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October 18, 1999

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Darkness at dawn

Harsha Bhogle

Now a screech
now a hum
now it stayed
completely mum

Now it was dark
now it was light
now it went
out of sight.

I had promised myself that I would stay completely neutral on the issue of the cricket telecast for fear that my association with ESPN Star Sports would be misconstrued; that I would be seen as being critical of another channel. But long before I got into television, I was a cricket lover, and that half of me always comes first. Being Indian comes even before that, and that is why the indignation at what I saw comes pouring out.

This is what our state broadcaster is offering us. This is, therefore, a demonstration of national capability. Why are we even talking of Y2K if we cannot put a clear picture and clear sound on air ?

Threatening the deadline of this article, I chose to watch cricket on the morning of day three of the Test match because two bright young men, who I had seen so much of on the domestic cricket telecasts, were mounting a wonderful, brave fightback. This was a huge moment for them, for their families, for their friends and for some completely peculiar reason, Ifelt part of the crowd. I found myself drawn towards sharing their excitement. But ten minutes later, after having performed two futile searches of all that my fairly new TV set could offer, I had switched off.

Underneath the hum, I could barely hear what Shastri and Boycott were saying, and I was very keen to know what they thought of Gandhi. I was a bit unsure of his capability, having seen him bat brilliantly at times and terribly at others. And the rapidly changing quality of pictures was a distraction and a strain. And I thought, if my mind could waver at such a moment, what about the millions of marginal viewers?

But I went back, of course, and as I did so, another thought entered my mind -- and that is what caused me greater anguish. I have no doubt, being the optimist I am about India, that given that the basic production of the telecast was very good, the pictures and the sound would be sorted out in due course; because after all advertisers would howl as I am howling, and international cricket is a bit of a showpiece. In course of time, you want it to look good. But if this was the initial level of concern, even with international cricket, would domestic cricket have any chance at all?

It is absolutely imperative that domestic cricket be seen, and seen well, because that is where you see the stars of tomorrow. Not everyone can be at cricket grounds and so the telecast, ideally as highlights, is the only option. Otherwise we go back to where we were 20 years ago, and embrace the newspaper as our sole source of information. We go back to judging players from scorecards.

In the last five years that I had the privilege of being associated with the telecast of domestic cricket, and I looked forward to it more than anything else. It was my great joy, and I am sure that is true of a lot of other cricket lovers, to be able to spot the likes of Sadagoppan Ramesh and Vijay Bharadwaj in particular. The first time I saw Ramesh, I donít think he made more than forty but he had a couple of boundaries on both sides of the wicket that were effortlessly struck. I was able to verify my opinion of Ramesh with a couple of others who had seen the telecast, and we were convinced that there was at least one opener coming through the ranks.

It was a similar story with Vijay Bharadwaj, who looked a wonderful young player three years ago. And so it was with so many others. I remember seeing Devang Gandhi, an unknown young player, first appear on the scene in 1994-'95 and batting at number three for Bengal; playing some lovely, but loose shots; I remember Rahul Dravid successfully pestering our producer, that year, into giving him tapes of his performances; I remember Robin Singh, playing for Tamil Nadu, taking four outstanding slip catches that helped him on his amazing comeback into Indian cricket in 1995-'96; I remember being able to see that there was more than just hype behind Laxmi Rattan Shukla as he hit a century and took four wickets in successive matches last year.

Some others, with smaller performances, were able to catch the eye because you could see that there was more to them than their performances indicated. This was especially true of wicket-keepers like MSK Prasad and even, for a while, of Reuben Paul of Tamil Nadu.

There were others, cricketers like Shivsunder Das of Orissa, JP Yadav and Devendra Bundela of Madhya Pradesh, Sanjay Bangar of Railways, Mohd. Kaif of Uttar Pradesh and two others who I believe have it in them to go the distance, but who havenít yet produced the performances that newspapers will give them attention for -- Amit Bhandari of Delhi and Wrichik Majumdar of Bengal.

The reason all these cricketers became familiar to cricket lovers was that there were at least 24 matches covered every year. The number is critical, because as part of the new arrangement, Doordarshan have to provide 21 days of live cricket, which commitment they intended to fulfil by covering 9 matches. Now, if I was a budding cricketer, I would have a far better chance of being spotted over 24 matches than out of 9. And it is spotting talent and promoting domestic cricket that is the objective behind having the telecast.

We are already into a season, and three very important matches for the fringe cricketers have been lost. The Irani Trophy is gone, and so you donít know how much to read into Sitanshu Kotakís century or, more important, into the 10-wicket haul of Kumaran who has been opening the bowling and taking wickets consistently for Tamil Nadu. Did Reetinder Sodhi have as good a match as his figures indicate? And what about Hrishikesh Kanitkarís 99 against New Zealand?

Last year, cricket lovers could have seen each of these performances. This year, we are lost. But why isnít the BCCI saying anything about it? Surely domestic cricket means more to them than receiving a big cheque?!

That is why all this is so disheartening. That is why we get the feeling that the BCCI has taken one step forward and two backwards.

Cricket telecasts are breaking new ground all over the world. Producers and channels are doing their best to offer more to the viewer, and the spirit of competition and one-upmanship is raising the quality of the telecasts to sublime levels. Why are we, as a nation, turning our back to this remarkable progress? If Indian software companies can make us proud, if Indian television manufacturers can give us television sets that compete with the best, why canít we as a nation, and the BCCI as an organisation, be proud enough to say, `We will give our viewers the bestí?

Dear, dear. We are approaching a new century arenít we? And yet, we embrace the dusk and dismiss the dawn.

Sorry, Devang. I really wanted to enjoy your batting. All I can say in my defence is that I tried.

Harsha Bhogle

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