By acceding to the implication that they must wave the tricolour and emphasise their patriotism at every turn, journalists lower the tenor of discussion over India’s most popular sport, and in particular, its administration.
There is some irony to be found in the presumed reason for the sacking of commentator Harsha Bhogle from the IPL. While the BCCI has not deigned to tell us why – and to be fair, they are not obliged to – it is presumed the board was unhappy because Bhogle did not beat the BCCI drum loudly enough or consistently enough.
It is ironic because along with his Mumbai mates Sunil Gavaskar (who is also being dropped when his contract ends, we are told) and Ravi Shastri, Bhogle has been the greatest ambassador of the BCCI over the air waves.
In a fraternity populated by inarticulate former players, who are innocent of both the English language and sometimes even technical knowledge of the game, Bhogle stood out as the everyman who spoke easily and naturally, often having to hide his superior knowledge in order not to embarrass the player-commentator. Above all, he brought to his job an enthusiasm that was not dulled by repetition.
As the BCCI paid their salaries, commentators were forced to show restraint. The year the IPL match-fixing story broke, you wouldn’t have heard of it in the match commentary. In the Shangri-la that is the commentary box, it was always the best of all possible worlds – nothing bad ever happened. It’s a wonder a dropped catch got any mention at all!
When Lalit Modi was monarch of all he surveyed, he had to be on screen at irregular intervals. Shastri even called him ‘Moses’ on television, presumably because he was the one who articulated the commandments, the chief of them being ‘Thou shalt not criticise the BCCI.”
Bhogle went along with that. Just as he went along with the idea of being a Mumbai Indians official when the IPL was young and his word as a journalist carried weight. There is something about doing commentary for the BCCI that tends to sandpaper any criticism. That is the way the Board wants it. It hires professionals and then refuses to let them be professional. If you accept the job, you have to accept what comes with it.
Bhogle has been a good friend for over a quarter century, as are all other commentators whose matches I have reported over the years. But I still think it is a problem when heavyweights like Gavaskar and Bhogle don’t think it important to fight for independence and to voice their opinions, borne out of experience, on air. But choosing not to fight, they merely perpetuate a system where he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is a version of the criticism that some of India’s top cricketers copped for remaining silent in the days when the BCCI was dragging Indian cricket through the mud, which forced the Supreme Court to step in.
As a friend and someone who has reported cricket with Bhogle for over a quarter century, I sympathise with him. He deserves better than this; an explanation at the very least. But having allowed the board to call the shots all these years, he finds himself in an awkward position.
Three random events
But the support he has received on social media has been touching. In the public’s perception of the issue, three Bs – Bhogle, BCCI and (Amitabh) Bachchan – appear to have come together in an unlikely configuration. Further, cause and effect have been seen in random events – three events that may or may not be connected – even as the BCCI remains mum and Bhogle remains in the dark.
Is a casual tweet by Bachchan – where he lamented that an Indian commentator (not Gavaskar and not Sanjay Manjrekar, as clarified by the film star) was not avidly jingoistic during the World T20 – so powerful? When did a celebrity who often complains about Twitter trolls turn into one himself? And why this forced subtlety?
A second random event was the apparent endorsement of Bachchan’s tweet by Indian captain M. S. Dhoni, who retweeted Bachchan’s comments with a cryptic “Nothing to add.”
A kerfuffle with a BCCI official in Nagpur about keeping a door open so Bhogle would not have to rush up and down stairs between the English and Hindi commentary boxes was the third random event.
Each by itself hardly constitutes a reason for sending a senior, much-liked commentator packing. Together they appear even less than the sum of their parts. A “senior” board official is reported to have said that the BCCI follows public opinion. If this were true, the Supreme Court and Justice R.M. Lodha would not have had to enter the cricketing picture at all.
The BCCI way of commentating
So where does this leave us? With a lot of doubt. But what can be said with certainty is this:
The BCCI lacks the basic courtesy to inform a long-term employee of the reasons for keeping him out of the IPL. Bhogle is not the first employee to discover this. Coaches and players have often complained that they heard of their sacking from the media.
It is never a good idea for a journalist to stifle criticism if your paymaster decides against you anyway.
Bachchan has the right to say what he wants, even if his understanding of the difference between objectivity and chauvinism is limited.
If Dhoni was speaking on behalf of the players, he too has the right to an opinion, even if he is shooting from Bachchan’s shoulders. But “nothing to add” could mean he really has nothing to add.
The BCCI’s insistence on not just having the cake and eating it too but denying everybody else access to the oven, is an old tradition.
It all comes back to that old problem – conflict of interest. The BCCI seems to think it owns the game and therefore everything connected with it, including the commentators. It sees nothing wrong in the national captain insulting a visiting media person who asked a legitimate question about his retirement. A version of “Bharat mata ki Jai” is implied in the captain’s reaction to a question asked by another journalist about the closeness of the result against Bangladesh in the T20 World Cup.
The implication that journalists must wave the tricolour and emphasise their patriotism at every turn is the Bachchan formula, the Dhoni charter and the BCCI prescription. By acceding to this, journalists lower the tenor of discussion over India’s most popular sport, and in particular, its administration. I am sorry for Bhogle, but he is paying the price for compromising with the BCCI over what in essence is the commentator’s right – the right to comment.
All this is, of course, assuming that the BCCI is unhappy with him for something as silly as not singing its praises every minute of a match day. The public may not have a right to know (if a cricket writer is sacked from his newspaper, I don’t think the public should expect to know why), but that the right is exercised over this issue is a tribute to Bhogle’s hold over the public imagination. And perhaps its heart.
Suresh Menon is editor at Wisden India Almanack.