Which side will win the ACC Asia Cup 2022?
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Had the distinct pleasure of sitting down and having a chat with renowned Cricket Broadcaster Harsha Bhogle. Harsha who commentated in his first test in 1985 is now a household name in the Subcontinent. Here I talk to him in an interview for Pakpassion about commentary, Indian Cricket and life in general. (The interview long and detailed is divided into two halves, the second of which will follow soon)

By Shoaib Naveed (13th January 2012)


We know Harsha the commentator through listening to your commentary for the past so many years, but tell us a bit about Harsha the man before he got where he is today … surely that is a story in itself?

I don’t know … I don’t actually know whether it’s worth recounting, it was such a long time ago. I went to school and played Cricket there, then played for the University lower division for two years, then seniors for three and got picked to represent my University side in the all India University Competition. So that’s the level of Cricket I have played.

I always say if you have played enough Cricket to understand the pain and joys that come with the game and know how it feels to be out there in the field then you are good to go. You won’t see me commenting on pitches for instance, because I don’t understand them, but stuff you are able to understand you are fine commenting on. I did Chemical Engineering and it was a very busy time for me. Did an Advance Diploma in French and I believe that age between 18 and 24 is a blessing for people that they shouldn’t let go. Was fortunate enough to get into India’s top management school after that, and things happened from there.

So how did you take the step towards Commentary?

I used to do radio commentary on Ranji trophy games which is a story in itself. I was batting at 6 or 7 one day and decided to record some commentary on my University’s side openers. So I got those big cassette players that you had at the time and pressed play and record at the same time. Wouldn’t have been a wink over nineteen at the time. My University side loved it and wanted me to send it to All India Radio. But they would have none of it.

So my father talked to a Professor of Urdu, a very nice lady by the name of Zeenat Sajida at the University whose son I studied with. She said “Aisay kaisy bahcay ki tape nahi sun rahe hain, main baat karti hoon Station Master say, humaray parosi hain.” And so she had the Station Master Mr J.D Baweja over for lunch one day. The man turned out to be a very jovial, larger than life character from Lahore, who loved sharing his stories of growing up there before ’47. He decided to give me a run on some Ranji Trophy games and so that’s how it started. There are always good people in the world.

Your favourite commentators growing up and if you hinged on to one liners like the Youtube generation does?

Naah ... l read growing up about the aura around Arlott and all. But as I came into this business I realized that a lot of it had to do with archiving and the Westerners’ love of recording. No one catalogues their stuff like the British do, and no one let’s gold go through like we in the Sub-Continent do. They promoted their own people and we sadly don’t give ours the same attention.

I met Ted Baxter, the producer of Test Match Special years later and he told me how often Arlott’s best “off-the-cuff” lines were also the most rehearsed. And I said “hmm I am learning something new I didn’t know before“, but they were all great commentators no doubt about that.

Another great thing was the fact that there was no television to distract the radio commentator. All the great broadcasters, you look at Arlott and Johnston in England, McGill Ray here in Australia, Charles Fortune in South Africa, Bobby Talyar Khan in India, Omar Qureshi in Pakistan, all made their name in the pre-television era. So I wasn’t influenced much growing up except for this great Indian Radio commentator by the name of Anand Setalwad who had a great cadence to his voice. But I didn’t follow or imitate expressions and lines, maybe it helped actually, because if you copy someone you only turn out becoming second best.

Differences you felt doing Radio and TV commentary?

Radio is easier, and definitely much more fun than TV can ever dream of becoming. If you look at Cricket it’s a stop-start game, and TV is a stop-start medium. More in the sub-continent, where you are constantly going into commercial breaks, but increasingly all over the world now. When there is no play you don’t actually need to say anything as the pictures are telling the story for you. In TV you only have that 20 second period where you have to commentate going in and out of breaks, and with teams like Channel 9 and Sky introducing three commentators at a time that time is reducing even more to around 10-12 seconds. So TV is a lot more restricted, whereas Radio takes a stop-start game and gives it continuity. It’s the story teller’s medium.

Everyone who does broadcasting will love doing Radio more, but will do TV because it gives you fame, exposure, money. People know you more and you feel good about that, so it has its benefits.

You mentioned to me earlier that doing Radio Commentary for ABC was the most pleasurable experiences in your broadcasting career, can you expand a bit on that?

It’s the only place I would do Radio Commentary now, the last time I did it was four years ago here, and before that it was another four years prior to that. ABC are willing to adjust their roster according to my schedule and that helps a lot. Ever since I landed in Australia back in ’91, I have taken to this country like it’s my own. I love the attitude of people here, they always have a strong point of view and not shy of sharing it, but they are always receptive of yours in return.

I came here as a thirty-year old and got accepted really quickly, and to be accepted in another country as a broadcaster is exciting and an honour. The ABC have always been very nice to me, so it’s almost like I regard it as my second broadcasting home after ESPNSTAR. We in the Sub-Continent are sentimental people and don’t like to forget these things easily.

Any funny/memorable moments that might come to mind in the booth, that don’t get out to the public?

Funny will come more in Radio, but I remember the good old Sahara Cup Days. Geoffrey (Boycott) was so funny. We were on top of the Toronto Skating and Curling Club once trying to record, and it was so cold that we had to borrow the cameraman’s clothes. Geoffrey had covered himself up to the nose and with his hat also there, his eyes were the only part of his body visible. He tried recording through all that and we couldn’t get any of it done because none of us could stop laughing at the sight of him.

Radio you will get a lot more funny moments just because of the nature of the medium and these last few weeks with Kerry O’Keeffe have been especially memorable.

The most memorable experience in my entire career without a shadow of doubt however was the India-Pakistan Test match in Chennai. It had been a security tour more than anything else, but Chennai is a great city from that point. It’s not a provocative city, it’s a Cricket loving city and really they couldn’t have cared less about what was going around. The north of India is bothered much more about what’s happening at the border and all, the South not that much. It was a very close game, Sachin played one his best ever knocks and Pakistan in the end won by twelve runs I think.

And Wasim took his team on a victory lap … can you imagine coming to India under such pressure and taking your side on a victory lap, would be unheard of today, but could only happen in Chennai. I was about to hang my boots up after the presentation “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, will see you in Delhi ….” when suddenly the producer’s voice popped in my ear and told me to keep talking. “Keep talking and I will give you live pictures in a few seconds …. just keep talking over them …” And it still makes my hair stand up as I recall and see it. As Wasim took the team round, it was almost like if it was a giant Mexican wave, everybody stood up and started clapping and I remember saying that, “Today sports and followers of sports have shown that it transcends everything else, that in sports the community transcends and fits in with another community perfectly.” I talked to Wasim about it years later and he said he couldn’t believe what was happening.

Your thoughts on what’s going wrong with the Indian team here in Australia?

India always struggle overseas. We tend to lose the first test match everywhere we go, SA when we went there just over a year ago, England in the summer, over here in 07/08.

There is something more than just that, don’t you think ? Given their performances in England and now here.

Well what that does is, it puts you on the back foot from the start, and once you are on the back foot you need something remarkable to pull you back. What was happening in the past was that Laxman, Tendulkar, Dravid were able to pull off that something remarkable. You had a very strong captain in Anil Kumble who had a big part to play as well. Now it’s the younger generation’s turn, by now I would have loved to see Dravid and Laxman in support roles, maybe even bat at five and six and would have had the youngsters breaking open the door open and stake their claim.

You think they have been given the appropriate opportunities? 

Every time a youngster has been given the opportunity he hasn’t taken it. Yuvraj had many, Raina had a few and Virat has now played six test matches. Chetashwara Pujara, in the eyes of some our next greatest batting prospect, got a brilliant 72 against Australia in India, went to South Africa and struggled. So then the captain has to decide at all times what is his best chance, is Laxman his best chance, is Rohit his best chance or Kohli his best chance. So I am a little bit concerned with our young guys at not having kicked off one of the seniors by now and at least keeping the other two on tenterhooks.

…And we have never been a great bowling side to boot. Kumble and Srinath bore the burden for years, but most of the times we have played without even having a genuine third bowling option let alone four. Which is why India always struggled abroad and did well at home, because in the sub-continent the new ball doesn’t matter that much.

What do you think of Dhoni’s Captaincy?

I like him as Captain because the game looks simple from a hundred yards and even easier thousands of kilometres away… when it isn’t. And I don’t go much into captaincy because you have to trust the man on the job and back his instincts. And over a career Dhoni’s instincts have been right more often than wrong. There is a feeling he is a better ODI Captain than Test but that may also be because India have a better ODI team than a Test team currently.

You must also see the people he has available, in England who would he attack with. Zaheer Khan was gone, Sharma was running in all day and getting nothing and Praveen Kumar, not an Anderson or Dale Steyn to begin with did his best…

But over here they seem to have a reasonably good attack?

It seems that way, if it was a good bowling attack Australia would not have gotten over six hundred from being three down at fifty…

But surely the field placements had something to do with that?

It’s easy to say … maybe Dhoni was a bit more defensive than he needed to be and there is something in his mind. Maybe he doesn’t trust his bowlers much, or the wounds of England are too strong but I tend to think you have appointed a captain and you should trust him. As I said it’s an easy game from a hundred yards away and 8000 km away a very easy game. Saurav Ganguly once told me that he used to get 5 out of 10 decisions right when Captain and he turned out to be a fine leader.

You see questions being raised and tough calls being made if India are inflicted with another 4-0 drubbing?

Of course and I see nothing wrong with questions being raised and tough calls being made because India now have about eight months before a test tour.

And about two years before an overseas tour ... 

Which is the damaging part of it all that’s glossed over. Ashwin and Ojha can win you a test series in India, they can never win it for you in England or South Africa. Laxman and Ishant Sharma can win you a test match against Australia in India, can they do it in Australia? Two years here, you can say let’s keep winning in India with Laxman, Dravid scoring the runs or you can say great time to blood these youngsters and give them the full opportunity. But you will never know if they can do it abroad given the itinerary which is the sad part of it all.

Clearly you seem irked at the administrators…

My concern is the other team that plays for India, which is indeed the administration. You should never allow South Africa, England, Australia to follow in quick succession, but sadly we don’t spend too much time thinking of itineraries and how to make the best out of a tour. In 2008 we came here with only forty-eight overs of Cricket under our belts before the first Test, if I was the Australian captain I would have died laughing. So I think in the Sub-Continent we lose the administrative war.

I mean look at Pakistan for another example. We look at Pakistan and marvel at the players coming through but laugh at the administration constantly. Pakistan should be in the top three Test playing countries of the world constantly for the type of players they produce, but the administration doesn’t allow for that. Sri Lanka is broke and Bangladesh Cricket hasn’t grown in fifteen years.

What are your views on the decline of commentating standards? And the fact that almost all commentators coming through are past players….who more often than not are almost painful to hear.

It’s a tricky one for me, my views on this are very strong, but if i express them I project myself almost as a loser. I didn’t play international Cricket, I played University Cricket, which is good enough for me. But whatever I say will always be covered by that fact.

But I have seen far too many Cricketers not understand their audience and not understand their medium. Cricket broadcasting is about two things, it’s about knowing the game and being able to communicate yourself to the people listening. If you don’t know the game inside out but are able to communicate it’s only half bad. By that I mean it is not as bad as sitting in a thermodynamics exam after studying English Literature all your life.

But if you don’t know how to communicate than it is just so much worse. And I think a lot of the boards these days and the producers these days are focusing on the knowing bit and not so much the communication bit. Which is why frankly commentators these days are getting boring. The bar for Cricketers, especially in the Sub-Continent to make that switch to commentating is set very small, while for a non-cricketer it is very high.

I count myself very lucky that I started when I did, today it is much harder, I wouldn’t even get a first class game today. There is of course the flip side. I don’t think a television commentary panel, or any commentary panel can be made exclusively of non-international players. Because there is a certain gravitas, a certain credibility that a Cricketer brings in. If a Cricketer can communicate, that’s the best combination there is no doubt in my mind at all.

But you need a combination of the two, one two keep the continuity in the story going and two to understand the fan. If you are a Cricketer, you tend to have lived in a bubble for quite a time and some time you forget what a fan feels like. Sometimes the player is so distant and so into the game that he would feel like “Yeh kia cheez hain kehne wali“, it’s almost beneath him…

Magar jo fan hota hai, ussay har cheez samajh nahi aati. Tau jaisey main aksar kheta hoon chauda saal kay larkay ko Test player nahi seekha sakta Cricket, Test player ussi ko seekha sakta hai jo U-19 ya first class khela ho. Tau uss larkay ko ussi level ka hee coach chaiyay.

So you need two kinds of people, in a commentary box to reach out to the audience.

How are schedules come up with in the commentator’s box…

It’s the producers call, he makes the rosters at the start of the day…

Because you get the feeling that Gavaskar and Shastri are always on whenever some big milestone is around the corner.

I don’t know, I never worry about that. I mean I come in the morning and look at the roster and see who I am with and get my self ready. By that I prepare myself, because I have worked with Ravi, Gavaskar, Wasim, Chappelli so much that I know how to make them comfortable…

So it’s not like Tendulkar is getting a 200, let these two just slide in…

I don’t know if it’s like that, but honestly I won’t lose sleep over it. That is the producer’s call, if a commentator is trying to influence a producer that is not a great way to live. At the end of the day I want to have fun, and if I am looking at conspiracy theories then I won’t have fun, and if that’s the case then my career is not worth it. The roster does change sometimes but that is the producer’s call and I don’t lose sleep over it.

A commentary moment you weren’t there and would have loved to be on air?

I wish I was on air when India won the 2011 World Cup. And it is also my perennial regret that when India won the 2007 T20 WC an Indian wasn’t on air…

Ravi was on air if I recall… 

Only for a very short while, he had to leave for the presentation, and Bumble was on the air. Now David Lloyd is as fine a commentator as there is but to truly understand and communicate what the moment meant to the team and the majority of the audience you needed an Indian to be talking about it.

I don’t know how old you were at the time when Pakistan won the world cup in 1992. But you needed a Pakistani there to understand what it meant for a twelve, thirteen year old kid in Lahore or Karachi to win the World Cup. And nobody could understand that unless they have been that twelve year old kid growing up in Lahore or Karachi. So I think it was a broadcasting blunder in 2007, if the English team was winning the World Cup, I would have moved out and let an Englishman take over and that happens throughout the world. So yes I would have loved to be on air on those two occasions, but that’s ok…I have gained so much more than I have lost….why am I complaining like an old man?

I get a feeling that a lot of commentary is based on who you are surrounded by…if you have a good team you come off much better individually. Is there any truth to this?

I’ll tell you what the secret is. A good pitch and you will get a good match, similarly a good producer means a good telecast. The producer will handle every thing and see to it that things are going smoothly. He will make sure the little things are just right. There is a work ethic to broadcasting that in the Sub-Continent we take too many liberties with, and that work ethic is paramount.

But specifically speaking about just the commentary part, do you feed off people you are commentating with?

Always…always. Each commentator feeds of his partner or partners. There is no doubt about that at all. Also if a commentator doesn’t rate the other you can sense it straight away.

Your thoughts on Ganguly as a commentator. I think after a long time here is a commentator from the Sub-Continent that has great insight and can communicate as you put it.

I’ll tell you what I want for Saurav, I want him to work with a good producer. What I like about his is the fact the he doesn’t sit on the fence. I commentator who says you can do this and can do that, you don’t need an expert for that, you and I can do that. He speaks his mind. He understands what the players psyche is, because he is from the same generation. He understands what it feels to be insecure and what it feels to be confident, but is not afraid of saying it.

At the moment all I would tell him is to take a little breather. He is a bit too eager, like a child with his new found toys, but that happens. In the course of time he will find the right mean on how much to talk, but at the moment he has been a breath of fresh air.

Do you see the forced commercialization coming into commentary with the Citi moment’s of success and DLF maximums as defacing the art? 

I can see why they are coming in, but the reason I don’t like it is because of the fundamental bond that exists between the commentator and the listener. The bond of trust. The moment I am listening to a broadcaster I must trust that he is impartial. I must trust that he is speaking his mind, and I must know the broadcaster is not tainted by other considerations.
So the moment you have that commercializations coming out that bond is attacked. How far you let that go is a sign of the times but I see the Karbon Kamal catch and DLF maximums as the lesser of the two evils, evils none the less. Where I drew the line was when doing product promotions. When I had to say stuff like “What a great car this is, it does this and this…” No. I am not a brand spokesman. They are a separate category of people, I am merely a sports broadcaster.

When I say DLF maximum it is the lesser of the two evils because I am not saying DLF is the best housing contractor in India or that MRF produces the best tires. Ideally I would like this to not be there as well, as that bond of trust weakens. I think Indian Cricket makes enough money to do without it and squeeze some from these gimmicks as well. The public doesn’t like it and in the end you have to give the public what it wants.