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August 5, 1998


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20 inches of stardom...

Harsha Bhogle

20 inches of stardom.

Television, probably the strongest force of our times, can do that to you. It is a demanding mistress. Pamper it and cater to its needs, and it can take you places, make you seem larger than life, make you a hero in one thirty second piece. Miss a trick, and you are in the fast lane down, with no one to hide your embarassment.

It is a bit like changing in public. You drop your guard once, and it shows. It is a tempestuous relationship, which you have to assess everyday. By contrast, living with radio is like living in a happy joint family where your mistakes are covered up and where happiness is shared.

For the same reason, television is also a cruel mistress. It conceals a lot more than it reveals, and very often the real heroes stay hidden; shrouded behind a screen of beautiful pictures that they have helped create.

They’ll wear T-shirts and shorts and carry miles upon miles of cables. They will peer through lenses without moving for hours. They will stare at screens and find on it things that you and I would never notice. And they work at lightning speed.

To work with a crack television crew is a humbling feeling, and I have felt that way every day of the last four years; with me, just the ribbon on the beautiful product that someone else has created.

The engineers rig up the cameras and the microphones and lay cables all around the ground without being allowed a single mistake. It takes a very good production unit up to six hours to put it together, and another two or three to dismantle everything and put it back into boxes.

Now, imagine what life must have been like during the Titan Cup last year -- 10 matches in 21 days! As soon as a match was over, the crew would de-rig, drag their tired bodies to the hotel, get up at the crack of dawn and fly in a Russian transport plane that has trucks, generators, luggage and a few seats to the next destination, reach the hotel, dump their bags and rush to the ground to set up the equipment (remember, it takes at least six hours, after reaching the ground), catch a few hours of sleep, reach the ground by 7 am, work right through the day and then continue the above schedule.

Nine more times.

Without missing a ball, without missing a replay, without missing a run on the scorecard. And still having the presence of mind to produce those brilliant pictures.

No infections allowed. No headaches allowed. No stomach upsets allowed. Not even a quick trip to the loo during a session. Try doing that in the cold of Toronto without crossing your legs and contorting your body, with the icy winds cutting through you and with the bowlers bowling a slow over rate. Try doing that at mid-wicket without missing a single stumping or run-out. Actual human beings, with blood flowing through their veins, do all this and more.

The producers still cut great opening sequences (remember Sunny Gavaskar and Ranjit Fernando in bed dreaming of Santa; or drinking coconut water on the beach; or playing that unforgettable card game); the editors still produce the most stunning replays while you are still wondering which eye to blink; the sound engineer still allows you to hear the difference between the “chick” of ball hitting edge and the “thump” of ball hitting pad; the cameraman still listens to commentary and even without being asked, shows you the batsman’s rubber soles in one and a half seconds; the vision-mixer selects pictures without having the time to think of which one will look good for the viewer; the statistician tells you how many scores below fifty Tendulkar has made in 1996-97 while at the same time knowing how many balls and minutes each player has against his name; and the director gives instructions to eight different people at once and still finds time to share a joke.

What keeps them going? I have often asked myself the question. Television provides a very decent standard of living but, more than anything else, everyone on the crew loves cricket. You can see that in the debating points they earn in the bar, and in their ability to pick up small incidents on a cricket ground that all the others may have missed.

At Goa, for example, the mid-wicket cameraman, Johnnie de Villiers from South Africa, who I consider to be one of the stars in contemporary cricket, suddenly came up on the talk-back with the director suggesting that the umpire, Prof RC Sharma, obviously didn’t like calling no-balls. “Take a look at this,” he said, and showed us that each of the next four balls from Sajeewa da Silva was a no-ball that wasn’t called.

Ravi Shastri was on air then, and he promptly realised that the umpire wasn’t even looking down. “I don’t think he is looking down at all,” was all that Ravi said. The next shot -- without anyone calling for it -- was a close-up of the umpire while the ball was being bowled. The eyes were focussed firmly ahead.

The cameramen are the most visible elements of a telecast. Very often, it is the people huddled inside the truck who produce the most unforgettable moments. At the Sahara Cup this year, Sourav Ganguly played a very good-looking shot past point, but the ball was in the air for a while. While the expert was commenting about the fact that Ganguly hadn’t moved his feet too much, I whispered to the director,” I think he got out to a similar shot in the last game”.

Within a couple of minutes, Dexter Mathew, our amazing Jamaican video-editor, had put both shots, the one that dismissed him in the previous game and one that produced the boundary in the next, one after the other and viewers were able to see them while the topic was still alive.

To be able to do this, Dexter had to pull out his records, check the position on the tape where the Ganguly dismissal was, cue it up, pull out the replay of the boundary, place them side by side and tell the director he was ready. Now, while this was happening, if there was a wicket or a boundary, he would have had to come up with those replays immediately. He only has two other editors to help him, and it is incredible that between the three of them, they don’t miss a thing.

Commentary must seem a piece of cake after all this. For some people it is. For other, more ordinary mortals, it isn’t! The reason commentators become better known than all the others is that they represent the face and the voice of the telecast. They are the people you can identify with, and so they are, or at any rate should be, your friends. That is vital. A commentator who comes through as arrogant and conceited puts a blot on the entire effort. A friendly, happy man puts a smile on everyone’s face.

The entire television crew produces the cake. The commentators are the packaging. Without them, you wouldn’t buy the cake. But it is just as pertinent, especially to crazy fans all over, that you cannot take empty packaging home.

I have yet to meet two commentators, though, who approach things in a similar way. Geoffrey Boycott hates being told what he is going to be asked in the course of an interview. “Joost ask, ask me anything. No problem,” he says and all I tell him now is “Geoffrey, three minutes, two questions.” And then sometimes you can slip him a third, like asking him the price of his hat !

With Ravi, I prefer to tell him what I am going to ask him because he is at his best when he has had a moment to reflect. That is when he comes out strongest. For a tiny second his eyes will wander away, his face will screw up in thought and then he will turn and say “haan pooch!”

And I do not know of anyone else who has a greater sense of occasion than Sunil Gavaskar. And he is at his best when mildly provoked, because he is such a master in the art of repartee. And if he sees an opening you are dead. I saw that when I did a little piece at Shivaji Park and ended with “..... but of course Sunny Gavaskar will be able to tell us more”.

We were in the commentary box when that tape was played. I saw his eyes light up and I knew I had copped it.

“Aaah,” he said , “Now I was always Dadar Union........” .

He knew he was on a good wicket. The century that was round the corner was duly completed!

It is when all the elements of a telecast combine in harmony that it becomes a feast. And once you have tasted that, most other things can seem a bit bland !

Harsha Bhogle

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