Couch Talk Episode 86 (play)
Guest: Harsha Bhogle
Host: Subash Jayaraman
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Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle. We talk about the preparation that commentators do before matches, the quality of on air TV commentary, and also about the lack of discussion about spot fixing scandal on air as the issue surfaced.
Welcome back to the show, Harsha.
Harsha Bhogle– Thanks, Subash!
Let’s talk about cricket commentary on TV.
How do you prepare before a Test series and how is it any different from how you prepare going into the IPL or any other T20 match or any other limited over match. If so, how and why?
HB– You don’t prepare specifically, because you are seeing scorecards. You are following cricket and you have some idea of what is happening. You have stats people. You don’t say that you specifically prepare like for an exam any more. But suddenly you say “oh my God, Dhawan was in the 2004 U-19 team. Let me see who else was on it.” and you go and check. The other thing is that in India, a lot of us have been pampered by the likes of Mohandas Menon. I don’t want to sound like a fan-club, but I think he contributes to a commentators’ performance by 25, 30, 35%. Because you know that people like Mohan are around, you tend to not prepare as much, to be honest. Because you know that you can just call him up. even when I was in England and we were getting ready for Champions Trophy, I sent him a mail before going to bed and in the morning I got all the numbers I wanted, because I had a theory that the Pakistani batsmen play India better that the rest of the world.
To put a long story short, you don’t need to prepare specifically for a series unless something strikes you. You do read the scorecards from around the world and you have some idea.
To be fair, you should. I have been talking about what a fine talent Kane Williamson from New Zealand is. I looked up and found that he averages 31 in Tests and said, “hang on here, I must have missed something. He must be better than 31.” Things like that hit you sometimes when you don’t prepare for it.
SJ– So, the approach to going on air whether for a T20 match in IPL or for a Test match is pretty much the same for a commentator?
HB– IPL – I do prepare at the start of the season because there are so many players. What helps in the IPL is that I do a 3 or 4 part programme on CNN-IBN before the IPL starts – looking ahead to the season. I am forced to analyse things. Once you do that before the IPL starts, then you are OK as the tournament goes along. You don’t have to do match-to-match, because it is 3 hours and as a lot of you love to point out, there is a lot of commercial activities during the telecast. So, you actually don’t look at a lot of stats.
SJ– I always like to compare how cricket is run from an administrative point of view, how it is played or described to the fans with other global sports. Since I happen to live in the USA, I compare it with the commentary of an NFL or NBA or a baseball game which kind of is also 3 – 3.5 hour games with two people doing the entire commentary. You have one colour guy, one guy calling play by play. Why don’t we see that in T20 games such as in the IPL? We saw something similar to that in the big Bash league on FoxTel, where they have a 2 man team for the entire duration of a T20 match.
HB– Fair call. I have not watched a baseball game. How long does a baseball game run? About the same time as a T20 game?
SJ– Exactly. Yes.
HB– I don’t know. We talk too much on radio, maybe. On TV, I don’t know. We came down from 5 to 3 (commentators) in one year in the IPL. The producers didn’t seem to like it. They went back to 4. 4 works alright. Anything more than 4 is a waste of time.
But here at the Champions Trophy, for tomorrow’s final [at the time of recording], and for the semi-finals, we got 9. Half the time we are just hanging around doing nothing. For 50 over game 4 will do, 5 is good enough. For a T20 game, 3 are enough. If viewers don’t like a particular combination, like when say someone says “Harsha and Sanjay are a pathetic combination, we want to escape it.”, then you at least have rotating combinations.
SJ– My question is even more fundamental. Why have so many people? Especially in T20 games. Have just two people for the entire game. that’s it. One guy who comes from journalism background and has the experience of leading the conversation, does his homework…
HB– What a good man you are, Subash, to even suggest that! Nobody is talking about journalists who can lead conversations in commentary any more. I take your point. You should be able to get by with 2, but we have things like pitch reports, toss, etc, that you need someone to do the pitch report and the toss and the commentary has already started. Maybe that could be a reason?
SJ– Even when you rotate a commentator every half an hour, even in a Test match, it sort of makes sense. You need the people to have their vocal cords available on the 5th day.
HB– Do you know Bobby TalyarKhan, in the 1930s and ‘40s used to do the entire match all by himself, The Pentangulars and the Quadrangulars. He used to do those games all by himself. I am sure it is not impossible. He would set a drink in front of him and did commentary all day.
SJ– I am not saying it is impossible. At least that is a good enough reason to rotate people every so often, 30 minutes in this case. That is how Test match commentary was done. That has shifted directly into 50 over games and T20s and IPL. The way I see it, there is no adapting of commentary techniques – modification and adapting it to the shorter version of the game. It is like we take everything for the Test match and adapt it to T20.
HB– Sometimes I get the feeling that without realising it, without expressly trying to be that way, we are all a little more up in a T20 game. i haven’t told myself “There is a T20 game today, we must sound more excited today.” We tend to be a little more up, though. There are producers who think that there are some broadcasters who are much better doing a Test match game, but whom they see as not suited for a T20 game. Maybe we will start to see T20 specialist broadcasters in course of time.
But maybe, like I argued long before, we should have s a no-commentary option as well. Seriously. With all the effects. Without audio, a cricket match is dead. We always talk about the picture. The audio and the sound quality is just as critical, fairly critical. If you provided all the effects – the stump mics to make audible someone marking his guard with his spikes, and you get the “krrrr krrrrrrrr” sound from the stump mics. You can hear what is happening around. You can hear the crowd. It is like going to a cricket match. When you go to a cricket match, do you hear the commentary?
The reason I got that is that a viewer should opt for a commentary, rather than be subjected to a commentary. If you say, for example, “I don’t like Harsha. He is too smart. He is too…whatever.” I should have an option, like a red-button option and say “look, I can get on without him. I don’t really want him.” And then, for me personally as a commentator – if people are then listening to me, I am on top of the world – because people are listening to me by choice, not because they don’t have any.
Anyway, I think that is too radical and it won’t go down to that.
SJ– From your point of view, you have been in the cricket business for a long time now. You just said it is way too radical. Cricket, in the way it is run, is it too conservative to not embrace bold ideas?
HB– It is a good call. Do you, for example, like mic’d up fielders? That came up 10-15 years ago. Do you like a fielder or wicket keeper or slip trying to tell you what happens? We do that sometimes and then people start saying “Look – he dropped the catch because he was talking to you.” – which is not strictly true. Warne was saying day before yesterday that he loved being mic’d up when he was playing cricket.
SJ– Of course, he does.
HB– That sequence where he got someone out after saying that “this is how I am going to bowl and this is how he is going to get out” – is television gold, isn’t it?
SJ– Yes. I think it was Brendon McCullum. But, it is like, with on-air commentators, there are some really good ones who actually bring value to commentary. If you go to pick any Tom, Dick and Harry and mic’d him up on the field, I don’t think that adds anything to the broadcast.
HB– I tell you, during the IPL we are told we are getting so-and-so mic’d up, we look at each other and say “Right. In whose segment is he coming on?” some of them are really good. But, we should not do it if we are merely fulfilling an obligation.
SJ– That is what it has come to. I have been watching and trying to take notes while watching IPL games.
HB– Someone is taking notes while watching an IPL game? Are we learning something new about people who watch games?
SJ– What I was saying is that- how much of it is on cruise control? IPL came in new, the new format, exciting. Great. But that is also very formulaic….desi masala movie. 5 songs, 3 fights, 2 emotional scenes and 1 comedy set. That is exactly what broadcasters have come to. It has become science, rather than art.
HB– It is a good call that you make. I just think that in the years to come, we will become more formulaic because – I find it difficult to say this because I represent a dwindling and almost extinct constituency – we will start getting some cricketers who are excellent story tellers and will embellish the telecast. I think someone like Shane Warne was born to be on the commentary apart from being born to bowl leg breaks. But you will find that a lot of them are coming on batting averages, or bowling averages. You will continue to get the same form.
I can tell you that it is not easy being a cricketer-commentator, because you have to be seen to be knowledgeable all the time because people say “he is a cricketer, he has to know it all, right?” so, you have to be seem knowledgeable. And so, you are forever talking about the techniques and aspects of that. It is good. I don’t know, it is an interesting call. I must talk about it to a new breed of producers because as the game younger, you must get younger breed of producers as well.
SJ– In terms of commentators that talk for the sake of talking just for filling up air time, you can let the pictures speak for themselves, but apparently they don’t sometimes. This applies especially to some former international cricketers. I am not going to say their names because some of them are your colleagues. They are basically reading stuff off the screen. For example there is one commentator who, when a guy has come in and has played 3 balls and scored 6 runs, would say “He has a strike rate of 200.” As if that is somehow relevant. For that matter, “2 overs to go, 30 runs to get. Run rate required is 15.” It does make sense to tell the fans or the audience that the required rate is 15 with 5 or 7 overs to go.
HB– I will tell you what is happening. I have long believed and that is something that I learnt in my formative years – all broadcasts are producer led, not commentator led. The producer is controlling how the game is progressing from the commentary box. The producer will sometimes tell the commentator that this is what he wants to see, “we will show you that”. On an indulgence trip, or if the commentators get dull, the producers say “Let’s move on from that topic.” On a good telecast, that does happen. Even if you have a 1000 wickets, he will say “Let’s move on form this topic, we are getting tired now.” That is the job of the producers, because the commentators can sometimes forget that they have to stay relevant at all times. They get carried away with the story that they are telling. It is the producers’ job to tell that the story is getting a little laboured and let us move on.
The younger producers that are coming in are sometimes just star-struck. If you are a 30-35 year old producer, you come into this because you love sports. And suddenly there is Shane Warne and Wasim Akram doing commentary. You have grown up thinking “Wow, I will pay to watch these people.” And you have been a fan. Can you suddenly tell Shane and Wasim “Listen, enough. let’s move on guys.”? So, we are seeing a trend where producers are in awe of the commentators. That should not happen. I hope they will change again.
SJ– There is a question from a listener, Shyam – what incentive exists for a commentator to do a good job for a viewer? Do you know of instances where a commentator has been fired or demoted for doing a bad job on air?
HB– When contracts end, some commentators’ contracts are allowed to lapse, for example. You will find that the Sky commentary team today is different from the Sky commentary team 5-6 years ago. Or, Nine commentary team is going through some metamorphism with the recent rights, I don’t know if that will change the commentators as well. Sometimes, contracts are allowed to run out. If players are picked on current form, then I have no problem if commentators are picked on current form. That is why if there is greater interactivity, it is good. I often ask television executives “What kind of feedback did you get at the end of the year?” say, you have done a domestic season with 7 Tests, 10 ODIs and 12 T20 games – what kind of assessment do you do? I have not always got the perfect answer to it.
SJ– You brought out the names of Wasim Akram and Shane Warne.
HB– As cricketing legends who are in the commentary box, that a producer could be fan of.
SJ– Of course. If Wasim Akram is talking about fast bowling or his time playing international cricket, I am sure every cricket fan would be all ears. But, it is excruciating at other times when he is just reading stuff off the screen. But, he is Wasim Akram, a legend of cricket. Of course he is.
HB– I know what you are saying. The other day I was out on the ground at The (Kennington) Oval and we were talking about Dale Steyn. I don’t know if you get to see that wrap-around shows that we do for Indian audiences. We were talking about Dale Steyn not playing and why cricket balls are not swinging, and why England are getting reverse swing. Michael Holding was sensational and Wasim Akram was talking how it is –if you are bowling reverse swing you have to hold the ball in a certain way. If you are trying to tell that there is nothing happening with the ball, I don’t agree with that kind of stuffs. When he is talking that kind of things, he was excellent. I get the point you are making..
SJ– Then, for the audience, it is like “If you want some good, you have to take it with the bad.”
HB– Let me ask you a question – why is commentary such a debated topic? I haven’t got down to it. Obviously I don’t mind, because it allows me to earn a living. But, why is commentary so hotly debated among the fans. Why are commentators earning such a lot of importance?
SJ– I think it has to do – that is only my opinion – with the kind of sport that cricket is. It is a cerebral sport. The commentators’ job is to help us understand, and make us think about the sport.
HB– Is that what it is? Or is it commentators’ job to just add to the enthusiasm? Is it a commentator’s job to be a teacher?
SJ– I think cricket has sufficient enthusiasm. The crowd noise that comes through the TV is sufficient enough to get us all excited sitting in our living room. I don’t think the commentators have to get really excited about it. But, to help us understand the nuances of cricket.
HB– I will give you an example. A great example of a commentator as a teacher, something that someone like me would never have picked up. I am doing commentary with Shane Warne, and suddenly he was getting all excited. He was like a little kid who has just seen his favourite chocolate in a store and was tugging along his mother and saying “I want that. I want that!” he was jamming every button he could see and tell the producer, “Give me the first ball. Give me the first ball of this over, and put is alongside any other ball you want. But, give me the first ball.” Then his eyes were sparkling up and he said “I think I have spotted which ball (Ravindra) Jadeja bowls quicker through the air.” And then he put a split screen. That is a great example of a commentator as an educator.
But that cannot happen every minute of a telecast. You will probably get five or six, maximum ten moments in a game. For example, the other day, Sanjay (Manjrekar) was telling me that when Kusal Perera got out, he threw a funny line, said “When the ball is new you don’t play the cover drive because the bat is angled when you play the cover drive. Wait to play the cover drive a little bit more, a little bit longer.” You will get few moments like those. Those are educative moments. But sometimes, commentary can’t do the education bit.
SJ– I don’t think you can over do it. Like you said, you get only so many moments like that.
HB– We represent a relevantly small segment of the total watchers. I know you and a lot of your friends who are on the net together and who have very strong and very acerbic comments about the way things are done. I think that is a small subset. It is not even a significant subset. It is a small subset that I discovered during the IPL. When I am at the IPL, I discovered that this very involved number driven, nuance driven, strategy driven, good old Chennai Tambrahm cricket viewer – to be profiled in a sentence. He is a very small minority. Television audiences cannot cater to that minority.
It is an interesting point. Which is why when someone threw up the idea of different commentary streams for different segments, and I said that if it is not too expensive and it is not cutting into your air time, it is not a bad idea. I think Jarrod Kimber brought that up in a conversation that we were having. “Why can’t we have a nerdy commentary? I am a nerd. Why can’t we not have a cheerleader driven commentary?” The answer to that is the numbers. The nerdy commentary attracted cricket audience is a small segment. They are a very vocal segment. Because they are a very vocal segment, it gives an impression that they are a large segment.
I think I mentioned it when Star, after they got their rights, they actually made a presentation to us. the marketing team and staff presented an outstanding presentation to us commentators. They asked commentators some very disturbing questions that not everyone had answers to. They said, “Look, this is what our research is showing.” The research also shows that when you say “if the long leg moved just a little finer”, they said they don’t know what that means. A very large percentage of people watching the match on TV have not been to a cricket ground. For them, cricket is what they see on the television. If you say “it is just moving mid-wicket squarer”, they say “What does that mean?”. That is the overwhelmingly large segment that the television has to cater.
SJ– I think this conversation that you are referring to is the one Jarrod had with Sharda Ugra and Nitin (Sundar) on Cricinfo’s Huddle show.
HB– That is the one about what Star was mentioning to us, yes.
SJ– So, going back to that. We are a small subset who care how cricket is narrated to us and all that. The broadcasters do not care for that subset?
HB– You need to be catered to as well, which is why sometimes you can’t have a one size fits all telecast. I don’t know the answer, to be honest, the economical viability of what one size fits all telecast is because I have never worked on the business side of a telecast. But, if I say, “OK, if some people want very high quality petrol at 100 Rs per litre, but junta will get only chalu petrol at 50 Rs per litre, is it viable for us to sell two lots of petrol? Or does everyone has to buy at 50 Rs? That is a business decision. It is like segmenting a product. I can sell shampoo at 2 Rs a sachet, and I can sell it at 8 Rs a sachet. But, I will sell at 8 Rs only if I think it is worth selling at that price and that segment is large enough.
Star has got some very young, bright people in the telecast who do numbers very well. I am sure they will work out the numbers and tell us. but, Sony do their numbers too. And, Sony’s numbers telling them that for the IPL, that is the way to go.
SJ– A question – I believe this is what you mentioned, I guess you were paraphrasing form one of those meetings – the broadcasters want to grab the attention of the housewives that are going form living room
HB– Among other segments, as well.
SJ– – of course . I don’t know what the Indian media thinks about the Indian housewives. If that is your technique – to grab the attention – why is it not the technique during a Test match? We see that during the IPL where there is over-the-top loud commentary. We don’t see that during a Test match. I am sure you always want to grab the attention of the housewives and the other segments of the population going from one place to the other in the house.
HB– Unless research is showing, this is the only form of cricket you are watching and she is not watching that. Research is showing, for example, you need a Johnny Lever kind of person in a pot-boiler commercial. It is not always the same pattern. I am just giving you an example. but, you don’t need Shyam Benegal film because the mass janta is not going to watch a Shyam Benegal film anyway. I will put Johnny Lever in a Manhohan Desai film but not in a Shyam Benegal film. I think that might be a fair parallel. I am just speaking what comes to my mind.
Maybe that is what it is. It is this hardcore, slightly arrogant group of cricket fans who think “Look, I know cricket. You must respect my knowledge as well”, like the old Test match lovers who think there must be no T20. Because you understand the game very well, you want a commentary and broadcast that is to your level of intelligence. But, you might be a minority. Some of us listening to it are grappling with that and they are getting the best style, and why can’t I choose to have my style coming along as well over the last 5 – 6 years because we are all unsure about where we should be going.
SJ– I don’t think I understand cricket completely, or anything like that. I don’t have that uppity-attitude.
HB– Some of your friends do.
SJ– I am sure they do. I am not defending them either.
HB– I have nothing against them. It is entirely their point of view. Maybe the generation changed. Different point of views were exchanged politely, and now they are rude.
SJ– What I am trying to say is that you narrate what you see, or you build a story around it. Whatever you do – don’t take me for granted. Don’t insult my intelligence. Whatever little that is of my intelligence, don’t insult it.
HB– Subash, I think the difference between the parallel I gave you and cricket is that if you don’t want to see Amar Akbar Anthony or you don’t want to see Andaaz Apna Apna or whatever. Suppose you don’t want to see Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani but you want to see something else you have the option. Here, in cricket, there is no option. That is where my earlier parallel is not strong enough.
SJ– On commentary, another question comes from Sriram – in sense of fairness, I need to put to you – do you think commentators get unnecessary flak on social media and other things? Do you think that too many people are talking to you without understanding what they are talking about?
HB– It is part of their territory. If you want people to like you, recognize you, give you a good television contract, it is a part of the territory. You can’t say “I only want people who like me and I don’t want people who don’t like me.” If you want to accept praise, you have to accept flak. So what there are some days when you get bothered and are hot under the collar and some days “Why? Why are they doing this to me?” You don’t say that on days when people praise you unnecessarily too. It is part of the content. Some days people ask me if I get upset with all these people ranting against me. I said no, since I am not jumping with joy and hitting the ceiling because of the larger number of people who are saying all kinds of nice things on twitter as well. It is part of the job. If you want to be at the zone, then you have to take everything.
SJ– I want to bring in a new topic, and this will be the last topic of discussion for now. Several listeners of the show asked this. I want to list out two names – Chandan and Shoaib. This has to do with the spot fixing controversy that broke out in this IPL. I believe even Cricinfo and Wisden India carried some articles to the essence of the deafening silence of why didn’t any ex-cricketer that is on the TV or any other commentators express the matter of concern on air? If at all there was any mention of it, it was severely limited. I believe Ravi Shastri mentioned it a few times.
HB– People are entitled to ask that question because they are stakeholders in our game. the question – what is the right forum for that? On a live telecast of a cricket match, especially an IPL game when there is such a lot of cricket happening, can you build an argument? Do you have the time to do? Is that the right forum? I am not convinced myself. Is that the right forum to talk about something like that? That is my point no. 1.
No.2 – in my case, I had a contract with IMG, who are the producers of the IPL, that I cannot be on television or print in any form. In fact, I hadn’t seen that clause and was pulled out of my writing commitment on Times of India and CNN IBN because I had a clause in that contract. My cricinfo writing contract pre-dated that, so I could continue doing that. But there was an understanding that till the end of the period of that contract, there wasn’t a specific clause saying that I cannot speak against topics 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, but there are certain clauses built into every single contract. If you are an engineer on a dam site, there are clauses built into your contract. Which is why, the first article that I wrote after the IPL was 2000 words long. I had to request people to carry it in full because I wanted to say everything that I felt on that issue.
I didn’t think it was a fair point to not do it till the 26th, but I said what I had to. There is this other thing – sometimes in these matters we react very quickly but we have to know what we are talking about. On the whole spot fixing thing, we still haven’t seen any evidence. If I had come out and said, “You know what? This guys (Santhakumar) Sreesanth is a moron and Sreesanth ….<whatever….whatever…>” and discovered that Delhi Police was wrong, suppose, where do I go and hide? Where do I have to go? People, for example, told that I was soft on (Mohammad) Azharuddin when he was involved in match fixing and you protected him. I said “Wow, man! You think i am powerful enough to do that?” That is excellent that people think I am that important. But, I have not met bookies. I don’t know how match fixing happens. I know a little bit about how spot fixing happens from what I read in the papers. I have not been approached by anyone. So, I don’t know enough about the subject. I know a little bit about cover drives, and I know something about leg breaks. But I don’t know that much. Can I come out and be seen to be a spokesman? Yes, we should all condemn it, and some of us did that as soon as IPL got over. But, fans are perfectly entitled to ask that question and that is something that television companies and other people will have to look at – at how you address stakeholders’ concerns and address questions that the stakeholders want to ask.
SJ– What was the exact clause?
HB– I don’t remember. I am just waiting for my son to finish becoming a lawyer and then read my contract. I have long believed that if anybody has to go by the word of the contract, it is a bad relationship, anyway. It is a very naive thought but I always believed that if people have to be in a relationship, they should not go by the word of a contract, but by the spirit of it. It is somewhere on my laptop.
SJ– So, you gave your perspective on why you didn’t address it. Was there a directive from anyone else?
HB-Not formally, no. I don’t know if there was a formal request to someone else. It wasn’t told like “You will not talk about match fixing.”
SJ– But, was there a gentle nudge?
HB– No. I actually believe that in an IPL match, there will never be enough time. At the end of an over, you don’t want to say something that gets pulled out like it gets in 140 characters. I tried to explain the difference between spot fixing and match fixing and nobody bothered to read the second tweet which explained what I was saying. Because it was convenient to do that. So, I pulled out of that. I was disappointed by the response of people that I thought were intelligent.
SJ– But, I suppose in a T20 match, considering that 1 over is 20% of the match if you spot fix…..
HB– It is an issue that the management has to address. I don’t know, for example, if in the Superbowl finals, such things will be discussed. Would it be? Do commentators talk about it if the Yankees are playing whoever else?
SJ– If Yankees were playing and shady stuff was going on, the players that used steroids and stuff like that, I believe it is fair for the commentators to basically have the discussion. They are engaging the audience in it.
HB– That makes the assumption that all commentators are as knowledgeable and have the best point of view. It is a point of view. But don’t expect it to be the definitive point of view. Commentators know the game, but they don’t know the business that goes around it. so, for example, in the whole spot fixing issue, it was not a cricket reporter’s job, but a legal and crime reporter’s job. What section are they being arrested under? I am not an expert to say arresting Sreesanth under MACOCA or arresting Sreesanth under cheating something or gambling something. I am not competent to say whether that is right or wrong. It was no longer a cricket reporter or commentator’s knowledge or area of expertise. You could have one of us saying “He should not have been arrested.” But hang on, we don’t have the expertise to say that. The moment it goes outside that field of play, people tend to assume that we are knowledgeable. It is not a bad thing. I don’t mind people thinking but we are not the most knowledgeable about it.
SJ– I understand the reactions, emotions are not always correctly placed.
HB– But voices being raised are good and bad, and you add to the public opinion. To that extent, I understand.
SJ– Alright. On that note, Harsha. Thank you so much for spending time with me.
HB– No problem.
SJ– I hope I can get you back soon when you get back to India.
HB– Sure. All we need are open minds. As long as there are open minds, and people are willing to accept that they are wrong sometimes too, it’s all good.
HB– I have benefited so much from being on cricket television. If someone doesn’t like me, that is fine. Not everyone can like [everyone]. People don’t like Lata Mangeshkar or Amitabh Bachchan. Where are we?
SJ– Well put. Thank you.
HB– OK, Subash. Take care.
SJ– Take care. Bye.