The obvious flashpoint was the DRS controversy in Bengaluru which saw both captains, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, fail to keep up their best behaviour.
What is sport for? More to the point: who is it for? It is a question that has been worth asking in the past few weeks. As the media circus around the India-Australia Test series has rolled on, one has wondered if actual action on the field is not enough. Ironically, it seems like the wrong time to ask the question as the series has set high standards for competitiveness and quality cricket. Yet, the contest at times seemed like an afterthought.
The fire has been fanned by both players and journalists but it is the latter’s reactions which have aroused greater contempt. Mediapersons and experts in both camps have dug deep into their hyperbole basket and offered us their most egregious produce. The whirlwinds that are social media platforms have ensured that the opinions and ‘think-pieces’ have found their way to you – even when you would rather just watch the cricket.
Like the memorable Test match in Bangalore, there have been twists and dramatic reactions. But in the latter case, they are best overlooked. However, it became impossible to ignore the vitriol and ill-will once they made their way to the on-field action. The hullabaloo has gone beyond the hankerings of a few individuals.
The obvious flashpoint was the DRS controversy in Bengaluru which saw both captains, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, fail to keep up their best behaviour. While Smith was guilty of trying to mend the rules in his favour, Kohli followed that up by laying an unsubstantiated charge at his door. The debate ever since has been charged and polarising.
Yet, was it a fire waiting to burn anyway? The official broadcaster Star Sports employed the execrable ‘BullyTheBully’ hashtag to popularise this series much before the first ball was bowled. The abominable wordplay aside, there is only one team and its board that is commonly regarded as a bully in international cricket circles these days. Clue: The answer is not Australia.
While fawning adoration of Indian cricketers is a regular feature, the partisan coverage was ramped up during the Ranchi Test. The hysteria was enacted almost on cue. It culminated in an embarrassing incident for Star, though, when it twisted a screen grab to accuse Steve Smith of taunting Virat Kohli for his injured shoulder. It later transpired that the hand on the Australian skipper’s shoulder was that of his teammate, Peter Handscomb (no pun intended). The selective image actively misled not just the viewers but the former cricketers on the channel’s expert panel. Little sweat was expended in raining condemnation over Smith’s “inappropriate action.” Bully the bully? Not quite.
But the feeling’s mutual Down Under. Ever since the DRS controversy flared up, there have been numerous pieces that have let all restraint go. The cake probably goes to Ben Horne of The Daily Telegraph for calling Virat Kohli the “Donald Trump of world sport”. While Kohli’s words on the DRS controversy are yet to be backed with evidence, calling him Trump is to go for a lazy analogy that does not even hold up. The Indian captain could be accused of lacking restraint in his dealings with the press but it is nothing more than a foible. Grand accusations need to take a holiday.
To counter the provocative propaganda published in Australian newspapers, Indian journalists have also let the veneer of objectivity slip. Mumbai Mirror and the Times of India published reports that rested on unverifiable claims. Both accounts accused the Australian team management of colluding with visiting journalists to “plant stories”. If anything, the reports in these newspapers seemed planted. Retaliatory action does not constitute news reporting.
But such is the force of the media circus that players have been forced to respond to the wild speculations going around in public. Indeed, words have been exchanged through the medium of press conferences since the final day of the Bengaluru Test. Kohli’s patience deserted him once again when he was asked in Ranchi about Australians mocking him for his shoulder injury.
“It’s funny all our guys (Indian media) ask about cricket as the first thing and you (Australian journalist) ask about something controversial.” The preface to his answer indicated that Kohli is not too keen on letting the charged atmosphere cool down anytime soon. Faced with a cohort of Indian journalists who are more than willing to lap up his every statement, this could be seen as a gambit to manipulate the media.
Manipulation, however, is not meant as a snide criticism of the Indian skipper here. It is a trait that leaders actively aim to nurture as they want their carefully designed comments to direct the media narrative. Lately, few international contests have aroused the kind of sharp exchanges this series has seen. In some senses, the needle in the current contest evokes reminders of the emotionally fraught 2007-2008 India tour of Australia, which saw the infamous ‘Monkeygate’ episode.
Faced with a tough competitor, Kohli is actively engaging in the game of one-upmanship. While Australia has hit back on the field, the narrative off-the-field has largely been set by the Indian skipper. To see whether this bears fruit, we will have to wait for the result in the Dharamshala Test, which begins on March 25.
In the meantime, the cheerleading is set to continue unabated. The commentary box is also a victim of this malaise. Indian commentators, who have no qualms in sporting shirts that carry the BCCI logo, have been found to lecture the Australian media for promoting the national team’s interests. The likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar have gradually shed every strip of the credibility that had been carefully acquired during their playing days. Theirs is an old boys club.
In the days following the DRS controversy, former Indian cricketers across the board jumped to the captain’s defence while employing their worn out accusations of Australian double standards. When in doubt, Indian commentators often ask the question that evokes a thousand cries: Since they did it when they were powerful, why can’t we?
Their Australian counterparts have not seemed out of place in the commentary box, though. Their stints with Channel Nine back home reproduce many of the same failures. Restrained commentary is not for gushing fans. The majority of these ex-cricketers would not seem out of place among hysterical spectators in the stands.
With little room for nuanced takes in newsrooms, commentary boxes and expert discussions, it is worth asking whether the sport is played so that everyone can get on with the real thing – name calling, exhilarating speculation and partisanship. The media circus rivals actual sport in the dramatic narratives it creates. The real thing exists so that the narrative economy of sport can chug along at full speed.
If there is a respite from the hysteria, it is yet to show its head. Journalists and experts will continue to fall for the easy stories as a means to raising the entertainment quotient of sporting contests. The spectacle is everything. In keeping with the times: here a quote from a different context, and hopefully it says something about what is being discussed here. Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, “The fact is that a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle must know how to bide its time.”
Until then, we could watch the magnificent cricket on offer as a wholly satisfying contest nears its conclusion. But perhaps we will appreciate it only after we have decided which captain’s soul has been hijacked by the devil.