coverage of the India-A tour. There are obviously a few glitches, we are having trouble getting access to the full scorecard and all that. But, we’ve tried to have a report up every day. We’ve previewed the tour in detail. We had interviews with players before they left. We will keep doing that throughout the one month that the players are in the Caribbean.

One of the reasons that I hired the people that I’ve done is that people, like Kaushik in particular, have not just covered over a 100 test matches, they’ve covered dozens and dozens of Ranji Trophy games, Duleep Trophy games. So, they know what it is like to be in there, and is nice to give the tournaments the visibility that they deserve. You can be rest assured that come the start of Indian season, with the Irani Trophy, we will be right up there with the coverage.

SJ– Any focus on women’s cricket?

DP– Yes. Women’s cricket is something that I’m very keen on promoting. We’ll have a fortnightly column which won’t necessarily be restricted to an Indian writer, but we plan to rotate it between a cricketer based in Australia, one based in England and one in India. It will be a fortnightly thing, where they talk about the issues that women’s cricket faces, the solutions, and how they can be helped. All those things will be discussed there.

SJ– The ball-by-ball commentary, is that going to be a significant part of your website?

DP– For the moment, we are getting a feed from a service provider, we are using that. By the time the Indian season starts, and definitely in time for the test matches in August, by then you will have a  ball-by-ball commentary for the India-games. In future, as our strength increases, we will have ball-by-ball for each of the important Asian teams, and perhaps the marquee test matches, like The Ashes.

SJ– OK! One last question, from @cluelessvictory. (DP – I love the name!). This is more from the perspective of you as a writer – in most of your cricket articles, you generally have a reference to football. So, what according to you is the one most important thing that cricket can learn from football?

DP– That is a tough one! Right now, given the Twenty-20 leagues that are mushrooming everywhere around the world, the one thing that cricket needs to do, and I had this discussion with a fan this morning in response to something that I had written earlier this week – we were talking about contracts. Right now, you have someone like Kevin Pietersen who is on a central contract, but that is just valid for one year. These central contracts are re-assessed after each year. It is 2 for India, 2 for Australia, 2 for most other countries. You are saying that a player should be playing for only one or two franchises to prevent a complete chaos, but then where is the security? Central contracts are only valid for a year. Supposed somebody does his knee, and is out for 2 years, then what? I think that is a very valid question, because if Leonel Messi wrecks his knee while playing for Barcelona, his contract is valid till 2015 or longer – he is covered for that long, which is not the case with Kevin Pietersen, or a Chris Gayle or a MS Dhoni or any big name that you think of. If cricket is serious about keeping the big players in the international games, it needs to look at the contract system.

Make the big players more secure. Make international cricket as rewarding as the Twenty20 leagues. Particularly int he case of India, I don’t see why that is not possible. Because, the board has a lot of money, but you compare the money Dhoni makes by playing in the IPL and you compare that with what he earns by playing for 100 days for India. There is no comparison. I don’t think that is right. And that is something that cricket needs to take very seriously.

SJ– Excellent! On that note, thanks for coming on the show, Dileep. It was a pleasure talking to you. Wish you the very best with Wisden India.

DP– My pleasure!

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman