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The league culture in India has been evolving this past decade. As with most things to do with leagues, the initiative will have to be taken by the IPL and, to a lesser extent, the PKL and ISL for it to percolate down to the other leagues. The leagues have put quite a few sports on the broadcast and awareness map, but too often without the requisite development at the grassroots or junior level. Now is the right time to add value to the league verticals by empowering and enhancing the role of the franchises, and giving representation and rights to the players and personnel. If things evolve as they should, this next decade will go a long way towards creating a bespoke sports culture in India that also results in a broader based sports ecosystem framework and consistently good performances across a full boutique of disciplines. The IPL has shown it can be done. Now it is for the others to replicate it in a viable manner.
To set things in context on Indian sport, I usually like to relate an incident from late 2014, when my Chilean colleague Javier Ceppi and I went to meet the sports ministry about the FIFA U-17 World Cup to be held in 2017. The mid-level official we met yawned, scratched himself and then told us that since we were the hosts, India should definitely have two teams playing, India ‘A’ and India ‘B. ‘ Fortunately Javier’s understanding of Hindi was not as good as it later got, so I could quickly hustle him out of the room before he understood. An official with fifteen odd years in sport thought that a football World Cup could have two Indian teams playing. That is probably a good indication of the quality of personnel currently in the sports industry. And a great reason why we need the best minds we can find for Indian sport. This piece does not attempt to present an exhaustive list of all the possible career options in Indian sport but, rather, provides a fairly personal snapshot of how the opportunities and needs have changed dramatically and a sense of the kind of talent that we’ll probably need moving forward. My first real brush with the sporting profession was in 1996. After a stint in software, writing interminably long COBOL programmes to generate payrolls for coal plants in distant lands, I had decided that media and sport were careers more suited to me. It was in 1996, when I was working for the now defunct Business India Television, that I first heard of Transworld International (TWI), which had their office just above ours. I was introduced to a producer there through a colleague, and found out that they were planning a cricket quiz show for Home TV.
They had appointed a statistician to set the questions, but I managed to meet the producer and tried to explain that interesting quiz questions were usually not just about numbers. They went ahead with the statistician, but came right back after their first few episodes. And from being a freelance question setter, I slowly worked my way into becoming the producer of the show. My path was hardly unique. In those days, the internet had not even hit India, and there were absolutely no search agencies to hire for sports professionals. In the TWI office, all of the staff were literally either walk-ins or recommendations. There was even one staff member whom the head of TWI production had found crying at the foyer of a corporate office as she had not managed to clear a job interview. He hired her on the spot, and for good measure, hired her sister as well a few months later!In those early days, it was a heady feeling working with sport, specifically Indian cricket and football, but the one question that I would inevitably be asked was, ‘Why does a country with a billion people win so little?’ And, sadly, the only part of the question that really changed over the next decade or so was that the figure in question changed from a billion people to 1. 2 billion people.
If one has to look at an inflexion point in Indian sport, it would have to be 2008. Abhinav Bindra’s Olympic gold medal was a massive breakthrough. While Leander’s amazing bronze in 1996 got us into medal contention after heartbreakingly close calls from Milkha Singh and PT Usha, Bindra was the one to reach the pinnacle. And it made a huge difference. Being a medal winner was great; being the best in the world took it a huge step further. The other revolution in Indian sport came with the start of the IPL in the same year. The event had less to do with the cricket, which was already at a fairly high level, and more with the way it was organised and delivered. I remember dealing with a member of the Indian cricket board on a routine matter in the mid 2000s, and my mail was duly downloaded by a secretary, printed out and placed on the gentleman’s table. He then dictated an answer, which was typed out, printed and mailed back to us, reaching after a week.
In the first week of the IPL, with new challenges every day, I sent a mail to the same organization at 7 PM on a clarification regarding player eligibility. I received an acknowledgement within a minute and a detailed note which outlined all possible exceptions to the rule and their interpretation, marked to all the competing franchises within the hour. The IPL brought a professionalism to the way Indian sport was run, which was otherwise rarely seen on a concerted basis. And we probably needed that just as much as we need our future stars. Exactly how important is it to cover sport well? In 2000, we commenced our first session of the ESPN School Quiz Olympiad, with Harsha Bhogle as the host. It was an absolute revelation; we were blown away with how much the IXth and Xth standard kids in the competition knew about international sport. Their knowledge of any sport regularly telecast on cable television was absolutely brilliant. But anything on India beyond cricket, especially women’s sport, was an absolute black hole. I remember a particular sequence where a visual of Leeds United footballer Harry Kewell was answered in a flash, with the other two teams distraught at not pressing their buzzer on time. In the same episode, a picture of Shiny Abraham, one of India’s finest athletes, was shown.
The first team tried PT Usha; the other two did not even have a name to guess. If there was one reason for that, it was the absolutely appalling coverage of Indian sport on television. The real revolution started there in 1993, when Jagmohan Dalmiya and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), tired of being pushed around by Doordarshan, sold the rights for Indian cricket to IMG, with the telecast being produced by TWI, IMG’s television arm. TWI was the first full-fledged sports production company in India, and its initial productions were almost completely crewed by international talent. But, in a year, domestic matches also had to be covered according to the contract, and Indian talent slowly started seeping into the system. The first jobs were in operations and logistics. Indian production managers proved more than capable of actually running the day-to-day operations like cash flow, transport, catering and other support functions, and had a far better sense of reasonable pricing. The next big input was in two hard-core technical areas, namely cameras and EVS (Broadcast Equipment). Sports cameramen need very different skills from the kind of cameramen who work on serials or even documentaries. Instead of a great sense of light and framing, what is required is a good reading of the game and extremely high levels of concentration. A cameraman covering a cricket match, whose job is following the ball, has to get it right every time.
The standard joke was that unlike a film crew, we couldn’t go out there, tap Sachin (Tendulkar) on the back and ask him to hit another six as the first one didn’t look great on shot. What was interesting was that most of the best Indian cameramen who first came into sports television were from Doordarshan, which only goes to show that the talent was always there, it was just a matter of guidance and opportunity. The other large bunch were – surprisingly enough – from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). They had an extremely capable audio-visual team, most of whom became the core of the early TWI productions. There were a couple of other vital technical functions which needed Indian talent. The first was the EVS operations. A game like cricket is really a game of replays. After the actual delivery and action is covered, we tend to look at the replays from different angles. The EVS operator’s job is to record the action on various recorders and offer it up to the director when he needed it. In the pre-digital area, they were actually recording and ready to replay off tape on their recorders after every delivery. An amazing skill, and early on, the Indians from Doordarshan were absolute naturals at it. EVS operators now have the advantage of recording on digital, but the very same skills of being totally tuned to the game and having really quick decision-making abilities remain essential.
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