The decision to take Harsha Bhogle off the air in the Indian Premier League (IPL) once again reinforces the urgent need to implement the recommendations of the Justice Lodha Committee.
In its exhaustive report, the committee had questioned the practice of former players wearing many hats, including that of a commentator under the category of ‘Conflict of Interest’. It had also recommended that a ban on a cricketer must also be extended to his television duty.
But the most scathing observation, under the category of ‘Transparency and Oversight’, reads: “Even in regard to cricket commentary, games organised by the BCCI have a contractual condition that there can be no criticism of the BCCI or its selection process, thereby curtailing an exercise of free speech. Objective commentary ought to be permitted about everything connected to the match, allowing the commentators to express themselves freely and objectively.”
Why is freedom of expression for commentators absolutely necessary?
Because if the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) wants to sit at the top of the inverted pyramid that is the International Cricket Council, it needs to set a few good examples to the other countries. Giving complete freedom to the commentators should be first on that list since the average consumer is influenced by the first impressions on the television.
In a way, this mess can be traced to the case filed with the Calcutta high court by Jagmohan Dalmiya against Prasar Bharti in the early 90s. After Dalmiya won the case, the BCCI started getting bids for telecast rights and the board never looked back after getting Rs 18 lakh from TWI for the 1992-93 India-England series. One thing led to another. Not satisfied with poring over bids anymore, the BCCI opened its own TV production. Then started the practice of hiring former players as commentators who were on the board’s payroll and not bound by contracts of the rights holding company.
Things turned worse quickly. Cricketers were free to play their shots, but commentators were not free to criticise. In fact, no one was allowed to speak their mind. People haven’t forgotten the brazen manner in which the BCCI carried on with the IPL despite the biggest scandal hitting its bedrock. Commentators were going about their job as if nothing had happened, making it awkward for even the viewer. MS Dhoni kept smiling when asked about it at the pre-departure press conference of the Champions Trophy as the media manager tried to hush stinging questions. No one was ready to address the elephant in the room.
Yet we know Dhoni has an opinion. He has an opinion on how journalists should frame their questions after a thrilling win or a demoralising loss. He even came up with an opinion on the current water crisis in Maharashtra, a touchy topic for farmers and lawmakers alike. So why can’t commentators have an opinion on the game they have been hired to observe? The common thread here is the role BCCI plays. And it hasn’t changed much despite heads rolling after the 2013 scandal.
The BCCI can’t be blamed for giving Indian commentators an equal platform in series involving India. But in the process, viewers have lost out on the vintage voice of Richie Benaud or Michael Holding who could make their opinion heard without being loud. Reports suggest that the decision to arbitrarily part ways with Bhogle had something to do with a tweet by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan that was again retweeted by Dhoni. If that contributed to this decision, it’s only a sad reflection of the BCCI’s lack of faith in a man who knows his job better than most in this business. It’s also alleged that Bhogle was given the cold shoulder due to an argument with an official of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, the seat of BCCI president Shashank Manohar, during the World Twenty20 last month.
Regardless of the exact reason, this incident might act as a deterrent to many overseas commentators eager to make a mark here since India is where the big bucks flow. And not many from India have been received as well as Bhogle. In an age where gagging a dissenting voice is becoming the norm, there is a growing need for the cricket commentators to speak their mind. Cricket is the only team sport India has been able to successfully market worldwide. But the world also needs to see India as a fair ambassador of the sport. That starts with being fair to their commentators.
And since the BCCI is not ready to do anything out of its own will, the observations of the Justice Lodha Committee report could be used to throw some light.
Look at it this way. Had Mark Nicholas not penned that column, West Indies would have had one less reason to get fired up for the World Twenty20. Once they won it, Nicholas was quick to tender an apology. Popularity of cricket thrives on this dynamic relationship between players and its observers. A commentator or journalist doesn’t have to bat as well as a cricketer. Neither does a cricketer have to try and be articulate. But cricket needs both to express themselves freely.