At the risk of sounding totally absurd, I'm asking you to use your imagination to picture this. It's the fourth and final Test of the series against Australia at home in 2013. Sachin Tendulkar, having smacked the winning runs through cover point, has taken India to a near-impossible win with yet another epic knock in Chennai. Moments after being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates as they celebrate this memorable victory, Tendulkar, still overcome with the emotion of a tense encounter, walks into the post-match press conference.
Tendulkar looks straight into a camera and announces his retirement, reading from a prepared speech where he thanks all those who contributed to his career and his incredible journey. He tears up as he bids his beloved fans farewell. Then he walks away, escorted by a couple of obsequious BCCI officials.
There are no journalists to ask questions during the press conference. No reporters milling around Tendulkar as he walks one final time towards the dressing room. There is no posse of television cameras transmitting the press conference live. No flashbulbs going off as Tendulkar talks about life after cricket. No photographers from international news agencies to capture close-ups as his moist eyes glisten. No interviews on news bulletins, or photos that go out to newspapers across the world as the greatest cricketer of his generation says goodbye. The only media present in the room on that momentous occasion: a solitary television camera manned by a BCCI-appointed cameraperson.
Tendulkar has just made the most significant announcement of his career to an empty room. Reason? Television crews, photographers and cricket journalists, across all media and publications, have boycotted the Test due to the oppressive restrictions imposed by the BCCI on their coverage of the series. Yes, I'm grossly exaggerating a make-believe scenario to make my point. But the events of the past few months warrant this hyperbole at the BCCI's perfunctory arm-twisting of the media, not just in India but also around the world.
Consider the latest developments. First, Sky Sports was refused access to the grounds for the ongoing India-England series unless they agreed to cough up an obscene amount of over Rs 4 crore as 'production fees' to the BCCI. Then, the BCCI banned Getty Images and a couple of other photo agencies from covering the Tests as they must not profit from providing photos unless these are exclusively for editorial use. Instead, the BCCI took to emailing in-house photos to the media. And most recently, it has been busy sending out threatening emails to visiting journalists for various breaches of accreditation guidelines.
In response, Sky Sports decided against sending its team to India, with the exception of Michael Atherton who does his bit from the parking lot of the match venue. International news agencies – including AFP, AP and Reuters – refused to cover the Ahmedabad Test in a show of solidarity with Getty. And newspapers in England have protested the ban on the photo agencies by using interesting alternatives for pictures to showcase the action. Similar bans on news and photo agencies were enforced by Cricket Australia in 2007 and the IPL in 2008 but quickly revoked when faced with a boycott. The BCCI, however, is unmoved.
To elaborate on the BCCI's threat to journalists, a cricket writer from England was slapped with a prompt warning during the Ahmedabad Test for a five-minute spot he did for a media outlet back home that in no way contravened the rights of the official broadcasters. Why the board is poking its nose into affairs when none of its stakeholders is directly affected is anybody's guess. But what is abundantly clear is the arbitrary approach with which the BCCI operates when it comes to flexing its muscle with the media.
The board has set a very dangerous precedent in attaching a hefty price for allowing journalists and commentators access to the stadium. By all means, monetise various properties as the BCCI has with its 38 billion-rupee deal with Rupert Murdoch's Star network. But there is great disservice being done to a cricket-loving public when the freedom of the press is impinged upon to this degree.
The problem with BCCI-appointed commentators and in-house photography is the complete lack of objectivity. If an incident like Monkeygate or an ugly confrontation were to take place between a player and the crowd, would the BCCI email those photos to the media? How often have we heard critical comments during the cricket telecast about the IPL or the packed cricket calendar, or the BCCI's refusal to adopt the Decision Review System? These are stories only a free and fair media can tell.
It's an unfortunate time to be a cricket journalist in India, particularly if you're a television reporter. For the past two years, television reporters have not entered stadiums in India, a development that is seriously affecting the quality of reportage on news television. The BCCI has strict guidelines regarding the timing and content of what networks can carry on their sports shows and news bulletins. The bone of contention deals with the quantity of footage being broadcast, and the delay news channels must enforce in showing any match footage.
The diktats were deemed unacceptable resulting in a total boycott of all cricket series in India. Except that the threat of competition and limited unity even under the umbrella of the News Broadcasters Association in the country means the boycott is hardly a boycott. The only difference is there are no reporters at the stadium to cover the matches, practice sessions and press conferences. Cricket still dominates the sports shows of all news networks. And the BCCI, never one to miss a trick, has seen through the bluff. It is this acute awareness of market forces and an inherent arrogance that dictates their policy in all media interactions: you need Indian cricket more than Indian cricket needs you.
The point is none of these news networks, cricket websites or photo agencies are threatening the host broadcaster's viewership or cutting into the BCCI's precious revenue in any way. If anything, they are most diligent in their efforts to promote the sport and cultivate a keen audience.
Why then is the BCCI so hell bent on alienating the media in India and around the world?