He’s “fearless”. If you say so. He’s “delightful”. Well, really. He’s “elegant”. So who’s to argue. He’s “intelligent”. Fine, alright, we heard you first time, we get the point. But no, they go on. He’s “the best thing in Australia since vegemite”. Oh c’mon, desist from this drooling, cease this coddling, his ego is going to explode.
But no, the love letters about this Indian radio commentator are still pouring into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). And no, his ego has not undergone any sudden expansion. But yes, the hint of a blush is evident, and well, fine, that’s forgivable. After all, there were posters up at the Adelaide cricket ground, insisting he should be PM.
He is HarshaBhogle, radio commentator, TV presenter, columnist, and he’s sitting down in his Mumbai house, which is good, because he’s not sure what’s happening to his life.
The half-pant fellow who, according to father Achyut, used to talk non-stop while he played (imagine Harsha running in to bowl, shouting “and Harsha comes in to bowl”, and he bowls) is now called by ESPN and BBC and Radio New Zealand and South Africa and paid to talk (fortunately not to bowl). He is talking on the Pakistan-Sri Lanka series at the moment.
The TV presenter of 1994 who, according to Peter Hutton, head of production, Trans World International (TWI) “had a face and look that were as close to what could not possibly work on television”, is now described by the same man as having “achieved an unbelievable amount in the fastest growing television market”.
“This is all a dream,” says Bhogle, for once displaying a limited vocabulary. Indeed, in India, fame in cricket has been reserved for men alongside whose names run impressive deeds. On Bhogle’s bio-data rest no Test runs scored (though he played alongside Mohammed Azharuddin at Osmania University), but an IIM degree and an advertising background.
So when the International Management Group asks to represent him, and Pepsi and Castrol sign him up, and he makes over half a crore rupees a year talking, writing cricket, you have to wonder: sure this boy done good, but how?
Part of Bhogle’s appeal lies in his non-heroic background. He will never have Tony Greig’s stature, Sunil Gavaskar’s understanding, Ian Chappell’s scholarship, instead he projects an endearing approachability.
What defines him is his humanity and his commentary devoid of any viciousness.
He talks to you, suggesting a conversation is on, not a lecture. TV producer Michael O’Dwyer forced him to buy more with-it spectacles and rearranged his wardrobe, but it’s nice that Bhogle admits “I have no style” before we do. Instead, with his receding hairline and cheesy grin and boyish energy, he exudes a “I’m-a-regular-guy” charm that is easily indentifiable with.
When a visually impaired man met him once at Eden Gardens to explain how Bhogle’s voice had altered his dismal life, there was an implicit understanding here that Bhogle would not blush or excuse himself with thanks but sit and talk with him for 20 minutes.
He is, you see, everyman’s voice of Indian cricket. Who has, says Ray Hume, ESPN’s head of cricket, “a special warmth that comes through the lens as does his love for the game”.
He speaks well, his voice strong, rarely handicapped for a word. He is inventive, once describing an Adam Gilchrist flying catch as “some of the seagulls here are going to get a complex”. He is educated, able to travel beyond the boundaries of the game, say his peers.
When Terry Jenner once said, “This is not a wind, just a zephyr,” he responded, “What a nice word for Scrabble, it’s only got one vowel and worth 23 points.” And he is cowboy quick with his wit. When commentators teased him after Australian writer Susan Kurosawa described him as “cricket’s sexiest voice”, he replied, “I was delighted to see the article was written by a woman.”
In his early years on television, of course, he spoke too much, a steam engine running wild without a driver. Shut up, we told our screens. But in a keenness to prove himself in elite company, he says, “You feel if you speak more you can impress.”
In time he found his value lay in being a non-striker, or as he explains, “People want to hear Boycott and I know what people want to hear from Boycott.” The arrogant boy who arrived for his All India Radio (air) audition in a “disco shirt and rubber slippers” had gone. Replaced by a man who has pinned on the board in front of his desk a small tattered brown piece of paper.
It reads: “Humility, Patience and Conquest of Anger”. What defines him, as ABC commentator Tim Lane says, “is his humanity”, his commentary devoid of any edge of condescension, any barb of viciousness.
When an Australian interviewer commented on his lack of bias, he replied, “I didn’t know that was a qualification.” If this endears him to players, they respect too, as Rahul Dravid says, the fact “that he doesn’t get into the technical aspect”.
HarshaBhogle knows what he cannot do. He has had luck on his journey but made his own too. When he did his air audition at 19, his tape lay unheard till his father told a friend who spoke to his daughter who lived next door to the station director who ensured it was heard. He got his chance and ran with it.
In 1991, as India toured Australia, he boldly sent his tapes to ABC, marched into a commentary box replete with legends, and walked out with a letter from producer Alan Marks which said, “I recommend him in the strongest possible way”.
Television was no different. His first Inside Edge programme was described by Hutton as “the worst piece of sports television”. In his first days as presenter, he stopped “live” during a broadcast because he thought the producer, who was instructing a cameraman, was talking to him. But always, his producers say, he listened, he learnt, he improved.
Astonishingly, he still believes he is lacking, that he is an imposter of sorts, a self-esteem so low and so obvious that Hutton says, “His weakness is he doesn’t believe he’s good.” So maybe he could find some gravitas, or to be cruel, consider a hair transplant, but it might rob him of what he is.
So, instead, maybe he should think of the young Hyderabadi boy who used to listen to the radio when Gavaskar played, and switch it off to study only when he was out. Then maybe he should slip a cassette into his video player and watch that same boy now sitting alongside Sunny. Talking together to the world.
And if he’s going to blush we don’t want to watch.
Rising above the ordinary
HarshaBhogle is a wonderful teller of tales, almost transporting the reader to the arena as he vividly paints striking pictures in his own inimitable way. Bhogle has a way with words, especially of the written kind.
OUT OF THE BOX
pp 275, Rs 450
On television, he probably is a little too generous with them, but as a ‘colour’ person, that is perhaps his brief and his speciality. When he writes, however, he commands attention with his flowing style that fuses sport, politics, business, you name it, most seamlessly.
In many ways, Bhogle is a pioneer, the man who put Indian radio and television commentating on the world map in his status as a non cricket-playing analyst. Bhogle is perhaps in a class of one because increasingly and almost without exception, television commentating in particular has become the bastion of the former player, preferably the former international player. That the erudite, exciting and excitable Bhogle has more than held his own amongst the likes of Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Chappell is a tribute to his hold over his trade.
Several exceptional television pundits will also acknowledge the vast difference in and demands of writing as compared to the spoken word. It’s one thing calling the game as you see it, quite another organising your thoughts and putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard, as it were! That’s where Bhogle scores, because he is as at home in print as he is on television.
Out Of The Box is more a literary compilation than composition, bringing together several of Bhogle’s columns in The Indian Express on one single platform. It’s a collection well worth preserving, as much for its literary skills as for the passion and spirit with which every single column has been authored, and for the consistency with which Bhogle has painted pretty pictures over an extended period of time.
Whilst he might be a traditionalist at heart, it’s perhaps in tune with the modern trend that Bhogle begins the book with numerous pieces on the Twenty20 format that has spread like wildfire. In a way, it’s surprising that that should be the case; in another, it is not quite so because eventually, the modern is so often the master of tradition, whether one likes it or not.
Bhogle’s constant grouse — tirade might be too strong — against the administration has been well documented, because he sincerely believes that there is so much more that can be done by the officialdom to make cricket more appealing and friendly, both for the players and the paying public that has made sport the industry and religion it is in India today. A fair few in India hold a similar opinion, but may not have the platform to air their views. They will identify with a kindred soul, even if the officialdom itself might view it as the convenient harangue of a passionate outsider playing to the galleries.
At no stage in his broadcasting career has Bhogle made any effort to hide his affection for Tendulkar the cricketer and Tendulkar the human being. Having interacted closely with the little man over the years, Bhogle is in perfect position to provide an insight into what makes Tendulkar the champion he is. Out Of The Box rises above the ordinary on several counts. Tendulkar calls it an inspiration for ‘readers to chase their own dreams’. How’s that for an endorsement!