Apart from high-octane action on the field across various disciplines—the French Open, Euro soccer, National Basketball Association (NBA) and Test cricket produced riveting stuff—the past week in sports was also marked by some headline-grabbing, off-the field jousts between players and critics.
France midfielder Samir Nasri, for instance, after scoring the equalizer against England in the Uefa Euro 2012, turned his attention towards the media enclosure, demonstrating at someone to keep his mouth shut. It turned out Nasri’s ire was directed at a columnist who had been overly critical of him.
That players are frequently at loggerheads with scribes is, of course, hardly new or newsworthy. I recall an incident at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, in 1988 when the New Zealand cricket team, having beaten India in the Test, stopped below the press box and asked for a prominent journalist to visit them in the dressing room. The journo had earlier written off the Kiwi cricketers as sub-standard.
The relationship between performers (not just sportspersons) and the media has traditionally been rocky. For instance, film stars too are more often than not at sixes and sevens with critics. Performers feel that critics have no real idea of assessment since they have never been in the game, so to speak, while critics think their job is to see and write as they see it—through facts, analyses or both—for the benefit of readers/viewers.
Strike back: Ramdin forfeited 20% of his match fee after this act. Photo: Tom Hevezi/AP
There are obviously pros and cons to the positions taken by either side. Performers are not usually enamoured of hacks, but value fair judgement and analysis by those who have acquired deep knowledge and understanding of the sport. Likewise, the best writers are loath to sit on instant judgement and make the relationship with the performer participatory—without compromising on professional responsibility.
Where this relationship takes an interesting, but not necessarily gratifying or reconciliatory, turn is when the critics are from the same fraternity as the performers. That’s when different, often prickly, sensitivities creep in, and the pitch gets queered as it were.
As it happened last week. Kevin Pietersen, the maverick England batsman, took up cudgels against former England opener Nick Knight, who is now a television commentator, for criticizing him on air. Knight had questioned Pietersen’s credentials as a One Day International (ODI) batsman after the latter announced his decision to quit limited overs cricket. Pietersen, in turn, took potshots via Twitter at Knight’s expertise as a commentator. The England Cricket Board (ECB) intervened and fined Pietersen for his intemperate barbs, but this promises to be just a temporary truce.
Even more melodramatic was the public display of pique by West Indies wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin against former captain Vivian Richards, now part of the BBC commentary team. Ramdin, who had been under flak from Richards, pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket on reaching a superb hundred which read, “Yeah Viv, talk nah”, which, shorn of Caribbean colloquialism, says, “Viv talks too much”.
Did he? Was Richards unjustly harsh or being constructive and professional? Was Ramdin being hyper-sensitive or confrontationist? How does all this add up to the relationship between players present and past, so many of whom now find their way into the media box?
These are not easily answered questions, there are several dynamics at play. The current player expects to be treated like a fraternity member by the former player-turned-journalist. The public expects the latter, however, to live up to his position as an expert with the insider’s view. This makes some conflict inevitable.
Ego and insecurities are the two big influences at work in this scenario. The vanity of a major player like Pietersen will not permit him to take a jibe from a lesser achiever like Knight. It has also been seen that lesser achievers sometimes revel in pulling down a bigger player to score brownie points.
Where the Ramdin-Richards fracas is concerned, it is clearly insecurity at play. There is no comparison between the two as cricketers; Richards stands head and shoulders above the diminutive wicketkeeper, and not just in physical stature. His opinions could influence selectors and the administration, which would be Ramdin’s fear.
The scope for conflict is, of course, reduced when former players turned critics become part of the jamboree, as is the case in the context of Indian cricket and the media currently. There is a plethora of former and current players occupying prime space and time in the media, most expressing banalities which are lapped up by the players, media and readers as the gravy train chugs along.
It might seem like a win-win situation for all, but it is in fact quite a sad state of affairs.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org