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Do commentators in cricket face censorship?

Are cricket commentators routinely censored? Perhaps not, but over the years quite a few commentators have been pulled up for rubbing players and cricket boards the wrong way. Sanjay Manjrekar, the latest name to do the rounds, has come under fire before as well. Once made to eat his words for disparaging a young Virat Kohli as unfit for Test cricket, he was trolled heavily during the World Cup last year when he called Ravindra Jadeja a ‘bits and pieces player’.

For the record, Manjrekar didn’t make the comment on Twitter or during commentary but in an audio interview to a news agency. With social media going viral with that comment, Jadeja responded on Twitter in an unprecedented joust. Manjrekar owned up to his comments by giving Jadeja his due but it had snowballed into an ego issue. Speculation is that the BCCI didn’t keep Manjrekar on this year’s IPL’s commentary panel because some players were unhappy with him.

He isn’t the first cricketer-turned-commentator to draw such ire. A leaked email has thrown light on how Manjrekar was forced to write to BCCI pleading for his job.

Instances of former cricketers being ‘cautioned’ on critical comments are increasing. Michael Holding, a legend of the game, was asked by ICC to cut down on the criticism of umpires during the 2019 World Cup. Former Australia captain Ian Chappell once said BCCI was bent on ‘muzzling’ commentators over the Decision Review System controversy. Whatever rope is extended to former cricketers, commentators are shown no mercy. Harsha Bhogle was booted out of the 2016 IPL commentary team after an alleged altercation with an official of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, seat of the then BCCI president.

Censorship is rarely in writing though. “I haven’t been in the box for almost four years but in my time there were no restrictions, as in no one told me not to say anything. That, to me, is very important because how else can you be yourself when you are on air. And I don’t think that is very good for the game,” said long-time commentator and former India opener Arun Lal.

“That said I also feel there is a way of saying what you want to say. I always tempered everything down. You can say what you want, get the point across without being insensitive to the situation. For instance, if there is a mega star who is not playing well, you can’t just say that is a bad shot, a terrible shot. You can say, for instance, that he is an absolute champion who is possibly not making the right decisions now. There is a way of saying things which are not so in-your-face-offensive and yet you get your point across.”

BCCI has always maintained it never tries to censor commentators.

One of the biggest names to debunk that theory is former England captain Michael Atherton who suggested in 2006 that BCCI had imposed some sort of ‘censorship’ on TV commentators. Nimbus, the then production company, and BCCI, vehemently denied any gag was ordered.

Another blow came in 2013 when Chappell blasted BCCI for controlling commentators over DRS.

“I was invited by ESPN to do commentary. I emailed back asking who I was working for and the reply was; I was contracted by ESPN but I would be subject to BCCI restrictions,” Chappell had told Hindustan Times in an e-mail interaction. “I emailed back to ask what these restrictions were and was told; ‘I couldn’t talk about Indian selection, DRS or administrative matters. I responded saying I didn’t feel I could do my job properly under those circumstances and therefore declined the offer.”

Firing an employee is an employer’s right but for commentators the reasons are often not based on their annual appraisal. This was again apparent during the 2016 World Twenty20 in India with Bhogle’s termination from IPL commentary panel. What may not have helped his case was a tweet from Amitabh Bachchan after India’s one-run win. “With all due respects, it would be really worthy of an Indian commentator to speak more about our players than others all the time,” wrote Bachchan.

India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni retweeted it, commenting: ‘Nothing to add’. Clearly, Bhogle was not a players’ favourite then.

It explains why Manjrekar wants to toe the line. There have been exceptions as well. Like Holding, who on being told by ICC to tone down on criticism of umpiring at the 2019 World Cup, came up with a stinging reply. “If those umpires were FIFA officials, they would have been told to pack their bags and head home.

They would not have been given another World Cup game to officiate. As a former cricketer, I think cricket should be held to a higher standard. Is the objective to protect the umpires even when they do a bad job?” Holding wrote in the email, details of which came out in Times of India.

Holding added: “I am sorry, but I am not going to be part of that. Please let me know if I should be heading back to my home in Newmarket instead of heading to Cardiff because I don’t agree with what is being suggested here and happy not being part of it.”

Holding continued to be part of the commentary team.

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