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Verve People
February 19, 2020

Game Face

Text by Snehal Pradhan. Illustration by Vishnu M Nair

Following a serendipitous opportunity, the girl who once hated cricket is now a fixture on its televised English coverage in India. Over the last 13 years, Mayanti Langer-Binny has commentated on a host of major global sports events, and in a long-overdue encounter, former national cricketer Snehal Pradhan observes the off-camera confidence that has maintained the broadcaster’s steady position in such an unpredictable field

In 2003, Mayanti Langer had flaming red hair. It turned heads and raised eyebrows once she joined Delhi’s Hindu College for a degree in English Honours. In particular, the kings of the campus, the college cricket team — who count Ajay Jadeja, Gautam Gambhir and Saba Karim as alumni — weren’t impressed.

Customary ragging ensued, lasting almost half a term. Langer had come into the college on the back of her first real failure, when she had received no admits from the design schools she applied to, despite coming from a family of artists and with strong art scores in her 12th standard exams. All considered, it’s not surprising that she developed a significant distaste for cricket. “I hated cricket,” were, in fact, her exact words.

***

The idea for this interview was conceived in a studio back in May this year, but I didn’t recognise it at the time. I was sitting in the expert’s chair, about to preview a women’s T20 match, flanked by former Australian cricketer Dean Jones on one side and Mayanti Langer (now Langer-Binny) on the other. Before the show began, as we were chatting, Jones turned to me but pointed to Langer-Binny and said, “best in the business”. I didn’t pay it much heed, putting it down to Aussie banter. But once the show began, the banter in the studio went down, and the voices in my head went up.

Through the earpieces we all wore, I could hear the director and producer constantly speaking, with the graphics team occasionally chipping in. Often they would speak directly to Langer-Binny while she was talking to the camera, sending her instructions about upcoming segments and giving her countdowns. She continued telling the story to the camera, asking questions of her guests, interjecting when we rambled and closing segments on the count. It was skilfully done, like a tailor whose seams you can’t see. Having worked briefly in broadcast before, I could tell she had more skill than most. It shouldn’t have been surprising. There’s a reason she’s hosted seven World Cups across three different sports.

Cricket fans might find her surname foreign, our minds making the leap to another Aussie, Justin Langer. In fact, Langer-Binny is a symbol of the multicultural modern India; a self-made woman with Kashmiri, Sardarni and Punjabi roots, and now living in South India with an Anglo-Indian, Roman Catholic husband, who is the first in his family to marry outside the community. Our interview takes place in her Bengaluru home, a rented property close to the site where the couple’s new house is being built.

The space has an earthy feel; there are small sculptures and furnishings made from various clays (including some by an aunt, a professional ceramist), and there is much wood: the wide, polished front door, the low coffee table, the English willow bats lined up neatly in one corner (belonging to her husband Stuart Binny, a professional cricketer). Langer-Binny is wearing a white pullover, black tights, and she is nestled on her favourite armchair in the corner of the room, opposite the TV. I’m unsure which of those two could truly be called her spot, so synonymous has she become with English cricket coverage in India.

We speak shortly after the historic Pink-ball Test, having jousted on dates for a week. Between Test matches, she had corporate emceeing commitments. So the first question I ask, jokingly, but only just, is whether she has a life?

“I don’t think it’s crazy, my work,” she says. It’s trying to balance work with the rest of her life that is trickier. “This year’s IPL (Indian Premier League) and World Cup was the most difficult career phase, even after doing this for 13 years. If I would get a day off, it would comprise getting a morning flight to Bangalore, meeting the architect, making sure this house is ok, paying bills, doing household stuff, and flying back to Bombay.” After the IPL, her husband, Stuart, flew to England to play league cricket for five months. “So two of those months I was doing the World Cup, and every single day you’ve got to be your best, all while trying to control the other part of my life without my partner. That was really hard.”

It may sound like she’s cribbing, but, mostly, it is acceptance. “We are two people who have decided to live a life together and have extreme careers, and who support each other’s extreme careers. You do it for as long as you can and as long as it makes you happy.” She’s mindful of the privileges of her work and the opportunities it affords her. “When it’s in the office, it’s stressful. My Apple Watch might say I’ve been on my feet for 20 hours, but then the next two days I can fly back home and do normal things.”

I had hoped that Langer-Binny would shed light on how she picked up the difficult skills required in broadcasting: primarily, the ability to keep a smile on your face while chaos reigns in your ear. I was disappointed; she could not quite explain how she learned them. Her story seems to involve her being thrown into a succession of deep ends and learning not just to stay afloat but also to breathe underwater. “I remember I didn’t have to hone my skills that much. Somehow they were just there, to talk in front of a camera. There was no fear. I don’t even remember struggling with an earpiece. I don’t know why.”

Imposter syndrome is a word I’ve heard a few female broadcasters, even those who have won World Cups in their playing days, use. We doubt if we belong in this male bastion, but we pretend we do and persevere through those doubts. Langer-Binny does not relate to this, possibly because broadcasting had never been her ambition. Why pretend to be something you’ve never wanted to be? And having had no broadcasting role models has, perhaps, helped her find her own voice.

Langer-Binny fell into broadcasting by accident; a Zee Sports team was doing a story on a girl’s football league that she was working with as a coordinator, just for pocket money. Zee offered her a little more than pocket money: a six-month contract, her first job fresh out of college, and soon she was the face of their football programming. In 2007 she was asked to anchor the Indian Cricket League (ICL), a pre-IPL T20 League. Langer-Binny turned down the opportunity, multiple times, only to be told that they weren’t really asking.

“Imagine, someone saying no to cricket!” she laughs. “I didn’t grow up watching cricket. And I didn’t want to enter a space where I didn’t know anything. I think that was the fear, that I was just going to be viciously torn to pieces, completely shredded.” Predictably, she made a mark, having realised that being an anchor did not demand that she be an expert. But it was the ICL itself that was ripped apart after two seasons, delegitimised by the BCCI, with participating players — including Stuart — banned. Also shredded were Langer-Binny’s inhibitions about anchoring sports outside her comfort zone. “That was the last time I said no to something major.”

In 2010, Langer-Binny quit Zee and decided to try her luck in the freelance market. Since then, she has covered events like the 2010 Men’s Hockey World Cup, the London 2012 Summer Olympics and big-ticket tournaments like the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2011 and 2015 Men’s Cricket World Cups. Her popularity skyrocketed suddenly (she has almost a million combined followers on her social media handles) as she became a familiar face on broadcasts of India’s favourite sport. While anchoring the first season of football’s Indian Super League in 2014 she was ironically recognised by the crowd as the ‘cricket wali ladki’.

***

For years, though, the golden ticket eluded her: the IPL. “I got rejected for the IPL four times in a row. Before the 2011 edition, they called and said we have finalised you in the team, the next time we call you it will be about when to shoot the promo. It ended up not being me. They called me back and said ‘Listen you’ve just done the World Cup, you can’t do this, we need a new face’.

“At a point I did give up, thinking it’s just not to be. Basically, they didn’t want you.

It wasn’t that you weren’t good enough. You just weren’t what they were looking for. Any rejection in life is hard, and it’s hard to make peace with but I made my peace with it. IPL is not in my destiny, cool, let me enjoy it.”

The rejections gave her a chance to experience the other side of the IPL, as a partner to Stuart, who has played for three different franchises. “And now I really appreciate it looking back. As broadcasters, sometimes you miss out on those experiences. I’ve been with Stuart on a journey with Rajasthan Royals for seven years now, Mumbai Indians for one, Royal Challengers Bangalore for two years, including when they reached the final. So I could sit there in the box wearing an RCB jersey with the families, and you couldn’t do that as a broadcaster.”

Things came full circle for her in 2018. By then, Star, who she had joined four years previously, acquired the rights for the IPL. “There was a bit of confusion about how many matches I was going to do. I ended up doing all of them. Not one day off! I remember telling myself, ‘Just shut up and do it, you’ve waited so long for this, you’re finally hosting the IPL, you don’t know if you’ll get this opportunity again!’”

She recounts an emotional message her husband sent her the day before her first IPL stint. “He knows my journey. He knows it’s the only time in broadcast where I’ve had a lot of setbacks because someone didn’t want me. So I remember him saying ‘you’ve cracked it, enjoy it, this is your moment, make it happen’, and that’s been an amazing part of having him as a partner. His life is so stressful, so many public highs and lows, that he could understand how huge that moment was. And I enjoyed it, because he was playing the IPL!”

From my playing days, I remember what a bubble we lived in during tournaments. My mind only thought in terms of match-day or non-match-day while on tour. Days, dates, the outside world, all blurred. For Langer-Binny and her fellows, every day is a match day. And this year’s IPL followed by a World Cup proved to be a punishing schedule. “You work in a creative field. Sometimes you need to reset. And me and Stuart, we’re both in cricket. He’s got his own thing, I have mine. We’re both submerged in that world at times. And that’s hard…the mental exhaustion.” So rather than external prompts like meditation, she relies on her interpersonal relationships to centre her: a conversation with her husband, a text to her younger brother, or her aunt’s dog waking her up in the morning when she’s in Mumbai.

***

In 2016, a well-loved commentator was removed from the roster of the IPL merely days before the start of the tournament, for reasons that still remain nebulous. It is a rare occurrence, but Langer-Binny recognises the transience of her profession. “It’s a possibility that you’re aware of. We live in times where you could say something that could be viewed as wrong.” But if it were to end tomorrow, she would have few regrets. “I’ve made peace that every tournament could be my last, that’s the phase of life that I’m in. It’s not a fear or insecurity. It’s actually a tremendous sense of achievement. I tell myself, ‘Dude, what have you not done? You cracked it, you did it, be proud.’”

What will her life look like after broadcasting? A lot if it involves her Plan B(inny). “When we met each other, we were both nowhere. ICL had finished abruptly so he was banned from the system. He hadn’t accepted BCCI amnesty, so he had nothing going for him. I had left Zee so I had nothing going for me. We weren’t nobodies, but we were normal individuals. Everything good that has happened to us in our respective careers has happened after we got together.

“If that journey brought us together, and made all these incredible things happen for each other, then something is going to work out in the future as well. Maybe we can combine and do something, because our lives are so similar and cricket has given us everything.”

Success and skill are genderless, but Langer-Binny’s visibility as a woman at the top of broadcasting sends a strong message. In college, she had only two girlfriends who would stay up late with her to watch Champions League Football. But the sisterhood of sport is now growing. When our daughters ask their girlfriends whether they will give up sleep for a game, it’s likely they will get a few more than two for company. And Langer-Binny has played her part in that. By being herself.

Match Day

Mayanti Langer-Binny has two distinct processes, depending on where she’s shooting: the Star Sports studio in Mumbai or the venue of the game.

A studio day will begin with her arriving an hour before she’s supposed to and spending some time with her producers, just to catch up on each other’s human sides. Having produced segments herself while at Zee, she knows what it’s like to be in their shoes. The next hour is about mascara and masala, gossiping while the make-up artists and stylists do their thing. No shop talk, because her match-preparation has been done the previous evening.

She likes to be ready half an hour before show time. Twenty minutes before, she’ll be in the studio, 10 minutes before, she’ll be wired up, her mic in place. That time will be spent listening to music, or chatting with her husband. “I don’t want to speak to anyone. If you want to speak to me, don’t speak to me about the show. Just let me get some peace, because there’s no peace in the office, in broadcast. I have to calm myself down. In a live set up, which is usually very pressurised; I have to take the pressure off.”

When shooting at match venues, she takes an hour to do her own make-up before leaving the hotel, and that hour is sacrosanct. If her producers call, and they invariably do, she doesn’t pick up. “That’s my time.” If her husband Stuart is playing a match, that’s also the time he usually gets ready, so they typically FaceTime, one applying eyeliner, the other applying sunscreen.

The ground does not afford her the silence or solitude that the studio does, so she adapts, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the opportunity to interact with the broadcast teams of various languages there. “It’s a different way of getting into the zone. The work is still the same.”

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