In praise of straight talkers

And how a cricketer’s playing style reflects in the way he talks

Sehwag: straight as an arrow, sharp as a knife

Cricket press conferences are dour affairs. For good reason too. In the age of 24x7 media, every word players utter in the public sphere ends up in the news. The news is then subjected to more scrutiny by hair-splitting pundits. Heavens forbid a cricketer makes a loose comment. It can snowball into a full-blown national calamity in minutes.

This is why cricketers tend to avoid masala quotes that can whip up media frenzy. Instead, they provide inquisitive journalists their stock quotes, delivering them with practiced ease game after game.

“We will stick to our basics.”

“It was a team effort.”

“We will do well if we execute our plans.”

“We want to stick to our strengths.”

And here’s the most ludicrous one which somehow never goes out of fashion.

“Bangladesh are not to be taken lightly.”

This tedium, this masquerade, has been persevered with game after game, year after year. Cricketers will not tell you what they really think. It can cause trouble. There are also financial disincentives to calling a spade a spade: you could get fined by the ICC, or even be banned.

And so journalists are left with little choice but to read between the lines of their colourless, harmless quotes and ascribe motives to them. A good example is Gautam Gambhir’s comment about MS Dhoni in Australia recently. The comment — “We shouldn't have taken the game to the 50th over, that's my personal observation” — was taken as the symptom of the purported rift between the Indian captain and his deputy. At the end of it, Gambhir lost his job to Virat Kohli.

The scene in Australia is similar. Gideon Haigh sums it up with these words: “Australian cricket now wears such a banal, expressionless face that it leaves journalists to make their own suppositions, while the choreographed denials invite the skepticism of Mandy-Rice Davies: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’”

At the other end of this spectrum of bush-beating is Virender Sehwag. Sample his brutally frank assessment of Kolkata’s mystery spinner, Sunil Narine. “I think if I get to face Narine, I will smash him all around the park,” Sehwag said. “His tricks won’t work against me. But it is difficult for the other batsmen, who cannot pick his deliveries.”

The comment was typically Sehwag. [Here’s a collection of some of his other gems]. Narine is one of the leading bowlers in IPL5. Batsmen have struggled to read his mix of wrist and finger spin. Narine is a rarity: he often bowls in the slog overs in T20s. It shows he is difficult to score against. But Sehwag doesn’t rate him. He doesn’t rate the batsmen who have got out to Narine. And he has no qualms calling it the way he sees it. Where Sehwag goes and drops a Molotov cocktail, others hide behind the aforementioned clichés.

Sehwag’s speech also reflects his see-ball-hit-ball philosophy. He’s not afraid to express himself. He’s not worried about being misunderstood. He doesn’t sugarcoat his views. He once called Bangladesh “an ordinary side” and it caused an uproar. His Haryanvi directness shines through. Remember his “Ball daal raha hai ya bheekh maang raha hai?” (Are you bowling or begging?) to Shoaib Akhtar who was pestering him to have a go? Humour is a little-appreciated virtue in India. But where Sehwag comes from, caustic wit is part of daily life.

There are others who talk like they bat. Rahul Dravid could grind down journalists like he would bowlers. He could speak to you at length and not give away a shard of what he is really thinking. A journalist recalls a meeting with Dravid during which he spoke with unusual candour about team dynamics and player equations. When the journalist asked about the possibility of an interview with him, Dravid said, “Sure, but you know what my stock answers are going to be, right?”

Dravid is known to choose his words as carefully as he picks his shots. Even then, he is more likely to play a rash shot than utter a careless word. Erudite and earnest he is; but at the peak of his captaincy, it became a pain covering his press conferences. His responses bordered on the predictable. Journalists felt the same pain bowlers felt after being dead-batted by the great man. He gave them absolutely nothing.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t for Sehwag. He thrives on his clarity of mind. See ball. Hit ball. It is tactless, old-fashioned and simple. But it works. And it sure as hell is entertaining. More power to straight talkers.

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