Interview
Harsha Bhogle opens up about telling the story of sport and why it’s become much harder to freewheel in the commentary box
Facebook

Harsha Bhogle is seldom short of words. Admired for his quirky mix of wit, humour and spontaneity, he has been synonymous with Indian cricket commentary for the last three decades.

But the charming commentator, writer, video blogger and occasional quizmaster, admits that he has had to measure his words while on air in the last few years.  

The News Minute caught up with Harsha before he took the stage as quizmaster for the final round of Inquizitive Minds, a national level quizzing competition for schools and colleges by  Kestone and CL Educate, held in Bengaluru on Sunday.

Though he steers clear of the BCCI controversy, when he was unceremoniously removed from the roster of commentators in 2016, Harsha opens up about why it has become much harder to freewheel on air today. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Do you think you have to watch what you say on air today, as opposed to say 10 years ago when the likes of Sachin, Dravid and Kumble were playing?

The answer is yes because ten years ago, there was no social media. The arrival of social media has made everything in the world more vicious. There are people who are perfectly happy to post things knowing they are false but they get a kick out of being naughty.

I am more conscious about what I say because everything is wilfully misinterpreted. We are lucky we are in sport. Look at the carnage happening in broadcast news in the political sphere. There, it is impossible to speak your mind.

Social media is opening our eyes and ears to the world and social media is closing our minds by the viciousness of its impact. I don’t mind humour but there is a whole army of people who are being intentionally mischievous. It is a reflection of our times.

You stand out as one of the rare commentators still around who hasn’t played cricket for India. Do you think it is possible for non-players to get into commentary anymore?

On TV? Not possible. That is over. I am a fossil. They (broadcasters) are looking for people who have played the sport. I disagree with it but it is what they are looking for.

Why don’t you agree?

Not all of those who play and then commentate can tell a story. Do you watch cricket to look at the geometry of a cover drive or the emotion of a win or a loss?

Sport is emotion. Sport is not technique. Technique helps you become a better player. It helps you win championships. Federer’s technique has to be perfect. Kohli’s technique has to be good. But the larger story, because it is country versus country and team versus team, is about the emotion of winning and losing.

You have played cricket in the past too…

At the university level. I was a leg spinner who didn’t have nip and I used to bat at number 6 and number 7, but I enjoyed fielding the most. I used to always field at point and cover. I would wake up in the morning, not thinking of the shots I am going to play, but whether I will get two direct hits today.  

You are juggling between Hindi and English a lot more now and vernacular languages are being added to television commentary. How has broadcasting changed to adapt to this?

We are not inherently an English-speaking country. It was a vestige of the past that we continued to speak in English and we actually judged people by their ability to speak in English. There was an erroneous correlation drawn between intelligence and ability to speak English and luckily, we have discovered that. It took us a long time but we have discovered that it was erroneous.

The future is almost entirely in the vernacular languages. A tiny fraction of the population watches English news – they’re only full of self-importance but not anything else. It is very important for people entering into the profession now to be able to speak English because it is their window to the world. Otherwise their vision becomes narrow and they become too localised. But the mass broadcast will increasingly become regional.

Between quizzing, radio commentary, television commentary, video blogs, writing columns, if you had to pick one, what would it be?

There’s a buzz about live television, in that, all your senses have to be focused on one thing. It is very difficult to replicate that.

Quizzing is a little easier because I already have the questions. The tougher job is handled by the people preparing the questions and the people answering the questions who make the whole experience interesting.

Writing takes me a long time. I only write once a week now.

You wrote a blog post predicting a grim future for test cricket, comparing the game’s oldest format to a terminally ill patient. Do you think interest in it can be revived?

In England there is a reverence given to test cricket. In Australia too, on the odd day that India or England is playing them. But then you watch a test match between Australia and Sri Lanka and there’s hardly anybody there.

It is a very romantic notion - reviving test cricket. Can you draw people back to long playing (LP) records? Or draw people back to writing inland letters?

What has happened is people still follow test cricket but they’re not watching it. That it has survived so many years is incredible. I love test cricket very, very dearly but it is being propped up. If you took a business decision, you wouldn’t play test cricket.

The entire business is sustained on advertising in India and not like the subscription or Netflix model followed abroad. There, in a year, people have so many days of cricket and they pay for it. In our country, revenue from subscription is very small.

In the past, cricket was a community or family experience, where a lot of people would flock to one house to watch ODIs or tests. Has this kind of viewing experience changed and will broadcasting change with it?

I think it will, going ahead, if people start watching the game on their phones.

You don’t want to watch alone because you want to share your emotions. If India is doing well, you want to scream with everybody. I think this will still continue for a while, but maybe not to the same extent because we have more TVs now.

Also, I don’t know if club loyalties have caught up to the same extent. Does an RCB defeat or an RCB win mean as much as an India defeat or an India win? You never know. I mention RCB not because I am in Bengaluru but because they have very, very loyal fans. I see club culture getting stronger. It is how sport sustains itself across the world.

Cricket is one of the only major sports that survive on country versus country contests. Tennis is an individual sport. Football is a club sport for most of the year. Cricket is the only major sport that pits countries against each other for most of the year.