Why star cricketers shouldn’t rake up critics’ records

Ravindra Jadeja celebrates as he makes a statement with his half-century in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. Credit: AP

David Lloyd and Sanjay Manjrekar were cruelly reminded of their career records recently. This was in response to their tweet jibes at MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja, respectively. The suggestion was that M/s Lloyd and Manjrekar’s modest cricketing achievements did not qualify them to sit in judgment over more successful players.

Player-turned-commentators being thus challenged is not new. And it is hardly a sub-continental affliction. Michael Clarke, Stuart Broad, and Chris Gayle, among others, have vented about being criticised by those with little or no playing experience. The list of those who have pointed subtler fingers is longer and basically includes almost every TV era star who has seen a slump and questions around his place in the side.

Why can’t under-fire star cricketers and their fans resist dredging a player-turned-commentators’ record? Part of it has to do with how the active cricketer perceives the player-turned-commentators’ job: A post-retirement sinecure awarded for the gift of the gab, first-hand experience of what goes through the heads of those in the heat of battle, and knowledge of the games’ laws and vocabulary.

In this frame, the active cricketer sees the ex-player wielding the microphone as an educator, someone whose job is to explain to audiences the technical aspects of what is unfolding, throwing in an odd anecdote or joke in recognition of the varied audiences’ appetite for technical-ese. Criticism, at least the biting sort, does not fit this frame. It amounts to opinion-mongering, a transgression from the technical, as infuriating as an opinion piece masquerading as a news report would be to the discerning reader.

The player-turned-commentator, for his part, senses that his job is not just to educate audiences but also to engage them, to build their emotional connect with the game, to provoke reflection about how well or badly things are going for the playing sides and why. This is the ‘opinion’ part of the expert opinion he is expected to offer, the logical step after synthesising what the expert in him has spotted.

In the player-turned-commentator’s head, his expertise’s true value is in deploying it to shape an informed opinion. Checking himself from offering an opinion would be an incomplete, even dishonest, job. Michael Holding made this point rather vocally when asked to go easy on his criticism of some of the umpiring in the recently concluded World Cup.

The tussle then emanates from differences over how central opinion is to the player-turned-commentator’s job. Amidst this conflict over whether the player-turned-cricketer has any business doling out opinion in the first place, it is hardly surprising that the active cricketer finds a harsh opinion galling. Especially since it seems an overstep, from a fraternity member.

Shouldn’t player-turned-cricketers have a more understanding view of the technical kinks that creep amidst busy calendars, the staggering weight of fans’ expectations, the many other pressures of present-day cricket, and the established role of luck? It smacks of a betrayal of sorts, and rankles some more when suspicions of attention-seeking behavior come into play.

Finally, there is the matter of cricket hierarchy and what modern day stars come to believe about themselves. The game’s hierarchy places a premium on the level of cricket an individual has participated in, ranking the club cricketer over the age-group cricketer, the provincial cricketer over the club cricketer, the international cricketer over the provincial cricketer.

As a corollary, the pedestal height an international cricketer occupies depends on the number of outings he has had. Those with fewer games, and in supposedly less-intense eras, are viewed as lesser players. They probably are, but whether it makes them less qualified to comment on others with more top flight cricket under their belt is another story. By that token, commentators should have kept mum about Sachin Tendulkar for the better part of his career!

Stars, inclined to believe that their glory and long ropes during lean times are justified on account of the punishing work ethic that has brought them where they are and the laurels they have earned for the country, find the criticism of supposedly lesser men impudent. Their fans see things no differently. And since it has gotten personal (in their view) seek recourse in tit-for-tat over their critics’ record.

All this forgets three important things.

One: Nobody will be raking up the player-turned-commentator’s record if he came out in support of the star. The endorsement does not diminish because it comes from a ‘lightweight’, and is often celebrated as a competence certificate from a former cricketer. ‘Former England player and coach backs Dhoni’s army stint,’ the headlines would have read if Lloyd had punched out a different set of emoticons in reaction to Dhoni’s decision to opt out of the West Indies tour and train with an Army unit instead. The value of the opinion and the opinion-maker is diminished only when the opinion is critical. That says something about how seriously we should factor the volume of cricket a player-turned-cricketer has played when weighing his opinion.

Two: Playing experience alone does not a quality-commentator make. Sure, the likes of Richie Benaud and Tony Greig drew on their on-field experiences to embellish their narrations, but those with towering on-field achievements don’t always make one crave their arrival into the commentator’s box. Think Kapil Dev or Wasim Akram. Several of those who do, modern era men like Jim Maxwell, Simon Mann, and Neil Manthorp, all of whom Indian audiences have sadly heard little, do not have any playing experience of note. One of the most insightful and engaging commentators ever, the late Tony Cozier, had zero experience as a player. The late John Arlott, another in the pantheon of great commentators, made just one first class appearance. As a 12th man!

Three: Honest opinion from the commentator’s box does indeed elevate the match-viewing experience. Think of the commentators who you find dull. They are more likely the ones who mince their words.

That said, opinion must pass the twin tests of basis and taste. Manjrekar’s criticism of Jadeja was ill-informed, as I have written elsewhere in DH. Mark Nicholas was insulting when he dubbed the West Indian side for the 2016 T20 World Cup “short of brains.”

Fittingly, Jadeja showed his mettle soon after Manjrekar’s harsh assessment and the short-of-brains West Indians went on to win the T20 world title. Their offenders ended up apologising – Manjrekar obliquely, Nicholas unequivocally. Performing then seems a better, more rewarding, less self-corrosive way to answer critics than holding up their records.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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