The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shekhar on ESPN to ‘sex up’ cricket
- ‘Purist’ channel follows Set Max

Mandira Bedi’s noodle straps, Navjot Singh Sidhu’s tongue-twisters, Shekhar Suman’s non-stop nonsense — the big game on the small screen will never be the same again.

If SET Max bowled the first delivery, ESPN STAR Sports (ESS) is taking it into the slog overs. One-day cricket coverage is increasingly being “sexed up”, all in the name of reaching out to a wider viewership and broader advertiser base.

In March 2003, Max’s World Cup coverage unveiled Mandira, doing wonders for the channel (and to her career).

In July 2004, ESS is shedding its “serious” tag to allow big mouth Suman to star in its Asia Cup coverage.

Roping in Suman is part of the sports broadcaster’s “new and innovative” programming that builds on its success in the “Hindi-speaking belt” during Euro 2004 with Hindi commentary.

“This time, however, it will not be merely an adaptation of the English version,” said Himanshu Verma, associate director, corporate communication for ESS.

STAR Sports would have a dedicated Hindi telecast called Voice Aapki-Choice Aapki, where show-hosting, commentary and key graphics would be in Hindi. Suman will be the anchor holding it all together. “In his inimitable style, he will de-layer the complexities of cricket for followers of the game,” adds Verma.

“It will be something very different and new,” Suman told The Telegraph. “I’ll be representing the common man who wants to know beyond the technicalities.”

Max’s Mandira can’t help but smile: “I’m very surprised by ESS’ move to have Shekhar, since it’s known to be a purist cricket channel… But it goes to prove that nobody should ever say never.”

For the Hindi audience, there would still be game gurus like Waqar Younis, Arun Lal, Maninder Singh and Vinod Kambli to rally around the common man’s cricket pundit. But no tampering with the straight bat English team that would feature Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Greg Chappell with Harsha Bhogle at the helm.

Adding more jazz to the ESS telecast would be the Shaz & Waz show with Wasim Akram and Ravi Shastri — a lunchtime variety featuring a bevy of beauties picked from the stands.

The credit for introducing the glam factor to the game goes to SET Max and maiden Mandira. “We are not a sports channel but an entertainment channel and the challenge then was to reinforce our position as an entertainer,” looks back Tushar Shah, VP (marketing & PR) for Max. The gamble paid off with an “almost 40 per cent jump” in female viewership and significant rise in male viewership for Max post-World Cup.

“Cricket broadcast has just not remained the same since,” adds Shah, referring to the subsequent “something for everyone” strategies of Doordarshan, which brought in a female co-host to match Mandira (…well, not quite), and other sports channels.

The initial strategy for Max was to turn women from passive to active viewers. When that clicked, the next step was active participation from them, in the form of the ongoing Gully Cricket, which has Mandira travelling across the country playing street cricket with women. “The response has been fantastic with even 75-year-olds coming out and participating,” gushes Mandira. She will also form the core of Max’s coverage of the upcoming mini World Cup and Holland Cup, which will be “bigger, better, newer and improved”, she promises.

Suman doesn’t have a problem with the “non-serious” tag to a serious sport either. “One must move on in life, and we’re not trying to trivialise it in any manner, but make it more watchable,” he says.

A sample: “We will not provide the dry statistics but vital statistics like whether the reason behind a batsman getting out for a duck is because he had a fight with his wife in the morning.”

Simply Shekhar for some, just not cricket for others'

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