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HindustanTimes Wed,26 Nov 2014

Cricket Columns

The choke's on cricket
Sukhwant Basra, National Sports Editor, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, March 23, 2013
First Published: 23:41 IST(23/3/2013)
Last Updated: 23:44 IST(23/3/2013)

It would be fitting to change that bright blue into drab olive. After all, for all the freedom that members of the India team have to express themselves, they might just as well be in the army.

The 'Official Secrets Act' of the BCCI appears to have the overarching ambition to stem any credible information on the sport from filtering beyond its own offices.

No member of the team is allowed to speak to the media. Contracted cricketers, even if not in the team, can't talk. No current player is allowed to write a column. The commentators contracted to the Board have been issued diktats not to criticise it on air. Former players have been given financial largesse that ensures they keep quiet. If they stay vocal in the vein of Kirti Azad, the monetary allocation may well be delayed.

Forget the casual banter of old when one could walk up to a player after the day's play and get an insider's perspective on the match. Now, there is only the sanitised press conference where by tacit understanding nothing controversial is raised lest the player on display too is shepherded away. And if the tidings haven't been great that day, more often than not, it'll be some player who is hardly senior enough to answer penetrative questions on team strategy. Remember R Ashwin in Australia?

Even if an intrepid reporter does manage to get to a player, these young men are so terrified of the administrators that they say nothing on record. Hence you have a host of speculative stories floating about quoting unnamed sources. Funny things happen. Anonymous friends are quoted, relatives and coaches who last saw the player when he still had his milk teeth get their petty minutes of fame. Former players pretend to be experts on TV while hoping that viewers won't figure that T20 didn't exist when they plied their craft.

Exception to the rule
The stranglehold is only relaxed for the money ball of the IPL. Then, everybody rushes to give inane interviews aimed at maximum exposure for sponsors. It's an overwhelming flood of blah.

The choke's on cricket coverage in India. In the long run, this will prove to be a terrible mistake.

The BCCI certainly has the rights to a product that would be a drug peddler's dream --- assured supply, a huge market of addicts and nothing else to compete with its high. No other sport is close to the following cricket has in this nation. But, it wasn't always so.

The present exalted position of the sport is because of the very press that the BCCI now looks to leash. The extended play with extremely relaxed rules on size and kind of logo used made cricket a sponsor's dream. The assured breaks between overs presented a format irresistible for advertisers. The press, eager to project an Indian team that won (once in a while) on the world stage, created the hoopla about this sport in India. This marriage of commerce and coverage made BCCI the most powerful sports body in the country.

There's more to it
However, for the majority of fans cricket is not just about the dry details of a match or the acerbic comments at press conferences. Just like for the majority of them it's not about Test cricket. It's the personalities behind the sport that make the best stories. Without access to them, cricket reportage is becoming drabber by the day with little to differentiate between various platforms apart from the nuance of the writer in employ. Content stays similar.

This will come to bite BCCI. The new India is, anyway, not going to stick to following a sport that has merely ten countries eligible to play at the highest level.

Football, motorsport and basketball are making strong inroads into the sections that advertisers look to tap the most. Amongst upper middle class teenagers in India, following cricket is no longer as cool as it used to be just a few years ago.

Crucially, there is a storm building in Indian cricket's teacup. The resentment in the media is building. As much as it raised cricket to its dizzying heights, the animal is now quaffing at the paltry bones thrown its way. It's known to rip that hand that does not feed it.


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