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Monday, June 21, 2021

Sports press conferences are a weird speed date with both sides making snap judgments

Having sat through countless press conferences, I can vouch that sporting stars at press conferences aren’t made to sit on a wooden chair under a lonely bulb nor are reporters believers at a sermon. It’s a space where everyone has a voice and also the right to remain silent.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi
Updated: June 6, 2021 8:46:14 am
Japan's Naomi Osaka cited mental well-being to keep away from media at the French Open. (Reuters Photo/File)

When Naomi Osaka expressed her reluctance to address the media at this year’s French Open for her mental well-being, the spotlight suddenly turned to those who have sat behind the cameras for years — the unseen reporters at press conferences.

And in tune with the times we live in, while the conduct of those with pens and pads was being scrutinised, the traditional Q&A got targeted by the all-pervading cancel culture.

Swayed by social media chatter, a few sports writers resorted to self-flagellation, exaggerating the uselessness of a presser. When the apology should have come from the French Open officials, it was the reporters who were seeking atonement for asking “boring” questions and over-dressing the alleged intimidating aura of the press pack.

Having sat through countless press conferences, I can vouch that sporting stars at press conferences aren’t made to sit on a wooden chair under a lonely bulb nor are reporters believers at a sermon. It’s a space where everyone has a voice and also the right to remain silent.

On most days, pressers are chaotic affairs. It’s where a group of professional sceptics a.k.a reporters, working on impossible deadlines, take turns to throw questions at the day’s winner, or the loser, to understand their acts and emotions. Meanwhile, the athlete, drained after the time on field, weighs his or her words. As told by their agents, they try to be engaging and even funny while parroting rehearsed lines.

It’s a weird speed date with both sides making snap judgments. Mistakes, miscommunication and misunderstanding can happen, but that’s true for any human interaction. There are bullies on both sides, and an early end to the presser is just one stupid question, or an obnoxious answer, away.

You can draw your own conclusions about the character of a sportsperson by their conduct at press conferences (or PCs for short). Mohammad Azharuddin once decided to clip his toe-nails during a press briefing. Rahul Dravid will answer all your questions but when you sit to transcribe the 2,000 words uttered, you couldn’t even find five that could be put together in the headline. Sachin Tendulkar was better off facing 150-plus pacers than answering probing questions.

Sourav Ganguly had a way with the media. He played them and he indulged them too. He also used PCs to convey a message to the rival camp. Even after he lost his captaincy, Ganguly forced you to keep your ears on high alert. At the end of his career, he once turned up for a pre-Test match and casually dropped a bombshell — “This will be my last series”. Those who skipped the morning Ganguly briefing had ‘Boss’ flashing on their mobile phones all day.

Virat Kohli is easily the most articulate Indian cricketer. His answers are well-thought and insightful. It’s never a good idea to miss a Kohli PC, more so if India has lost the game. A flare-up following an uncomfortable question about the loss is always round the corner.

The PC-sceptics would certainly change their opinion had they been at Napier (New Zealand) in 2009 for an M S Dhoni Test preview media interaction. Historically, Dhoni wasn’t a big PC fan. He treated it as a chore. But that day, he was like a spiritual guru addressing a congregation. His answers were unusually long and he sounded like a philosopher.

Why did the team stay in Auckland for so long, when the Test was in Napier?

The mind doesn’t know if it’s Napier, or what you’re feeding it. You say this is Napier, it believes it is Napier; you say it is day, it believes it is day. If you see, it’s abstract.

You don’t seem to be in form?

Nobody has seen form, it’s a state of mind. It’s all abstract.

Consensus among travelling journalists was that this Dhoni PC should be aired on Astha TV and not a sports channel. A couple of years later, he told his mind that he was in MECON ground in Ranchi and not in Mumbai playing a World Cup final. Though the facts were different, he also cajoled it to believe that he wasn’t even out of form. And when he hit that six, you remembered Napier and that heady and abstract press conference.

Anil Kumble at a PC was like a commander apprising his unit. With his baritone lending gravitas to anything he said, even an inane statement like “we are confident of winning” sounded like an army motto. Once, after an IPL loss, a foreign reporter, wanting to confirm his doubt, asked: “Did you cry after the defeat?” Kumble gave a stern look and a firm no. On his way out, he looked for the reporter. “Learn how to ask questions properly, this is not the way.” The scribe should have known better, Kumble is all sweat, no tears.

But my vote for the most entertaining talker would go to Pakistan legend Inzamam ul Haq. Once in Ahmedabad, he sat hearing a long-winding question of an over-eager local reporter who took it upon himself to hard-sell his city. He spoke about the sights and sounds of Ahmedabad and by way of inviting the touring cricketers to venture out, he stressed how safe the city was. “Even women can roam around freely here till very late in the night,” he said. Inzaman heard out the man with exemplary patience and turned into an un-grinning goofball, to say: “Achcha? Aaj raat hotel sey nikalke check karta hoon!” Who says PCs are boring?

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 6, 2021 under the title ‘Sports, press meetings: Why it often is love all’. Write to the author at sandeep.dwivedi@expressindia.com.

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