The Player Media Disconnect: No End in Sight
At the very end of an extended optional net session at the Ferozeshah Kotla in New Delhi on an unusually pleasant April evening, Rahul Dravid did something decidedly unusual. He picked up a pad and a handful of balls, and beckoned Karun Nair to an empty net. Those watching the practice, from bored policemen to selfie-seeking fans to curious journalists, had their hopes momentarily raised. Was the Delhi Daredevils mentor going to pad up once more? Perhaps one of the reasons such interest was piqued was because of an incident just before the practice session, when Javagal Srinath led a team of umpires out to the middle of the ground to inspect the pitches. On the way, he found Rishabh Pant practicing range hitting – the new official term for slogging – and quickly picked up a bat. Srinath stroked a couple of balls reasonably gently before hearing a familiar voice in Kannada from the Kotla dressing-room urging him to put one in the stands. Responding to former teammate Dravid’s call, Srinath launched a couple deep into the stands in trademark fashion, arms f lailing in gay abandon, and then pointed to the dressing-room as if to say: that was for you. But, while Srinath was only having a bit of harmless fun, Dravid and Karun were in the nets for more serious business. And, yes, while Dravid did carry the pad into the net to protect his leg, it was in an entirely different sense than the manufacturers intended. Placing the pad on the ground, Dravid went down on one knee, and began to roll the ball, underarm, all along the ground to Karun, who responded with strokes. Anyone who has attempted to get a toddler interested in hitting the ball will be familiar with this method, as it’s almost impossible for the batsman to miss, but what exactly was going on here? Karun is an accomplished young batsman and there must have been a very specific aspect of the game that Dravid was hoping to address with this drill. From afar, one could only speculate that the attempt was to get Karun used to keeping the bat as close to the ground as possible, but speculation is a dangerous thing at the best of times.
In the not-so-distant past, such a query could easily be answered. At the end of the net session, the journalist would beckon either Dravid or Karun and find out exactly what that was about. Occasionally, that would lead to an interesting and educational story, something that the reader might enjoy and end up as a report. More often than not, the explanation would be more mundane, and all it did was enhance the journalist’s perspective.
In this day and age, security is so protective of players that it is harder and harder to get close enough to anyone for a chat, and even when you do, there is hardly space to have a quiet and private word, with people of all descriptions mobbing the player.
With that being the case, the other avenue to seek answers and clarifications, is the formal press conference. While that was the original function of the press conference – to gain information that could augment reportage – this has change dramatically with the kind of blanket coverage across different platforms that cricket receives. Now, young cricketers just trying to find their feet are asked about whether Salman Khan was the right choice for brand ambassador of India’s Olympic campaign. There is no right answer to such questions and the player sees the trap a mile away. If he doesn’t, the media manager handling the press conference – often a former journalist who knows exactly where this is headed – steps in and nips it in the bud. What this has meant, is that most players now refuse to engage in any meaningful manner at press conferences. A random sample of utterances from the last few days tells a story.
“They are the defending champions. Whichever team plays well on the day will win the game. We are just concentrating on our process and the result will take care of itself.” That is one of the templates, the platitude or cliché.
“If they send me down the order, I have to finish the games and if they send me up the order, I will have to build the innings and set the stage for my team.” That’s another template, stating the bleeding obvious. “I’ve been feeling fine the whole tournament. I’ve just been finding random ways to get out, which can happen in this game. There’s been nothing wrong with my form, I’ve been hitting the ball as well as ever.” This after scoring his first half-century in 34 outings, is another template, outright denial of any merit in the question. “We have plenty of good left-handers who can play spin there. Plenty.” In fact, Gujarat have one left-hand batsman in their top order, Suresh Raina, and that’s another template, the complete disconnect from reality. Cut back to the net session between Dravid and Karun. Not happy that his ward has fully understood what he was meant to do, Dravid walks across and takes the bat from Karun, asking him to stand behind and watch as someone rolls balls to him. Dravid hits. He looks to be going at the ball a bit more forcefully, with more f luency, hitting through it better. But then, that’s blind speculation. At the next opportunity, perhaps someone will ask Karun or Dravid what that was all about, and one of them might surprise us with a simple, honest explanation. But, if the current press conferences in the IPL are anything to go by, please don’t hold your breath.