Sport in the time of social media

We live in times when news ripples first on Twitter, barks at us through television before piping down and finding validation through print. Sport at large and cricket specifically isn’t immune to this trend and as events get distilled into hashtags, it is time for some frenetic words and endless speculation.

There was an era though when reflexive reportage wasn’t the drill. Decades ago, cricketers would catch up with the travelling media, perhaps over a drink in the evening. The number of correspondents was few and insights would be shared. The odd Leg-Before-Wicket dismissal was hotly debated. And off-the-record conversations remained just that.

Those were pastoral times when freshly cut grass on the outfield, some dragonflies whispering in the air and the thud of a ball against a piece of willow had a sense of timelessness. Cricketers lived their sporting dreams, writers chronicled them and all seemed fine. Utopia, however, was bound to crack once the 24-hour news cycle rode on the twin pivots of digital avenues and television channels.

The need for content at the speed of light meant that adequate filters weren’t at play and stories were manufactured. Once, during a hectic limited overs series between India and Australia, a television reporter asked Ricky Ponting whether the schedule was tight. The Aussie skipper answered in the affirmative. Next up was M.S. Dhoni and the same correspondent told the Indian captain: “Mahibhai, Ponting just complained about the schedule, how do you see this?” Dhoni offered some platitudes about international sport and how players have to adjust. Once the press conference concluded, the channel flashed the news: ‘MS snubs Ponting!’

The inevitable result was that the trust between players and scribes was ruined. This collateral damage perpetuated itself in different ways over the years. And we are at a point in which cricketers, like other sporting icons, would rather talk directly to the audience through their social media handles. The scope for a nuanced question or an essential clarification has been lost. Instead, press conferences have banalities being spouted such as “control the controllables”.

Announcements, be it retirements or captaincy resignations, are sprung on stunned writers. Dhoni retired from international cricket through a cryptic Instagram post at night and newsrooms lapsed into apoplexy. Did he do that? Did he really mean that? Oh hell, yes he did!

However, things were pleasantly different in the past. Rahul Dravid, known equally for his resolute batting and famous reticence, surprised many on a warm March night in Bengaluru. It was the summer of 2012 and citizens were busy ranting about traffic and the alleged heat in an otherwise salubrious city.

The phone rang. ‘Private Number’ flashed. It could only be ‘The Wall’ at the other end. A beverage was spilled, the phone grabbed, a quick hello muttered and a familiar voice spoke: “Hey Vijay, Rahul here, good time to talk?” And as a few yeahs were said, he continued: “Listen I’m doing a press conference at the Chinnaswamy Stadium this Friday, thought I will give you a head’s up. Let this stay between us. I told a few others too that I’m announcing my retirement that day. But nothing in print for now. Thanks.”

Being given two days’ notice for a significant announcement that would trigger pathos and respect in the cricketing world was too much to stomach. Plus the secret had to be held tight while the mind thought about possible tributes and memories flashed that were specific to this fabulous batter. India’s leading cricket writers were bound by the Code of Omerta. We knew ‘Jammy’, as Dravid is known in the inner circle, was leaving but the news had to stay under the radar till he made it official.

Those were different days. Now, we have one eye on the field and the other on Twitter and Instagram. You never know when another text will break the Internet.

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