“Sometimes you feel in your country, people are happy when you lose.”
The above comment, made by India’s head coach Ravi Shastri during an interview with Mid-Day shortly after the team returned home following a triumphant tour of South Africa, made headlines across Indian media.
If it wasn’t clear already that there is an “us against the world” siege mentality building within the Indian cricket camp, there isn’t a shred of doubt now. And if you were to put a number to the “people” referred to by Shastri in his comment, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that nine out of 10 of them were journalists.
Shastri’s barb was the latest in a series of scornful remarks made during the series, in which India lost two out of three Tests but won seven out of nine limited-overs matches to end the tour on a high. India captain Virat Kohli had also been in a rather volatile mood during his press conferences, snapping back at journalists who had posed difficult questions when the team lost the first two Tests and then being dismissive when the tide was turned.
The Indian team’s demeanour towards media personnel on the South African tour “has been a departure from set protocol”, wrote freelance journalist Chetan Narula in a piece for The Field. To someone on the outside, it almost seems as if the Indian cricketers and the media are in the midst of an ugly rift.
Is that really the case? And if so, how did things get so bad? To understand this, let’s trace the relationship between Indian cricketers and the media over the last three decades.
The good old days
Journalists who started covering Indian cricket in the eighties reminisce about a different era – one where the cricketers and reporters wined and dined together, one where journalists could criticise the players but still earn their respect.
“I was fortunate because I was doing journalism in an era when the players used to respect journalists,” said Vijay Lokapally of The Hindu, who has been covering cricket since 1981. “The players acknowledged your contribution and you developed a friendship with them. We could take pride in the fact that we knew each other. We would visit each other’s homes too. Our relationship was like the one you would have with your colleagues in any other profession.”
One of the main reasons why it was possible to maintain such a relationship was because there weren’t too many journalists covering Indian cricket at the time, especially on international tours. On average there used to be five-to-six journalists travelling with the team for overseas tours and perhaps double the number during home series.
In comparison, there were at least 100 Indian media persons in Australia for the 2015 World Cup, including reporters, photographers and videographers, according to estimates. In 2016, the BCCI accredited more than 4,500 journalists.
Because there were so few cricket journalists in the eighties, along with the fact that the sport was not there on Indian televisions at the time, the written word in the newspapers was very important for the players. “If a certain journalist who was a regular cricket writer would praise a cricketer, it would have an impact,” said Pradeep Magazine, who was the national sports editor for the Hindustan Times.
Even when the players were criticised by the media, they would show their resentment for a while but eventually get on with it.
“Some took criticism sportingly, some would make faces and get down to accepting it after a couple of days,” said Lokapally. “I’ve had my arguments and run-downs with many players, but I stuck to what I was doing. They also came to realise that it was nothing personal.”
A lot also depended on how the media criticised the players – how the questions were phrased and what kind of language was used in the reports. “Eventually, we would come down to understanding each other’s roles,” Lokapally added.
After conceding the Test series at Centurion, Kohli had snapped back at both Indian and South African journalists who had questioned his team selection policies. Compare that with the eighties, when certain players who would even consult journalists on matters such as team selection, according to Magazine.
Press conferences did not exist back then. In fact, journalists in the eighties would not even want to interact with cricketers or get their quotes after every match. “The readers would value what you had written about the match,” said Magazine. “Today, even opinions of former cricketers are not valued because so many of them write sponsored columns.”
The relationship between the cricketers and the journalists started to change in the nineties, when India’s economy was liberalised and the sport began to appear frequently on television with the entry of private channels – both sport and news. The media boom also led to an increase in the number of journalists covering cricket, which with the entry of players such as Sachin Tendulkar had become part of the national conversation.
As a result, players had to make choices in terms of which journalist(s) they wanted to stay in touch with as it wouldn’t have been possible for them to have a close or healthy relationship with everyone.
With more and more people watching the game, the impact of the written word also began diminishing. Soon, editors began to demand more from their journalists than just about what had happened on the field, which was visible on TV anyway.
Journalists were forced to look for stories which are not necessarily related to the cricket. The BCCI also became a bit cautious because they wanted to protect the players from journalism where the focus was on off-field activities. This is when media managers were brought in by the board for the first time, in the early 2000s. “When cricketers become Page 3 celebrities, when their personal lives are written about, it’s bound to be messy,” said Magazine.
One of the biggest dents that the relationship between cricketers and the media took was around 2005-’06, when the rift between India captain Sourav Ganguly and head coach Greg Chappell began, according to a former BCCI official who did not wish to be named.
“That is the time when cricket journalists realised that there was an opportunity to create soap opera-like drama in cricket as well,” the official said. “Chappell used to write emails to senior journalists where he used to tell inside secrets of the team. The media was eating things out of his hands because it was the first time they were getting first-hand information from the dressing room.
“These kinds of things found their way back to the players and it did not take them long to realise that the media and Chappell were hurting their reputation,” the official added.
‘Match ke Mujrim’
In 2005, during Pakistan’s tour of India, Star News began airing a show called Match ke Mujrim, or Criminals of the Match, in the evening. The show featured a trial of Indian cricketers who, according to the channel, had not performed well on the day.
The show was shot in front of a live audience and featured a prosecution and a defence lawyer, who were both former India cricketers. The two would present their case to the viewers and ask them to vote via SMS as to who they thought was the criminal of the day.
“Despite vehement criticism in the media, the show generated a tremendous response for Star News,” wrote Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in their book India and the Olympics. “On the day India lost the Bangalore Test against Pakistan, it was staged live out of a public park in the city and more than 10,000 people turned up at the venue.”
That is when the lines were really drawn, the former BCCI official quoted earlier said. “How can you call someone a mujrim at the end of the match? There were young cricketers coming from small towns where everything on TV news channels is watched. Imagine a young Piyush Chawla living in Moradabad being called “Match ka Mujrim” on evening primetime TV. Then, you expect the guy to be cordial with the media?”
As a result, players began to distance themselves from the media. Because of the growth in the number of journalists and the kind of stories being done, access to cricketers also was restricted. No longer could journalists just walk up to the players to have a chat with them. They had to request the BCCI for an interview. Considering the growth in the number of journalists covering cricket, not all requests could be entertained.
“There was a time when there would be 50 media persons on a tour and each of them would want an exclusive interview or a meeting with a player,” said former BCCI media manager Amrit Mathur. “There has always been a gap between what the media wants and how much a player is willing to associate with them. The curiosity and requirements of the media have always been in excess of what a player can possibly engage.”
But those days are over now. Journalists hardly get exclusives and one-on-one interviews with Indian cricketers when on tour as the BCCI has put a lid on it. There are only official interactions, either with a sponsor or a broadcaster, or press conferences that are mandated by the International Cricket Council as match protocol. All this also allows the BCCI to control the message.
If cricketers are interviewing each other after a game - as they do on the BCCI website - are they likely to ask each other the tough questions? The BCCI and the players want positive coverage (who wouldn’t?) and this is perfect.
“That’s why today you have 100 journalists who are completely clueless as to what to do because they have no access,” said Magazine. “Yet, they have to survive on whatever they get because their organisations demand quotes and insights as to what happened in the dressing room, what did Kohli do after the match in his hotel room… Imagine a situation where 100 journalists are chasing these cricketers for off-the-field news because nobody is interested in on-field news as everybody has seen it on TV.”
During the 2015 World Cup, India played eight matches between February 15 and March 26 before being knocked out in the semi-finals. The Indian captain at the time, MS Dhoni, was available to the media only during the mandatory pre and post-match press conferences. In the initial stages of the tournament, there were week-long gaps between matches and the journalists had no one to speak to in order to write their stories.
Relying on gossip
What do journalists do in such a situation? They have no choice but to rely on gossip, said Magazine.
“I’ve seen it myself. You ask someone, ‘Tell me, what happened. I heard there was a fight between the captain and coach?’ The other guy will say, ‘I heard so and so happened...’. A third guy will tell him, ‘No, it wasn’t like that. This is what happened…’ Nobody is sure of what happened, but everyone files a report. Everyone has a different source.”
Magazine, whose last international assignment was the 2007 World Cup, added that he would not blame today’s journalists because they are “under such tremendous pressure” and have no access, but their organisations still demand gossip.
“In the end, the players get miffed with the journalist and tell them, ‘You guys are writing rubbish.’ The journalists then say, ‘We write rubbish because you guys never talk.’ Apart from this, sponsors and others plant news, so it becomes a very messy affair. You read news and you don’t know what is the source and whom to believe,” Magazine added.
Lokapally remembers a time when some off-the-cuff comments made by cricketers during an interview even passed under the radar. “If a player got excited and went overboard, we would even advise them and say, ‘Look, this kind of comment will create a problem. Do you still want me to report it?’
“There have been so many incidents that had I reported them they would have been very explosive anecdotes, but I did not because I did not want to lose the trust and faith of the players,” said Lokapally.
Compare this with today’s times when even a single tweet by a cricketer, even if it is not a controversial one, makes headlines.
However, Lokapally does not want to compare the two eras.
“If I was a young journalist today, I would also have to do what others are doing – try to get stories to please my boss. In my time the bosses did not want such stories. We were fortunate.”
Were Kohli and Shastri right, then, in targeting the media? Nishant Jeet Arora, who covered cricket as a journalist for 11 years before switching over to become BCCI media manager in 2015 for two years, believes a lot is being read into Kohli’s remarks.
“I have seen four generations of Indian cricket and Virat is the most honest guy I have come across,” Arora said. “He will not mince his words and will never give any excuse. At the same time, he will never agree to something that isn’t true. If he feels there is an unreasonable question asked to him, he will give an appropriate answer. He will not sugar-coat anything.”
Senior journalist Ayaz Memon also thinks too much is being made out of the press conference remarks and it’s just a matter of journalists getting used to Kohli’s personality, which is a stark contrast to the previous captain, MS Dhoni, who was at the helm for eight years.
Dhoni was a champion diplomat and hardly provided any fodder for headlines during his press conferences. “Dhoni was in turn a complete contrast to Sourav Ganguly, as he spoke very little and very infrequently. In that sense, Virat has been speaking a heck of a lot,” said Memon.
However, Lokapally takes offence to the argument often made by sportspersons that anyone who hasn’t played the sport has no right to criticise them.
According to journalists who covered the South Africa tour, Kohli had even challenged them to face international pace bowlers in the nets and said that if they did not survive the session, they had no right to criticise the players.
“I know there is a difference between playing and watching but when you watch enough films you come to understand what is good cinema and what is bad cinema, right?” Lokapally said. “If you read books you come to know over a period of time who is a good author and who isn’t. Similarly, you get to know what makes a good sportsperson.”
Mathur, however, thinks the media has always been too critical of the Indian cricket team. “They are quick to support somebody and equally quick to criticise them. The players feel the media is critical without reason, or without fully understand the situation they are in. So, there is always a gap between the media and the player. Sometimes, that gap reflects in exchanges in a press conference.”
Memon chooses to see the glass half full and believes that if journalists are fair and consistent in their writing, the cricketers won’t mind a bit of criticism from them. “We can ask prickly questions and they have to be answered,” he said. “There is no reason why people who are in the public eye should not be answerable.
“But by and large, as a practicing journalist, even if you are asking uncomfortable questions, but over a period of time if there is consistency in how you approach your job, I think that sees you through.”
Magazine is just glad he is now away from the circus.
“It is a terrible, miserable job to be in,” he said. “There is no mutual respect, more so from the cricketers’ side because there are so many journalists. The cricketers think the journalists are jokers trying to intrude into their private territory. The journalists don’t know what to do because the cricketers are not accessible. It’s not a healthy place to be in.”
In an ideal world, players would understand that if they are performing well, good things will be written about them; and if they aren’t, then a bit of criticism is expected. However, things aren’t so black and white. Both parties are equally right and equally wrong in their own ways. Will they ever find a middle ground? Don’t count on it.