“Virat ke tevar maano sone ke zevar.”

“Suresh Raina, aapka kya kehna!”

“Inke paas hai chaabi agar aapke paas hai taala. Kamaal kar dala, Junior Dala.”

You might think these are comments plucked out of a family WhatsApp group during Indian cricket matches. While that may be the case, these quotes were actually picked up from the Hindi commentary during India’s tour of South Africa.

Depending on your taste for humour, these comments may make you chuckle or cringe but if purely television viewership numbers are to go by, India just loves Hindi commentary.

The Hindi channels of India’s two biggest sports networks – Star Sports and Sony Sports – have both outstripped their respective English counterparts during the marquee series against Australia and South Africa recently. Have a look at these charts of viewership data from the two series:

These numbers should not really be surprising. While India claims to be the world’s second-largest English-speaking country, with 12.5 crore people speaking the language, that’s still only 10% of its population.

According to the 2001 Census, 42.2 crore Indians speak Hindi or one of its dialects. That’s more than 40% of the country’s total population. Unfortunately, an official language survey after the 2001 census is still not available.

Hindi is spoken and understood widely in states such as Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The number of Hindi-speaking people, coupled with the fact that there are 18.3 crore homes in India that have at least one television – according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Broadcast Audience Research Council – gives you a picture of the reach of Hindi commentary. Television penetration in the country jumped from 54% in 2013 to 64% in 2016, according to the same survey.

Late to the party

Come to think of it, Indian sports networks have been quite late in realising the potential of Hindi commentary. While public broadcaster Doordarshan has always had Hindi commentary ever since the eighties when it first started showing live sport, it was never a full-fledged operation.

Doordarshan’s sports coverage has had either one English and one Hindi commentator speaking together, which resulted in many things being repeated in either language, or half an hour of English followed by half an hour of Hindi.

The first private sports channel to come to India after the liberalisation of the economy in 1991 was Prime Sports – an American sports channel that Star, which used to run out of Hong Kong at the time, got into a tie-up with in 1993. “Prime Sports used to have Hindi commentary for some of the international events they were showing,” said senior media professional and entrepreneur Charu Sharma.

ESPN Asia, based in Singapore, also started broadcasting in India around the same time Prime Sports came together with Star. Both Star and ESPN started experimenting with Hindi commentary from their respective studios based outside India.

“They were in fact scouring India for commentators who they were contracting on a long-term basis to do Hindi commentary, because English commentary was coming through the world feed anyway,” said Sharma, who was contracted with Prime Sports at the time.

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After Prime Sports’ contract with Star ended sometime in 1996, the company rebranded their 24-hour sports channel as Star Sports. In late 1996, ESPN and Star decided to form a joint venture called ESPN Star Sports, which again began to experiment with Hindi commentary for a few series here and there.

However, Hindi commentary never really took off at the time because the owners of both Star and ESPN did not understand the language. “The owners did not know what the hell the Hindi commentators were saying. Sadly, therefore, it stuttered and stopped in the late nineties,” said Sharma. “The Hindi commentators who had been hired on long-term contracts were left high and dry.”

Hindi commentary only received a shot in the arm when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp decided to buy out ESPN’s 50% stake in the joint venture in 2012. The sports network, now rebranded Star Sports again, moved its setup to India and also acquired the broadcast rights for the Indian cricket team’s home matches till March 2018 for Rs 3,851 crore.

It was then that Star decided to launch India’s first 24x7 Hindi sports channel. Star decided to take the plunge into Hindi after seeing a steady decline in cricket viewership year on year even though the popularity of the game wasn’t necessarily diminishing, according to a company spokesperson.

After conducting a qualitative and quantitative research at the time, Star concluded that cricket was losing traction because television penetration was growing in India. “While the sport still remained popular, as television grew beyond the metros, as we see in entertainment we were beginning to see in sport that people were gravitating away from single-language content to languages of their choice,” the spokesperson said.

“What was happening with sport in general but more so cricket at that point was that the game was losing viewership to Hindi general entertainment channels and Hindi movie channels,” the spokesperson added.

Even before the Hindi channel was launched, Star had roped in Australian cricket legend Shane Warne to do a promo regarding Hindi commentary being available for the marquee India-England Test series in late 2012. “Jo baat Hindi mein hai, kisi aur mein nahi,” Warne said in the promo, in his Australian accent.

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However, there was a major challenge lying ahead. The sub-optimal Hindi commentary that had been available on Indian television for years had created a perception that the language was a downgrade, or a step-child of the English variant.

Changing perceptions

In a bid to attract Hindi-speaking audiences, Star initially loaded the commentary box with big names such as Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, and Shoaib Akhtar, who had a good command over the language, but then later also added cricketers such as VVS Laxman, Sunil Gavaskar and Sourav Ganguly who clearly struggled.

“I often ask people in Star why are people like me, Gavaskar and Laxman are doing Hindi commentary,” said senior cricket broadcaster and writer Harsha Bhogle. “We should not be doing Hindi. We were told that the Hindi audience has never had quality commentators speaking to them. So, they didn’t mind if the Hindi commentary came from non-Hindi-speaking people, but they wanted good views to reach the audience. That was the turning point.”

Typically in a commentary box, there are three types of commentators: the storyteller, who needs to have a great command over the language because they are responsible for calling the game, describing the on-field action and cueing the conversation (examples: Aakash Chopra, Deep Dasgupta, Saba Karim); the analyst, which is someone who is good with the language but is better with his analysis of the game (examples: RP Singh, Mohammad Kaif); and finally the expert, which is normally someone with serious India creds, such as Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, and Laxman, but does not necessarily have to be fluent in the language.

Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag doing Hindi commentary during the India-Australia ODI series in 2017 (Image: Star Sports)
Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag doing Hindi commentary during the India-Australia ODI series in 2017 (Image: Star Sports)

Is this an ideal scenario? Far from it. You will hardly find an English feed with commentators who are not fluent in the language, but there is no such diktat in Hindi. Aakash Chopra, who started commentating in 2013 almost exclusively in Hindi and whose command of the language is one of the best found in an Indian commentary box, believes it’s a start.

“Eventually the language has to be respected and it has to go to that professional level where a non-neutral accent, or a wrong pronunciation of words, or wrong grammar is not acceptable,” he said.

Chopra believes Hindi broadcasting will soon reach that no-nonsense stage when such things are not negotiable. “I think we are all striving to be there eventually,” he said. “I work on my Hindi, others must be too. I know people who take tuitions in Hindi because it is not their first language.”

One of the ways this matter could also be addressed is if networks picked commentators from outside the realm of former cricketers but that is something even the English feed seems to be avoiding over the last few years.

Bhogle, one of the few remaining commentators left in world cricket who haven’t played for their country, does not see the trend changing. “Picking only former cricketers is something I have never agreed with but unfortunately every time I say it I get the impression I am protecting my constituency,” he said.

“We only search in a batting/bowling average pool. Luckily with Hindi, a lot of the players [who take up commentary] speak the language naturally. We are getting good storytellers coming in Hindi as well. But someone like me could never get a break in Hindi today,” he added.

Chopra, who played 10 Tests for India, agrees that if somebody is good with the language and their knowledge of the game, it isn’t necessary for them to have played for the country or at any level for that matter. “If someone like Harsha can do it in English, somebody else can do it in Hindi as well,” he said.

Earthy idiom

One of the other distinguishing factors in Hindi commentary is its tone, which is very distinct from the English feed. “What has changed is that the idiom is very earthy, very Indian,” said Bhogle. “I find when I’m doing Hindi I’m getting a lot of references from Hindi cinema.”

Sample some of these comments heard in Hindi commentary (none of which are Bhogle’s words):

“Badi screen par Chulbul Pandey aur cricket ke maidaan par Manish Pandey – dono hi ‘Dabangg’.”

“Hanumanji ke baad Lanka ko sabse jyada pareshaan karne wale Rohit Sharmaji hi hai.”

“Rohit Shetty ki movies mein gaadi aur Rohit Sharma ki batting me ball kabhi zameen par nahi dikhai dete.”

Such references are not restricted to the Hindi feed alone. In May last year, Star Sports launched India’s first Tamil sports channel, whose modus operandi is similar to its Hindi counterpart. Star even roped in one of Chennai’s most popular radio jockeys, RJ Balaji, and trained him in cricket commentary.

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“We felt he understood the texture and vibe of the state a lot better than the traditional Tamil commentators who had done either IPL or Tamil radio commentary,” a Star India spokesperson said. “What he brought with him was a certain grammar that was truly local and truly relevant to the youth who were discussing cricket.”

Senior sports presenter and commentator Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan, who works for Star Sports Tamil, said that regional language feeds give you a lot more freedom in erms of the way you go about having a discussion.

“If I am doing a show with Kris Srikkanth and S Badrinath, for example, the kind of cricket that you discuss is one thing, which is universal,” he said. But the way you connect with the society in Tamil Nadu is completely different.

“We can drift into, say, film-related stuff. We can imitate a few one-liners or comic sequences from movies that people are able to associate to.”

Commentary on Star Sports Tamil has a lot more humour compared to the English feed, said Sreenivasan, who has presented and done commentary on sports shows in English since 2002. But what about substance? Are regional language feeds in India all about former cricketers having a laugh with each other, quoting local movie dialogues and making obnoxious puns?

Sreenivasan thinks regional feeds have a good mix of both humour and substance. But while English commentary sometimes comes across very formal, regional languages manage to get the audience into the discussion a lore more, he added.

Regional feeds lend themselves to a far more colourful narrative than English does because of the earthy idiom, but Bhogle believes they must guard against a scenario where anything goes.

“A lot of people seem to let their hair down a bit in Hindi,” he said. “They seem to relax a bit more, be a lot chattier. I think it started with the feeling that, in English, you’ve got to be ‘correct’ but anything goes in Hindi. I think that is changing now because that is a very dangerous platform to live on – ‘Hindi hai, kuch bhi chalta hai’.”

Bhogle also believes regional feeds also run the risk of becoming a little cosy club where people are talking to each other and not to the audience. “At all times a broadcaster speaks to the audience, not to his colleagues only,” he said.

Hindi commentary also needs some really strong and tough producers who can rap the star commentators on their knuckles when they stray off course, added Bhogle. “With the stars coming into the commentary box, the producers are getting very weak. All the young producers coming in are so much in awe of the broadcaster that they don’t realise they should be as good in their profession as the commentators or the cricketers are in theirs,” he said.

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Whether it is a result of commentary being a lot chattier and colourful in the regional feeds, Chopra thinks there is definitely a stereotype in the broadcast industry that the Hindi audience is not interested in the technicalities of sport. “I cringe when I think about that stereotype,” he said.

“When I do certain things for certain organisations, the feedback I usually get is that the Hindi audience is not interested in hard-core cricket, and the fans don’t really care about things like whether the head is in the right position or not.

“I say to them, ‘How do you know that? Don’t assume. If you never give it to them how will you know whether they like it or not? Give it to them and allow them to reject it.’”

One of the other criticisms of regional language sports feeds is that the content and commentary heavily favours the local team, whether it is India in Hindi or the Chennai Super Kings in Tamil.

Star Sports agreed that the English feed tends to be more neutral or balanced than its regional ones, saying it was a deliberate tactic. “One of the distinctions that we make is that we try to be more balanced on the English feed in terms of our coverage of international, non-Indian players and topics,” their spokesperson said.

“In Hindi, we tend to be more skewed towards content of Indian relevance. If there is an English pre-show that Mayanti Langer is hosting with VVS Laxman, we will ensure that there will be a foreign expert as well. The Hindi show will have only Indian voices and no international experts. Thus, the content tends to be skewed towards India a lot more.”

However, Star disagreed that the regional feeds were not up to the mark with respect to substance. “The fundamental principles are the same,” the Star spokesperson said. “The last thing we wanted was for the Hindi feed to be frivolous, which is why you haven’t seen Navjot Singh Sidhu on our channel for the last three years. We’ve tried to ensure that the narrative and conversation on the Hindi channel is up to the mark.”

Whether it’s Star or Sony, Hindi or Tamil, it’s working. Star Sports Tamil contributed to 69% of the average impressions gathered by the network during the India-Sri Lanka ODI series last year. During the T20Is, it was 67%. Star Sports also plans to launch a Kannada sports channel soon.

And it’s not going to stop just there. The Indian Premier League in April and May this year will be broadcast in six different languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali – by Star Sports. The Field tried getting the inputs of Sony Pictures Sports Network, which also has a Hindi sports channel, for this story but the company refused to comment.

English has traditionally been the language of cricket commentary in India, but that is fast changing. English commentary will continue to be followed in metropolitan cities where the language is spoken widely. But as cricket slowly spreads across the country along with television, it’s inevitable that viewers will prefer to watch the sport with commentary in the language they have grown up speaking.

The potential to expand sports coverage into other Indian languages is immense but, as mentioned by Bhogle, Chopra and Co it comes with its own challenges and teething problems. Hindi, which has a four-year head-start over Tamil and other languages needs to pave the way. Once some good storytellers come in, and broadcasters begin tightening the screws with respect to the tone of the conversations taking place on air, there’s no reason why regional language feeds can become even better than the English world feed.