Mel Jones covers the toss at an Ashes ODI in 2015
Mel Jones covers the toss at an Ashes ODI in 2015
Or how the IPL is redefining television commentary
The IPL gets a bad rap. Many bad raps. So regularly that Bad Rap could well be an invisible franchise by itself. This season, when matches scheduled to be played in Maharashtra in May were relocated due to a severe drought crippling parts of the state, the IPL wept at being soft-targeted by political opportunism and a vigilante judiciary. Yet also this season, carried forward unnoticed and unheralded amid the league's self-congratulation and self-pity, was the IPL's most progressive move from 2015. More radical than secret auctions, strategic timeouts and icon retention, it was the presence of four women commentators on its match panel.
Anjum Chopra, Isa Guha, Melanie Jones and Lisa Sthalekar were on television on the IPL world feed. Not as hosts or presenters or boundary riders adding colour and providing sidelights, but in the commentary box, talking through matches with male colleagues.
In the 21st century, is this even a big deal anymore?
It is, because more than a decade after the MCC opened membership to women, cricket on television is one of the game's last man-dens. While a sizeable number of female voices are heard on TV during men's matches - without the sky falling down - the majority are on-ground reporters, presenters or anchors. Ball-by-ball commentary in men's cricket - the most watched and followed format, and the most lucrative - has remained a boy's zone in most Test countries. Until recently, women commentators usually only called the women's game.
They keep in touch with each other on WhatsApp and FaceTime, exchanging notes on stepping into a previously impenetrable boys club
Consider this: until her 2015 IPL gig, Jones, retired since 2005 and in the commentary business for the last 16 years, had never called a men's match on Australian television. The first men's game she did commentary for was for ABC Radio in November 2014 - the T20I between Australia and South Africa. A year earlier, in a column for the New Daily, Australian journalist and broadcaster Angela Pippos had remarked gloomily about the Channel Nine commentary box: "Honestly I'd be less surprised if Don Bradman popped up in a blazer and tie next to Ian Chappell than a woman."
The last time the network invited a woman into the man-den, Pippos remembered, was 1983. Cricket-nut actress Kate Fitzpatrick's appearance did not go well, and from then on, it was back to the boys.
It took three decades for Australia women's captain Meg Lanning, and symbolically the sisterhood, to be invited back. In October 2014, less than a year after Pippos' column, Channel Nine introduced Lanning as part of its commentary team for the 50-over Matador Cup. Lanning also worked during the subsequent Australia-South Africa T20I series, and while she did not return to Channel Nine for the next season, that decision was understood to be her own.
The IPL, however, in a complete departure from the pronounced male gaze of the first seven seasons, has made women commentators a central part of a very healthy new normal. In its eighth season, in 2015, apart from the early announcement of the presence of women commentators, and a few articles in the press, their arrival turned out to be without drama, controversy or protest: seamless, natural, in sync. Since then, Chopra, Guha, Jones and Sthalekar have offered the mellower portions of the IPL's soundtrack.
The league's rationale for inducting women commentators, according to its chief operating officer at the time, Sundar Raman, was "obvious". Along with the IPL's "large and substantive" female audience, Raman explained in an email, the sport had "enough number of women cricketers who have played the game with distinction".
Lisa Sthalekar made it to commentating on a men's game within two years of her retirement from playing
© Getty Images
Lisa Sthalekar made it to commentating on a men's game within two years of her retirement from playing © Getty Images
For Chopra and Sthalekar, their making it into the IPL commentary boxes last season was a first in any television commentary. Chopra is a regular on Indian news channels and was also a match commentator during the debut season of the World Kabaddi League in 2014. Sthalekar, among the greatest allrounders the game has seen, retired from the game in February 2013, but didn't have to wait as long as Jones to call a men's game on any medium, working for ABC Radio during the same T20I series Jones had been part of.
Guha's career in broadcasting began in 2011, when she was roped in by ITV for the IPL as a last-minute replacement for the original host, Mandira Bedi, for being, as she said in a Skype interview last year, "an Asian girl who knew about cricket, who had played the game".
The fact that the IPL now has four women commentators, Guha said, "has changed the perception of how broadcast is run, and that women have the ability to contribute in terms of being cricket experts. It's also broken that scenario of women being showpieces in cricket programming. With four women commentators, the IPL have shown they have faith in women commentators to do a good job." Imagine: the IPL, a destroyer of cricket television's glass ceiling.
As a 19-year-old, Anjum Chopra was sent into the Sonnet nets to bat against Manoj Prabhakar and his incisive swing and stinging contempt
The BBC's iconic Test Match Special - famous for cakes, pigeons and red double-decker buses - has also drawn a range of women commentators to work alongside Aggers, Blowers and the rest of the public-schoolboy set. Journalist and broadcaster Alison Mitchell became the first female lead commentator for a men's Test in the programme's half-century of existence when she called England's home series against India in 2014. It had taken her seven years from her debut TMS stint at the first World T20. Soon after that England-India series, Guha became TMS' first female "summariser" or expert analyst. Guha's team-mate Ebony-Jewel Rainford-Brent was also to make her commentary debut with TMS at the same time, calling a mix of men's and women's games.
The IPL brought together a good mix; each woman is assigned to one of four separate commentary crews in operation during a season. They keep in touch with each other on WhatsApp and FaceTime, exchanging notes on what it is like to step into a previously impenetrable boys' club.
Their playing careers have made a considerable difference. "I don't think that the four of us have just rocked up," Jones said in a phone interview last year. "They [the other commentators] know we've known the game, we've played it well and we've commentated before. We know what we're talking about and it's just a matter of getting in and doing our job."
Each has found her own method on the IPL's hypercoaster. Jones remembers pacing herself for long stints during women's T20Is, and doing solo commentary gigs on Cricket Australia's live streaming "of a 50-over women's game all by myself and being absolutely knackered". The IPL required her to crank up the pace.
Sthalekar's mantra: keep adding. "That's what I keep telling myself - keep adding to the picture. Don't tell the viewers what they can see, give a little bit more, whatever it may be, otherwise you are better off not saying anything at all. " Chopra gives herself a cricket analogy: like in play, watch your pace. "You need to flow as a commentator with the match. You can't be silent when the match is building up, you've got to hold your own, put your point in a forthright way, and always have respect for the senior pros around you."
Isa Guha started out as a host on IPL coverage before taking the step up into the commentary box
© Getty Images
Isa Guha started out as a host on IPL coverage before taking the step up into the commentary box © Getty Images
The IPL men's club has been welcoming, accommodating, careful - and familiar. The women sometimes hear comments off mike that amount to verbal wolf whistles, and they notice eye-rolling at the sight of cheerleaders. A quick aside often follows: "Okay, there's a lady in the house, be cordial", or one of them is comfortable enough to say, "Boys, enough. Like, grow up." According to Raman, there was "no resistance or opposition" to the women, which is reassuring given the personality politics and pecking orders among the male former players in the commentary box.
Here it has helped that many grew up as young girls learning cricket alongside boys and men. Rainford-Brent, from a non-cricketing South London background, came to the sport in her teenage years when she played locally with boys because not many girls were interested. As she grew older, she was inducted into Surrey's academy and for four years got to play alongside the older pros twice or three times a week. Chopra comes from Delhi's famous cricketing school of hard knocks - Sonnet Club. As a 19-year-old, she was sent into the Sonnet nets to bat against Manoj Prabhakar and his incisive swing and stinging contempt for all batsmen. Sthalekar was nine and the only girl in her regional cricket association team in Sydney. On the other side of the world, Guha was eight when she began playing cricket in a boys' team.
So when Chopra walks into a commentary box, a career spent playing against men walks in with her. "It's not that I am meeting these male cricketers for the first time," she said in an interview during the 2015 IPL. "Somewhere down the line I've met them, they've played alongside me, they have been my juniors, they have been my seniors." According to Sthalekar, women cricketers who have grown up competing against and alongside the boys tend to be hardened. Playing in a men's side means "you are already being scrutinised all the time. For me, maybe that is why I loved playing in pressure situations, it seemed to bring the best out of me."
It is a life experience that gives them, Rainford-Brent said in a phone interview during the IPL last year, "a level of confidence" entering the world of commentary surrounded by men. "I think we've been fortunate a lot of times playing with the guys and knowing you can still be yourself. You can still be a female, and you don't want to feel like you have to be one of the lads if that's not you."
It is TMS that straddles a time-travelling pedestal, representing the weighty history of cricket commentary as well as its nonconformist 21st century avatar
Chopra, who was a cricketer full of fizz and spunk, wondered why it took so long for her to be invited to the IPL shindig. "For the last couple of years I always said I was waiting for my chance. Not that I was saying, 'Why am I not doing this', or 'I can do this better', but I used to say, 'Look, if everybody has been given an opportunity, then why not me?'"
Sthalekar, part of the crowd during the first IPL match, in 2008 in Bangalore, was surprised to be asked. In her fledgling commentary career, she thought the IPL was "the most entertaining cricket tournament in the world", and thought of it as a long-term ambition. "So to get this opportunity so soon was almost a dream."
The IPL can lay legitimate claim to widening the stage and making women commentators de rigeur in the game's most in-your-face medium - television. But as Mitchell's career in radio broadcasting reminds the cricket world, the IPL was not the first to upend the unspoken but deeply internalised hypothesis that women struggle when treading the dangerous terrain of speaking about on-field technique and strategy.
It is TMS that now straddles a time-travelling pedestal, representing the weighty history of cricket commentary as well as its nonconformist 21st-century avatar. Earlier the programme made television commentary, even if supported by laddish gags and gizmotronics, appear one-dimensional.
Ali and mike: Mitchell at Lord's during the men's Ashes Test last year
© PA Photos
Ali and mike: Mitchell at Lord's during the men's Ashes Test last year © PA Photos
Not that Adam Mountford, current TMS producer and the man who has rewritten some of its rules, believes anything of the sort. "I was fortunate to inherit an iconic radio programme… where there was absolutely no need to come in and change everything," he said in an interview in June last year. "It was never, 'Oh there's going to be a revolution.'"
With deference shown to the legacy of John Arlott and Christopher Martin-Jenkins, what did change, though, was what needed to change. The summarising team was refreshed; some of the more current players were brought in. Phil Tufnell, Michael Vaughan and Graeme Swann were signed on, and then Mountford took another step, with Mitchell, Guha and Rainford-Brent. "I think it's important to have a great variety of personalities, voices, accents, backgrounds, experiences within your commentary team. You want it to reflect as much as you can the people who are listening to the programme."
Of the women commentators in the game today, Mitchell is alpha female of an endangered species - the non-player commentator who has been in the trenches of the broadcast industry. She began her career, aged 21, as a student runner for Channel 4's cricket coverage, and on completing university, worked as a cricket reporter for the BBC's Asian network. The advent of the Asian network - a new station looking "for a new intake of people" was her "breakthrough", coming as it did at a time when the BBC's local stations had established cricket reporters. These days, she said, opportunities arise every day, with nine commentators offering online coverage at the same time during the county season, two or three commentators working each match.
If any outsider walks into a TV commentary box, as Adam Mountford described one he wandered into, they can "sort of feel the testosterone hitting you like a wall, like a big brick. And you think, 'I'm not sure I want to be in here'"
After starting commentary on county games in 2006, Mitchell graduated to men's and women's limited-overs internationals the next year, working with the full TMS team. All the while she continued doing county matches on radio and online. Eventually, in 2014, she became the first woman commentator for TMS at a men's Test. It caused, Mountford said, "a bit of a stir. It didn't feel like an earthquake, it felt like a small tremor." TMS were, he said, "very keen to not make it a big deal because it was just a progression for her. She'd done [the 2011] World Cup, domestic cricket, lots of one-day internationals, [so] a Test match was the next thing."
Mitchell does not think of it as a "walk-in moment" because she had been in the business for over a decade, and in her early days had written and sent out match reports from a Cornwall league game on a mobile phone. "I think people imagine that the cricket scene is there all set up and one day the doors open and in comes a woman… I had been there for so long that every step I took was a natural progression. You have to earn your stripes."
Radio has, in fact, pioneered periodic breakthroughs in cricket everywhere. Chandra Nayudu, daughter of the country's first captain, CK Nayudu, is the first woman to have done cricket commentary in India - on All India Radio (AIR), for a tour match between Bombay and the touring MCC team in February 1977. Some in India think Nayudu, a retired professor of English, now 80, might have been the first woman cricket commentator anywhere in the world. She remembers commentating on three more matches in the 1970s - a women's match in Bombay and two other first-class matches in Indore, her home town. It was a decade of conservatism and radicalism, a decade when a still conservative country was dealing with the first ripples of the feminist movement, and in a delicious twist the government-controlled AIR thought nothing of hiring a female commentator and covering the women's game like the men's.
"It's not that I am meeting these male cricketers for the first time." Anjum Chopra partly credits her experience of playing alongside men with her having successfully made the shift to doing commentary on men's games
© Getty Images
"It's not that I am meeting these male cricketers for the first time." Anjum Chopra partly credits her experience of playing alongside men with her having successfully made the shift to doing commentary on men's games © Getty Images
The next season AIR offered its listeners a Meg Lanning of the times, a star of the Indian women's team, Shanta Rangaswamy, who did commentary on men's matches. All it required was a forward-thinking AIR producer willing to take a risk. "There was never any problem with doing commentary while being a player. It had nothing to do with my playing, it was only during my spare time," Rangaswamy said.
In his memoirs, Third Man, former Hyderabad offspinner V Ramnarayan remembers a 1978 match against Bengal where he took an angry swipe with his bat at a stationary ball, nearly beaned the bowler, and later found out that Rangaswamy, a "star woman cricketer" commentating at the time "had a thing or two [to] say about my behaviour". Rangaswamy went on to do an entire gamut of men's games: Ranji Trophy, Irani Trophy, Duleep Trophy, and in October 2008, the second Test between India and Australia in Mohali. When Cricinfo, as the site was then known, sponsored the Women's World Cup in 2000, Rangaswamy was one of the online audio commentators for the event.
Women's matches featured on her roster after her retirement in 1991 but a career in banking, and her current role as chairman of the women's selection committee, have kept her out of the commentary box for some seasons. Rangaswamy said her knowledge and experiences as a player meant male colleagues appreciated her first-hand insight. At one point in the mid-1990s, India's state TV network, Doordarshan - bless its creaky hinges - hired three women cricketers as commentators for the women's international home season: former captain Diana Edulji, Rangaswamy, and Edulji's older sister Behroze. Until the day, that is, Diana discovered that the male commentators sitting next to her were being paid more than the women were, and walked out.
"I think people imagine that the cricket scene is there all set up and one day the doors open and in comes a woman. I had been there for so long that every step I took was a natural progression"
In 1988, Barbadian barrister Donna Symmonds turned up in a Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation commentary box for a West Indies Test against Pakistan in Barbados, after regular stints at Shell Shield matches. Ten years later, when England toured the West Indies, Symmonds' voice - by now familiar to anyone who watched matches live from the Caribbean - was heard on TMS. She now appears infrequently but there are many more who have made this their vocation. Along with the IPL bunch, and Rainford-Brent and Mitchell in England, there have been Kass Naidoo and Natalie Germanos in South Africa. Over the last year, Mitchell points out, there are already three or four more women commentating on county cricket on the BBC's online service. In November, Mitchell became the first woman to call Test cricket for ABC Radio, on the historic occasion of cricket's first day-night Test.
TMS offers a successful template for how commentary panels could be picked: quality and rigour over parameters like gender or background. "I don't think Adam's worried so much about gender," said Rainford-Brent. "The reason I say that is that he gets good men working on the women's game as well as the other way round. There's a danger that sometimes people can go, 'Let's get all the women on the women's game and all the men on the men's game.' It's about good people doing good coverage regardless of whether it's male or female."
There is simmer and bubble in the women's game at the moment. The Women's World T20 is held alongside the men's, with more matches broadcast live than earlier (the ICC has gone back on the joint staging for the next edition but the 2016 event did give the women's game more eyeballs than earlier). Australia has staged the first domestic women's T20 league and England will follow this summer. There are more professional women cricketers in the game than ever.
Donna Symmonds in the box at the Queen's Park Oval in 1998
Ross Setford / © PA Photos
Donna Symmonds in the box at the Queen's Park Oval in 1998 Ross Setford / © PA Photos
Mitchell remembers catching a glimpse of the future in 2009, at the Women's World Cup in Australia. "I remember thinking now that the game has got enough profile and these girls have got respect in the game, this is the generation who will be able to come off the field, retire and go into the commentary box - and that is starting to happen now."
But she does believe that the presence of a non-player commentator is still vital both on radio and TV. "There is something a journalist has in-built that perhaps a player doesn't have. In terms of editorial judgement, the nose for a story, journalistic nous… You need those guys who have played all that Test cricket, of course you do, so they bring a certain perspective, and you as a journalist bring another. On radio they go together very well."
Radio can keep that species alive but television - in its slow drag over accommodating the "other", be it non-players or women as commentators - is deal-breaker and gatekeeper. Multimillion-dollar television broadcast deals and celebrity player-commentators have created a queer cricketing habitat. If any outsider walks into a TV commentary box, as Mountford described one he wandered into, they can "sort of feel the testosterone hitting you like a wall, like a big brick. And you think, 'I'm not sure I want to be in here.' It doesn't feel a very friendly place." It is a place populated by, to use Pippos' words about Channel Nine, a "rotating masculinity - 14 men in a game of musical chairs, all dressed by the same tailor".
"You need to have a broad commentary team that brings something different," Sthalekar says. "I remember when Channel Nine used to have a commentator from the country where the visiting team was from. By doing that you get more of an insight to all the players that are taking the field."
The '70s was a decade when a conservative India was dealing with the first ripples of the feminist movement, and in a delicious twist, the government-controlled AIR thought nothing of hiring a female commentator and covering the women's game like the men's
Mitchell would like more "integrated" coverage on TV in England, along with more cricket on free-to-air television. She commends Australia's Network Ten for calling in a female presenter and an on-field pitch interviewer for the Big Bash League, and says, "mixed presentation teams [on radio and TV] projects the impact that the game is for all and this is an all-inclusive game".
Some, like Rainford-Brent, don't think television has necessarily been a closed shop, just that it has not moved quickly enough. The IPL, the world's glitziest league, has managed to modulate the sound that goes around the globe. Not that Sunil Gavaskar has stopped nitpicking at peripheral details or Danny Morrison and Ravi Shastri are shouting a little less, but other views and ways of seeing the game are emerging. And therein lies an acknowledgement that the collective wisdom of the game does not belong to a select group of men and their (thank you, again, Angela Pippos) "rotating masculinity".
Mitchell hopes that the ripples and tremors will sort themselves out in the next generation. She waits for the day that people will run into a woman commentator and not look astonished. "That it will be the norm. They'll say, 'Oh right, which network do you work for?' Like they would for any other commentator. That's the big hope, that eventually it just becomes normal to hear a woman's voice doing commentary."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
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