Cricket news - Aakash Chopra: Finding a new pitch

"It's about talking to this generation, in Bollywood Hindi and making it entertaining"

"It's about talking to this generation, in Bollywood Hindi and making it entertaining"

Aakash Chopra is active on social media -- these days, he is spreading the good word of caution against Coronavirus, and a little miffed at those still getting on to the streets. It's usually a tricky sphere to venture in with personal views for a celebrity. In a polarised world - politically and socially - every opinion is a wrong opinion, and so is the case for no opinion.

"Five years ago, I was passionately involved with a lot of things, even saying politically incorrect things," he says. "Then, all of us learned our lessons. There will be certain issues that are very close to my heart so I will speak out, but for the rest I don't, even if I feel strongly about it. As a public figure, there are certain social responsibilities but it's a different world that we are living in, where things are blown out of proportion."

But during the global sports lull, social media conversations have tired out and sports-based memes and opinions are on a dry run. With no cricket either in the near foreseeable future, Chopra is spending time with his two young daughters - Aarna and Aarshin - listening to nursery rhymes. Even as he continues to churn out videos on a daily basis for his Facebook commissioned show - Aakashvani - the absence of commentary gigs has allowed him some free time for experiments.

Chopra has invited cricket fans to send videos of them playing the game, so that he can add his commentary byte over it and post it on his social media accounts. "These tennis-ball cricketers are rockstars in their own right. And now when I give voice to their game, it suddenly gets legitimacy for them in a convoluted way. I had tried this six months ago but was caught up with some other things in between. Currently, it is because of lack of content that's making people sit up and take notice."

It isn't the first time Chopra has used social media as a tool to engage with the fans. In fact, as a host of former cricketers have entered the field of commentary, he has kept himself relevant by not being just another ex-cricketer who goes to the commentary box, does his job and stays shut. He has created a niche of his own.

He isn't the most popular ex-cricketer walking into a commentary stint, just as he wasn't while seeing off the new ball while Virender Sehwag redefined the conventions of Test match opening at the other end. However, unlike most cricketers, Chopra is relatively affable and approachable for a common fan on Twitter. He will Retweet and respond to views, engage in conversations and like he is up to now, give voice to a game of street cricket.

"They may not be my fans, but they are cricket fans who want to be engaged," he says. Along with a small team, he frequently brainstorms to keep his social media profiles active and relavant. It's a tricky sphere to be in, with tempers running high and sensitivities low. However, that's also what has allowed him to set the precedent for the the way forward in the journey post-cricket.

Commentary wasn't the option he was considering. As his cricket career was drawing to a close, he found opportunities as a writer. So popular his love for writing had grown following the diary-turned-book of his season with the Delhi Ranji team that it almost had him in trouble during IPL 2009, when he was suspected of writing 'The Fake IPL Player' blog and leaking dressingroom information of Kolkata Knight Riders.

"I never thought commentary will happen, for a simple reason that there was only one language back then. And if you looked at the crowd that was there - with Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Sivaramakrishnan, Sanjay Manjrekar and Harsha Bhogle - it was impossible to break in. With more players retiring around that time - the Dravids, Gangulys and Laxmans - what were the chances of BCCI or Star or Sony looking for an Aakash Chopra?

"So I thought I will be an analyst, maybe write for newspapers and websites, perhaps appear on sports channels, probably do coaching, but never thought that commentary will happen. Suddenly, Star came up with Hindi commentary and they realised they needed more commentators."

It was a foray he was unprepared for. "Sanjay Manjrekar helped me quite a bit to begin with. In my first commentary gig, I saw there were three columns - caller, colour and expert. My name was on the caller's list. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. So one senior commentator told me 'Mike utha, jo marzi aata hai bol." (Pick up the mike and speak as you wish) I thought this was easy, I just had to pick up the mike and speak. Talking has never been a problem, neither the language of Hindi has been an issue. I thought I knew the game, I could read the play and life was bliss. But one day, Sanjay Manjrekar tapped me on the shoulder and asked, 'Aakash, why are you talking? It's a replay and there is Sunil Gavaskar next to you. It is his turn to talk, you are the caller'."

Even as he has transitioned from Hindi to English, it's the former in which he has found an easier space for himself, using alliterations and puns to carve a space for himself. Sample this as the description for a Virat Kohli cover drive - "Yeh itna acha drive tha ki chalan sirf bowler ka katega." Don't bother with the translation if you didn't understand that, but it's popcorn-worthy entertainment for those who do. It's not a style that will garner all-round appreciation and often overshadow the more nuanced discussions on the game. It was a process deliberately driven to come out of the existing mould.

"My wife would tell me, let's not go the DD (Doordarshan - Government of India channel) way. That's passe. So we won't use words like 'shikshak' and 'vidhyarti' anymore, we will call it 'teacher' and 'student' even in Hindi. It's about talking to this generation, in Bollywood Hindi and making it entertaining. Unless you are being frivolous and dumbing it down, entertainment is what people want."

The idea was never to stop after retiring from competitive cricket: Aakash Chopra

His popularity in the English space hasn't soared as much, and he has stuck to a more sedate approach. "Hindi is my first language, it comes naturally to me," he explains the reason for the difference in his delivery. "In Hindi, we got that kind of a freehand when it was re-invented by Star. Since I was a part of it from the beginning, I had the luxury of creating a new template. With English, I feel the template is already set in stone. The style is designed to be very sanitized, very white-collared. There are of course some outliers like Danny Morrison, but I'm no Danny.

"I can't be a Bumble because I don't have that plethora of words to play with. So I will not go there, I would rather stick to my strengths. With Hindi also, I don't go shaayari. I'm not Sidhu, I can't do that. But I'll play with words, whether it's rhyming or it's a pun, because with Hindi I know where I can use them. English is straight-jacketed."

As a fan of the craft, he found himself torn between two extremes of calling the game - the theatrics of Ravi Shastri and Tony Grieg on the one end, and the detailed analysis of Michael Atherton and Naseer Hussain on the other. "Ravi Shastri calling those six sixes was one of my favourite pieces of commentary. Every six can't be called the same way, but what else do you say when there were just sixes in the entire over? Every time you can't just say it a 'oh, it's a six, what a great shot!' That is where the theatre comes in."

What didn't help him though in creating that sort of an atmosphere was his shrill voice. "We have spent a lot of time trying to become cricketers and getting our cover drives right but we have spent zero time trying to learn commentary, completely forgetting that this is a completely different stream. All of us fall in love with our own voices. When we are talking, we think we are not overtalking, and we forget hygiene. We don't focus on voice modulation because we have not gone through that. I took a training in voice modulation on my own because shrill voice is not appreciated. I don't drink or smoke, so I don't have any bass. When I go behind the mike, I have a different voice."

In search of the feedback, Chopra has often looked at the response on social media. It's a hard space to find validation in -- especially if your international cricketing CV isn't studded with achivements. That's a window the internet uses to nullify his opinion. Moeen Ali, too, promptly shared a screenshot of Chopra's statistics in response to an article by him on the English all-rounder's technique.

"My greatest takeaway from the Moeen Ali incident was that he had an issue with my career stats and not with something that I had said. So if you're not having an issue with the technical or analytical point that I'm making, it doesn't make a difference to me. If I say the head of the batsman is falling when it is not, then it is a different thing. If you have a problem that I've scored 25 runs less than someone else, then that's not what I'm here for. I was paid at a different time to play, now I'm paid to voice my opinion.

"There is no reason for me to feel inferior to someone who has played a 100 Test matches. Of course, he will still know a lot of things more than me, but there are things that are universal truths. I take digs at my own career. When someone is playing very slowly in a T20, I will say, "Yeh Aakash Chopra jaisa khel raha hai". I make fun of myself but that doesn't stop me from saying that Virat Kohli played a bad shot. That's my obligation to the job. With no grudges, I'm happy to stand corrected if I'm wrong."

Given that social media becomes such a critical space for him to not only become a popular public figure but also seek feedback, learning to deal with the attacks also invariable becomes a part of the job. "Earlier it used to bother me a lot more because I was looking constantly scrolling through my feed and looking for people for what they are saying. I'm fine with memes and trolls. If you make a meme that resonates with everyone, then go ahead and make it. I'm very fortunate, I didn't think it would happen, especially in my lifetime after the cricket that I played. But it has happened, so I count my blessings and move on. But when it is really below the belt, then it bothers me for a couple of hours. I block those who are abusive.

"Now, it affects me less. My wife is my sounding board, she has a very sound mind. So if I'm stressed, she would calm me down. There hasn't been an incident where I've reacted very badly. One thing I realised very quickly was that social media isn't for impulsive people. If you are impulsive, stay out, you should be nowhere near your mobile phone. There is a certain decorum that you need to maintain if you're a public figure, even if you are answering a troll or whatever. You need to maintain your dignity of who you are. If you are engaging with someone who is a troll, do it in a very dignified manner where you still come out smiling and shining."

His presence on social media is heavy, so much so that he is often shooting and posting videos even when he's on a family vacation. "It has become a family thing now. We have a mini studio at home. My elder daughter takes a lot of pride in holding the camera. Even though her hand shakes after a while, we find a way out of it in the edit. My younger daughter, not too long ago, was calling me Aakashvani papa, because she saw me introduce myself on the show so many times. It is only now that she has realised that it is not my name. My wife is the content head of the show. It couldn't have happened without the family's support."

Chopra has no qualms about being remembered for his quirky commentary rather than his playing career, for cricketing retirement was never going to be the end of his professional life. "If my cricket career is not celebrated, I've got no regrets. I may have had more regrets if I was stuck in that life for the rest of my life, if I had ended up as a cricketer only, as a guy who played 10 Tests for India, and that's all there was to my identity as a professional. If nobody celebrated it, nobody spoke about it, then I would have felt, 'I went on these tours, I felt hard done by, things could have shaped out differently'.

"But the idea was never to stop there. People will decide what will be celebrated or not celebrated. Even guys like Tony Greig or Richie Benaud were rockstars in their own right as cricketers, but are eventually remembered more as commentators. There is no shame in accepting that this is great. Someone may not have liked my batting because it was boring but probably finds my commentary entertaining. I'm cool with that.

"Of course at that point, there was pain, there was frustration and all that. But I can look back at it, and say that I played because I loved it. It lasted for a very long time. Maybe the level could have been different but people more talented than me got lesser opportunities or didn't get to play for India at all. So there is enough reason to feel blessed. Even if I'm not celebrated as a commentator, it's okay. I'm doing this because it gives me joy. First I was playing and now I'm watching - what more could I have asked for in a lifetime?"