The 2003 World Cup in South Africa was a defining moment for cricket's relationship with television. The deal for broadcasting the tournament in India went out of the hands of a full-fledged sports channel, and to SET Max – the 'E' in 'SET' standing for 'Entertainment'.
That didn't necessarily prepare anyone for the drastic change in the format of presentation that the channel provided. 'Dumbing down', screamed the purists. 'Good mix of entertainment and cricket,' said many. And then there were those who waited for the cricket to take a break and for Mandira Bedi to bring on her noodle-straps and 1000-watt smile. Suddenly, you didn't need Harsha Bhogle, or even Charu Sharma, anymore. Sexist as it was, SET Max figured that when big-time cricket was on, men would hog the TV sets; to draw in the housewives, something different was needed; something 'extraaa'.
So strong was the impact of this 'cricket with a difference' coverage that traditional sports channels too brought in entertainment slices into their mix. The Shaz & Waz Show, for example, was devised to attract the segment of viewers who wanted to dip in for a while, but not watch too much cricket.
Then, along came the Indian Premier League in 2008 – a format almost tailor-made for the channel. Perhaps Ms Bedi was not young enough for the show anymore; Archana Vijaya and Shibani Dandekar were. The brief to them, as well as the two male presenters – Samir Kochhar and Gaurav Kapur – was to bring the intensity down a notch. Have fun, talk cricket, be presentable; basically, approach the presentation not as a Bhogle clone, but as a fan.
"The four of us were hired based on our personalities," says Dandekar. "I am there, probably, to be fun and bubbly. I like to keep things really casual and not do the question-answer-question-answer thing. I like chatting with people. Not be too serious, just keep things light."
Vijaya adds, "Never try to be the expert. I am always the one asking the questions, trying to find out what a fan of the sport would want to know. No roles are dictated to us. All of us are distinct individuals and that comes out on the show. The channel lets us do our thing."
The 'thing' includes spells in the studio [which these four youngsters are no doubt grateful for, especially during 4pm matches in Chennai], or at the venues. At the venues, presenters need to bring match updates, catch hold of a player, a team official, a team owner or a random celebrity and interview him or her. If there is time to spare, bring the viewers a little flavour of the cities – shop, eat, drink, whatever. In the studio, it's primarily quizzing the experts, watching the cheergirls dance and bring in the keep-the-sponsors-happy chunks on cue.
Obviously, because of the mad travel cycle during the IPL, no presenter is in the studio, or at the ground, on consecutive days. Except Dandekar, who spends almost all her time at the venues. Is it because she can't speak Hindi (having grown up in Australia)? "Not really," she counters. "It just doesn't go with my personality. I am a little loud and bubbly and have an energy that goes well with the screaming crowds."
Neither she nor Vijaya are in it for the cricket bit. Vijaya has presented cricket for a fair few years, of course – first with Neo Sports and then with SET Max – but is looking at a career that involves presenting, and also a dash of glamour. "The IPL has been such a success that we have also been successful. Lots of opportunities have opened up for me," she says. "I am doing a reality dance show (Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa, which has also roped in Shibani). I speak English as well as Hindi, so there are options coming in from other quarters as well."
Dandekar, on the other hand, did watch a little cricket growing up, but is in India to build a career in the entertainment industry. "Extraaa Innings has been a huge platform for me. Once people know that you are out there, avenues open up. I started off as a singer, but got more recognition as an anchor," she says.
In any case, as both the girls tell us, the producers on the show help a great deal with the cricket-related information they need, while the rest, really, "is commonsense and a matter of keeping our eyes and ears open".
But the celebrity they have found is not unqualified. Does anyone really switch on the TV to watch the presenters? Isn't the game, despite the lowering of the cricket pitch, the main draw? Aren't people like Vijaya and Dandekar basically the support act? Vijaya agrees: "The IPL has been such a success that we have gained. It all depends on the cricket. If there are good games, the grounds will be full and people will talk about it." Dandekar expands on that, explaining the exact role that the presenters play: "If I asked a standard question, cricket lovers and fans would already know the answer. We'd like to see players sing songs, dance, have a laugh. We want people to follow the IPL every year and we want them to have fun while at it."
Trying to ensure that the viewer has fun, however, isn't easy. It's a two-month whirl. Hotels-flights-cars-cricket grounds-studios. All that in the Indian summer – remember, the ground is not air-conditioned. Not a day's rest. "You are always on sixth gear and mentally fatigued at all times with hardly any time to unwind," Vijaya tells us.
The spoils are worth it though. The IPL is flourishing. So will SET Max. And both will do what it takes to keep people milling to the grounds or parking themselves on the couch at home. As long as that is the case, Vijaya and Dandekar, and others of their ilk, will remain in business. And continue to ride the popularity wave.