“Now, everyone around the stadium have their own ideas on that, and we always get letters and phone calls about everything that happens, so I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. I don’t expect that you get more than 50% agreement on anything. Let me just tell you what I think about it. I think it was a disgraceful performance by a captain who got his sums wrong today, and I think it should never be permitted to happen on the field again. We keep reading and hearing that the players are under a lot of pressure, they’re tired, they’re jaded, and perhaps their judgment and skill is blunted... Well, perhaps they might advance that as an excuse for what happened out there today. Not with me, they don’t!”
“I think it was very poor performance. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen on a cricket field.”
When the late Richie Benaud expressed his opinion on the infamous underarm incident that took place on February 1, 1981, when the then Australian captain Greg Chappell asked his brother Trevor to bowl an underarm delivery, with Australia’s opponents New Zealand needing 6 runs off the last ball of the match, he did so on prime time television.
As a news anchor for Channel 9 and someone who had played for Australia before, it was within his rights to have a say on what had transpired earlier that day, as any veteran of the game or say any commoner who saw what had happened, would.
Benaud wasn’t favouring New Zealand, neither was he criticising Australia per se. He was, rather, trying to bring out the truth in front of the world and was giving a neutral, albeit sharp, reaction to an incident that forced the game's governing body to tweak the rules and make an exception for such deliveries.
Now, imagine what would have happened if Benaud, or for that matter any commentator, would have welcomed the cheek-in-arm tactics used by the Chappells as something conniving and smart? What if, instead of criticism meted out to the act, it would have been declared as a stroke of genius, or as a brilliant move of ensuring victory?
It would, arguably, have been much like the Mankading uncertainty that has got the world talking. Within the rules, but not within the spirit. The purpose here, however, is not to talk about the legalities of the game, but about the right to have an opinion on them.
The absolute need for neutrality
It is in this context that I would like to draw the attention of the readers to a recent embroilment, wherein perhaps the right to have a say on what transpired on the field and present that in a free and fair manner has offended some. While the patriotic fervour with which the game of cricket is played in India is indeed commendable, the interference of one’s idea of patriotism with the responsibilities that certain people have towards their job is condemnable.
Cricket commentary brings with itself the responsibility of presenting the action transpiring on the field in the most unbiased manner. The commentary is aired all over the world and the people listening to the same while watching the game deserve to know what is actually going on, and not what the commentators, or the people in general, make of it.
There is a reason why former cricketers turned commentators, and journalists from all over the world are invited to a world event to have an opinion on matters. The diaspora listening to live commentary feels a sense of belongingness when they get to know that someone who they know and trust from their own country is allowed to have a say on matters and that their interests have also been taken care of by the broadcasters.
Having said that, none of them are supposed to take sides. That is the essence of commentary. If an Indian commentator was supposed to talk more about Indian players, their foreign counterparts might as well be allowed to do the same. We might, in that case, have a live one on one debate happening in the commentary box, with the men on either side critically analysing every shot, every wicket, and every gesture that the players perform on the field.
Cricket, or for that matter any sport, is played to have a result. That is the essence of it. The acceptance of the result is where the problem lies.
If a team does poorly, the commentator would tell the same to the world, and not the fact that the team didn't have their lucky stars working for them. If a batsman plays a poor shot, the commentator would talk about it, and not the fact that he’s a legend and that such poor shots are mere footnotes in the book defining his legacy.
Conversely, if a team does well, the commentator would say that, and not that fact that the team they’re playing against has two world cup titles. If a young cricketer climbs the ranks and puts up match-winning performances, the commentator would tell his story, and not harp on the fact that the team he's playing against has world class players too.
Imagine how it would be if for every cover drive that a visiting batsman hit, an Indian commentator talked only about how Virat Kohli is the best driver of the ball in world cricket. Imagine how it would sound, if for every century that a visiting batsman made on Indian soil, he talked only about how Sachin Tendulkar had got more hundreds than anyone else.
Not a word about what happened on the field, just reminiscence, and comparisons. If Indian commentators talked more about Indian players than others, we might term such a thing as a live soliloquy rather than commentary.
The essence of cricket commentary
The reason why lovers of the game get together and sit together in that commentary box to talk about the game is to tell the players’ story. They, in themselves, are not the story and must not be translated into one. They are storytellers. They make your cricket watching experience more vibrant, informative, and politically correct.
(Also read: What ails the current crop of commentators)
Taking a sport sportingly is perhaps best known to sportspersons, for they play games after games for their teams, tirelessly, taking victory and defeat in the same stead. It's about time that we realize, that we, as ardent supporters of such sports have a responsibility of accepting results with the same emotion.
Commentators too are fans of the game. They beautify the game with their words. They talk about the sporting spectacle that the world witnesses and give it a new dimension through their words. Such has been their magic, that some of the most famous knocks in cricketing history have a certain commentator’s name associated with them.
Asking them to speak what we want to hear, basing their opinion on ours, and talking only about the team we support would reduce cricket commentary to a mere rhetoric.