First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. What Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul said on the talk show was misogynistic and unacceptable, and warranted the BCCI’s intervention. They are public figures and will, and must, be held to those standards; they are role models for hundreds of millions not only in India but, thanks to live streaming, beyond the regular cricketing world. Reports suggest a two-match ban is on the way and that will be fair enough. It will, hopefully, send out a message that there is a line that cannot be crossed, however big a star you are.
There is, however, a silver lining of sorts to this controversy: by speaking without filters, Pandya has shown us a glimpse, if we needed it, of the conversation and mindset in the wider Indian society. It raises questions about the “surround” – not the statements themselves but the circumstances that prompted them. What made Pandya say what he did? Where was the failure? If Pandya is a symptom, what’s the disease and what’s the cure? Perhaps taking a step back and looking beyond the comments will help explain, and hopefully in the longer run weed out, the problem.
First, whoever on Pandya’s management team – and the focus here is on Pandya because the most execrable statements came from him – thought it was a good idea for him to appear on a talk show that feeds off controversial revelations? Knowing Pandya, they would (must) have been aware of his candour and willingness to open topics others shy away from. Could he not have been prepped better? Ironically, Pandya was refreshingly frank for most of the show. He’s a high school dropout, barely able to read and write by his own admission and, while candid about his lack of literacy, did say it was not the example to follow. That he has made a career for himself despite those failings in the formal structure – and in a country where the formal structure still counts for a lot – testifies to his own character. He loves high fashion, he loves money, he loves women, he loves to talk about it. There is no issue with that.
The problem is with the issue of how he treats, and refers, to women. And with a host as skilled as Karan Johar, once the genie was out of the bottle there was no pushing it back in. Pandya did as he was asked, as he was expected to; lacking the guile of the usual Bollywood guests, he answered questions as candidly as possible. The problem was in the line of questioning; once Johar realised the general drift, he could have moved away from that, it could have even been edited out. There are many ways of dealing with controversial content that isn’t being broadcast live. Ultimately, though, a commercial talk show has to do what it says on the tin; no one but Pandya (and his minders) is responsible for his own fate.
Pandya’s statements should also be seen in the context of his journey, from a family environment in which, as he said, everything is discussed, nothing is off the table, to the over-the-top celebrity and riches of the IPL, the ultimate goldfish bowl – or platform, depending on your personality type. It’s the same IPL that brought in the cheerleader culture to India, the most definitive example of objectification of women in sport. The IPL brought in celebrity, blurring the lines between glamour and sport; of the original franchises, two were wholly or partially owned by some of the biggest Bollywood stars of the day, and a third was owned by the most flamboyant of Indian billionaires. It was a heady world where the after-parties were as entertaining and sought-after as the matches themselves and, though the celebrity quotient has waned (the flamboyant billionaire is now a millionaire, and a fugitive from the law), it is still a world of bright lights.
Imagine Pandya – or any young cricketer – thrown into this cocktail, with the crores of rupees now at his disposal. The IPL took his persona, bling and all, amplified it, put it on the biggest screens across the country and turned him from a player “too shy to even approach ESPNcricinfo to have his bowling style changed on his player profile page” (as one 2015 story put it) to what he is today: despite not being one of India’s top cricketers, he has 11 million friends/followers across the three main social media handles and has made it to the Forbes India 100 list for 2018 (at 27, three spots above Karan Johar). There’s a reason for that and it’s not his cricketing skills alone.
This is usually the part of the comment piece where one pulls up the BCCI for its own errors of omission and commission but their relationship with top players is complicated. Yes, they are the primary paymasters and yes, the primary disciplinarians too. But the task they face here is to change individual mindsets that go back 20 years or more into one’s childhood. There’s no debating that India is a deeply patriarchal country where the average adult male has huge issues with how to treat women. And a top cricketer is the alpha male among alpha males; the BCCI’s list of contracted players has about 25 names on average. That’s 25 cricketers in a country of several hundred million active cricketers. Imagine the privilege, the entitlement.
Of course there’s lots that can be done in the medium and long term, and the BCCI has the wherewithal to be as proactive on this as possible. The world has changed even in the IPL era; social media, barely around in Season 1, now dominates the landscape and there are new rules and norms of social engagement that are no longer optional. The board also has the responsibility to ensure that the playing field – the physical space as well as the wider world of cricket – is treated like any other professional work space, with the same rules and regulations. These are boys who’ve never grown up; help them grow up. Start gender sensitisation at the age-group levels; make it part of the formal structure across the board and especially up the ladder. Train your top players in every aspect of media management – not merely the cricket-focused questions at press conferences but also the googlies they may have to negotiate on talk shows. Make sure that the next time an Indian cricketer goes on a general entertainment talk show it will not be a national embarrassment.
And talk to them about life. Make them not merely the best players but the best ambassadors. The New Zealand Cricket Players Association, in their latest annual handbook for players, has a chapter on consent that is explicit and unambiguous on the situations that will inevitably occur in a professional sportsman’s life. The National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru should have an in-house, full-time professional working on this.
The last time Pandya and Rahul made the headlines together was for their “jersey-swapping” gimmick in IPL 2018. Their latest exploit has thrown up uncomfortable questions not just about them or their exalted bubble. It questions us: those of us who watched the show, those of us who have joked in locker rooms, those of us who have kept quiet when the banter has crossed the line. Those of us who have created the likes of Pandya and fed off his exploits.
It’s possible that Pandya and Rahul will emerge from this with a better understanding of how to deal with half the world. Let’s hope that applies to the rest of us too.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo in India
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.