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Channel chop on mike flops
- Part of team on flights home

Cape Town, March 19: Venkatesh Prasad mumbles, Robin Singh fumbles, Aunshuman Gaekwad stumbles, Krishnamachari Srikkanth bumbles.... The list of home-grown commentating catastrophes in World Cup 2003 reads longer than the Indian batting line-up.

With the sign on the door leading to the mike reading “Wanted: anyone who’s played a Test match and can stitch two sentences together”, the mute button on the remote has all too often been called into action during Cricket World Cup 2003.

But now, the Cup Anthem’s refrain — Strong Man Will Survive, Strong Man Will Survive — seems to have struck a body blow in the box with a view. Venkatesh, Singh, Gaekwad, Michael Atherton, Roshan Mahanama, Jeff Thomson and Donna Symmonds, from the “exclusively” Sony stable, are all on flights back home —most kayoed by quality, a few by other commitments.

“This is normal procedure. Every channel does it in a long tournament,” says a Sony spokesperson, refusing to read too much into the ticket-to-fly-not-talk trend.

Staying on for the final countdown to the Cup are Srikkanth, Arun Lal, L. Sivaramakrishnan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Ian Bishop and Mark Nicholas. Sony, of course, will also draw heavily from the ‘world feed’, with the likes of Ravi Shastri, Tony Greig, Sanjay Manjrekar, Barry Richards and Ian Smith, plus last-minute additions like Ian Healy.

There is even talk of an Aussie great being roped in for a possible Australia-India showdown, with Kapil Dev the Indian heavyweight in the studio.

Despite delivering some duds (you know who), Sony is clear that it must continue to “discover and develop” commentators. “Otherwise, we will all be left with four or five Indian commentators for 12 months of cricket,” points out Sneha Rajani of Sony.

Charu Sharma, anchoring Extraa Innings with Mandira Bedi, takes it a few steps forward: “Somebody has to do it and it’s great that Sony’s taken the lead. But viewers must be a little more generous and give the newcomers some time. Some of the star commentators of today, after all, had started out awkwardly and taken time to adjust.”

What Harsha Bhogle of ESPN-STAR Sport — a Geoff Boycott fan — calls for is an “identification of the off-the-pitch strengths and weaknesses” of a cricketer before assigning him a role. “For example, Robin Singh is better suited for studio analysis than live commentary, as he has very strong views but would rather express them in a few words.”

But then, isn’t it time for proper gift-of-the-gab-grooming of ex-cricketers' Ravi Shastri, among the most popular mike-men on the circuit, isn’t so sure. While referring to the (Channel) Nine policy of only allowing captains into the box, he adds: “You must realise who the viewer would rather hear comments about cricket from. The bottomline is your credentials and your natural ability. Cricketing acumen cannot be coached; it comes from how long you’ve played the game and how you’ve played it. A certain flair and presence help.”

With only two out of the 54 Cup matches to go, channels are already chopping and changing their dream commentary shopping list. Topping the charts of most wanted ‘mikers’ is Wasim Akram. The Pakistan great has everything going for him — the best in the business by far for years and a commanding presence. “He has it in him to rule the box like a king,” says an industry insider. If is not the question; ‘when’ he will hang up his boots and pick up the mike and for whom is the big ask.

Another potential small-screen star on the international horizon is Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower, “with an amazing batting record, very strong opinions and a pleasing presence”.

Closer home, the charismatic but controversial Ajay Jadeja is the pop pick. Sony had nearly snared him for the Cup, but Jaddu chose to go with an obscure programme on Zee. “His boyish charm, flair for both languages and a sharp cricketing mind make him a winner. And, women will love him,” goes the beam buzz. But till the court clouds over his status as a cricketer clear, the shadow lines remain.

There’s not a shadow of doubt, however, about the one man in blue networks are eyeing eagerly and, in the slightly longer run, ‘advance booking’ a chair in the box for. Skipper Sourav Ganguly, “articulate and aggressive”, is the man to keep an eye — and ear — on.

“He’s been fantastic at post-match press conferences here. Frank and forthright, without any of the usual Indian bend-over-backwards, self-effacing humility,” observes a former English cricketer-turned-columnist in South Africa. And if Maharaj does manage to lift the Cup, well the sky — or the star or whatever — is the talkathon limit.

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