Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.

Broadcasters have also started treating cricket less as a sport and more as entertainment. In the breaks during a game, there is less analysis and more tamasha. So when, during a tea-break, we expect cogent commentary about the pitched battle on the field during the last session, we get the Shaz and Waz show, with impromptu beauty contest thrown in. “The voting is still on,” says Shaz. “Pinky is ahead of Minky. SMS now!” Cut to close-up of cleavage. And the cricket: yes, there’s also cricket. Damn.

It is believed that this is what the people want, but is that true? There is no feedback mechanism from the market to indicate that. When a channel broadcasts a game of cricket, it has an effective monopoly on that match: once it has acquired the telecast rights, no one else can show it, and the fan has to stay with them. In the absence of competition in terms of broadcast quality, there is no way for people to indicate when they don’t like a feature on the show. They will watch the World Cup regardless of whether there is statistical analysis in the breaks or Mandira Bedi in noodlestraps.

But maybe that is, indeed, what viewers want. Glamour brings in the column inches and attention. Controvery brings in the eyeballs in an era when people are so jaded that they want sensation, action, fighting. Over the next couple of months, expect some rivetting cricket in the World Cup. Also expect some pretty faces on television, and Extraa Innings with 816 ‘A’s at the end of extraaa. There will be the Match Ka Mujrim type of shows on the news channels, picking villains for the Bollywood drama the game has become. There will be debates about Ganguly, debates about Tendulkar, debates about Dravid and Chappell. There will be jingoism, there will be hyperbole, there will be crass sensationalism, but there will be cricket as well. That’s all we really want, the 22 men in pajamas battling it out on the field with bat and ball. Isn’t it?