Gaurav Kalra counts himself in those millions of Indian youth in the late 1990s, who wanted to be 'officially' associated with sports in some way or the other. Just that he made it big and stayed on for over 18 years now. Amidst all this, having covered environment as a journalist for a year, when Kalra got a chance to be a sports reporter, he jumped on the opportunity.
It all started in 1997 with a UK-based sports production company called Trans World International. He says, "As any other youngster, I was passionate about cricket and when TWI happened, it was like a dream come true for me at 21." He believes that it's only natural to be inclined to sports when you grow up in a country like India.
After four years in the company, Kalra moved on to join Quintus Television in 2001, which was a precursor to what ESPN Cricinfo is now, but with the Wisden brand name. It was a television production company, which was then providing content to a variety of sports broadcasters including Ten Sports, ESPN Star and Doordarshan.
The profiles at the two places were largely the same. One striking difference was in the kind of sports that he covered. At TWI, he was working on different sports while at Quintus, it was exclusively cricket content production. "I was involved with different kinds of sports programming like news bulletin, features and live sports while working across sports, at TWI," he recalls, adding how TWI's experience proved very crucial to him when he joined Quintus.
Trans World was his first job in sports and it was very rewarding as he got to travel the world, covering a lot of sports around the world, getting the on-field experience. Plus, there was variety; one day, he did live programming and on some other day, he was involved with news, documentaries or magazine programming.
"So, it happened at that point in my career where I got a hands-on feel for everything. And that, I think, was very important as I was 21 then and it was the start of my career."
He quickly goes on to add how Quintus too was rewarding in some ways, as it scaled up production of a lot of very high-profile events. He was involved in the Indian cricketer of the century and Wisden Awards. In a way it was an operation that he led, as opposed to being a part of the team at TWI.
With TWI, the biggest learning was how sports content was produced and presented. It was quite important as the profile gave him a clear understanding of the dynamics that went into making a magazine show vis-a-vis a news bulletin.
At Quintus, his biggest learning was how to shape production. There was a lot of content and videos coming in from the various parts of the world and one had use all that to make it into a sensible programme.
In 2005, he joined CNN-IBN, something that Kalra terms as the best professional experience of his life. Working with an accomplished journalist like Rajdeep Sardesai was a great thing. Kalra humbly adds, "I think he took a huge gamble in hiring me. I was just 29 years old when he made me sports editor, I had no background in television news. I came from a sports production background and I had very little in-camera experience, neither did he know of me as I wasn't a part of the news network ever before CNN-IBN happened."
Kalra mentions how he enjoyed the high and thrills of breaking news, watching the industry evolve and become competitive.
In a news organisation, one starts each day with a clean slate and then at the end of the day, it gets filled. One of the incidences that he remembers as one of the trickiest reportages is when Bob Woolmer died during the 2007 Cricket World Cup and the channel had to report it. "It was a tricky story to report as we were miles away and there was a lot of speculation going on. There was a lot of callous and careless reporting happening." It wasn't just a death of a coach; a lot of high-profile international cricketers were involved and there was this one biggest cricket tournament going on. It was tricky to produce balanced and correct coverage keeping it away from sensationalism. It must be noted that the channel was barely a year old at the time.
Amongst his best experiences, Kalra includes the people that he has worked with and a few of his childhood heroes whom he interviewed. During the 2011 World Cup, the coverage included Imran Khan, Allan Border and Vivian Richards, who had inspired him as a kid.
Again, during the Olympics in 2012, CNN-IBN did a daily show with Carl Lewis, "...and to do that each day and speak to him was wonderful," he discloses.
The reason why he was attracted to a position in the online space, after spending 18 years in television sports broadcasting, is because he had been observing the world moving to digital for several years and people were consuming much more content online than before. He explains how the TV term called appointment viewing (which meant that a particular kind of news will be available at a certain specific time) was losing relevance.
People now want to consume news as per their wish, will and convenience. The online platform allows them to do that. Kalra states, "As journalists, we need to understand and accept that the world and viewing/reading patterns are changing and we need to give our viewers that flexibility which the online platform provides, of consuming content at their convenience. Be it in a car, watching it through dongle, or on your smartphone watching videos through the app. That's my new role here."
He does find the new platform a little challenging as it's a different way of looking at content but the world is moving in that direction. He modestly agrees that everyone moving to a new arena needs to reformat the mind in certain ways. He cites an example of a change: One thing that online demands is being crisp and tight because the online user needs faster and sharper content. In TV, many times you have long-winded content and debates are quite long and argumentative.
Plus, at ESPN Cricinfo, the mindset of the journalists is different. TV programming can sometimes be quite disruptive while presenting news. "I have only been here for a couple of months, having joined in January and I am still learning," he smiles.
"I have shifted to a new city and there is a lot that I need to pick up, but I am 38 and I keep telling people as you grow, you become resistant to accepting newer things and changes."
One has to agree that TV is a strong medium and anchors are known in the specific circuits in a big way. Is Kalra going to miss that 'fan-following'? He believes that journalists are not celebs, they are creators of content. "I am very uncomfortable answering questions and I am more comfortable asking them. I have done CNN-IBN for eight years and I needed something new. Had I jumped from one TV channel to another, it would have been replicating my life at CNN-IBN in some other organisation. I wanted to experience a rapidly growing area of work and the online medium offers me that."
Peter Hutton and Sardesai, he says, were the biggest influencers in his life. These are the people who gave him bigger opportunities at different times.
Harsha Bhogle too is a name close to Kalra's heart. "I have worked with him since my TWI days and he has got a great hold on broadcasting. He is a genuine lover of cricket and he has taught all anchors how to approach the game and present it in the best possible way."