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Meat for Sony is poison for ESPN
- Harsha says he won’t sit next to Mandira, Charu declares ‘it’s a privilege’

Cape Town, March 17: There’s an airwave war on the idyllic waterfront — between live feed and post-mortem, fresh faces and veteran experts, delightful damsels and dumbing down.

There’s Sony, atop the Jewel of India restaurant on the famous Cape Town Waterfront, and then there’s ESPN-STAR Sports, about 15 minutes away at Big Bay, with the Table Mountain as backdrop.

One has sole rights to beam World Cup 2003 to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and the Maldives, the other is allowed just 30 seconds pitch feed for news. One has gone all out to not just cover the Cup but also make cricket viewing (what so many find) “fun”, the other has spent close to half-a-million dollars to give viewers the choice to tune into cricket talk from “those whose stature in and knowledge of” the game takes some matching.

One has Mandira Bedi, Maria Goretti and Sandhya Mridul, the other vows never to go up the glam-doll garden path.

“If I had been told to sit with Mandira Bedi and keep bringing in Maria and Sandhya, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have done it,” declares Harsha Bhogle, in his Dolphin Beach hotel room overlooking the blue-and-white waters that lap the shores of the Sony studio, too.

“There is a role for smart, well-dressed (as opposed to under-dressed) women in sports coverage, but not at the cost of the game. What Sony has done, that is dilute cricket with people completely unconnected with the game, thankfully, we will never do,” adds the cricket mouthpiece for ESPN, who was asked by one of his producers (“thankfully”, only in jest) to appear in just a tie, the day a lot of Mandira greeted viewers.

The man who has, in fact, been sitting beside — and been overshadowed by — Mandira for over a month now, takes a different stance.

“We are partners, trying to get the balance right for a bold and brave, yet loose and relaxed show that is acceptable to a wider audience. I feel it’s a privilege to be at the starting point of a pioneering effort and if the ratings and the feedback are any indication, the viewer is recognising and embracing a change in the way cricket is presented,” says Charu Sharma.

The whole idea was to give the cricket watcher something “extraa”. Sneha Rajani, assistant vice-president and Sony’s pointperson in Cape Town, puts things into e-cricket perspective: “Entertainment is what it’s all about and so 60:40 was the cricket-fun mix that we created. Our commitment is to widen cricket telecast from a skewed male view to a more comprehensive family view, where there’s something for almost everyone.”

Joy Bhattacharjya, senior producer with ESPN, clarifies that the roots and, therefore, the characters of the two channels are very different.

“Their roots are in entertainment, ours in sport. For us, having fun can be the garnish, but cricket has got to be the main course. We can have Darren Gough in a turban or Dean Jones in a New Zealand shirt, but our fun is never far from the sport. We play to our strength, that is hardcore cricket analysis from the biggest names in the game.”

Whether you see it from behind the bowler’s arm or from over Mandira Bedi’s bare shoulder, the dumbing down or pepping up of cricket is here to stay. The “cricket is fun” mantra is growing louder with every passing match day, says Sneha, adding: “Extraa Innings has been a mind-blowing success and Mandira a phenomenon. The show can only get bigger and better.”

But is there satellite space for both “just cricket” and “cricket-plus”' Harsha Bhogle, as always, gets in a final word: “It’s up to the viewer, which is anything but a homogenous entity. Some would only watch a Guru Dutt film, some only a Govinda flick, and some both. The same, I guess, holds true for a choice between wanting to watch Sunny Gavaskar or Mandira Bedi chatting with Graeme Pollock.”

The cleavage between serious and sexy cricket coverage has never been deeper. But, hey, it’s for our eyes only, isn’t it'

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