Sports in the age of social media

We live in times when news is first circulated on Twitter, barking at us through the TV before it comes down and is confirmed in print. Sport in general and cricket in particular are not immune to this trend and with events being distilled into hashtags it’s time for some frantic words and endless speculation.

However, there was a time when reflective reporting wasn’t the drill. Decades ago, cricketers would meet with the traveling media, perhaps over an evening drink. The number of correspondents was small and intelligence would be shared. The odd leg-before-wicket dismissal was hotly debated. And confidential conversations remained just that.

Those were rural days when freshly mown grass on the outfield, a few dragonflies whispered in the air and the bounce of a ball in a pasture gave a sense of timelessness. Cricket players lived their sporting dreams, writers chronicled them and everything seemed fine. However, Utopia was bound to collapse once the 24-hour news cycle rode the dual fulcrums of digital routes and television channels.

The need for light-speed content meant that proper filters were not in play and stories were invented. Once, during a hectic limited-overs series between India and Australia, a television reporter asked Ricky Ponting if the schedule was tight. The Australian skipper said yes. Next came MS Dhoni and the same correspondent told the Indian captain: “Mahibhai, Ponting just complained about the schedule, how do you see that?” Dhoni offered some platitudes about international sport and how players need to adapt. After the press conference was over, the broadcaster broke the news: “MS snubs Ponting!”

The inevitable result was that trust between players and writers was destroyed. This collateral damage has been perpetuated in a variety of ways over the years. And we’ve gotten to a point where cricketers, like other sporting icons, would rather speak to audiences directly through their social media channels. Space for a nuanced question or substantive clarification has been lost. Instead, banalities such as “control of the steerables” are spat out at press conferences.

Announcements, be they retirements or the resignations of the captain, are unleashed by stunned writers. Dhoni retired from international cricket overnight through a cryptic Instagram post and newsrooms fell into a frenzy. Did he do that? Did he really mean it? Oh damn yes he did!

But in the past it was pleasantly different. Rahul Dravid, known in equal measure for his determined batting and famed 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 supposed heat in an otherwise sane city.

The telephone rang. “Private number” blinked. At the other end could only be “The Wall”. A drink was spilled, the phone grabbed, a quick murmured hello and a familiar voice said, “Hey Vijay, Rahul here, good time to talk?” And when a few yeses were said, he continued, “Listen, I’m giving a press conference at Chinnaswamy Stadium this Friday, thought I’d give you a hint. keep that between us I also told a few others that I’m announcing my retirement that day. But nothing in print for now. Many Thanks.”

Two days in advance of an important announcement that would inspire pathos and respect in the cricket world was too much for the stomach. Also, the secret had to be kept while the mind contemplated possible tributes and flashed memories specific to this fabulous dough. 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 until 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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