Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cricket on overdrive

It has almost been like carpet bombing – the media hype during the recent International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup of one-day internationals that was recently played out in the Indian sub-continent. The “bombing” was intensified just before the India-Pakistan semi-final played at Mohali, near Chandigarh.

The term “carpet bombing” has been described by Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, as large-scale bombing of targets covering wide areas usually by dropping many unguided bombs. The tactic aims for complete destruction of a target region, either to destroy personnel and material, or as a means of demoralizing the enemy. In somewhat similar fashion, the print and electronic media “bombed” the reader/viewer with everything they had to soften, if not demolish, his faculty of reason. The print media had sports and other pages dedicated to the World Cup; the TV news channels mounted programmes of discussions, talk-shows, teleconferences and what have you. With interesting names like “Power Play”, “Inside Story”, “Fourth Umpire”, “Kings of Cricket” etc. the programmes – much like unguided bombs – would obliterate regular news-and-views schedules and bombard viewers with opinions, anecdotes, cricketing trivia and suchlike. What’s more, there would be repeat telecasts in the mornings or late in the night for those who, by an odd chance, might have missed them. To add a touch of glamour, they had even inducted two very attractive ladies, one an actor and a cricket-lover and the other a former captain of the Indian women’s cricket team. The idea of the promoters of the channels seems to have been to force-feed the TV audiences, much like the famed Peking ducks or the Kobe cows, with the stuff that they had taken great pains to muster spending millions, maybe billions of rupees and dollars. While one could skip the sports pages of a daily, the visual media is another kettle of fish. It has that unmistakable tendency to arrest the viewers’ attention.

Not many years ago, only the channels that would telecast a match would assemble a few experts and put on the air the discussions in real time prompted by an anchor before the commencement of play, during the intervals or, as they say in cricket lingo, breaks and at the end of the game or, in case of a test match, at the end of the day’s play. It is no longer so. While the channels that buy out the rights to telecast the matches or the tournament continue with their rigmarole, others attracted by the target rating points (TRP), especially the English and vernacular languages news channels, too, have climbed on to the bandwagon. During the recent World Cup, therefore, at any hour of the day or night one or the other or several channels would be inflicting cricket on the unwary surfer.

While the vernacular language channels had to make do with former local heroes, a large number of retired national and international cricketers had been assembled along with numerous national and international commentators from practically every cricketing country. They would expatiate ad nauseam on the finer points of the games that had already been played or strengths or weaknesses of various players as also of the several teams in the fray with their prospects of advancing in the tournament. As hiring of these former foreign cricketing greats meant enormous outflow of cash they had to be kept busy and, hence, they would be put live on the air most of the time, sometimes even on prime time. News was pushed out into the background. During the World Cup the news channels all but forgot about Fukushima and the ongoing war in Libya. Nothing seemed to be news-worthy other than what transpired on the cricket ground. Fed up with this overdose, one felt like kicking the TV.

It’s not that I am not a cricket buff. In my younger days I was very much so. Not only would I play cricket in school and college, I would also, apart from reading books on cricket, avidly listen to the running commentary of matches over the radio. We would tune in to Radio Australia early in the morning to catch the Australia-England “Ashes” series or listen to the BBC till late into the night for the matches played in England with the edifying comments in ‘poetic’ prose by the legendary John Arlott. I still recall the embarrassing Test of 1952 at Headingley, Leeds where India were four wickets down for no-score. The Indian prestige was somewhat redeemed when Vinoo Mankad, later in the same series, scored 72 in the first innings, took 5 English wickets and the scored 184 in the second innings of the Test at the Lords Cricket Ground. The spectators gave him a standing ovation.
All India Radio would broadcast running commentaries when matches were played in India. I remember with nostalgia the delightful commentating of Dev Raj Puri who had mastered the art of giving ball-to-ball commentary, effectively conveying the atmosphere on the ground. Sometime later, Vijay Merchant, a retired cricketer, also started commentating with his thick Gujarati accent. Even “Vizzy”, the Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagaram, a cricket busybody, had insinuated himself into the commentary box. For him what was happening on the ground was of little importance. He would expound more on the exploits of Polly Umrigar in the Queens’ Park Oval, Trinidad or Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. Most interesting, however, used to be the chats of AFS Talyarkhan with commentators during the tea-break around the early 1950s. He was reputed to be a marathon commentator earlier and used to cover entire five-day Test matches by himself. Later, he used to write a witty column on cricket with the title “Do you get me Steve?” I still remember a devastating one of his directed at Vijay Merchant on the much-publicised incident of a girl kissing Abbas Ali Baig after he scored a hundred at Bombay in a Test. “Vijay Merchant was wondering on the air”, he wrote, “where all the girls were when he was scoring his hundreds. Fast asleep Vijay, they were too tired of waiting”, followed by the inevitable “Do you get me Steve?” An opening batsman, old-timers would remember, Merchant, though technically perfect, was undoubtedly a plodder.

Cricket was earlier quintessentially a sport indulged in by the upper and middle classes. Patronised by the maharajas and nawabs, it used to be played mostly by the feudals and their progeny. Even the commentaries over the radio were listened to by them and the middle classes who possessed the radio-receivers – a rarity in those days. The common man as also the deprived masses could never afford it and, hence, never showed any interest in the game. A change came over after transistorisation of the radio. It became cheap, affordable and portable. Running commentaries in Hindi extended the reach of cricket making it more fathomable to the non-English knowing crowd. The game received a big boost in popularity when India won the third edition of the Cricket World Cup in 1983. Advancement in technology gave it a further boost with proliferation of TV sets and cable and satellite channels carrying live images of matches into the living rooms. Today, cricket is watched on TV by millions of Indians in high-end houses as also in rural and urban shanties, even if the power in the latter happens to be purloined. A once-aristocratic game has been taken by TV to the plebeians and they have taken to it, virtually, like the duck takes to water.

The viewership in multi-millions generates billions of dollars in advertisement revenues. It has made the country’s apex cricketing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, cash-rich, giving it an enormous clout in international cricket. India may not be a world economic power yet, but it surely is a world cricketing power. And, before anybody could get wise about it, cricket’s centre of gravity shifted from England to India. No wonder, the ICC World Cup was played out recently in the sub-continent for the second time and two sub-continental teams fought out for the honours with India winning the Cup. The Central and some state governments gave a holiday to the cricket-crazy staff to cheer the home team even if they did so from the comfort of their homes. No work would have been done in offices even otherwise.

With the kind of money cricket now generates things certainly had to change. It has become a year-round circus and is no longer a sport for the three or four winter months as of yore. With everyone raking in the moolah none seems to resent it. There is, therefore, going to be no respite from cricket. Even as dust is yet to settle down after the World Cup, the Indian Premier League’s Twenty-Twenty (T-20) tournament has commenced and cricket will again monopolise the TV channels for the next fifty days.
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DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...