In an email to an Australian journalist, Richie Benaud, one of the most influential commentators cricket has ever seen, revealed eight cardinal rules one should live by while working behind the microphone. These commentary guidelines were simple yet profound, and distinguished commentators across different sports abide by them knowingly or unknowingly.
One of Benaud’s rules was to avoid banality.
While all viewers have something to say about actions unfolding in front of their eyes, only a few can add something extra, add words that often pass over the thinking hat of casual viewers. Sixes and fours and singles and doubles and catches and wickets are an end in themselves. Cold numbers cramped in the corner stare unflinchingly at the viewers, and those numbers tell you enough about the balance of the game. They, however, fail to provide you with the context. The game needs a narrator to spell out the action, elaborate on the context, dramatise the event without any exaggeration, summarise the game without sacrificing brevity.
Good commentary is crucial and intrinsic to the cricket-watching experience, and yet it is treated as an afterthought by the Indian broadcasters and board. While the financial might of the BCCI has grown by leaps and bounds, there hasn’t been any visible effort in improving the viewer’s experience. The commentary panel is an assortment of an ignorant middle-aged man you often find on a train journey, who speaks with impeccable authority on every subject under the sun, but that authority doesn’t stem from mastery or academy rigour, but from ignorance and power.
They know they can get away with anything. There’s no monthly review of their work, and no quality control inspector to keep a check of their cringe-o-meter scores. Living in their own bubble, these commentators are immune to criticism. As long as they don’t displease their employers, they don’t have to worry about anything. The grievances of fans who make up the game form a meaningless white noise for them. Fans, who? Isn’t it enough that they are at least showing up to speak something, which is, on any day, better than nothing?
Whenever someone criticises their banality on social media, there’s always one reply asking the user to watch the game on mute. There’s no sarcasm involved here, as a significant section of cricket viewers have learned to watch the game on mute. They are normally grown-ups, who used to criticise the commentary standard at some point, but with age came the maturity and a realisation that nothing can be done about that.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest that the greatest era of Indian cricket has coincided with the worst era of Indian commentary.
In Hindi commentary, you will find a constant attempt to speak in rhyming sequence, and it doesn’t The rhyme doesn’t have to make sense. It can be anything. Aakash Chopra once rhymed Nicholas Pooran with “Churan”, a vernacular word for the powdered mixture. He often employs pop-cultural references that rarely make sense. Murali Karthik and Deep Dasgupta are Mr. Obvious of the commentary world, while Sunil Gavaskar still gets orgasmic pleasure whenever a player takes a single after hitting a boundary in T20s.
But the wider ecosystem too plays an important role in encouraging their boisterous brand of commentary. Look no further than the Indian Premier League, the most lucrative T20 tournament whose main competition is not some other sports leagues but daily soaps. At times, it feels that the cricket is incidental, the wider goal of this tournament is something else: to pump up the sales figure of the latest car available in the market, or to crush the hunger and malnutrition by promoting the fastest food-delivery service, or to promote the financial literacy among the Indians.
Admittedly, these commentators do terrific work as a salesperson, hard-selling every brand that pops up on the screen, as if their bonus figure is determined by how convincing they sound while promoting the four-wheeler that is parked behind the boundary. Not that such brand placement is introduced by the IPL; it has been there for ages. In the golden age of radio, every boundary was sponsored by BSNL. But the IPL has taken this to its logical end, where every event and space and spectacle is ruthlessly commodified.
Combine this excessive commodification with the commentators’ own mediocrity and amateurism, and you get a medley of disastrous blatherskite. Commentary, here, is viewed as a post-retirement activity reserved for only former cricketers. It is incredibly difficult for outsiders to break into this exclusive male-dominated domain. And cricketers are not always the most eclectic and eloquent speakers. Undoubtedly, some of the prominent commentators themselves played the game at the highest level. But it was not their on-field skill that made them great at their work. Rather, all of them shared a diverse range of interests, from reading philosophy in their past-time to gorging on Victorian classics. Michael Atherton studied History at Cambridge. Nasser Hussain has a degree in natural sciences from the University of Durham. Ian Bishop pursued MBA from the University of Leicester.
The greatest era of Indian cricket has coincided with the worst era of Indian commentary. The heroes of the game deserve better narrators, storytellers, and chroniclers.