Like an Indian Administrative Services officer who receives a midnight phone call informing him he is to be transferred to a rural posting, Harsha Bhogle, India’s last remaining “professional” cricket commentator, has been abruptly sacked from the Indian Premier League. Bhogle is one of the few enduringly popular figures in Indian cricket, so the outrage provoked both by the fact of his removal and its manner should come as no surprise. But should we be surprised (let alone shocked, or appalled) to learn that the politicians who run Indian cricket are just as arbitrary and capricious as Indian politicians anywhere?
No official reason has been offered by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, either to the public or to Bhogle himself. In ascending order of credibility, three theories have been floated in the press and on social media.
First, that Bhogle was the commentator referred to in this Amitabh Bachchan tweet:
Second, that he had a verbal altercation with a Vidarbha Cricket Association official during a World T20 match at Nagpur (BCCI President Shashank Manohar is a longtime former president of this Association).
Third, that unnamed but “senior” Indian players have asked for his removal.
Any which way, Bhogle appears to have been fired due to no fault of his own, and without even the pretence of due process.
This does not, however, make him a martyr to the cause of objective journalism. It is many years since Bhogle was anything but a loyal and unquestioning advocate of the BCCI’s interests. Unlike Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, he did not sign a contract accepting payment in exchange for explicitly serving as a BCCI spokesman. But, following the board’s decision to directly handle television production, he has abided by the injunction that commentators refrain from any criticism or even discussion of BCCI policy, whether that means selection, the Umpire Decision Review System (known popularly as DRS), the governance of the International Cricket Council, or match-fixing.
These restrictions make a mockery of the notion that a commentator can be honest or objective. Ian Chappell, among others, has declined to take up BCCI employment on these terms. Commentators employed by the BCCI are not “journalists”. Like many ex-journalists, Bhogle made the move to public relations: not just the BCCI’s but that of cricket in general. Relentless optimism has been his stock-in-trade.
On occasion, he has gone further. In 2013, when the BCCI, in act of imperialistic arrogance, first threatened to withdraw from a scheduled tour to South Africa and then agreed to a curtailed tour, allegedly because Cricket South Africa had the temerity to appoint Haroon Lorgat as its head, Bhogle wrote a remarkable column that blamed the South Africans for failing to develop “parallel revenue streams” and allowing themselves to become financially dependent on the BCCI.
This act of victim-blaming cost Bhogle a great deal of respect within the international fraternity of cricket journalism and earned a devastating takedown from Gideon Haigh, widely considered the world’s leading cricket writer. Perhaps as a response to the backlash, he stepped back from this position of BCCI apologist, offering some muted criticisms of the Big Three – the boards of India, England and Australia – takeover (in his column, not in the commentary box). Since 2012, he has generally avoided commenting on governance issues at all, saying repeatedly that he is interested only in what happens between bat and ball.
Through almost three decades in broadcasting, Bhogle’s enthusiasm for cricket appears undimmed. It is evident, though, that he is sensitive to the charge of being a BCCI loyalist. During last year’s World Cup final, he received a great deal of online criticism for a cloying on-air interview with then-ICC Chairman N Srinivasan. He responded that he was simply doing his job:
It is tempting to view Bhogle’s loyalism as proof of Upton Sinclair’s famous rule that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But, viewed more charitably, he has held a job he loves, and one that millions would kill for, and performed it with zeal and industry. If the conditions of his employment have restrained him from being truly honest or objective, he has judged that a price worth paying: but wouldn’t most of us? Ian Chappell is in a tiny minority, and he isn’t Indian. Besides, with Harsha Bhogle, positivity isn’t a charade demanded by BCCI bosses. It has always come naturally to him. At his best, you get the sense that, unlike the often jaded ex-cricketers he shares the box with, he feels profoundly lucky to be able to do this job.
Not quite cricket
What are we to make of such a loyal professional – “loyal” and “professional” in every sense – being fired in this way? Two conclusions come to mind, both of them depressing for any well-wisher of Indian cricket, but neither in the least surprising.
First, if Harsha Bhogle, the ultimate company man, can be treated in this way, then no one is safe, and the handover from N Srinivasan to Shashank Manohar/Anurag Thakur did not mark any great change in the BCCI’s style of functioning.
Thakur has openly emphasised his belief that commentators should stick to describing the action on the field, a policy put into place by the previous regime. And far from being the saviour of Indian cricket, Shashank Manohar, as Board president, is complicit in all that took place between 2008 and 2011, from the antics of Lalit Modi to the rise of unchecked conflict of interest. No one doubts his personal probity, but we don’t doubt Manmohan Singh either. In a precedent for Bhogle’s sacking, the previous regime allegedly engineered Sanjay Manjrekar’s last-minute removal from the commentary team for a home series against Australia. At least you could say of Manjrekar that he has often pushed the lines as far as he can in an attempt to express himself honestly. Bhogle is not even guilty of that.
Second, Indian cricket has been run for some time by a player-administrator nexus in which journalists are deemed dispensable at best and contemptible much of the time. A full examination of this would run into an article of itself, but it is exemplified by MS Dhoni’s recent humiliation of an Australian journalist who had asked a reasonable question in a respectful way. Dhoni’s successor as Test captain, Virat Kohli, has said that “someone who hasn’t played for the country has no right in anyway to comment on an international cricketer.” The BCCI, for its part, until recently refused to accredit journalists from ESPNCricinfo, the world’s largest cricket website.
This means that even journalists unaffiliated with the BCCI are cautious when writing about the board. Few openly condemn the Big Three takeover or India’s stand on the DRS, or question the value of the IPL. If you want any kind of access to the players, unalloyed boosterism is the only option. But when Harsha Bhogle, who has always played by the rules, is treated in this way, even loyalism is a fraught policy. Those responsible for his sacking are behaving not like sportsmen or sporting administrators but like politicians who believe they are above the law. Anyone who has been fired or transferred by Mayawati or Jayalalithaa would sympathise.
There is a consolation. Like Jayalalithaa’s 2011 expulsion of Sasikala from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Bhogle’s removal is likely to be provisional. Perhaps because he has positioned himself as the voice of the fan in the commentary box, he remains hugely popular with a constituency even the BCCI would do well not to alienate. It is difficult to see what he has to apologise or atone for, but one presumes that a rapprochement can be reached, and that, at any rate, Harsha Bhogle will be back covering the IPL this time next year.