Transcript: Couch Talk with Hemant Buch

Couch Talk 105 (Play)

Guest: Hemant Buch, TV Cricket Director/Producer for TEN Sports

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Hemant!

Hemant Buch (HB)– Thank you, Subash.

SJ– You started your career in sports as a reporter but now you are the Vice President of Production with TEN Sports and you have directed cricket broadcasts for many, many years. Can you take us through your journey from being a reporter to what you are now?

HB– Subash, I actually didn’t know what to do with my life. I played sports all my life, in school and in college. When time came to move on into the real world I always wondered what I was fit for. Sometimes, I thought I would be a ship captain, sometimes I thought I would be a star badminton player. I was always lazy, never really worked hard at my sports. I basically, in the end, took the path of least resistance. I got into sports journalism. I hadn’t written a word in my life before then. A kind gentleman called Mr. Krishnaswamy, who was the sports editor of The Pioneer – he, along with Mr.  G. Rajaraman, who was the deputy sports editor – they saw something in me. Krishnaswamy gave me the job. I wrote a couple of pieces to show him and he suddenly gave me a call out of the blue and said “Would you like to join?” I jumped at it. 1st January 1999 was my official joining date at The Pioneer at Delhi.

In about an year or an year and a half later I was wondering what to do because I was getting bored with the whole newspaper thing – to me it was slow progress. Ii was a bit greedy with regards to my progress. That was the time television was starting its move into India. it was coming in big time.

SJ– So, you became a television reporter or a news producer?

HB– No. suddenly, an old colleague from the print industry – he turned up at The Pioneer and whispered in my ear “Do you want a job with a television channel?” I said “I was thinking, how did you know?” A gentleman called  – he offered me a job at this station called Business India Television (TVI). I worked there for an year. It was only fate. I was working in the same building – TVI didn’t really get off well. it is a good channel but it didn’t get off well; and TWI, which is the television wing of the IMG – they were in the same building on the next floor. Suddenly, I got a direct call from there, asking if I wanted to join an year later. That is when I got into main stream sports television.

SJ– I read about you, you had gone through the process and you eventually started directing cricket broadcasts. You were a director there. How did that opportunity come about, how did you eventually make the journey to that point? What qualifies someone to become a director of a cricket telecast?

HB– Subash, it is a really interesting question, the last part. I will start with the first part.

TWI used to produce domestic cricket in India for ESPN at one point in time. In 1996, when I joined TWI we did domestic cricket. That was nothing like the telecast you see now. It was a 4 camera coverage, small lenses, it was post produced into a 52 minute episode. So, you have a 4 or 5 day domestic cricket game and it would be condensed into 52 minutes. I remember people coming up to me and saying “Boss, I scored 92 runs and you showed just one boundary and the out.” I replied “You should have hit more boundaries.” I can only put so much into a 52 minute show. We used to make that show and I used to direct. We had to do the whole game, you couldn’t do selective moments because you don’t know when someone would hit a boundary and all. That’s when you got in touch with the players and you started learning about television – the basics. But, it was a start.

Then, I started producing cricket. Producing cricket is a different skill from directing it because it is more about where you arrange things. The director is the guy who cuts the pictures, he actually calls the shots. The producer is the guy who sets it all up, who helps the director in his actual mission. I used to do that job for a long time.

4 years back it was decided that I should go and direct myself. It is quite tough. I never thought of directing it myself, but I was pushed into it. It is a hard job. You sit at one place for 12-14 hours and keep talking and keep listening and keep watching. You can’t really afford to let your concentration go.

SJ– In terms of my second half of my question – what qualifies someone to become a director of a cricket broadcast?

HB– There is no qualifications. It is really what you make of it. You need an understanding of the game. you need to be able to tell a story; you need to be able to listen and talk at the same time – That sounds strange but listening and talking at the same time is a really difficult task, you should try it sometime; and, you need to anchor as well.  The director is counting it down, he is telling what is coming up and he is talking at the same time. To think and listen at the same time is a big art, and if you manage to do that, you are qualified to be one part of the director. The rest is knowing cricket and knowing how to tell a story and knowing how to put everything together. That is very important. There are no real qualifications – anybody can become a director. But, we should have certain vital ingredients.

SJ– What are your primary responsibilities as a cricket director? What is it that you do on a daily basis, or whenever there is  a cricket match going on and you are at the ground. Can you paint a little picture on what it is that you are doing?

HB– It is not as glamourous as it sounds. People think that these blokes get to travel all around the world and stay at nice hotels and chill out, see the players and come back. The things actually start a lot earlier – 3 days before the game – when spreading the rig happens. You put the things together, you put the equipment, you lay miles and miles of cables, you lay down tons and tons of equipment. That is what happens. There are checks that happen over the next couple of days and then you come to the actually match.

SJ– I had your good friend Hari Surendra on the show a few months back. He told a little bit about the preparation work that goes on – rigging up the equipment and stuffs. I want to know from the director’s point of view – what is it that you are actually doing as the match is happening and what is the preparation work that you have to do as a director?

HB– Let’s start with the day of the game. On the day of the game, you ideally have a studio show which is one or one and a half hour before the game. You come into the ground about two hours before the studio show – which is 3 hour before the start of the game. So, you can imagine it is an early start. You leave the hotel depending on how far you are. Basically, for a 10 am game, you might have a 5.30 am call time to leave the hotel. And then, you finish pretty late – about two or two and a half hours after the game. First of all, it is a long day. Then, the most important thing is to stay awake during the whole length of the game because we start early and finish late – it is a tough lie in that sense. You check everything before the start of the game, you set everything up, you do your studio show, you talk to your anchor, you talk to the producer, the producer makes the running order to you, and you look at all the pieces that are coming up and you co-ordinate with the anchor and carry on. You do the studio show and you then you have the toss in between, the pitch report, you talk to your anchor about what they want to do at the pitch report. You are talking to your anchor in the studio and you are talking to the anchor down on the field in preparing them for the interviews and making sure that everything happens on time – you hit your breaks on time and you need to start play on time. If it is a One Day game, it is a 3.5 hour session.

In the meantime, you check out whether everything is set as far as their animations for outs and not-outs are well prepared, with the correct button in a situation when the umpire gives his decision. You talk with the third umpire and make sure all the communications are OK. All those things are done before you go on air for the first ball.

After that, you are in the game – you are looking at 40 or 50 or 60 different monitors depending on the size of the telecast. You have about 20 to 35 cameras, you have different replay outputs. You are looking at all of these all the time and every time you are calling the shots. You have to select the shot online form all the shots that are available to you. At the same time, you are thinking of a story to tell. You are talking to you replay guy, ‘…we are thinking of this… we need to prepare for this…’ You are talking to your graphics guy. Like, for example, Sachin Tendulkar has scored 1400 runs in South Africa, but at Cape Town, his record is worse than elsewhere – “Why?” that is the kind of story for the commentators to take forward. So, I tell the commentators that “I have this story ready for you. Just cue it up, so I will play it out for you at the time that your teed it up.” at that time I will play the graphics so that that will prove your point.

The entire telecast works as a team. But, you are the guy who is the conductor of the orchestra, so to speak, and the rest of the orchestra follows.

SJ– You mentioned communicating with the commentators. How frequent and regular is that communication? How much in advance do you tell them that “this is the graphic that I want to queue up” or “this is the kind of replay that I am going to send you” or “this is the camera view that is coming on”?

HB– They have me in their ears at every point that they are commentating. So, they are listening to me, calling each shot and they are listening to me calling each graphic and listening to me calling each replay. And there is this “lazy button” which you press so that the rest of the world doesn’t hear, they can ask me for certain things. They may have seen something on the field that they may want to highlight, which happens write a lot.

For example, I wanted to see Sohail Tanvir’s action. He bowls off the wrong foot. Let’s have a look at the action. So, I tell the replay guys that this is what this commentator wants to see, so just bring it up for me. That is how it is. For example, you are talking about HawkEye, or any other graphic. Everything is a two-way communication with the commentators and the director. I let the commentators know what they could be talking about or what ideas that might be to make the story more interesting. Everything is about the story telling. Direction is about telling a story so that the viewers can get the best viewing experience.

SJ– Say, for example, while doing an ODI match, you did an ODI match yesterday and you will be doing one very soon, right?

HB– Yes. Tomorrow.

SJ– So, how does your work or the job or the operation differ from that day to this day? Are you on repeat mode, in terms of how you are going to go form this to that, basically you have a general structure for the story and have slight deviations on the story?

HB– Cricket is a very fluid story. It is not something that is cast in stone. Story is dictated by what is happening on the field. Today, Ahmed Shahzad might score, tomorrow Sachin Tendulkar might score runs and day after tomorrow Misbah ul Haq might retire- all these are stories that you are telling. The stories are relevant to that day. You keep thinking of different ways of telling different stories – of telling more stories – because you can’t have the same stories ad nauseam. The palette is not the same, it keeps changing. Everything is evolving in cricket – the same guy does not bowl well, different guy bowls well. Different things happen, unless it is like India-Australia where every match has a 350+ score and in every match  350+ score is chased down. That is a different situation. But, usually things tend to differ. I was just joking, even there so many beautiful stories were involved.

The best thing is that you don’t prepare. You don’t have a blueprint. It happens in your head – it happens in front of you and you go by instinct. You go by what story the commentators want to tell because they are your sutra dhar, the guys who are telling the story. Eventually, I am just showing the picture but they are the ones relishing it. that is how it works.

SJ– Let me ask you something about the recent Pakistan vs South Africa Test match where you were directing and there was the alleged ball tampering incident. What is the protocol there?

HB– There is really no protocol as such. It is an interesting question. You are supposed to be an honest story teller and you are supposed to be showing people what happens on the field. If something happens on the field which is a story which needs to be told, then you try and tell it. You shouldn’t really be hiding things, nor should you be making things up. But, that is how I see the situation. Usually, what happens is that the commentators see things much clearer because they look  at things from up top and they are the guys who have played a lot of cricket. They know what is happening. They are able to read the situation and they call for things. As was the case here, one of the commentators realised that something was happening and realised that something was there.

SJ– So, you go back into your archival footage and look for what may have happened? is that how it is?

HB– You can either do that or keep an eye on things that happen in future. There are different things for different situations.

SJ– In this particular case, where Faf du Plessis seemed to be rubbing the ball possibly on the zipper, once the commentator alerted you, did you have to go back to the footage or was somebody’s camera on the player and you got the footage of it? How did that pan out?

HB– Cameras are always on the players. Again, in this situation, I don’t know what exactly was happening. I have my own thoughts on what was happening, you have your own thoughts on what was happening, the player has his own thoughts, the umpire has his own thoughts. So, what my viewpoint would be in this case or any other case would be to show the pictures and let the people make up their minds themselves. That is how it works. You shouldn’t be bending people’s opinions to certain things.

SJ– I agree with you on that. I just wanted to know the sequence of events.

HB– Subash, this is a matter that has been dealt with by the match referee, and I really don’t want to go into the integrities of for various reasons.

SJ– OK. Fair enough. Alright.

I want to ask you this one question – pretty much during any broadcast of a cricket match, by whichever broadcaster and whichever television network whoever is doing it in pretty much any country, especially in the subcontinent – in almost every 2 to 4 minutes there would be about 10 second shots of pretty girls from the crowd. Who makes that call? It is not politically correct? Why would you suddenly, when a cricket match is going on with 40000 fans watching and then suddenly you want to focus on a couple of pretty girls. Why would you want to do that?

HB– At the end of the day, the director calls the shots. Whatever shots that go on air, that are the director’s call. Shots are offered by different cameramen, and shots of some girls might be offered, some of guys with teddy bears might go on as you might have seen in Sharjah and Dubai and Abu Dhabi – different strokes for different folks. If you were to direct you may not want to put certain things on air, some directors want to put different things on air. It is all about director’s personal taste, personal style and the crew that he has got. That is how it works. I don’t know if it distracts or if it attracts. If there are shots of only girls in the crowd all the time, then yes, you might say that it is not politically correct. If there are different shots, in some cases there are pretty girls, then I see nothing wrong in it.

SJ– This is true for any broadcast. Today, I was watching the India West Indies broadcast and you have two innocent girls watching the cricket and there was a close-up shot of them. They feel embarrassed and whatever.

HB– If someone feels embarrassed and if somebody doesn’t want to be in the shot, and if you insist on putting them on shot then I don’t think that is a cool thing to do. but, if you come to watch a cricket game an you are a part of the viewing experience and you get shot, I don’t think, unless and until it is like two people or one person being shown over and over and over again, I don’t think it is much of an issue. I had the pleasure of watching the NBA finals in LA and Boston a couple of years back and they have the Kiss Cam. Different places have different morals and different viewpoints. I wouldn’t go ahead and do moralising at either end, I don’t see it as being a big issue. I won’t put anyone on air who doesn’t want to be on air.

SJ– OK. What was the first international match that you directed?

HB– First international match that I directed was the Pakistan vs Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi. That was a Test match, which was good because it gives you time to get into the Test match. You got time to understand what is going on, time to tell the story, time to listen to people. A Test match and a T20 are poles apart. ODIs also are very hectic. It is good to start with a Test match.

SJ– Do you prefer working with one format or the another because of the pace at which it moves? Perhaps you like directing a Test match better than ODIs and T20s, but in Test matches you have to do 5 days in a row but ODIs you have gaps in between. Which one do you prefer?

HB– I like all three formats. All three formats have different strengths. Test matches, I like because it allow me a canvas a tell a story. I have got time and i can think of things and I have 5 days to make a story work. The pitch changes, there are different things to be told. a player evolves – he may be a hero in one inning but becomes a zero in the next. He has got time – even if he is struggling – to go out and make a century. A bowler has got time – even if he bowls very ad in first spell –t o come back and take 5-fer in the next spell. There are many stories to be told. There is time for graphics to come in, there is time for HawkEye to come in. There is time when things move slowly. It is better to tell the story. Plus, Test cricket has a lot more history. Because of the long time that the game has  been played over,  there are more stories to tell. You have got more interesting things to talk about. I think that is what is great about the Test format, as a director. When things go right there is nothing like a Test match to direct.

The game that I did recently – the second Test in Harare – was one of the most satisfying game that I had ever done. I didn’t have any equipment to play around with. It was very basic. I think you tweeted that if the match itself provides a context and a story, then everything else falls into place. That is what happened. The match itself was so good that the story became better and better and better. A fantastic result at the end.

SJ– I wanted to ask you something about the back and forth that you have with the commentators. I have asked Harsha Bhogle about this and he said that the way a commentator does his job depends a lot on the quality of the producer and the director. If they are good, then the quality of commentary is going to be good. So, what are the things that you try to do so as to make sure that your commentary is top-notch?

HB– The big advantage that I had was working with Tony Greig to start with. Tony Greig – he knew television. He is one of the guys who knows – there are a few others around the world as well, Mike Haysman comes to mind, Ian Bishop comes to mind, Ian Chappell comes to mind, and others – Tony Greig came through the Channel Nine school. There were a lot of things to learn from him – how to set up things with the commentators, how to tell them beforehand what things to put on, what things to keep in you kitty so that the commentator can set it up before putting the graphic in. A lot of time what happens is that you have a fantastic graphic which you just put in and the commentator talks about it and it goes off and doesn’t have the impact that it should. Whereas, a commentator sets it up.

“I thought that Sachin Tendulkar would have the best record at this ground. But, do you know who it really is?” And then you scratch your head and think and then you put the graphic up and show that Mahela Jayawardene had the best record at that ground, for example. There is a surprise, the story is told – it is not as if you put something on and it is just read out. There are two ways of doing. It is good to work with people who know television and who know what goes on behind the scene so that they can embellish things so that they can talk about pictures and talk to pictures – that is an art.

SJ– But, you are also dealing with the legends of the game. They are people that you probably idolised growing up. How does that dynamic work?

HB– When you are directing, you are directing. It is a different thought process. You don’t think that X is legend or Y is legend and you haven’t played Test cricket. That is not how it works. You are there because you are doing a particular job and they are relying on you. You make them look good and they make you look good. That is how it works. If you are worried about talking to legends, then you shouldn’t be in this job. This goes with the territory. They also know that the director is there to help them in their endeavors and to make the telecast come together. So, I don’t think there is any major hassle or issue there.

There are some commentators who could be difficult. Tony was not easy on me to start with; we used to have a lot of arguments. He used to tell me things, I used to tell him things, but that is where it was left. At the end of the day he respected me and I respected him. So, it is how it is. There is nothing wrong with having arguments. That is what makes you try and improve on what you are doing. You should be able to tell the commentator “Look, this is where I think you could do better.” He should be in a position to tell you “No. i think you should do this.” And you learn and evolve. The moment you stop learning and evolving, that is the moment things become a little bit dreary.

SJ– I want to ask you one last question now and we can wrap this up – what is the most memorable match or series that you have directed? Why?

HB– I would just go with the recent on with Zimbabwe vs Pakistan. It is not a glamourous series. I hadn’t had a lot of tools to play with. That shows you why I remember it so fondly. It was the cricket. The cricket was great. The team was in disarray, Zimbabwe. They hadn’t got their money. Their every day was just a worry if they would turn up and play the next day. The match was shifted from Bulawayo to Harare because the board didn’t have money to pay for the hotels. To make things cheaper they kept everything at Harare. It was a situation where you could see that the team was such a massive underdog. You could see that the players didn’t even know if they were going to get paid. And yet they came with such a massive effort in the end that they upstaged a country like Pakistan who had some really big guns like Misbah, Younis Khan and Saeed Ajmal. They still conquered the odds. I think they won by 24 runs in the second Test match. It all made everything life worthwhile there.

When I sent a camera into the dressing room, I saw the celebrations, I saw what it meant to them. It was more than just a victory. They are not going to play a cricket match for a long time after this win. It was just a last chance for them to feel it. I could have picked an India series, but I think this is what cricket is about. This is the great leveler, the game that we want to see. No glamour, there were not too many people. There was no money, certainly not for the Zimbabweans. It was a throwback to the amateur times when they played for the love of the game. That series will always be in the forefront of my mind.

SJ– Excellent! On that wonderful note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Hemant!

HB– Cheers, Subash. Thank you very much!

SJ– Thanks for being on. Thank you!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman