My earliest memories of watching cricket on television are of Australia lifting the World Cup in 1987 and a young strapping lad called Sachin hammering veteran leg spinner Abdul Qadir across the park in Pakistan in 1989. We had messers Dr Narottam Puri and Anupam Gulati as the commentators in those days – with their dull, dry flaccid bored to death voices, almost straight out of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan movie. And then, you had the likes of Sushil Doshi in Hindi with melodramatic moments of commentary like "Tendulkar ne tenduye ki tarah lapka". Commentary was incidental to the game; the action was only out in the middle.
The 1992 World Cup changed things a lot, for a viewer, as we saw Richie Benaud , Bill Lawry and members of their ilk crooning into the microphones and creating a niche for themselves. We were exposed to pyjama cricket and Channel 9’s innovations which made us realize that there was more to the game than the 22 players and 2 umpires on the ground. Dull presentations in the studios were replaced by interesting pre and post-match analysis with weather forecasts, predictions, viewer polls and pitch reports. The usage of stump cameras, coloured clothing, third umpires etc. and statistical measures (though Mohandas Menon continues to be the most reliable source) made the game more popular and helped in creating cricket experts amongst common people.
The 1996 World Cup witnessed a lot of ex-cricketers crowding the commentary box, especially with a plethora of channels waiting to pick up some ‘expert’ or the other. In many ways, the Wills World Cup was a broadcasting blockbuster and the BCCI was never the same again. Media rights and advertising now held greater premium and the game and the players finally started prospering economically even though there was no substantial increase in the playing strength across the world.
Commentators also became celebrities and so you had new guys jumping on to the band wagon. Remember the unsavoury Shaz and Waz show on ESPN-Star, which featured two middle aged commentators, flirting with babes, selected through SMS polls. Navjot Singh Siddhu became a pop star mouthing inane thoughts and testing the elasticity of the English language until one fine day, he crossed the barrier and was quietly shown the door, much to our relief. There were misfits like Kapil Dev, Saba Karim and others who made their exits from commentary panels fast enough but still did enough to remain in the studios.
With Zee and “Deewana Bana Dey” Sony Max entering cricket broadcast, we now have television anchors masquerading as sports presenters and reducing it to another form of Bollywood tamasha. But it was the 2003 World Cup, I think, that saw entertainment entering the game forcefully in the form of Ms.Mandira Bedi who has done more than the Tarun Tahilianis and Ritu Beris in spreading fashion consciousness through her infamous “noodle straps”. She earned a lot of ridicule with her strappy presence but then the marketing guys were happy that she managed to swing in non-fans of the game also. Some smart MBA’s idea of attracting women to the game but with 22 men sweating it out on the field, Mandira and Ruby Bhatia would be poor choices, surely.
Circa 2006, witness Mandira Bedi squirming and shrieking while referring to Abhishek Bachchan and Charu Sharma (whose fast receding hairline has gained more footage than his comments), blushing referring to Ash. Of course, she's been a bit more circumspect in her dressing sense this time(Sadly, for many of us).With luminaries like Boycott and Barry Richards taking a back seat in these events, it has become a free for all for these jockeys who have been mercilessly dumping us their humble pearls of wisdom. The horror undergone by the transition from watching Harsha Bhogle and John Dykes to Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy cannot be matched by even readers of The Hindu forced to read the Deccan Chronicle. And then you have tarot reading, actors talking about their movies and you wonder what's going on? Where is the post-match analysis that ESPN-Star brought to the game??
The simple pleasure of watching the game, the replays and listening to the comments of commentators is now a luxury in the hands of these channels. With ads available at every possible break, it’s become a case of watching the game in the midst of all the ads. The last ball or first ball disappears from the screen and the channel makes a few lakhs. The advertiser is happy, the channel is happy while the viewer remains the passive spectator who has no say. Treating sports as yet another Bollywood masala saga may be tempting to channels but forgetting the legions of serious cricket fans and subjecting them to all this trash is quite unbecoming.
The marriage of Bollywood and cricket – the 2 most marketable products in India- is a great idea per-se but it must be treaded carefully so that it does not spill over into a comic vaudeville which is what it has become now. Cricket can sustain itself without wonderful bimbettes outdoing each other in “exposing” themselves (exposing their knowledge). With off-screen entertainment in the form of Warne’s (s)exploits with his balls, Shoaib’s drug antics and Hair’s tantrums, cricket has all the masala to sustain itself, so does it need the female quotient ( with exceptions like Donna Symonds, of course)?
Any day, give me the likes of Harsha Bhogle, Boycott, Ian Chappell, Sunny Gavaskar, Mark Nicholas, Tony Greig and a few others sitting out there and I am hooked on to the TV – straps or no straps. It's a big Thumbs Down to the Set Max brand of commentary...