In sheer cricketing terms, Harsha Bhogle is perhaps the least qualified of television’s elite commentators. But that hasn’t stopped ESPN-Star Sports from turning him into their biggest TV star in the subcontinent.

 

AiV + HB + BIs = GtV

AiV: An Indian victory, HB: Harsha Bhogle, BIs: Babes in the stands, GtV: Great Television.

Harsha Bhogle is a chemical engineering graduate and has read many chemistry books. There would be no place for this equation in them. However, for several thousands of Indians it would be their definition of an enjoyable cricket-on-the-tube experience. Ever since the 1993 Hero Cup, arguably the event with which he really hit the big time, Harsha has become as much a part of cricket television in India as commercials. And if it’s an ad for Pepsi or ESPN-Star Sports, you could find him there too.

Harsha first went out with a woman—they saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan—at 20. Though late by Western standards, perhaps a normal start for an Indian. Still, for a very long time he did not know how to talk to girls. He married Anita, a fellow student at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, at 24 and did not quite know what was happening. While admitting to be “confident” in familiar situations, in unfamiliar ones he can be “diffident”. After more than 50 Tests, 250 One-day Internationals, 75 episodes of Inside Edge, 28 of Cricket Up-close, 24 of Stumped and 61 of ESPN School Olympiad, looking at a TV camera with a microphone in hand is a familiar situation.

In sheer cricketing terms, Harsha is perhaps the least qualified of the cricket world’s elite television commentators, who, unlike in the past, these days are drawn from a pool of very successful Test and One-day players. Yet he is among the highest rated, highest paid and most popular. The International Management Group has him as one of their clients. Fame? He will soon make his film debut, playing himself in Rahul Bose’s Everybody Says I’m Fine emulating star American sports TV host Roy Firestone. At a time when former Test players have driven out the pure broadcaster, when everyone around the box is a Sunil Gavaskar, a Geoff Boycott, a Ravi Shastri, a Sanjay Manjrekar, an Ian Chappell, a Tony Greig, an Ian Healy, a Rameez Raja or the like, Harsha is scoring well himself.

How?

“People are naïve to think that the only requirement for presenting cricket on television is that you ought to have been a player. Harsha showed that there are other aspects to it,” says former England captain and commentator Tony Greig. “Besides, he has a pleasant way about him. He is a happy, wholesome, agreeable sort of guy. And television loves happy, wholesome, agreeable sort of guys.”

Harsha superbly said on BBC World’s Face to Face, that he understood he could be a good non-striker in a spectrum where everyone wanted to be a batsman. If that’s not a way with words then watch this. “My success lies not in being a Gavaskar in the box, but by being a Gavaskar on the pitch. He could play the hook but he found it was not a percentage shot so he did not play it. My success lies in playing percentage television,” he says. “In 1996-97 I got an enormous amount of criticism. On some rare occasions a couple of cricketers said, ‘Hang on, why is this guy with me?’ So I asked myself where my future lay. If it were in being an expert cricket commentator I would have faded away soon. So I had to do something that the others were either not interested in or could not be good at.

I became comfortable with cricketers as well, because I think they started seeing me as a guy who helped their performance. I will try never to comment on a pitch, because I honestly don’t know what pitches do.

“A lot of our cricketers have big egos. They don’t want to go down and do things that will sully their hands. So I became the lowest common denominator in the box, often asking questions people wanted to ask of Gavaskar. In this way I became comfortable with cricketers as well, because I think they started seeing me as a guy who helped their performance. I will try never to comment on a pitch, because I honestly don’t know what pitches do.”

It was not easy working with the greats, especially in the beginning. He had to prove himself, justify his place on Starship Enterprise, as it were. “In the beginning I did think how I was going to work with this guy,” admits Greig. “But he learned a lot by being around us, refrained from being opinionated and grew on me.”

Things were a bit more complicated when it came to Sunil Gavaskar, a man Harsha had revered and later worked for at Professional Management Group, a company co-founded by the world’s highest Test centurion. There was some history there which made collaborating again, this time on a high-profile, high-visibility platform such as TV, a slightly sticky proposition for both.

“When I was at PMG, someone tried to fill Gavaskar’s ears and I think I know who it was,” Harsha says. “I had and still have nothing but respect for Gavaskar. I woke up at 4.30 in the morning to follow his matches, yaar! I can’t say things that were claimed to have been said by me. Can you imagine a kid growing up and saying ‘I don’t like Sachin Tendulkar, I am as good as him’, can you? So I went up to him once and said: ‘You have the right to believe what you want to. Let me just say that I have my weaknesses, but I am an honest man, and I didn’t say those things.’ I think in the course of time he has realised that.”

Being a prolific writer, perhaps more than any of the player-commentators, has been a major factor in Harsha’s progress. He is the often quoted author of a biography of Mohammed Azharuddin, and you can see his columns in newspapers, magazines and websites as often as you see him on television. Currently, the Harsha Bhogle byline appears every week in Mid-Day and every fortnight in The Week, The Sportstar and on espn-starsports.com. He recently did three pieces for The Australian and writes every now and then for the fourth W of cricket: Wisden Cricket Monthly. His words have a feathery consistency, although they can be hard-hitting about BCCI or Doordarshan snafus. Throw in hours of reading and watching and you have a mind that is informed, sharpened and ready for any kind of television challenge.

“That is why I insist on writing, because when you write you have to think. So I don’t have to prepare specifically for television. I watch a hell of a lot of cricket. I surf the net at least twice a day. I am reading two newspapers in England, two in Australia and top websites,” he says. “The reason I am doing that is if I am called upon to do a show and asked something about Paul Wiseman or Lou Vincent, I must know something about them.”

Hence a lot of people believed he must have known about match-fixing too, more than what reflected in his columns. He was, after all, an insider in many ways who was there almost wherever the Indian players were. But the only thing he offered generally on the subject was that he had heard rumours. For many readers, including me, it was somewhat disappointing.

“I could have been more candid about it,” agrees the 39-year-old father of two sons, Chinmay and Satchit. “I spent a lot of time thinking on that issue. Those days I was writing for rediff.com. And there would be hundreds of letters. Readers trusted me and took me at face value. I said to myself: do I know enough about match-fixing? Honestly I didn’t know enough and that is why I tried to play the middle ground. I got a lot of letters saying I was protecting Azhar [Mohammed Azharuddin]. That only gave me a kick because I didn’t know I was powerful enough to protect him.”

It is well-known that Harsha and Azhar go back a long way. Though never “bosom pals”, they both grew up in Hyderabad loving and playing cricket. (The game’s fraternity often goes, ‘Oh, any one plays University cricket’, about Harsha playing cricket, but he maintains that the level he played was fairly high. And he seems a man truthful about what he has done and what he has not.) Azhar’s rapid, remarkable transformation coincided with Harsha’s ascent, which brought their relationship into sharper focus. Still, for a long time in the last few months, his biographer failed in even getting Azhar on the phone, as the former India skipper stayed cocooned in his Banjara Hills home. That changed recently, when late one night Azhar did come on the line.

“We spoke for about 20 minutes. He told me a lot in his defence, and I asked, ‘Why don’t you tell me these things on a television show? We will ask you questions that the people of India want to ask.’ He is thinking about it,” Harsha informs. “It was about 1996-97 when I could see the change coming on. Someone who was amazingly humble—more than even Anil Kumble—started to get arrogant. There was no doubt he was troubled. I remember he once came home to return some money that I did not even know he owed me. The house was being renovated, and the workers were stunned when Azhar walked in. He told them, ‘Hamare dost ka ghar hain, achcha kaam karo (This is my friend’s house, do a good job)’. He is that kind of a fellow.”

The Bhogles became part of Hyderabad’s sizeable Maharashtrian community when Harsha’s grandfather moved there from Aurangabad in the 1930s. Harsha is the youngest in a family of scholarly inclination and accomplishment. Father Achyut taught chemistry and French, mother Shalini taught psychology. His brother Sreenivas and sister Swati are twins five years older than him. While Sreenivas is a PhD (in a branch of statistics) from the University of Paris who wrote his thesis in French, Swati is a chemical engineer and M.Tech from IIT, Mumbai.

Harsha himself looks more like a Silicon Valley computer geek on a visit home, catching up on the game of his childhood. He will most probably be in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, his skin, like of those Indians who are travelled and successful, fairer and flushing. At the Brabourne where Australia were playing Mumbai recently, Harsha stood talking to a journalist from Down Under when veteran Marathi scribe VV Karmarkar quipped, “Harsha, tu tar tyachya peksha gora distos (Harsha, you look even fairer than him).”

Compliments are not frequent about his dressing. In his writings and opinion Harsha many times urges organisations or people to get more “contemporary”. But by some accounts Harsha himself needs to get a more contemporary wardrobe.  This is not a call for him to become a fashionista in the Azhar mould, but television needs good clothes. He wore a peculiar ensemble on BBC World’s Face to Face, when, by his own admission, he was so kicked to have been featured by the acclaimed channel that he tried too hard to impress. His suits on Stumped, the cricketers’ quiz show, seem ill-fitting, though he does carry off the Chinese collar shirts he wears on the ESPN School Olympiad show. Harsha mocks furious in self defence but agrees style does not come to him naturally. He firmly believes, though, that it is overrated.

“I learnt from watching Prannoy Roy that television is about looking neat and intelligent, not about being handsome or flashy,” he says. “Here was a guy trying to be himself and not someone else. He was not putting on an accent, he did not have a flashy hairstyle, he was not the best looking man in the world but he could carry on a conversation intelligently and was successful.

“Being a value for money person, I am unlikely to get an Armani suit. I do think, though, that I am decently dressed. TWI actually advised me on this. In 1997, it was a very dark day in Toronto and I was wearing this very dull grey shirt. At the end the producer said, ‘Come along, let’s take a look at what you did today.’ He pointed out the background was dull and so were my clothes. Television is about bright colours. He told me to go with Anita and get five bright shirts; that’s all I needed. He also asked me to change my glasses, get something more fashionable. That is one thing I spent a lot of money on. If my mother finds out how much, I am in trouble!”

He has been in worse spots before. Like being smacked by a gigantic moth on the face in Dhaka when on live camera, or while interviewing Robin Jackman seeing a mosquito swish right into the Englishman’s mouth in Hyderabad. How about the time when Harsha simply stopped talking on screen with the director screaming in his earpiece: ‘Go on, why have you stopped?’ Live television teaches you to think on your feet, he says. Taking care of a mother hysterical over the price of his spectacles, therefore, should not be a problem.

This story was first published in the May 2001 issue

Photographed by: Ashima Narain