On May 3, in note to its members, the BCCI stated that the messages from columnist and media entrepreneur Boria Majumdar to wicket keeper Wriddhiman Saha were “in the nature of threat and intimidation” and issued a two-year ban on Majumdar. The ban cut him off from registered cricketers, nationwide cricket facilities and accreditation to events for the next two years, including the 2023 ICC Cricket World Cup hosted by India.
Given the personalities involved, no one was surprised by what had transpired, and the incident was responded to with unfamiliar urgency. It is possible that with a different combination of president and secretary–working in sync rather than today’s tug of war–Saha and Majumdar would have been made to make up and move on.
The entire episode threw light on the fluctuating engagement between Indian cricket, its elite squad and the media over the past 15 years, where its present is unrecognisable from its past. The incident also showed how the boundaries between the superstar team and the media while deliberately hardened in some parts, remained conveniently fluid in others. It makes the question of whether ‘journalist’ is a comprehensive description of Majumdar’s work or his engagement with Saha superfluous.
In the pre-internet age, players made their displeasure against media for various reasons known in various ways. Reporters were extracted out of press boxes, heated exchanges visible in plain sight. There were enraged phones call or royal ignores or press conference put downs. Cold shoulders lasted anything between days and years with equilibrium restored at some point. A player not returning your call was routine, the longer the silence, the bigger the hint. Journalists understood the power balance and that ultimatums served no purpose.
Indian cricket’s earliest sign of gate-keeping appeared in the mid-Noughties in the form of “permission from BCCI needed” response, with a sheepish, “I’m okay to talk, you know, but Manager insists.” It was roundabout, do-able and left civility intact. Today there is a deep schism between the Indian cricket team and the conventional media, and it’s daggers drawn over pitches, team selection, captaincy, retirements and inadequate genuflection over current greatness.
From the Indian team’s point of view, it was under MS Dhoni’s captaincy that an arm’s length approach was adopted due to, it is said, his experiences from 2007. Dhoni was a member of the Indian team that was tossed out early of the ICC’s 2007 World Cup and was roasted by the media, particularly news TV, with the burning of effigies and crowds gathering outside his home. In exactly six months, the script went from doomstay to deification after he captained India to victory in the ICC World T20 (today’s ICCT20 World Cup). Throughout his captaincy, Dhoni did reasonable, lengthy press conferences but any interaction requiring his time and his insight beyond that, needed to be transactional. One on one interviews were only given to overseas news media in England with captain Virat Kohli following in the same mode.
At the same time, from an institutional point of view, the BCCI began to turn the screws on Indian cricket’s independent voices, even for on-field action. In August 2011, it emerged that the BCCI had signed Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri (and later L. Sivaramakrishnan) as official commentators. No matter who owned the rights, it was mandatory the trio be included on every panel for international cricket in India. By the end of the 2011-2012 season, India had suffered two 0-4 Test away Test series defeats against England and Australia. Rather than have Indian cricket’s mightiest brains do a dispassionate stock-taking, TV marketed 2012-13 with ‘revenge’, pitches sent into ‘selective watering’ mode. From July 2012 onwards BCCI took charge of production as well, thus controlling the words going out from every single commentator on the ‘world feed’ out of Indian cricket.
Only when Ian Chappell revealed he had stayed away from commentary on the 2012-13 Border Gavaskar series because he refused to avoid certain topics, was the BCCI’s covert censorship model revealed. Commentators could not criticise Indian team selection, or argue about India’s objection to DRS nor discuss administrative matters. (Empty stands also became taboo.) In 2013, Danny Morrison and HD Ackerman were taken off an IPL play-off roster, reprimanded for referring to Virat Kohli as ‘possible future captain’ and ‘captain in waiting.’ Selectors’ business, you see.
Around the same time, cricketers and their managers were beginning to grasp the liberating power of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Here were vehicles to burnish their brand, display endorsements and disseminate their version of truth directly to fans. The superstar’s super power was exercised over other arms of media. Commentators were taken off post-match presentations or chats because the superstar got touchy about their tone, their question, their opinion, their hair, who knows. This even as BCCI’s touch-me-not guidelines were being followed.
At every ICC event, the Indian team management made sure its disdain for traditional media was advertised. At the 2015 ICC World Cup, the team’s practice nets were covered in black cloth so that they could not be filmed by Indian TV camera crew. Reporters were asked to leave team hotel lobbies, prevented from even hovering near pavements outside those hotels. Access was currency and the Indian team’s leaders were giving none away. Outside of the constrained commentariat, the media’s response could hardly be expected to be one of love, concern and fraternity.
But isn’t that childish? Isn’t access freeze a natural byproduct of big money and professionalism in elite sport? Who hounds Cristiano Ronaldo or Steph Curry for an interview in a hotel lobby? While Indian cricket is indeed the most elite of our sport, its big money escalating dizzyingly, its lack of professionalism had it operating in twilight zones with shadow men.
The power of access, who had it and who didn’t, redefined roles between ‘media’ and player. If ‘media’ work/ interviews/ inaugurations could go from personal favours into commercial opportunities, into partnerships, endorsements, events and trending topics, which cricketer would refuse? At its very top, Indian cricket became a tightly-controlled inner circle, Venn-diagrammed into proximity, profit and brand promotion. Let’s not fool ourselves: everyone at Influencers Inc. has derived benefits from backscratching, players and their entourages as much as anyone else. When push came to shove, though, l’affaire Saha showed us yet again just who calls the shots.
Where does this leave the conventional media? In the doghouse, with the national team’s overlords treating us like Deatheaters and Dementors? Or just grateful that it’s better off being the outsider looking in, rather on the inside, lining the wallet but breathing toxic fumes?