Ever since the game of cricket began to be telecast to crowds, live commentary has played a great role in bringing the game closer to laypeople. This, they achieved, not just by their knowledge of the game, but sometimes also simply by their choice of how to present a situation to the audience. When Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was dismissed for one run against England at Bombay in 1973, the commentator, Bobby Talyarkhan remarked on the radio, “Pataudi is out 99 runs short of an expected century!”
For long, Indians hadn’t been considered great commentators. But then came one man who, at his peak, had played for his college and was best appreciated for getting off strike when he batted. And he took Indian cricket commentary to new heights.
Harsha Bhogle started out at the age of nineteen, at the All India Radio. He became the first Indian to be invited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to cover India’s tour of Australia before the 1992 World Cup. The catch was that the ABC would not pay the foreign presenter, and it was up to the home broadcasting stations to pay the presenter. And the AIR did not even know he went to Australia. But being signed did not mean respect and that is probably the thing he handled best. Instead of competing against other cricketer-turned-commentators, he adopted a different style of commentary. A non-technical flavour, and that captivated the audience like no one had before.
He gained the support and respect of active cricketers at that time, because he made them feel comfortable during their interviews. And for someone who is constantly being judged on his performance and worth, there is nothing more refreshing than being spoken to, not as authority, but as an admirer.
In 2005, he visited his alma mater and gave a pretty cool speech on excellence. And his opening line went something like this. “I am here, not as someone who has achieved excellence in life, but as someone who has seen excellence first-hand” It is this kind of modesty that made him the most popular cricket commentator in the world. And as there weren’t many “great” presenters at that time, he sought inspiration from the cameramen and technicians he worked with and tried to emulate the kind of perfection they brought to their professions.
And he had a brilliant way of putting things. During the recently concluded Cricket World Cup, when playing against India, AB de Villiers missed a rather simple run out chance. While the others were ruing the missed opportunity or criticizing the undue risk taken by the Indian batsmen, Harsha Bhogle chose to see the positive side. “The one good thing we can all take from this run out is that AB de Villiers has proved to the world that he too is human and that he too can make mistakes” Rewind back to a warm up game before the World Cup. The Indian Team dropped a considerable number of catches in that match. Once again, optimism had not seen a more faithful patron, till that night. “It’s okay. The Indians can drop as many as they want now and let the law of averages catch up.” In another ODI game, Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni were playing at the end of the innings. Dhoni had dismissed the ball to all sides of the park. Getting in on the act, Sachin caressed one to the boundary. In all this mayhem, Harsha Bhogle’s voice was the only one that left the commentary box. “We have a surgeon at one end and a butcher at the other”.
Test games are known for their long-drawn out nature, and it is in such situations that the role of a commentator doubles up as an entertainer to keep the readers hooked to the game. In a game against India, Alastair Cook had scored one run in 52 balls. The next ball, he scored a boundary. Seizing the opportunity, Bhogle remarked, “80% of his runs came off that one ball!” His commentary wasn’t limited to what happened on the field at that time. Speaking about the legend that is Sachin Tendulkar, he said. “Eruption of joy at an Indian wicket can only mean one thing – that Sachin is next to the crease.” And how good is a commentator who focuses on just his home country? When Misbah-ul-Haq came under criticism from players like Shoaib Akthar and other Pakistani players, he commented, “I find this criticism of Misbah very strange. It is like a family of ten complaining that the sole breadwinner isn’t doing enough. Misbah is rated far higher outside Pakistan than within. Afridi is rated much higher in Pakistan that outside!” Sometimes, even the most optimistic of people must bow down to reality. And Harsha Bhogle did so gracefully. When Ian Chappell asked him if Narendra Hirwani can bat, he said, “If you make a team with all the No.11s of all the teams, Narendra Hirwani would still be the No.11.” On Rahul Dravid being bowled on his last international appearance, “In a career that is marked by grace, style and beautiful batsmanship, it’s a slog that’s ended Rahul Dravid‘s career. But once again, it was what THE TEAM needed.”
Starting out as an outlaw in a profession dominated by former cricketers, he went on to carve a niche for himself, applying one cardinal rule he claimed to have learnt from journalism. “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”. Everywhere he went, he was consistently asked one question; “How many games have you played?” Initially determined to prove himself as one of them, he later realized that there were too many of “them” anyway, and that he shouldn’t try to “examine Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drive” or “explain the art of reverse swing with Wasim Akram beside me in the box”.
And I think the success of Harsha Bhogle lies in that moment of realization. He embraced his lack of technical knowledge and replaced it with his supreme presenting skills, and that has made all the difference.