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A Lesson for India’s Superstar Cricketers: Commentators Are Not Cheerleaders

Indian commentators have largely been reverential when talking about players. But that's not their job.

Sanjay Manjrekar, in his Twitter bio, jokingly says he has spent more years talking about cricket than he did playing. In his job as a broadcaster, Manjrekar was never a natural. But a fine command over the English language and a sound technical understanding of the game helped him stay afloat despite his commentary being fairly bland and monotonous. Gradually though, he made it far and is now one of the more familiar names in cricket broadcasting.

Nobody in their right mind would call Manjrekar a particularly likeable commentator. He does not possess any attributes to add substantially to one’s viewing experience. There is nothing really that stands out about him, except the very un-Indian characteristic of calling a spade a spade, something the highly pampered current Indian players cannot warm up to.

Ravindra Jadeja has played over 150 one-day internationals. His career numbers, both with the bat and ball, read modestly. Ever since India opted for a clear tilt towards wrist spin in ODIs, Jadeja has been viewed as a back-up, defensive option, and retains his place in the squad in no small part due to his athletic presence on the field.

Considering his limited ability with the bat in this format, it is hardly outrageous to call him a bits-and-pieces cricketer who does not merit selection purely based on either skill. But this piece of criticism was enough for Jadeja to be riled up and vent his frustrations at Manjrekar in a discourteously worded tweet. That the tweet has not yet been taken down indicates that it was not posted in reactionary haste, but instead was a well-deliberated retort.

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Jadeja questioned Manjrekar’s credentials and his right to criticise a cricketer with a longer and more accomplished career. Such ad hominem attacks are not uncommon in cricket’s popular discourse. It is assumed players with a superior track record are necessarily better at understanding the sport, compared to those who failed to make it big. It is strange, therefore, that teams rarely hesitate in hiring the services of professional coaches who have little to boast of from their playing career.

India’s current assistant coaches, Sanjay Bangar and Bharat Arun, have earned 14 test caps between them. Surely that has never proved to be a hindrance in players affording them their due respect. The contempt for external criticism, however, stems from a culture that guards players in near complete insulation. Indian cricketers rarely interact with the media, outside the board’s broadcasting partners Star Sports.

The Star network, in its obvious business interests, maintains a highly reverential and deferential tone when talking about players. Star Sports even supplements the board’s PR budget to a great extent. Excessive coverage of players’ lives, travels and training routines feeds into their God complex. In an ecosystem committed to inflating players’ egos, even the mildest amount of criticism feels problematic.

During India’s tour to South Africa in 2018, a lot of questions were raised on team selection for the first two tests. After a consolation win in the third test, Indian coach Ravi Shastri in his press conference personally asked for ESPNCricinfo journalist Siddharth Monga, ridiculing the critical tone of Monga’s earlier writings. Former Indian captain M.S. Dhoni in 2016 had endorsed a tweet by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan that questioned the loyalty of Indian commentators. Days later, the very popular Harsha Bhogle did not land a customary commentary stint during that year’s Indian Premier League.

On most days, Bhogle comes across as a frustratingly diplomatic and safe commentator. He rarely has a definite answer to a pointed question and never treads on anything uncomfortable. Any objective viewer of the game would find him a little too acquiescent. In an environment, therefore, where even Bhogle is deemed a dissident, players taking scathing criticism from someone like Manjrekar on their chin is out of the question.

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Cricket fans at large are generally opposed to Manjrekar’s commentary, primarily due to its insipidness and his glaring fixation on players from Mumbai. This image doesn’t help when players unfairly take a swipe at him for doing the job he is paid to. Jadeja is in some rich company at making his disliking for Manjrekar public. Not too long ago, Sourav Ganguly took to Twitter implying Manjrekar sought attention in a negative way. The great Sachin Tendulkar has expressed his displeasure at Manjrekar’s opinions, which he felt were a deliberate attempt to be different.

Ironically enough, Tendulkar himself had to recently contend with the other side of this culture when he faced enormous flak for bluntly calling out Dhoni’s underwhelming returns with the bat. And if Tendulkar isn’t safe, it is safe to say no one really is. But as far as Manjrekar is concerned, this is not the first time he is at the receiving end of this. As expected, he has chosen not to indulge Jadeja and handled the episode rather gracefully.

In addition to Manjrekar, there are a number of other commentators who are excellent at their job despite not having an illustrious career to speak of. In fact, the likes of Ian Bishop, Simon Doull and Michael Atherton are among the best in the business. Unlike the superstars of yore, this bunch realises they have not landed this job on the back of their tall reputations, and take it much more seriously. Their analyses is far more fact-oriented and relies little on anecdotes and rhetoric. And if fans expect more incisive and honest opinions on live broadcast, it is important to have their back when over-entitled players call for them to fall in line.

In a 2018 essay, Ramachandra Guha had provided an elaborate account of Indian cricket’s superstar syndrome. The stronghold of players in the dressing room needs no further explanation after a former legend was ousted as the head coach at the captain’s insistence. But if the same sense of entitlement extends to expecting the media and commentators to act pliant, then the players badly need a reality check.