His fortieth birthday is a good occasion to recall my favourite Sachin Tendulkar interview. Lest you worry, this is not another birthday-induced Sachin tribute – God knows there are enough of those doing the rounds already.
If you haven’t chanced upon this gem, watch it now – Sachin being interviewed by Tom Alter, veteran theatre personality, in January 1989. Long before he took to experimenting with his hair, wearing flashy Ed Hardy T-shirts, signing multi-million dollar contracts, or sporting a diamond stud in his ear.
Long before he learned how to speak grammatically correct English. And tackle questions that may involve a possibly controversial answer with an air of practiced and noncommittal ease.
This is Sachin at 15, waiting patiently to be interviewed after DilipVengsarkar, sipping tea from a steel cup in Shivaji Park – and, if it’s possible, his voice was even thinner than it is now.
This is Sachin in the age of innocence. When there was plenty of speculation over his probable Test debut during India’s tour of West Indies (in March-April 1989) and questions over his ability to face up to the world’s most fearsome pace attack – Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop – at such a tender age.
He tells Alter that he “won’t have any trouble to face Marshall”, he’s not too young, he loves fast bowling because it “comes on to the bat” (note the strong emphasis on the final consonant of ‘bat’) and he enjoys bowling “middyum pace”. When asked if he was tired of doing interviews, Sachin says with utmost sincerity, “This is just the start.”
There is a certain purity to that interview – the casual setting, no studio lights, no sponsors in the backdrop or on the gear, no rehearsed questions and responses – that has long since escaped the game.
Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to gain access to any player – even those yet to find their bearings in international cricket – without the interference of an entourage of sponsors, agents, PR professionals, and marketing-branding types. After all, why agree to an interview for free when you are obligated to plug publicity-starved sponsors?
It’s odd then to chance upon cricketers’ earlier interviews, when they weren’t the finished product they are today. By finished, I mean sans the naiveté and earnestness that once informed their public persona – jaded as most of them are now by all the attention, the constant hankering for interviews and the plethora of back-to-back media commitments. When they do occasionally deign to indulge the press – usually at the behest of a sponsor –it’s with a cynical view of the media in general, especially the Indian media.
But it’s not just innocence that is now gold dust – honesty is too. A piece I did for Vogue soon after MS Dhoni became Indian captain had him talking openly about his lack of confidence as a pimply teenager and his aspiration to own a Rolex – having just ordered his first one, following his handsome US$1.5 million contract in the 2008 IPL auction.
In another interview to NDTV, right after India won the CB series in Australia, when asked about being critical of his team members, he says, “I am a transparent person. Whatever happens on the field, I just repeat it at the press conference. There is nothing confidential about it.”
Such candour is now off the table, as the press pack knows only too well. How’s this for honesty? Mark Butcher, when asked what he had for tea after his 173 not out during an Ashes Test at Leeds, replied: “A coffee and a fag in the shower”.
Among the many reasons for discarding honesty, especially as far as the Indian cricketers are concerned, is the gag imposed by the BCCI – a constant reminder lurking behind the code-of-conduct euphemism that shows the cricketing superstars of this country who their daddy is.
When Greg Chappell, the coach, spoke about the team’s seniors operating “like the mafia” after India’s 2007 World Cup exit, Tendulkar told the Times of India he was deeply hurt. “I’ve given my heart and soul to Indian cricket for 17 years. No coach has ever mentioned, even in passing, that my attitude was not correct.” The BCCI’s response? Slapping Tendulkar with a show cause notice.
One can understand disallowing media interactions during a series. But the new rules apparently involve not speaking about a series even a month after the dust has settled. This explains the absence of any interviews from the Indian players after the 4-0 whitewash against Australia.
In the post-IPL era, it’s not just the BCCI calling the shots but franchises too. When Saurabh Tiwary made a point during his 2010 stint with the Mumbai Indians about a 30-run cameo in the IPL grabbing headlines (compared to a century or double century in the Ranji Trophy that is often overlooked), the Mumbai Indians team management did not waste a moment in ordering the press to delete that bit.
Of course, the media – particularly in India – does not help matters when its raison d’etre seems to be twisting innocent remarks for a sensational story. At the press conference after the fourth day of the Oval Test in 2007, when asked whether the bowlers were tired because Rahul Dravid opted not to enforce the follow-on, Zaheer Khan said, “As far as I am concerned, I have given my everything to the series. I don’t think I was tired or anything.” That was enough to set off a massive TV news-generated controversy back home.
Zaheer refused to entertain any media requests for months after. And the manager on tour told a newspaper, “The players are quite tired with the way quotes are being misinterpreted or being used back home, especially on television.”
This explains why, on the rare occasion when one did manage some off-the-cuff and candid answers – my own experience involved interviews with Muttiah Muralitharan and Rahul Dravid – a polite request was made soon after the interaction to remove bits they feared would be taken out of context, or invite censure from their respective cricket boards.
The day is not far, then, when cricketers will regularly have their agents stage-manage interviews with them to cut the media out of it altogether – Kevin Pietersen has clearly shown the way in this post-TextGate interview on YouTube.
The clip, described in the 2013 Wisden Almanack by Pat Collins as “sensationally awful”, talks of a “disembodied voice” – his agent’s – feeding him “some gentle full tosses masquerading as questions” that he answered “with a series of wooden cliches”. As Collins goes on to suggest, the whole thing reeked of an insincere apology that was unwittingly revealing of Pietersen’s priorities. Unsurprisingly, the ECB did not approve.
But had these self-imposed embargoes, stifling codes of conduct and intense media scrutiny always been the case, some of cricket’s most memorable quotes would never have made it past the lips of the game’s greatest characters. Among them is Jeff Thomson, with no love lost for his English opponents. “Stuff that stiff upper lip crap,” he once said. “Let’s see how stiff it is when it’s split.”
And here’s another delicious bit of honesty from Thomson: “It doesn’t worry me in the least to see the batsman hurt, rolling around screaming, and blood on the pitch.”
Now, if only Dale Steyn would be so kind as to oblige.