Transcript: Couch Talk with Hassan Cheema

Couch Talk Episode 77 (play)

Guest: Hassan Cheema (Pakistani Journalist)

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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couchtalk-logo-2Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest on this episode is Hassan Cheema who covered the recently concluded Pakistan’s tour to South Africa for He talks about his maiden experience as a journalist on tour, his good and bad experiences of covering cricket and traveling in a country as diverse and troubled as South Africa, the supposed Misbah Ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez rift during the tour etc.

Welcome to the show, Hassan!

Hassan Cheema (HC)– Good to be back, Subash.

SJ– I’m glad you are alive and well. Now, you’re back in Pakistan, but three weeks ago you were in South Africa covering the Pakistan series for a month and a half, right?

HC– Yeah, more or less.

SJ– That was almost a full tour you covered and it was your first time being part of cricket media. Let’s hear about how it was covering your favorite team, traveling within South Africa, the South African society and culture, etc. We can begin with your experiences in the media box…

HC– Most of the people I met in the press box were nice, forthcoming and very helpful as well. From the 2nd Test at Cape Town, Ant Sims and few other guys in the Cape Town press box really helped me and made me feel comfortable being in the press box. The press box is an odd place to watch cricket from, in the sense that, the Cape Town media box is completely sound proof and so it is sort of separated from the general ground. You are surrounded by 40-50 people who are very well informed and opinionated, as journalists are wont to do. So, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a few dozen people  who were as opinionated as me, if not more, and had infinitely more stories to tell than I could even know. From the stories I heard, I figured that even the South African team is as messed up as the Pakistani team except that you [the general public] don’t get to know much. Later on I also realized that the Pakistani team is far more messed up than you think it is but you get to know only 20-30% of the actual truth.

SJ– I suppose you will get to hear a lot more, shall we say, salacious stories when you closer to the team, which you are never going to see in print.

HC– Yeah, it’s true you won’t get to see a lot of it in the press but the Pakistani media has generally been the sort that hasn’t restricted itself to the sporting side of things. For example, here is a random story. Mazhar Arshad (Cricket_Updates on Twitter) mentioned to one of the Pakistani print journalists that Abdul Rehman had gone to get a facial in some salon. Following day, that was in the newspaper as well, as if that is somehow newsworthy. Basically, the print journalist twisted it as, “He was getting a facial before he was going to play the third Test because he wanted to look good playing the third Test”. Of course, Rehman didn’t play the third Test!

It was weird seeing everything in close quarters, how the Pakistani media, especially the Urdu media works and how the players are equally at fault trying to manipulate the media for their ends.

SJ– Being in close quarters with the team and the media covering them for more than 45 days, what are your impressions coming away from it, about the players, the team, media etc.

HC– Regarding the media firstly, they are not parasites as portrayed by players’ representatives. They are people trying to do their jobs, and I’d say 90% of the time try to do an ethical job and do what’s right for their profession and what’s right for the game itself. Regarding the players, I was never really star struck. The only time I was star struck in South Africa was when I saw Samuel L. Jackson. When I came to South Africa, I had this in my mind that, “The players aren’t my idols but are my subjects.” Beyond that, you talk to them, you interact with them, they are just basic, normal human beings with their qualities and flaws. Sometimes they want to use you for their ends because you have a press pass around your neck. They might think that you might be able to leak something for them or some shit like that. More often that not, they want to talk to you as a Pakistani to get something off their chests.

Let’s say there are 2 extremes of “love-ability” from Kamran Akmal to Saeed Ajmal. Both of them, when I interacted with them were just nice, normal Punjabi guys that you might find anywhere in Pakistan with the exception that these guys are representing their country. Another thing was, few players like Kamran Akmal, in fact especially Kamran Akmal rather, I did not think he knew about the game very much but then, he is very technical, he thinks a lot about the game. I knew that Hafeez and Misbah would be very informative about the game, but less so with someone like Kamran Akmal but he knew far more about the game than I thought he would.

The South African players were even more forthcoming than the Pakistani players. The Pak players were initially hesitant because they had never seen me before, and had never interacted with me before but once they saw me with the rest of the Pakistani media people, the players became more comfortable with me.

South African players, whenever I met and spoke to them before or after pressers – because in the pressers they give out the same cliched quotes that they had memorized – they were more informative. For example, I spoke to Colin Ingram after his 100 about how he played Ajmal and how he dealt with his length because that was the biggest problem the South Africans had facing Ajmal and he gave a very informative answer.

SJ– The thing you mentioned about Akmal being informative about the game etc, which means you had preconceived notions about him, but were there surprises/notions that went in the opposite direction?

HC– I mean, I expected that all these players would be far more technical in their knowledge of the game than I could ever because they have been playing international cricket, but the South Africans were far more open to talk about those sort of things. With the Pakistani players, if you talk to them one on one, you could actually push them in to a corner and only then they might say something like that. But watching them in nets, interacting with each other is actually when you could see the true technical aspects of the game came to the fore. The media in Pakistan are not that interested about the technical things and have never been interested about pure cricketing stuff which becomes obvious in the way the Pakistani media interacts with the players as well. I wouldn’t name any names, but the preconceived notions about fast bowlers being not the brightest of the lot was sort of reconfirmed. Apart from that, everyone has such a vast knowledge of the game from having played First Class and international cricket for so long. More often than not, I was out of my depth talking to them about technical aspects of the game.

SJ– Yo mentioned you weren’t star struck and you were treating the players as your subjects, someone you had to report on, write about. But there was this one instance during the ODI in which Shahid Afridi scored the 88 and hit the ball out of the park in to the neighboring Golf Course. Would you care to explain further?

HC– Firstly, I had a clear mindset going in to the series not to treat the players as idols. The other thing of course was the there is a decorum to the press box, a certain level of neutrality you have to have. One of the Pakistani journalists, at the start of the series he was acting a bit like a fan and, myself and a friend of mine told him off. Qamar Ahmed, who has been covering cricket basically since 10 days after Jesus died was the one that told me about the decorum of the press box and how one has to write and your [neutral] mindset when you are covering a series.

Regarding the incident you are talking about, is the one where Afridi got out to Ryan McLaren and it was a no ball, and the change in emotions arising out of it. What I would say is, if I or someone else were conversing in Urdu or Punjabi and you don’t understand the language, then you don’t understand the context to it and it is slightly difficult for you to start labeling people basically by observing people talking in a foreign language and you are basing your judgment on how they are acting rather than what they are saying, and that is something I would disagree with.

SJ– From what I could tell, sitting in the States and following things on Twitter was that, you along with other Pakistani journalists were overtly enjoying the Pakistani team’s success on the field rather than being neutral observers.

HC– As much as I would like to say that I tried to be completely neutral, there is still a certain element of fan in me. I would not do that in the press box or in my writing, I would not be a fan in that. Rest of the guys, I can’t speak for them… They have mixed feelings on this. The other thing I would say is, the only case in which this has been pointed out was during an Afridi innings, which is an unique occurrence. If a Razzaq or Sehwag or Gayle were to play an innings like that, you sort of half expect them to play an innings like that. The way Afridi bats, I compare it to bungee jumping – It’s short, you don’t know whether you are going to be alive at the end of it, but it’s exhilarating. So, sometimes, I’ll accept the blame on my part, and I can’t speak for others, that I wasn’t ‘neutral enough’, shall we say? I can’t think of another term for it, my vocabulary isn’t as vast as Gideon [Haigh]’s.

SJ– Nobody’s vocabulary is as vast as Gideon’s.

You were in South Africa for 7 weeks. South Africa, sometimes, is in the news for all the wrong reasons. They have a troubled past – that’s an understatement and you had your brush with all of that walking amongst the crowd in the stadiums, you got mugged a couple of times while traveling… So let’s hear about your traveling experiences and your interactions with the average South African  cricket fan.

HC– I wanted to talk to as many people as I could whether in the press box or in general. As I said, the Cape Town press box is completely sound proof – it’s a brilliant press box but you can’t really feel what’s going on outside it, you don’t have any volume on the TV, there is no crowd noise you can hear in the press box. So I walked around and talked to random people about general things.

I had written about it, the differences in watching cricket in Pakistan and in South Africa. If you go to a Test match in Pakistan, every one would know the name of every player in both teams, half the people would even know statistics on them. Of course, when you go to a ODI in Pakistan, there would be people there just to support Pakistan.

For example, I was in Centurion ODI or T20, and one woman asked her husband what one of the South African player had on his chin. He told her that it is Hashim Amla who has a beard. She asked why a South African player had a beard. A conversation like that will never happen in Pakistan or India, I am sure about their own players.

In terms of traveling within South Africa, I would recommend everyone to rather than go by flight to go by cars and buses. It is a brilliant country. 90% of it, as a tourist, is a brilliant place to be. You have to be careful, which I was, more often than not. I was there for 7 weeks and I got mugged twice, which is the South African average.

In terms of interacting with the public itself was interesting in the sense that when you tell them that you are a journalist, everyone tries  to portray their country in the best way possible. Anyone I talk to would say “There are problems in this country, but we have this…we have that….” The same sort of lecture that you get from a Pakistani. They will also say that crime is not as big an issue as you all think it is and blah-blah-blah. I would say “Okay, but I got mugged last week.” And they would say, “Oh? Okay. Of course, that sort of shit happens. But that is very rare, not common.” Once you talk to them for about 10 minutes, they would be talking about how you have to break every traffic light after 9 PM because stopping at a junction is basically risking your life. And 10 minutes ago he was telling me this is the safest place in the world.

It is the same thing when it comes to talking to them about sports. They are very diplomatic and clichéd, as you read in the papers. They will say how they are proud of their boys and how the rainbow nation is successful and blah-blah-blah. And once you talk to them a little further, they will start to go into a little bit of ‘banter’. I spoke to one of the media men in Cape Town, and asked who the most popular player was. He said that it is a four-way tie between A. B. de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla. I thought (Graeme) Smith might have been there, but he said that Smith is generally unpopular. More popular than he was 4 years ago, but still relatively unpopular. Smith took over the team when they were in the dumps, and he took them to as good a place they have every been and he has done that through sheer force of good and excellent captaincy. I understood that this is the same thing that we are doing with Misbah (ul Haq). I understood that view point.

I went around grounds, talking to people. I ask questions like who their most popular player was. Popular players were Amla and Steyn. 60% Amla, 40% Steyn, which is obvious because Steyn is the no.1 bowler in the world and Amla is the no.1 batsman in the world.

Amla, when he got his 100 at Wanderers, you got goosebumps by just how much the crowd appreciated when he reached his 100. You have stuff like in Cape Town where people had Amla beards and nothing else on, except flip-flops and speedos. The big thing is that there is a whole population that appreciates Amla, yet the only instances of borderline political incorrectness were for him, probably I didn’t hear them against anybody else. Like for example, I heard one person say randomly, when I was talking to him about Pakistanis, Amla etc, he said “Once Amla is not good enough, we will send him over to you once he is of no use to us.” And then he started laughing like it was a very clever joke.

At Centurion, for one session, I was sitting on the grass banks for no apparent reason. A guy behind me shouted when Tanvir Ahmed played a shot towards covers and Amla ran after it “Yeah, make the Pakistani run, that is all that he is good for.” I turned around with a confused look on my face. He looked at me and asked, “Are you an Indian?” I said “No. I am a Pakistani.” He said, “Ah!” I turned around and I had the press pass on my neck. He saw that and he asked, “Are you a journalist?” I replied “Yes.” He said, “Oh, okay then. Please don’t report this.” I asked, “excuse me?” He said “ No no no. This was all just banter. We don’t want to say that.” Basically, what he was implying was that he did not want me to report that a South African was being racist. Then he called his wife to him and then his wife tried to convince me that this guy was not a racist. After a while, I said that I won’t report or anything like that, but I was disturbed by this episode.

This, and similar small elements continued to happen in most of the grounds. I won’t single out anything. There is section of people everywhere who are idiots. Considering that the most popular player in the country is Hashim Amla, you can’t paint the entire country as racist. I don’t want to be offensive to South Africa by saying something like that. But there were elements in every ground who basically have the pre-1994 mentality, and are basically trying to suppress it. I was there only for 7 weeks, so I don’t want to be making this story…I don’t want to sound like Thomas Friedman, shall we say.

SJ– All in all, you had a very good experience, in spite of being mugged twice and hearing unsavory things from some parts of the crowd here and there, but you had a great time.

HC-Yes. Very much.

SJ– Going back to the series, there were reports of rift between Misbah and Hafeez in Pakistani media. I guess you were there in the training session where it was supposed to have happened?

HC-In one of the training sessions, Hafeez didn’t talk to Misbah. It went off from there, because one of the journalist mentioned it on his call back to Pakistan, which was a live call on air. You catch something like that on air, and within the next few days that snowballs in Pakistan. This same guy gets a call back and is asked to confirm whether these two guys have a rift. He said he didn’t know if that is true or not. But they would say that it is the indication they are getting from their sources. Of course, I can’t comment too much on that. But, from where I was, talking to both Misbah and Hafeez, both of them confronted the journalist, because they thought he was the origin of the story. Basically, he was just doing his job which was report what he sees, which was accurate. The whole story happened from one instance of maybe a disagreement. I thought there was no rift, but maybe a tension. Suddenly, the media was pouncing on it before the situation had evolved. Suddenly, these guys had united against the media. Hafeez deliberately going to Misbah and talking once the camera was on him, and when the camera was being on Misbah, Hafeez would go and hug him and tell the cameramen to “capture this and report this as well”. I saw the relationship between the Pakistani media and players. Both were trying to use each other to their end, and neither of them were being honest or honorable with each other. That whole thing came from there. Hafeez-Misbah thing came from there.

It was very interesting watching the whole stuff going on, because I learned journalism where you have pressure from your bosses and you have to confirm everything from your sources and other guys have scoops on you, which might not be true. In your search for truth, you might not be ethical. Most of the guys I was with, basically tried to balance being a part of the 24 hour news channel and being an ethical journalist at the same time. It is very revealing and educational.

SJ– I have heard from other journalists, not Pakistani journalists, but Indian or English journalists who have been on long tours with the team that you are covering. For example, if you are an Indian, you are covering India on a 3 month tour of Australia or South Africa. During that time, because you run into each other all the time – pre match, post match, press conferences, traveling in the same flights, that you sort of develop closeness with some players and they become confidants. Did you come across any of that?

HC-Yes. There is a certain element of that. I wouldn’t say there was a personal relationship as much as professional relationship. It was more of somebody like Misbah, who was the captain, at every press conference. Pakistan just sent Misbah to every single press conference. South Africa would send the captain to one press conference, along with some other player. The only time a guy apart from Misbah or Hafeez or (Dav) Whatmore or Mohammed Akram (the bowling coach) came was when Irfan came and he answered his 20 word question in two whispered syllables. When Younis Khan scored his century at Newlands, he came to one press conference. We didn’t even get Ajmal on this tour.

During the nets, the Pakistani management was very careful in letting Pakistani media get in touch with the Pakistani cricketers, because our media isn’t exactly that clean either. The stories that they heard from Qamar bhai regarding the “people with the press passes” and being with the Pakistani team throughout the 90s, I could understand why the management had reservations.

I don’t think I developed any great relationships, but at least I hope that all I tried to be was someone who was ethical and not twist their words that they said on or off the record. I was going to report them as they were intended, with a certain level of understanding of the situation, but with no degree of malice, which might be apparent especially in South Asia, more so in your country than mine, I would say.

SJ– You burnt through more than half of your life savings and you quit your job in Singapore and moved back to Pakistan, to Lahore now. What is your plan, next?

HC-The plan is to pursue this path, at least for the foreseeable future. In terms of what I have learned in the past 7 weeks in South Africa, to being in the domestic T20 semi finals and finals in the Pakistani press box, which is vastly different form the South African press box. You are still getting told infinitely more stories, but all the people in the press box here are from the channels and in South Africa are writers and everyone is quiet and focusing on their laptops. The Lahore press box was like a typical bazaar in South Asia. Anyone coming in and going out and there would be no degree of calm in the press box. But, for anyone who is thinking of doing this as a career, I would highly recommend them, I would be more than happy to give them the push off the cliff.

SJ– Good luck with your cricket reporting and writing career. Thanks a lot for coming on the show. It was wonderful talking to you again.

HC– Thanks. Cheers, Subash.

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman