Couch Talk Episode 71 (play)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is Nishant Joshi, founder and creator of Alternative Cricket Almanack website. He talks about the demands of managing the site and a medical school education and the charitable causes that Alternative Cricket embraces. He outlines the vision for the site, combining his passion for cricket and his education to make small change to this world.
Welcome to the show, Nishant!
Nishant Joshi– Thanks for having me, Subash. It’s a pleasure as always to speak to you.
SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure.
First things first. For all the people asking you on twitter and all the blogs. You are an Aussie who is intent on bad-mouthing Indian cricketers, correct? Or, an Indian bad-mouthing Pakistani cricketers? Which one are you?
NJ– I think it is the combination of all of them, and precisely, none of the as well. In that recent post I wrote on how not to use twitter, with the explanation of all the feedback that we get. Generally, they are incredibly intelligent and very witty as well and it kind of keeps me going as a writer as well. There is an awful lot of guff as well in the comments that we get. It is quite interesting to see a collation of people’s opinion at Alternative Cricket and on what we have been writing for the past few months. There are quite a few accusations as well, in the comments that we have been receiving – That we are Indians pretending to be Pakistanis and vice-versa. As you said, they said we are Aussies jealous that they lost the first test and that is why I write so much crap about India.
SJ– Good that the online cricket community is alive and well.
You were one of the early guest on Couch Talk, nearly 2 years ago. Since then, AltCricket has become a brand of its own, especially with your tremendous social media presence. Take us through the growth of your brain child.
NJ– It has been quite an interesting ride. The most interesting milestone, the most peculiar and kind of life altering thing that I have had in the past 2 years is the IPL cheerleader fiasco, which started during the IPL 2 years ago. One of the readers just sent me an email that one of his friends is going to the IPL as a cheerleader and recommended that she do a blog for us, perhaps. That was the point after we had written the book “Alternative Cricket Almanack” and I had finished promoting it. I was pretty happy with the impact it had, and was winding down with the blog we had. I was happy for just keeping at that and maybe write an odd post from time to time.
The cheerleader, she started writing some interesting gossip. It wasn’t anything too salacious, but what happened was that a couple of cricketers weren’t too happy with what she was writing. She got sacked and got frogmarched to the airport and got sent home the next day by the IPL commissioner at that time. It was a big fiasco, we got features all around the world, and we get hits even today from Wall Street Journal, every Indian newspaper featured it. It was featured in Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. It was in papers in South Africa as well. it had a worldwide reach. I wasn’t prepared for it. One of my enduring memories of it was receiving a phone call during an anatomy lecture a couple of years ago, and it was a call from an unknown number from India. They said “Hi, we are from the NDTV. Would you like to do an interview with us?” You go on air in 5 minutes. I replied “Yeah, but I am kind of listening to an anatomy lecture right now, and have to learn about which bone goes where and stuff like that. Could we maybe do it in half an hour?” I snuck out of that lecture and gave an interview on live TV that I was totally unprepared for.
SJ– Since then, the scope of AltCricket has changed, you know. It was a one-man operation. You were doing the Alt Cricket Almanack, you were running the blog and the twitter account. Now, you have several regular contributors and you also have the radio podcast show with James Marsh…
NJ– We have grown from doing that sort of cheerleader sort of material where we used to be kind of rough around the edges. Now, we have a platform. We have an opportunity to be taken a bit more seriously. Over the past 2 years, our material has become more and more polished. That has culminated in the podcast that you mentioned. Every Tuesday, myself and James Marsh record this podcast. It has been going pretty well. It is not as popular as Couch Talk just as yet, which is the Oprah of cricket podcasts. The feedback that we are getting is tremendous. The sort of material that we are giving is kind of niche. We do put out some kind of esoteric from time to time, but I think the average cricket fan can understand it and it easily resonates with every single cricket fan. The really heartening thing is that we are getting people who aren’t actually cricket fans and they are listening to the podcast and find it interesting and even understand the cricket’s references, and tell me “What you said was really interesting and I really enjoyed it.” For me, that is a really good barometer about where we are in terms of quality.
SJ– You mentioned sneaking out of the anatomy class. You are supposed to be some kind of medical doctor in training. But, you are online whenever there is a cricket match on air, which is pretty much every waking hour of the day, when there is a cricket match going on in some corner of the world. How do you manage these two things?
NJ– If you have a passion about something, you will always find a way to do what you want. Just today, I was doing some cricket training, leading the cricket training for the team that I have set up here in the small town I am here in Eastern Europe, and we are training in sub-zero temperatures. We were there for 3 hours. After that, I had to do my studying, and now I am here doing this interview with you. My schedule is pretty packed, to be honest. But, like I said before, if you like what you are doing, it is going to work. So I really enjoy writing and talking about cricket. I enjoy medicine as well, even though there is not enough opportunities to make fun of it in this kind of Soviet wasteland.
SJ– But, medicine might pay you off better in the long run, right?
NJ– That is a very interesting topic, and it is one that I have been debating with my parents and family for a long time. Even the medicine might get you money. When you have to do 72 hours night shift, and my whole life right now revolves around watching cricket, it is tough to keep up with both. So, there is that sort of imminent conflict which is going to happen in the next 18 months, when – touchwood, I pray to Sachin – I actually qualify as a doctor. I will have a big decision to make.
SJ– We will come back to the bigger decisions that you have to make in a short while. Take us through how the whole AltCricket operation works. How the network works with you and a few others. Who takes care of what?
NJ– right now, I am the editor of AlternativeCricketAlmanack.com . I am vetting every piece that come in. We get a lot of pieces every week. We get around 10-15 pieces every week. We have to reject about 80-90 % of them. We only try to keep the really high quality stuff in there. Right now, with cricket websites, there is a tendency to go to the Daily Mail end of the spectrum, or to Huffington Post; with all these news aggregators. But there are very few cricket websites which are going in favour of quality over sheer volume of content. We are trying to see what we can do to get regular content, but only if they are of the highest quality. That is our aim in terms of writing.
SJ– It is an interesting point that you have brought up – the Huffington Post model. We have seen that some cricket websites have gone for whole lot of content just to generate the hits. For someone who has an online presence that you do, AltCricket brand does, it could be an easy way to striking gold, wouldn’t it?
NJ– It is an interesting point, Subash. I have never really considered it, AltCricket being a potential media aggregate. That will compromise our value, and our integrity, which is essentially what we are all about as a website, and pretty much as a movement that we started a few years ago. We are all about the core values. Even in terms of advertisers, we get a lot and lot of requests on our websites, on our twitter feed and facebook page. We very rarely accept these advertisements. I am a bit short on money these days and pretty much surviving on little. I am a lonely student surviving on Maggi noodles and instant coffee. It is that kind of conflict for me, as a student in the pile of debt, studying medicine, but at the end of the day I don’t want my values to be compromised. I don’t want AltCricket’s integrity to be compromised. I think, as a website, and as a person, as a future doctor, I need to have that integrity. I can’t compromise that for any price. Unless it is maybe £100,000.
SJ– Haha! So, everybody has a price, eh?
NJ– Everybody has a price. My kind of point for doing some advertising would be if some money received would actually have the ability to have a profound impact in sort of some benefactor sort of way, to be able to do some charitable work with that. I might consider it. We are quite big into charity here…
SJ– That is a perfect segue. You were doing the Alternative Cricket Almanack 2 years ago for the Afghan Youth Cricket Association and now, through AltCricket, you are involved with Cricket Without Boundaries in Africa. So, can you talk a bit about your success of your previous endeavour and what you are doing here?
NJ– Just to start – Afghanistan scholarship that we started a couple of years ago, that was with the book that we did – the Alternative Cricket Almanack, a review of everything that we did in the year 2010. We got many articles from many talented writers who I felt weren’t getting a platform. You, Subash, you wrote an article on India vs Pakistan, called bridging the divide. It was an example of the sort of quality that wasn’t being showcased at the time. (SJ – “Thank You!”) We did a really good job of getting a platform for quite a few writers. People have gone on to contribute to larger, main stream outlets. Perhaps some would say, sold out, but that was the point in the long run to give people the opportunity to make money out of passion, and showcased the quality that was being missed by the major websites and of course, our catch phrase that time was “Just do good, and have a good time doing it.” That still holds true today.
The scholarship we started out was through all funds which we made during the production of the book, and it would go to Afghan Youth Cricket Organization. You can see the progress that they have made in the past couple of years. You have players like Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan have been playing really good when they have been given the opportunity. Even in the WT20. The whole point of what we were doing was even if one player bounces Sachin out, or bowls him out and his off stump goes cart-wheeling back 20 yards, and then the whole country of Afghanistan would see that. It might have such a profound impact that it could last for some time. So, it has been very successful, the amount of awareness that we generate.
Moving on to the Kenya trip that I did last year with Cricket Without Boundaries- it is a charity that set out to teach children, young people and teachers in Africa and spread awareness about HIV prevention through cricket. Now, we use cricket analogy and teach and simplify and present the message of HIV prevention. Like, “Protect yourself while running between the wickets.” “Good communication” and things like that. “Always protect your wicket” is analogous with “Always use a condom.”
The children understand it when you explain it to them in simple terms. Cricket is a complicated sport. When you take it down to the simple facts of cricket, it is quite simple to understand. If even the children can understand, even it has never been exposed before, and couple it with AIDS prevention message is very excellent. I am very thankful to everyone who donated money, well over what my target was. We did a lot of good there with the money we raised, and it was one of the most life affirming trips you can imagine. For me, at that age, it was a privilege to go there.
SJ– How long were you there in Kenya for?
NJ– I was there for 2 and a half weeks. Every couple of days we would move to a new town. We go from East to West in Kenya and basically covered the whole of Kenya in those 2 and a half weeks. We went to a lot of schools and orphanages. As a team of 8 volunteers, we helped out over 3000 children and introduced them to this game of cricket. We trained about 200 teachers too. The aim was to make a sustainable message that the teachers can then teach the students about the message of HIV prevention, and it can spread just like that.
SJ– Cricket Without Boundaries initiative- does it have other offshoots in other parts of Africa as well, like how you did in Kenya? Or, does Alt Cricket or anybody who you know is already involved in these things?
NJ– There are projects in Kenya, Rwanda, Cameroon and Uganda. During my trip, there were a couple of people following me and read about my tour diary from Kenya and got really interested in that. A couple of weeks ago, they did a trip to Uganda. You can see the impact. Even one person going there and publicising it is good. There were 3 people, who collected money for Cricket Without Boundaries and the cumulative effect is great. I know that with all my friends and family who saw stories that I had showed them when I came back, a lot of them got activated in charity mode after I came back and were very enthusiastic. The sort of message that I came back with was about small kindnesses that you can do to people who have nothing in Kenya. We went to the most remote villages imaginable, where you have children running away because they have never seen a white person or a brown person before. Even if you gave them a packet of crisps, and seeing how you want to help someone, they appreciate you in a way that we don’t in a privileged bubble over here.
SJ– That is wonderful work. I hope you will continue doing it. Do you have other projects on Alt Cricket’s horizons?
NJ– I am trying to couple my medical career, even though it is very nascent now, with cricket. Essentially, Cricket Without Boundaries ethos are completely shared by us right now, keep working with them and do future trips with them. Also, other things that I will really like to do with Alt Cricket is a blood donation drive, especially in India. We have a lot of followers there. There is a huge opportunity there. There is huge demands there for blood in India. There is a huge opportunity. People are willing to do things when they know the process and know why you need to donate blood. That is something that we can do on a larger scale.
Right now, I am trying to sort out the logistics of that.
SJ– That is really wonderful. You mentioned you, AltCricket, having a huge number of followers, out of which plenty of them are cricket celebrities, players. I want to talk to you about it a little bit. Through AltCricket twitter feed, you have a fair bit of piss-take as well. Has there been a situation where somebody took offense, or are the cricketers pretty easy going?
NJ– That has been something that I have been pleasantly surprised by in the last couple of years. We are very lucky that we have actually got a lot of cricket following. We are among the few cricket accounts that seems to be legitimized by the following of cricketers and cricket coaches as well. That is really heartening. I have had cricketers and coaches asking me questions, asking me, basically a stranger to them. It is a big privilege for me to be talking to them. It was something that I wouldn’t even have imagined about a couple of years ago. It feels comfortable to me to be talking to them.
You mentioned piss-takes. Cricketers are surprisingly easy going when it comes to that. Everybody that I have talked to, said that the reason that they follow us in the first place is for the alternative view point that we offered, satirical view point that actually challenges peoples’ belief. It is very different from the anodyne things you get to hear otherwise, like the BCCI commentary for example, which kisses the feet of cricketers, Indian cricketers at least. I will be happy indiscriminately taking a piss out of anybody who deserves it. It is all tongue in cheek. There is never any malice. That is where we have matured in the past year as well. Cricketers have told me that they really enjoy what we do, and it is legitimized the whole process. A lot of them are interested in the piss-taking, and also what we are doing in terms of blood donation and things like that. Hopefully, with that sort of cricket presence, a lot of people can get on board.
SJ– That is good to know. But, you must be getting your fair share of abuse from fans. You were probably one of the three people that followed the Bangladesh Premier League. So, you got a fair share of tongue in cheek moments about BPL. Did you get any abuse from them? Did you get called names?
NJ– They called me plenty of names. It is pretty much unrepeatable on esteemed podcasts like this. I get my fair share of abuse on twitter and my websites, and in emails as well. i lost track of the number of death threats that I received over email. It is kind of scary. When I told my parents about it just casually, “Did you see this? This is the sort of response I am getting sometimes.” They were like “Oh, no! You shouldn’t write that. You have to be nice to every one. You have to keep everyone happy. You have to go to the police.” At the end of the day, if I get murdered because I write about whether Sachin Tendulkar should retire or not, then I just hope I am appreciated after it.
SJ– Where do you see AltCricket, the whole enterprise, going?
NJ– As I alluded to before, we want to be a sort of charitable tour de force, that is the movement that we are going for. Our whole ethos is “just do good and have a bloody good time doing it”. And have a laugh. Our trip to Kenya just reinforced all of my values. When you are speaking to someone in a language that they don’t understand, the only language that is universal is laughter. The one way you can communicate with everyone is through laughter. It touches the most raw human nerve and it is something that everybody in the whole world actually shares. It is laughter whether you go to Kenya, Australia, India or anywhere around the world. One thing that you share as one stranger to another, is laughter. I don’t know how many years on earth, maybe 80-90 if you are lucky on this planet, Why don’t you do most of your time on this planet doing the stuff that you enjoy the most and if you think about it, the one thing that makes people happy the most is laughter.
The whole movement is to get more and more people laughing and smiling. We mentioned it before, the majority of the feedback is positive. Many people say that they enjoy the stories and laughed out loud over it. How many articles did you read today, on cricket, football, news, that you read today, how many times have you actually laughed out loud? Why don’t you spend the majority of your time laughing as much as you can? That is one half of my aim – to make people happy, even though it is as naive as it sounds.
The other half is our charitable aspect. It is all about small kindnesses, even on the basic, family level-your brother, sister, father, mother, friends, who we meet on day-to-day basis, to try and get more people to do small kindnesses for other people, sort of “Pay it forward”.. You can see the cumulative impact that it has. I am lucky enough to have gone to Kenya and seen the impact that I have just had doing just the little things to make the kids feel better. For example, just giving a packet of crisps to one kid and seeing that child actually share his packet of crisps with 10 others. Even if it doesn’t feed them for the whole day, it makes their next ten minutes. They can go back to their parents at the end of the day and say that “this big, tall stranger came out of nowhere and gave me some food today. I really enjoyed it and it made me happy.” It is doing that kind of thing, the small kindnesses that have a lot more profound impact. That is what we try to promote, the hidden aspects of doing good, to be honest.
SJ– That is really wonderful, Nishant. Thanks a lot for spending time with me this weekend.
NJ– It is great to talk to you after quite a while, Subash.
SJ– Thanks a lot.
NJ– Thanks for having me on the show!
Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman