Of armchair critics, journalists and sportspersons

You remember the criticism that former Indian men’s ODI cricket captain M.S. Dhoni received when a member of the press, Sam Ferris, asked him a question about his retirement during a presser, got invited to the front by the sportsman and got snubbed in front of everyone? Shortly after, Arun Venugopal wrote an open letter to Dhoni on ESPN Cricinfo:

At worst it was a clichéd question – if it makes you feel better the media gets clichéd answers all the time – but not one that deserved the patronising response it got. All it needed was a straightforward answer – “I don’t have plans to retire yet”, or “I will make it public when I plan to”, or even a “no comment,” if you really didn’t wish to answer it. You probably expected an Indian journalist to ask the question, because you trotted out the response anyway.

I don’t speak on behalf of all the journalists; I speak merely as one of many. You are free to ascribe any intent to any question, but our job is about seeking answers and reporting on them just as yours is playing cricket. Some would accuse us journalists of taking ourselves too seriously. I am all for taking the mickey, pulling a leg or two – just so long as mutual respect and professionalism is a two-way street.


Now, I grant you that playing tennis can be physically excruciating, that almost nobody likes getting unsolicited advice, that Wimbledon’s strict dress code for playing women is stupid and that hecklers are jerks.

But tell my why, it’s different from what Dhoni did – or even hilarious, as The West Australian claims – when another sportsperson, Kim Clijsters at Wimbledon, invites a critic from the stands to show him why he can’t play tennis and that that disqualifies him from offering suggestions from his seat. I say it’s worse, too, to make a point about some in-game strategy against a monumentally weaker opponent as well as to state that suggestions are not welcome, and that if they still seem forthcoming, they will be turned into jokes at the makers’ expense.

Does this mean journalists or critics can run their mouths against sportspersons? Absolutely not: they must recognise that the people on the field are trying to do their best and that no one’s trying to be lazy or a fool. However, the compact doesn’t end here: sportspersons must also recognise that not all journalists or apparent bystanders are fools or trolls. If they’re asking questions or making suggestions that the sportsperson disagrees with, then they can be asked to pipe down (if that’s appropriate), be told that the question/suggestion is meaningless or ignore it entirely.

“Ignore it entirely?! You think that’s easy?!” Of course not, but that doesn’t excuse you when you don’t do it; in fact, by all means, ask for brownie points that you held your composure and answered levelheadedly.

There is something to be said against criticism that does not emerge from lived experience – but it does not apply all the time, especially in situations that have acquired a diverse set of nuances. Not all pursuits are founded on physical labour. This is why armchair critics are not always privileged or in the wrong – and this is why you can’t always score an argumentative point by pointing out that one is an armchair critic. An extreme example: Much as some sportspersons might like to decry or even deny, the outcomes of some games can be predicted using techniques that ignore individual choices and rely instead on statistical possibilities that emerge from macroscopic analyses. This is why you have strategists who may themselves be lousy at playing a game but are quite good at predicting how it will evolve. You’ve watched/read Moneyball, you know what I’m talking about.

Finally, Clijsters was doubly wrong to have invited over that man in the stands onto the court, squeezed him into an outfit many sizes smaller and played against him. Irrespective of the validity of his suggestion, Clijsters turned him into a joke. I only applaud him for having been a sport about it, and not Clijsters because what she did was immature. I’m not sure if that man’s suggestion – something about playing a “body serve” – was valid but the question asked by Ferris was both politely phrased and perfectly valid. Neither non-participant deserved what they got – from the sportspersons, the media at large and from a majority of the video’s consumers.