Monday, February 22, 2010

Speaking engagements

While Test matches continue to be exciting and there is plenty of drama on the pitch, the action on the field is almost being undone by the mind-numbing commentary off of it. Fluctuating between banalities or hyperbole, the commentators are outdoing themselves in uttering stock phrases, content to rely on a cliché to tide them over.

"Needs to bowl in the right areas."
"It's all happening out there."
"What they need are a couple of quick wickets."
"What they need are some partnerships."
"That went like a tracer bullet."
"They wont mind giving up the single."

After the match is done and dusted with, the post-match interviews are filled with loaded questions, the answer being "helpfully" provided along the way. The question mark at the end of the sentence is an implied one. Such as:

"The bowlers did a good job in the middle overs to pull the game back."
"You were about 15 runs short today."
"The dropped catches cost you the game."

Since you have already provided the soundbite that you want to hear, what's the point of the exercise? Even the players are terrible, pounding out the same phrases all the time. When he first took over captaincy, MS Dhoni was refreshing to hear as he took time to dissect the question and provide his frank estimate. These days he has slipped into the more discreet mode, usually simply going along with the requested soundbite.

Have you ever heard Monty Panesar give an interview? Shane Warne once remarked that Panesar did not have the experience of 32 Test matches under his belt, he had simply played the same Test match 32 times. Monty's interviews are not far behind either.

There are a few commentators out there who still give me hope. Shane Warne's commentary reflects how he probably operated on the field. He is constantly trying to think like the batsman or the bowler, suggesting options for them, indicating what the captain may be planning, etc. His biggest drawback is that he is always plotting from an Australian point of view, so it gets annoying after a while.

Mark Taylor is more balanced in his approach, providing not only insight into what the captain may be planning (or what he could consider planning) he is good at providing points of reference from precedent, either from his days as captain or past matches he watched. He has a thick Aussie accent so he takes some getting used to and is usually drowned by the loud co-commentators he is saddled with.

Ian Chappell says what he thinks and it makes for engaging viewing but only up to a point as he rarely changes his opinion once he has made it.

Sunil Gavaskar is being used improperly, in my opinion. He works best as a foil to a play-by-play commentator (say, a Harsha Bhogle) in the role of the color commentator. He is not afraid to speak his mind (or at least he used to be) and is like a milder Indian version of Ian Chappell. However, by forcing him to be a typical commentator, he is required to fill the gaps, and insights from him are rarer with each passing day. When paired with Robin Jackman the real Gavaskar sometimes emerges and can be a fun person to listen to.

Sanjay Manjrekar is a fellow who surprises me with his feel for where a game is headed. He is brilliant at providing an analysis of the day's play and what the next day's outcome might be. I remember the Mumbai Test of 2004 where he very presciently predicted that if India got a 100-run lead after the second innings, Australia would not be able to chase it down because of how much the pitch was turning. He also made an observation that day which resonates with me. When a pitch is offering a lot of turn, the spinner should bowl faster through the air. If he loops it up the spin will be too prodigious to trouble the batsman. On flatter pitches, it is more advisable to try to slow down the pace and extract spin from the extra revolutions imparted to the ball.

There are two fellows unknown to most of the cricketing world but well regarded by me. The first is Sanath Jayasuriya. For a brief while, he had retired from cricket and was the commentator for the Sri Lanka-Bangladesh series in 2007. (Frame of reference: this was a phase when he was "dropped" from the Test squad). Commenting from a wholly Sri Lankan point of view, Sanath surprised me with his insight into the strategies of the game. He was especially revealing about Muralitharan's mindset as a bowler. For instance, when Murali comes on to bowl, he likes an in-out field, with folks patrolling the boundary. Once he has bowled 3-4 overs and gauged how much turn he is getting and how his rhythm is, he then tweaks the field to a more attacking (or defensive) one. Further, Murali loves to bowl long spells from one end, as opposed to many shorter spells in a day. THIS is what I wanted to hear from an ex-player. Having spent years with the players in the dressing room and on the field, I want ex-players to provide a perspective that we are not privy to.

The other person I came across recently was Shamim Chowdhury of Bangladesh. Endowed with a gravely voice and a sombre tone, he manages to get his point across quite well. He is not afraid to be scathing in his assessment, an avenue he has to resort to fairly often with the current Bangladeshi team. Moreover, he was able to keep up with the New Zealand commentators who outnumbered him and tried to, at times, enforce their thoughts on the proceedings. I have not heard him enough to know if he has the same shtick every time but he sounded promising enough. (Yes, I did watch large swaths of the Bangladesh-New Zealand series...what can I say? I am a sucker for Test cricket!)

I am sure there are names that I have not talked about, names that I have forgotten, and names that I have intentionally omitted. Feel free to point out the ones you like and the ones you dislike. For all of them, please provide additional support for your viewpoint.

Finally, here's a fantastic take on the first day's proceedings of the India-Bangladesh Test match played recently (the one right after Virender Sehwag called the Bangladesh attack an "ordinary" one). Cricketers spouting Shakespeare! Now that's some report of the day's play. Here's a sample to whet your appetite:
Act I Scene I

Enter Sehwag

You are not worth the dust which the rude wind
Blows in your face.

"'Tis best to weigh
The enemy more mighty than he seems

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