Monday, March 1, 2021

What if Indian WFH cricket coverage becomes the new normal?

Hyperbole is unrealistic exaggeration. In journalism, it may be the collective opinion of the news desk that certain events deserve a hyperbolic treatment. Like Team India’s win at the Gabba.

A week before, if you had predicted the result, you would have been called out for being unrealistic, impractical, a hyperbole.

‘No words for a headline’

But that came true. The Indian Express headline the following day was the most ballistic: “No words for a headline”. The Hindustan Times sounded Hollywood: “The Unbreakables.” The Times of India was a Wren and Martin sentence: “No one believed they could. They did”.

Of the three, the first headline stands out, could even pass for a hyperbole. Such is the rush of adrenalin when Team India does the impossible. However, being cheeky, what if an Indianlands on the moon? Would the paper say, “Just Can’t Print Edition today”!

Having said that, the point to be made is that expression of happiness over the Gabba victory would have sounded sweeter and perhaps realistic if the Indian national sports media was present at the Gabba.

That was not to be thanks to Covid. From India’s point of view the Australia tour was the first big event that went unrecorded by Indian journalists from ground zero.

Journalists hit by word fatigue

For the last one month, the Indian newspaper coverage was WFH (Work From Home). The sports journalists must have been frustrated, unable to “see” the match, its twists, its turns, experiencing the oohs and the aahs. They couldn’t do better than “watch” the match like any other viewer. Some level playing field, this.

In the absence of the masters, the rookies took it upon themselves to win the match. In the absence of the real experience, the journalists delved into their language and statistics to dish out good reads.

The Indian sports writers must be feeling like the Australian pace bowlers at the moment. The latter suffer from the ball fatigue. A word fatigue afflicts the former.

The visit lasted 68 days, a week over two months. Imagine what the journalists missed: tracking the team at the nets, the strengths and weaknesses of each, the batting order, the bowling pair combinations, the strategies. Each of the six single-day encounters would have churned out at least 35 to 40 copies per journo. The four tests would have topped 20 a test, a comfortable 80 in all. Plus, first person accounts, commissioned analyses, Australia diaries, encounters or interviews with Aussie Greats, a chance encounter with an Indian player at a restaurant or a bowling ring (to put it mildly!).

Imagine, writing all of this without even being there, without feeling the weather, the people, the ambience, the tension on the ground. The TV cuts out the “life” of the match. It transmits merely the “live” happening on the ground.

Hats off to the cricket wordsmiths

Can you imagine, how the prose would have flown had the journalists actually witnessed Rishabh Pant hitting the winning four! No. You cannot imagine. Only those sports journalists know what they were missing. All of them would have thought of a story to explain people asking them how their byline came with a New Delhi or a Mumbai dateline when the match was being played in Brisbane? Some newspapers made their task a bit easier by not mentioning the dateline.

But they were indefatigable. They kept at it, their word-spree, day after day till the last run was scored. And after. Hat’s off to the cricket wordsmiths.

Yes, there would be those who would see the positive side of this: The saving to the news organisation. A two-month tour for a single journalist would cost anywhere between Rs. 2 lakh and Rs. 2.5 lakh. The cost for a television news team would be spectacular. Remember, the cost is what the organisation bears to get you the “life” out there.

The WFH has given lots of ideas to employers. Save on office space, save on tour costs, save on this, save on that. As an exception, fine, nobody would have wanted to puncture the Covid “bubble”. But it can’t become the rule, yes? It can’t be that “life” coverage of future events doesn’t ebb in the future, even after Covid is gone.

Need for physical presence reduced

Former sports editor, commentator and author V. Krishnaswamy has seen first-hand the general “ebb” in sports journalism itself. It is from that perspective he looks at the post-Covid future of the profession: “Sports journalists never figured high in the pecking order in any Indian media organisation, except when a cricket match happened. And that was when everyone became an expert with a view that sought to prove a sports journalist wrong. In time anyone who had access to TV coverage became a bigger expert, whose opinions mirrored those of cricketer-commentators who had loads of experience be it Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri or many others. The sports journalists were then reduced to being quote-seekers and when that became available through PR agencies employed by organisers / teams, the need to be physically present was further reduced. Then came social media – Facebook, Twitter and much else, and opinions were available dime-a-dozen.This did not happen overnight but over last two decades and the past year ravaged by Covid has hastened it further.”

WFH logic works in certain office situations, but not for everything. Definitely not sports reporting. It is true that majority of the sports coverage these days is about analysis and opinions. It is a contest between the play in the match and the language at the journalist’s command. Most reports, nay, articles, read like a leaf out of a Victorian era book of romance. By the time you negotiate the phrases, idioms, metaphors, and the like, you nearly miss out on the details of the match as and when you locate them.

Flavour meets with a frown

One of our best-known sports commentators, Suresh Menon, wrote in The Hindu in 2015, summing up what ought to be done with sports writing that is not done today. “The best writers combine involvement with detachment, hard-nosed reality with romanticism. Cricket is a sport, after all, not a matter of life and death. If India loses to Pakistan, there might be national mourning; the better writer is conscious of both the emotion and the absurdity of it.”

No argument there, but any talk of “flavour/flair” of writing is often met with a frown. What has Wodehouse got to do with reporting a cricket match? Senior sports journalist Raghu Krishnan, answered this question long back. He wrote in The Times of India in 2007: “The feel of the English summer game being played against the backdrop of everyday life was vividly conveyed by commentators like Brian Johnstone: “And as Kapil Dev runs in to bowl, another train pulls out of Warwick Station.” You can’t see the Warwick Station on sports TV!

–The author is a journalist-academic and commentator on society, politics, gender and democracy, occasionally straying into sports he doesn’t know much about.

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