“Welcome to the wonderful city of XXXX for another wonderful day of cricket. The brilliant XXX is going to take on the terrific XXX in a contest that promises a lot of excitement. The pitch is great. We have a great commentary panel. We even have a breakfast show. We’ll all share a few laughs with Super V. And through all this, we promise there will be no criticism involved.”
We’d like to think that we are watching just a game of cricket. But in reality, it is so much more. For the BCCI, it is an opportunity to show how great Indian cricket is. For Star, it is an opportunity to keep BCCI happy and that usually means praising everything in sight. As someone once said, the entire show can best be described as ‘the grand Indian cricket commercial.’
Now, in this mix, there suddenly was an anomaly. Sanjay Manjrekar likes to speak his mind. For good or for bad, he likes to play the agent provocateur. It gives him a thrill.
Of course, there were times he would pick up the wrong tree to shout at. He went on and on about how concussion substitutes could be misused. He didn’t mention a word about pollution when India took on Sri Lanka in Delhi. He proudly flaunted his status as a first-class cricketer to win an argument against Harsha Bhogle. And then, there was the ‘bits and pieces’ battle with Jadeja.
For some of those gaffes, he apologised. For others, he did not. But by no yardstick was he the worst commentator around. He wasn’t the most likeable but he wasn’t the worst either.
On his good days, he would dissect technique brilliantly. He would talk tactics. From time to time, rustle up a good story. And he would, perhaps most importantly, criticise dispassionately. In an age where criticism is frowned upon, Manjrekar (when the mood took him) would call a spade a spade without looking for a fallback option.
But now, he’s gone.
He’s gone because, according to a report, the BCCI is not happy with his work. So how does one define work for a commentator?
To most, the job of a commentator comes down to three major things: language, knowledge and a critical mindset. One needs language to describe the scene in the middle and make it memorable. One needs the knowledge to know the right from wrong... to understand... to explain things to the viewer or the listener. And finally, a critical mindset allows a commentator to ask the right questions even if they are difficult ones.
To this list, the BCCI might add fence-sitting. The ability to say a lot without saying anything.
But that isn’t what makes great commentators. It doesn’t even make good ones. The truly great ones say what needs to be said because it needs to be said without worrying about the after-effects. They aren’t there to play cheerleader (but if one does it successfully for a long period, that person might even end up as India coach). At the same time, good administrators are not afraid of criticism and they do not listen to trolls.
Normally there are two sets of commentators – one employed by the BCCI and known as the ‘World feed’ team while the other is the team comprising hosts broadcaster (in this case Star).
Star: Sanjay Bangar, Harbhajan Singh, VVS Laxman, Aakash Chopra, Nikhil Chopra, Jatin Sapru, Irfan Pathan.
BCCI World Feed commentators: Harsha Bhogle, Sanjay Manjrekar, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Sunil Gavaskar, Murali Kartik
Now, these guys are joined by a few neutrals or a few commentators from the country that India is playing against.— *Commentators are decided on a per series basis and not given yearly contracts anymore.
The cricketers are entitled to appreciate the commentary, take offense to it or even get inspired by it. That is their right. But should the broadcaster or the producer be getting their consent before bringing a commentator on board? Should the Board or Star ask Virat Kohli if he is fine with their choice?
Kohli’s favourite tactic in tough times is to fall back upon an ‘us and them’ strategy. The Indian team vs the world. Those on the outside and those inside. And maybe they use that feeling to fuel their comeback but it isn’t right for them or the BCCI to talk about public perception in the case of Manjrekar when they ignore it in almost every other case.
Commentator Harsha Bhogle found himself on the wrong side of it in 2016. He has since made a comeback but he now sticks to BCCI’s specific requirements for the role. It has also meant that others have been reluctant to veer from the set path. That was true until the Manjrekar issue cropped up again.
Manjrekar’s case is not the first nor will it be the last. Ever since the BCCI decided to produce all domestic cricket, home internationals and the Indian Premier League in 2012, the commentators have been reduced to little more than cheerleaders. It’s a strange conflict of interest between the true picture and the one that the BCCI wants to show. The board wants to control the message and they have. And that isn’t necessarily the good thing it is being made out to be.