Stephen Curry loves pasta, and his wife hosts a cooking show: In her smooth, husky voice, Neeti Rawat is rattling off these bits of trivia about the Golden State Warriors’ point guard. The words tumble out with increasing velocity when she switches to talking about her favourite National Basketball Association (NBA) teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets.
Rawat, 36, is not just an NBA fan, she was also the only woman on the Hindi commentary team over the past two seasons. Rawat joined in 2017, when Hindi was first introduced in an attempt to find new audiences for the league in India. She will rejoin the panel for the forthcoming season, beginning 22 October.
“Sports was a passion that became a profession," says Rawat, an Arsenal supporter who has a master’s in sports science and runs a corporate event management company. “I can speak about sports the whole day." Rawat commentated on more than two dozen games in the 2018-19 season, flying to the Mumbai studio from Delhi to start work by 5.30am, her role largely oscillating between expert and colour commentary.
Besides cricket, where the number of women commentators has increased in the past few years, sports commentary continues to be a male preserve in India. “You can count on your fingers the women doing sports commentary and analysis," says Rawat, the youngest on the six-person commentary panel. “You hardly get to hear Hindi female voices. It kind of breaks the monotony."
A former national-level volleyball player and a recreational basketballer, Rawat strayed into commentary. After a few stints on radio in 2007, she got a break with Doordarshan (DD) in 2008, when it needed someone to fill in during the National Games. Since then, she has commentated for Sony ESPN, Star Sports, DD and Neo, covering volleyball, kabaddi, badminton, athletics and swimming. She has also covered marquee multi-sport events like the Olympics and the Asian Games.“I used to think I should work on more opportunities in English," she says. “Now English commentators are coming into Hindi. So I think Hindi was the right choice. Lots of channels now want to do Hindi and Hindi is a big market."
With cricket dwarfing other sports, many told her to switch tracks over the years—but it was never tempting. “Olympic sports are played by so many nations, but only 12 nations play cricket," she says.
At 5ft, 6inches, Rawat played as point guard in her younger days, and worshipped the Chicago Bulls growing up. As a volleyball player, basketball too comes naturally to her. “I enjoy the tempo of the game. It’s one ball, five men, you never know what will happen. There are few sports in which the last seconds can change a game."
The last season of the NBA had 15 million unique viewers watching the Hindi telecasts. “Neeti is an ex-sportswoman, a basketball fan, and is very talented. Having Neeti on board also allows us to reach out to a wider demographic," says Mairu Gupta, senior director, global media distribution, NBA India. “Additionally, (she) has very good voice texture and works hard on her pre-game preparation, which make her an invaluable asset."
Preparation includes breathing exercises, voice modulation, training for diction and pronunciation, as well as learning to avoid clichés. Then there is the late-night homework—making notes and watching replays to stay abreast of player injuries, transfer news, statistics, team legacies, fun facts, and remembering up to 15 players for the 30 teams. “Sometimes it feels like preparing for an exam!" she exclaims.
Though the language is Hindi, the technical vocabulary is mostly unchanged: “free throw", “pick and roll" and “offence", for instance, resist effective translation. “If you say akraman for offence, it will sound strange," she chuckles. “Technical Hindi will get tough."
With a spontaneity that infuses her conversations, Rawat’s style is informal, emotive and energetic. “I toh get carried away sometimes," she says, admitting to swearing off mike and gesticulating wildly. “I was supporting the Trail Blazers the entire season. But they (the NBA) gave me (that) freedom."
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.