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Talking scores and beaches

Meet Gautam Bhimani, the layman who entertains TV viewers between cricket breaks

— Photo: Murali Kumar K.

Gautam Bhimani: `I was asked once to do live commentary from a copter covering 300-odd islands of the West Indies.'

HE CHATS with the kangaroo, the giraffe, the ostrich, the leopard, even the lion. And he'll tell you how good Sydney harbour is, what the Opera House is like, how magical the calypso islands and beaches are and what it is to sip a beer in one-of-a-kind pub in the world on the boundary line at the Harare. He runs exciting errands at drinks, lunch, tea, drinks, and draw of stumps. Giving more life to cricket that already has enough life — the epic 400 of a Lara, the classy 100 of a wristy Azhar at wintry Lords or the genius of Sachin on the fastest wicket in the world at Perth we may never get to see again. All this information is conveyed into the living rooms of a hundred million cricket fans. Different crickets. Different cultures. The frail, sharp-nosed, bespectacled, articulate man with a comic persona (due apologies) certainly has a Dream Job.

Gautam Bhimani was doing his bit at the ESPN-STAR Sports audition, Close Up Dream Job — Harsha Ki Khoj at the St. John's Medical College here Sunday. He was helping out aspirants looking to become presenters on ESPN. That's why the stars were all there. Wasim Akram, Harsha Bhogle and Perizaad Zorabian. Is Gautam a star too? Dunno. But he does a job with stars around him. He'd not envisaged that. And certainly not being seen during every cricket break on TV.

Off field

How did he get a job where he has to describe engagingly what he sees off field that will be of interest and in very little time? Simple: he can pull it off.

Gautam has a theatre background going back to primary school. He'd be in one play or the other every year. Though not NSD stuff, it helped his TV act. "The plays take away stage fright. And then you know you can face a rally or the board room."

After school, he moved to Missourie State University, U.S.A, to do his Bachelor's in Mass Comm. He landed his first job with JWT- J. Walter Thomson as copywriter. In the six years he was there, he did not give up his passion for quiz. In the all-India Brand Equity Quiz, that had representatives from 400 companies, he was number three. The prize: a trip to Singapore. "That trip changed my life." That's where TV happened.

Singapore sojourn

He was the usual tourist. You can finish Singapore too soon, he said. There had to be more. Harsha Bhogle, meanwhile, had already worked with Kishore Bhimani, Gautam's dad. Gautam knew of ESPN in Singapore and was curious to see how it worked. "I saw Harsha doing a live show with Geoffrey on Geoffrey's birthday in October 2000. And I caught up with him."

Harsha put Gautam on to Raymond Hume, ESPN-Star Cricket Director. Gautam took his chances in a long chat with Ray, as he calls him. "He asked me one straight question. Why should we have you on TV? I'd never done TV ever." Gautam chanced it again. He said he had stuff relevant to TV. He presented Ray write-ups on cricket, a CD on his theatre days, quiz interest, and RJ days with Times FM. Still, none of it was directly TV. But Ray "saw something in me" and made an offer at Delhi ESPN. "And I just hated Delhi. No living there. Ray just said this much: If I can move from Australia to Singapore, and Singapore to Delhi, why can't you? That was it. I joined ESPN."

His first assignment was with Harsha Online. He did backroom research, on cricket, for about four months. The Zimbabwe tour happened then. There were slots for experienced reporters, but none of them were Indian. Ray, he said, realised that to reach the Indian market, it was best to push for "people who are in love with India." He offered one slot to Gautam. "`You've never done TV before. Can you handle it? he asked me.' I said yes. He trusted me. His reputation was at stake. He told his people he's sending an Indian face. And what happened? On day one, I was at a chic pub, Keg and Maiden, that had a bar on the boundary line. You couldn't get a better setting than a pub on a boundary line with a jug of beer in hand watching Sachin on his way to a 100. "Can I do a story on this?"

That's where it all started. Bringing to the living room the lighter side to cricket while staying with cricket: from the wilds of Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, to the beaches of West Indies and Australia. And a little more. "You talk about the city, the atmosphere, the weather, the people, the culture, the natural beauty, whatever makes cricket interesting. I was asked once to do live commentary from a copter covering 300-odd islands of the West Indies. I had to talk scores and beaches at the same time."

Great experience

Zimbabwe 2001 was "a great experience" for Gautam. It opened doors to everywhere, not just to places, but anecdotes too. He did commentary with Gavaskar at Adelaide, 2003, when India won that Test. "What better debut in commentary?" Then an impromptu war dance, the Haka, in New Zealand with Gavaskar again, a calypso on the mound in Jamaica, shots of Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram diving with live sharks in Melbourne, and facing Wasim and Muralitharan at the nets. "How many would get a chance to face Wasim with a new ball on a concrete pitch? I was hurt in the ribs." Soon after, Gautam caught Muralitharan. "I sought his doosras at the height of controversy over his bowling action. And he bowled many... I am no cricketer, but isn't this a break for people? That they can do this too?" Even if the rib hurts.

He also gets to meet people behind the stars. Kumble's mother on what she feels about his 400 wickets or Laxman's parents of his epic 281. Everyone knows what the stars say. "You get to know the simplicity, the joy and understanding their families carry." The crucial element in all this is the "realness" of it all. Gautam has to connect to people back home. "The lighter moments to cricket mean so much more: that I am real, I am ordinary, I am the layman, I am the man on the street... And what I do is also cricket... Two out of 10 may make it to Jamaica ... I look at it as my responsibility to get cricket and its lighter baggage to the living room... it adds value to the telecast too..."

Gautam says his dream job continues to be a dream. A lot of people would want to do what he is doing: fly over many cultures to look at the other side of cricket. But Gautam happens also because there are the backroom boys who make the TV "assembly line" work. A snap in the link means the show collapses.

The preparation

Gautam and the team get to a country days before a match, visit places they will describe, return home, edit and package it in time for the match. There's work the day before the match when miles of cables have to be laid. And work on the day itself beginning 7 a.m. all the way to 9 p.m. On tour, there are very few break days. If you're not on the ground, then you're doing snippets, says Gautam.

But isn't this the break everyone's looking for?

PRASHANTH G.N.

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