Pearls from pressers
In the last four or so years, I have had the opportunity to be part of the cricket media, on and off. As and when my day job would allow me to travel, I covered a few Test series, a one-day tri-series, a World T20 and even a Cricket World Cup, for an assortment of cricket websites, magazines and newspapers. It has been a privilege to be up close and personal with the only thing I’m passionate about. However, having seen the life of a full-time cricket correspondent from such close proximity, I have come to the conclusion that I’m not cut out for it: the grind of perpetually being on the road, one hotel room to another, one sharp Damocles sword of a deadline to another and one mundane press conference to another. I just couldn’t take it.
Ah, the press conferences. The approach cricket correspondents and cricketers take to the pressers is, to paraphrase an old saying, “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them”. It is mandatory for the players to attend the interaction with the media at the close of play, and on the days before a match. In the current climate of coached cliched responses of “executing skill sets” and “right areas”, it is a chore for the scribes as well as the players, but it is an obligation that has to be met by both.
It is almost never that anything revelatory or groundbreaking comes out in these pressers. The captains probably do several dozens of them in a year and they—especially experienced ones such as M.S. Dhoni and Alastair Cook—are almost in auto-pilot mode answering the queries. There are usually two or three good ones in a press conference out of 15 or so posed to the players in the span of 8-10 minutes. A lot of the questions asked are quite trivial. For example, after New Zealand batsman Kane Williamson struck a six to win a 2015 World Cup group match against Australia, one (probably bored but wanting to ask something tangential) journo got curious about his beard and asked: “Where is the beard coming from?” Williamson without missing a beat, probably understanding the cheekiness of the curiosity, gave his beard a gentle rub and answered, “From the chin area, generally.”
My first experience of attending a presser was during a West Indies-New Zealand Test series in 2012. The venue was Antigua. I did not know how a presser was conducted and had no idea what the etiquette was. Since I had missed my flight, I couldn’t attend the pre-series presser and missed out on a golden opportunity to scout and learn the ropes. At close of play on Day 1, I followed the New Zealand media manager towards the players. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the fans that hadn’t turned out in any decent numbers for the cricket; there were just two people from the media at the presser, one of them yours truly.
Since it was just the two of us, it was all quite ad hoc. Ross Taylor was put forward and we did the presser right behind the sight screen. I had thought that Martin Guptill, who had top-scored for the day, would be at the presser and had prepared a list of questions, but the last minute change threw a curveball. I was already quite nervous (obviously) and now I was completely panicking. Yet, I mustered up enough courage to put together a longwinded question to begin the presser. In my head, I was thinking that since it was just two of us, we would alternate the questions. Of course, that is not how it usually works. As soon as I ceded the floor to the other person—a veteran from New Zealand—he asked a series of questions about New Zealand’s batting performance, the conditions, the pitch, the toss and the whole kitchen caboodle, follow-up questions, and follow-up to follow-up questions. By the time he was done, I had nothing left to ask. To top it all off, the media manager pulled me aside to give me a pointer. “Yeah, I understand the background you are coming from (blogging), but try to keep the questions short and sharp”.
In the space of 6 or 7 minutes, I had learned so much about pressers, but also developed a bit of contempt since there were a lot of trivial questions about the pitch etc. If you had watched the cricket all day, wouldn’t you know how the pitch behaved? Couldn’t you tell the pitch was slow and low and was beginning to aid the spinners? Why not ask something more revealing rather than something quite obvious? Later on I would realize the need for such questions as well. The responses were generally used by the correspondents to put together the “quote piece” in addition to the feature pieces. Also, the folks that write for news and wire agencies love the quotes and frame them in to the copies they file for the day. It’s all about the quotes, no matter how banal they are.
During bilateral series, when a player from the home side shows up, the first dibs are generally given to reporters from the home broadcasters. For example, in England, the BBC and Sky guys would get to ask the first questions, and the follow-ups too. Once they are done, the rest of the press corps get to ask theirs. However, in India, the reporters are never really allowed to ask follow-up questions. Once, an English reporter who opened the presser with a question to Dhoni tried to ask a follow-up. The then Indian media manager, Dr. R.N. Baba, curtly stopped him: “This is not a one-on-one, and we need to give others a chance to ask questions.”
The media managers of most teams are pretty chill. They allow follow-up questions, facilitate the pressers really well and coordinate with the players/coaches to even provide one-on-one interviews. The exceptions are the media managers of India and, to a lesser extent, England and Australia. Perhaps with the regime (and media manager) change at the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), things will be different. I was surprised to read that the new Indian Test captain, Virat Kohli, actually thanked the press corps after his team won the Test series in Sri Lanka recently.
Speaking of Kohli, I was part of the media during a tri-series in the Caribbean, in 2013, in which Kohli was leading the side in place of the injured Dhoni. During one of the press interactions, I had asked him whether he felt any pressure since he hadn’t scored a century in 16 matches, while he averages a hundred every 6-7 innings. He politely brushed it off, saying he was happy with his batting and his team was doing well even without him scoring hundreds. What does he do next game? He goes out and smashes a century off just 81 balls. As he walked in to the presser, he paused for a brief moment as he made his way past me and in a hushed tone enquired, “Happy now?” Another thing I learned that day: the players never forget, and so I must choose my words wisely.
Dhoni has always been a master of saying a lot without saying anything at all. At the same time, when he needs to, he comes up with sharp responses to stop you in your tracks. I have been at the receiving end of such retorts a few times. Usually, his sharp responses are delivered with a smile, and a laugh, to let us know that he doesn’t mean to be rude, but they almost always elicit uproarious laughter from the press corps, and the person that asked the question ends up feeling silly. Moments like these are compensated when respected veteran journalists sometimes come up and give you a pat on the back, saying, “That was a very good question.” And so it goes.
Even with the air-conditioned press box to watch the cricket from, free food and facilities, and all the access, I could never get used to the idea of covering cricket full time. In addition to the grind of it, it was the cynicism that I saw in a lot of the reporters—not all of them, of course—towards the game and the players that really drove home the point for me. I have also been witness to sly jokes and general mocking of the players in the press box, and the passing of judgments on the players’ personal lives, among other things. It does seem that the closer you are to the action, and the longer you stay there, it becomes tougher to fight off the cynicism that surrounds you. I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had and hope to one day return to a cricket press box, but for now, I am happy to be far far away, watching the action unfold on my television.