Where did opinion go? (Cricinfo)

Published in Cricinfo Magazine, February 2010

As 2009 drew to a close, an atypical cricket-related comment emanating from unusual quarters startled and delighted us, and provided a much-needed giggle. A phlegmatic observation by Phil Stoyanoff, the curator of the McLean Park cricket ground in Napier, illustrated a quality cricket has lost in recent times. Questioned about his insistence that the pitch he had prepared for the deciding Test against Pakistan would produce a result, he said, “Yes, because both sides have such bad batsmen. That’s my honest opinion – they’re useless.”

Even before the drum roll had subsided, the damage controllers had been flown in. The PR manager for the New Zealand cricket board practically implored anyone he spotted to “use [Stoyanoff’s] comments in context and with restraint”. While the well-oiled spin machine had been concentrating on monitoring and orchestrating Daniel Vettori’s utterances in front of the press corps, an errant microphone stuck under the nose of an unsuspecting member of the supporting cast had breached the façade.

“Opinions are like a**holes. Everybody has one.” So observed a glint-eyed Dirty Harry. Those were the seventies and Harry’s wisdom would have been out of place in cricket in the new millennium. The 2000s were cricket’s first global television decade. A decade when every cricket utterance reached us bleached, filtered, sanitised, and sans any semblance of opinion. Insight and introspection gave way to inanities of such mind-numbingly repetitive nature that players and commentators blurred into each other – like they had all been sent to finishing school, drilled by Professor Henry Higgins. “Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you are saying” sang we, the comfortably numb, as yet another captain released a stream of nothingness into a microphone far away.

Cricket matches of all ilk sprouted year-round and worldwide, like weeds in a time-lapse National Geographic video. As blanket television coverage of events was beamed out incessantly, we had to endure the ubiquitous ritual of the post-match ceremony, the epilogue to every encounter, providing the perfect embodiment of the vacuous nature of the spoken word in cricket over the last decade. Breathless presenters, who appeared to have watched an entirely different match than the one beamed out to us, orchestrated these affairs from logo-laden platforms bearing rows of dignitaries, a la police-identification line-ups. Captains and men of the match dished out homilies, platitudes and pockets of wind.

Dhoni? Ponting? Smith? Strauss? Did it matter? No, for “we were 30 runs short on the day” anyway. Thirty runs short? You were just one run short, but let us not mention the atrocious bowling by your frontliners.

“I just wanted to play every ball on its merit”? Not quite. You spent the first 10 overs fanning your off stump.

“We needed our bowlers to take early wickets”. Oh yeah? No shit, Sherlock.

As Ravi Shastri breathed hard like Darth Vader in pregnant pauses mid-question, and as Ramiz Raja entangled himself irretrievably in the web of grammar, players retaliated with, “The team cause was more important for me.”

The prized place in the pantheon of inane verbiage that the decade begat has to go to “the right areas”, which brooks no competition as the poster child of the malaise afflicting cricket interviews and press conferences. And in the latter half of the decade it came with the perfect accompanying visual – one of a doleful Monty Panesar.

Making a much-ballyhooed delayed entrance in the third Ashes Test match of the 5-0 whitewash England were handed out in 2006-07, Monty immediately nailed Justin Langer, bowled by a drifting and dipping beauty. When asked later on the sidelines by Mark Taylor about that perfect delivery, Monty, looking like he was about to burst into tears, mumbled, “I just tried to get the ball into the right areas.” It evoked images of coaches scheming and plotting with their bowlers, hovering over low-lit tables, moving pins around the “areas” of a pitch map, like General Patton in his bunker pondering the Normandy landing.

Live commentary, a well-established source for opinion and analysis, was scrubbed clean too. Erstwhile opinionated voices were now contracted by ratings- and revenue-obsessed cricket boards, and matches were accompanied by the voices of cheerleaders. Too wary of saying anything substantial, they concentrated on honing their clichés and giggling away with their co-hosts. Even the once edgy and opinionated-by-nature Sunil Gavaskar had begun to sound like a chirpy choirboy as the decade ended.

The scalpel was wielded now and then, but all too rarely. Like when Geoffrey Boycott spluttered, “In my day we didn’t indulge in any of that nancy-boy stuff” as the ritual of batsmen coyly touching gloves mid-pitch unfolded between overs.

Ian Healy, Tony Greig, L Sivaramakrishnan, Arun Lal, Michael Slater, Ranjit Fernando, Ian Bishop, Danny Morrison, Kepler Wessels, Robin Jackman, Waqar Younis, Aamer Sohail blended seamlessly into the commercials and background noise of the crowd. Exceptions in the form of the thoughtfulness of Mike Atherton, the loquacious openness of Harsha Bhogle, or the schoolboyish enthusiasm masking a keen insight of a Mark Taylor did exist, but by and large white noise was what we got.

However, nestled amid “right areas”, “tracer bullet”, “if you are going to flash, flash hard”, “not enough dot balls”, “it’s all happening out here today”, “looks like a good pitch for batting” and “the boys gave it their best”, there is hope. Flowers can and will burst through the weeds occasionally. Mr Stoyanoff aside, as the new decade dawns on us, the hopes and expectations of the cricketing world were gamely and boldly being borne by two individuals at least: Virender Sehwag and Graeme Swann.

Sehwag single-handedly has done enough to warrant being appointed spokesperson for every match India plays. Picture this: as the winning captain of the Delhi Daredevils in an inconsequential game in the second IPL (his team had already qualified for the semi-finals), Sehwag was asked by a hyperventilating Ravi Shastri how his team motivated itself for the match.

“There is always an incentive to play hard. The team management has promised $50,000 for each win. So there is an incentive,” said a poker-faced Viru.

His views on an upcoming tour of New Zealand and the kind of pitches he expected: “If they give us bouncy and seaming tracks, they will struggle against our attack, because their batsmen are not technically sound.”

He has also demonstrated that he is equally proficient with foot-in-mouth as he is with tongue-in-cheek, as when he branded the Bangladesh bowling attack “ordinary” the day before India went down like ninepins in Chittagong this year. But get past his arsenal of clichés – the “of course”, the “obviously”, and the “see the ball, hit the ball” – and Sehwag never fails to elicit a chuckle or raise an eyebrow with a straight-faced gem.

Swann packs some serious insights into his seemingly cheeky and flippant remarks every time he spots a microphone.

“I want my MBE now,” he retorted after England clinched the 2009 Ashes, those five words speaking volumes about the aftermath of the previous edition in England.

 Asked about his immediate feelings on taking the wicket that sealed the series, he responded with, “I am not really sure. I think I was too busy sliding around midwicket on my knees, looking like a cheap Italian footballer”.

Man of the Match at the tense draw in Centurion in December: “We [England] are single-handedly saving Test cricket right now.”

Bless them. And may they win many a Man of the Match award in the coming year, thereby redeeming their anodyne brethren and providing solace to our numbed ears.

“In a world full of audio and visual marvels, may words matter to you and be full of magic,” wrote English journalist Godfrey Smith. Alas, amid the sensory overload of those marvels, words have ended up victims, trampled in the stampede. Players and commentators, prodded and pressured for soundbites relentlessly, have eschewed wit, humour, incisiveness and openness for mumbling. Exceptions arrive like a bolt from the blue now and again, the element of surprise having more to do with rarity than relevance. Anil Kumble’s impeccable impersonation of Bill Woodfull after the ugliness of the Test match in Sydney early in 2008 stood out – not only for its nod to an epochal event but for the power of the words, and for Kumble’s intent to express an opinion. Reminding us that in this world of audio and visual marvels, words can be magical too.

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