On the YouTube channel of Sports Flashes—a digital platform for sports news and trending updates—cricket analyst Boria Majumdar can be seen reviewing the third match from the India-New Zealand Twenty20 series, which took place in February. As opposed to the formal set-up in news studios, this format seems more breezy and chatty, with Majumdar doing the video link from his house. And instead of the customary English, his analysis is in Bengali, with English subtitles appearing on the screen. He also did the GameChanger of the Match segment for the Indian Premier League (IPL) series, again in Bengali, for the website, which is available in seven languages and reaches more than five million viewers.
Gone are the days when cricket commentary was available only in Hindi and English on All India Radio and Doordarshan. The year 2016 was a game changer of sorts: Sony ESPN—a joint venture between ESPN Inc. and Sony Pictures Networks India—decided to broadcast IPL matches in Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, besides the regular English commentary. The IPL then moved to Star Sports in 2018, which started a Hindi channel in 2013 and a Tamil one in 2017. Today it has 16 dedicated sports channels in six languages, including Kannada, Telugu and Bengali. Since then, there has been a steady rise in Indian-language cricket commentary, be it on television, mobile apps, websites or online streaming services.
“New players have emerged. Jio has its own viewing and commentary service on JioTV. Sports Flashes is now the official partner to BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) for their audio engagements,” says Debjeet Kundu, a Delhi-based commentator, who did a stint recently in Bengali for Sports Flashes and Star Sports.
The real potential of India-language commentary hit him in the last six months or so, after seeing feedback to the Bengali service on Sports Flashes’ YouTube channel. “It brought home the fact that there was this huge population wanting to listen to the sport in its own language, but was not getting an opportunity. As they say, pehle woh feel nahi aa rahi thi (that connect wasn’t there),” says Kundu.
Commentary—once a one-sided engagement—has turned into an interactive one, with people sending in comments in a matter of seconds. According to former cricketer Venkatapathy Raju, who now does commentary for Star Sports 1 Telugu, people have been posting their feedback on social media. “Watching cricket earlier was like viewing a silent movie. People in small towns and villages could watch the game but couldn’t follow the commentary. Now, they can understand the game in depth in their own language,” he says.
The regional space is also witnessing some interesting formats. Hindi commentary too has been reimagined. “The newer players on streaming platforms cannot offer live commentary. There is a copyright issue with showing live updates if you are not the official partner of the series,” says Kundu. Instead, these channels are offering deferred analysis, peppered with anecdotes and personal views, in a lounge-like format. “This is great for everyday guys who are sports enthusiasts and want a platform to share their passion for the game. This has also given former players a chance to maintain their connect with the game,” says Kundu. There are many cricketers who may have played for different states in the past, and, though not fluent in English, are proficient in their mother tongue. People like to hear their stories and insights.
One such “everyday guy” who is passionate about cricket commentary is Satyam Neelkamal, a Delhi-based voice-over artist and musician. Born and raised in Bihar, the 29-year-old grew up on a hearty dose of radio commentary, listening to greats such as Vineet Garg, Sanjay Banerjee and Prakash Wakankar. Soon, he started mimicking them and got rather good at commentary. At a local tournament, when a commentator kept making mistakes, 12-year-old Kamal ended up not only correcting him but also taking his place in the commentary box. When he moved to Delhi for higher studies, he started getting projects—first for the IPL for Cricbuzz, eight years ago, and then for Star Sports on Mobile.
“I then did some freelance work for Sports Flashes,” says Kamal, whose style of Hindi commentary is a bit different from the ones we hear on radio and TV; more colloquial, it frequently references pop culture. He started his own YouTube channel eight months ago but got a copyright strike. He is now planning to offer informal lounge-like analysis for the World Cup on his website and a mobile app. “We have audience from all over the world—those working in offices, farmers listening to us while working on the field,” says Kamal, part of a team of four that produces commentary from his home studio.
The world of Indian-language commentary is more varied than you can imagine. If you were to head to Varanasi during Basant Panchami, you would find dhoti-clad players running between the wickets at the Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya, the grounds resounding with commentary in classical Sanskrit.
While the staff here believes that even terms like googly and leg-bye should be translated in Sanskrit, Indian-language commentators are not such sticklers for “tradition”. Vijay Bharadwaj, the commentator for Star Sports 1 Kannada, believes in using everyday language, something the common man can understand. “The format has a jovial and humorous feel to it, with healthy banter between the commentators. Also, cricket is an English game at the end of the day. A direct translation of every term into Kannada doesn’t work,” he says.
His views are shared by Vijay Mahavadi, a Hyderabad-based cricket analyst. After doing commentary in Hindi for DD Sports for years, he has started offering analysis in Telugu on Star Sports, Sony ESPN and Jio TV’s mobile app. “I took tips from veterans like Sunil Doshi. He said that while earlier batsmen were called ballebaaz and bowlers gendbaaz, one should keep the English names for the technical terms intact in regional-language commentary. It helps listeners connect better,” he says.
It helps that channels such as Star Sports have introduced sophisticated production quality in regional commentary. According to S. Badrinath, who does commentary for Star Sports 1 Tamil, the scripting and production is on a par with any other English channel.
“And at the same time the viewers feel they are one of us, sitting and discussing the game,” says Badrinath, who enjoys giving pitch reports in Tamil the most.
The Broadcast Audience Research Council, India, picked up on the popularity of regional languages in sports last year with the Indian Premier League. According to the recent newsletter, IPL Over The Years, IPL 2018 saw an uptake in viewership from regional channels (viewership split into 55% Hindi, 22% English and 23% regional). “As TV penetrates further into semi-urban and rural areas, uptake of IPL (and possibly other sports properties) in regional languages is likely to show a continued upward trend,” the report says. According to Star Sports, regional feeds are being watched by an incredible 194 million viewers for a total of 75 billion minutes.