Samir Chopra February 23, 2009

Whither The Great Cricket Documentary

Most cricket documentaries tend to be poorly put together highlight clips, interspersed with a few interviews with the dramatis personae and a couple of journalists
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My first reaction on reading the Cricinfo XI on cricket and the movies was "Where the hell is The Lady Vanishes?" But on reading the comments, I noted someone had already pointed out that particular omission. So, I'm now left pondering my second reaction, which is, "Will we ever be able to put together a list of the eleven really good documentaries on cricket?" The answer to that, currently at least, seems like a resounding "No".

While cricket has produced some of the finest sporting literature there is, it has not been served well in the domain of the documentary. Sure, telling a compelling a story about a sporting event that runs for fivedays can be difficult (and this is compounded when dealing with Test series or entire careers). But even accounting for that, the lack of the definitive cricket commentary is still mysterious. After all, skilled film-makers find a way to bring dramatic stories to life on the screen even when dealing with long, complex events like wars or political crises.

Most cricket documentaries tend to be poorly put together highlight clips, interspersed with a few interviews with the dramatis personae and a couple of journalists. Cricket documentaries are stuck in the "Lets-get-this-DVD-out-for-Christmas-shopping" mode. Once in a while, the sheer quality of the cricket action on display makes one remember one of those productions. "Botham's Ashes", the DVD of Australia's conquest of the West Indies in 1995, or the hour-long summation of the 2005 Ashes come to mind.

Or sometimes the weight of including enough historical footage is impressive in its own right. The DVD titled "A History of Cricket" (presented by David Gower, and put out by Marks and Spencer) was a fair stab in this regard, but it still left me cold at the end. I didn't think justice had been done to the rich history of the game (Of course, Ken Burns' Baseball series ran for 9 DVDs, and even then, not everyone was happy with the seemingly excessive time spent on the Red Sox and the Yankees).

So, for me, what seems to be lacking is the kind of documentary, that by a judicious combination of the action on the ground and television news clippings, behind the scenes reportage, and powerful narration and interviews, makes for compelling drama, and in the best cases, truly transports the viewer and leaves him experiencing a complex welter of emotions. And long after the cricket fan has finished his viewing he comes away with the feeling that he has understood the game just a bit better. No Ken Burns or Berlinger & Sinofsky seem to have turned their attention to cricket.

I find this state of affairs genuinely puzzling. This game brings out the literary best in its writers. But it seems to have provoked no such inspiration amongst its fans in the film-making world. Cricket provides plenty of subjects in this regard: the story of a historic, dramatic, or controversial tour; great innings or bowling performances; the politics of cricket; player biographies; the list goes on. Is the problem lack of access to archival footage? That can't be the problem when it comes to modern series (indeed, there is a wealth of high-quality material covering cricket from the 80s onwards). Or is it that cricketers tend to make for poor interviewees? That could be tackled by good interviewers and good editing. The mystery only deepens.

So this post is partly an expression of wishful thinking and I'd like to think, partly a throwing down of the gauntlet. The definitive cricket documentary has yet to be made; the eager documentarian has the field left open for him.

PS: Please send on your recommendations for your favourite cricket features.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

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  • UttereHen on July 16, 2010, 8:36 GMT

    it has become nice this years

  • dating advice on July 8, 2010, 16:25 GMT

    Cheats never prosper

  • Fotki on June 1, 2010, 15:32 GMT

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  • Bill Bartmann on September 9, 2009, 17:45 GMT

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  • Bill Bartmann on September 7, 2009, 20:14 GMT

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  • Abhi on June 22, 2009, 2:56 GMT

    Empire of Cricket ... Awesome Documentary about Cricket in England, West Indies, India and Australia. Its a must watch for Cricket Fans

  • Nick Carson on March 4, 2009, 21:56 GMT

    Enjoyed the comments, here is a response from a seasoned documentary filmmaker who is also an umpire in the Sydney grade cricket competition.

    Why aren't there any really good cricket docos?

    First and foremost they are greatly accentuated by the usage of archival footage and guess what- acquiring it is prohibitively expensive!

    However, I have recently made two cricket docs that will soon be launched on dvd:

    "Howzat?"- a quirky look at those strange creatures known as cricket umpires (this had a brief run at a local Sydney cinema)and the first instalment of "Cricket Legends".

    Also, we have just commenced production on a doco series "Centre Please, Sahib!" that looks at cricket in India from the early days of the Raj to IPL.

    We will advertise the availability on Cricinfo nearer the release dates.

  • Jeremy on February 23, 2009, 22:27 GMT

    As mentioned by Owen, a number of quality documentaries on Australian cricket have been produced by Mike Coward and the ABC in the past 10 years. In all, they span roughly 40 years of postwar cricket in Australia to the '89 Ashes victory, with interviews from a number of protagonists with the highs (1960-61 WI series, 74-75 Ashes, '87 World Cup, '89 Ashes); lows (1969-70 tour of SA, '81 Ashes, mid 1980's); and controversies (underarm incident, SA rebel tours, WSC, sacking of Bill Lawry, Ian Meckiff called for chucking). In all, I believe there were 5 1-hour documentaries produced.

    Given the romanticism with cricket literature, it is very suprising the dearth of quality documentaries. The great sportswriting in sports such as baseball and boxing has contributed to several fantastic documentaries, and the NFL was probably the first sport to archive game footage, mike up coaches and players, giving NFL Films plenty of quality footage and several great productions

  • Mike Holmans on February 23, 2009, 19:50 GMT

    The BBC did an excellent documentary on the D'Oliveira affair, but I can't think of one about the actual playing of the game.

  • Ram on February 23, 2009, 19:28 GMT

    Samir,

    I remember seeing a movie on the Bodyline. It was a Australian production. Agent Smith from Matrix plays the Jardine in the movie. I thought it was reasonably well made. It's not a documentary but a movie.

    -Ram

  • Samir Chopra on February 23, 2009, 17:46 GMT

    Tim: I think those subjects are all good ones; each worthy subjects of in-depth explorations.

    Owen: Thanks for the tips; much appreciated. Were these produced by ABC?

    Roger: You're welcome. And your question is one I was grappling with even as I wrote this post. I'd have to say the best sports documentaries I've seen have been American (on baseball and some NFL ones). Your question deserves a more considered response though.

  • Roger@1stSlip on February 23, 2009, 8:04 GMT

    Interesting article. Thanks Samir.

    I don't think as a sport Cricket is alone in not necessarily having very many great documentaries. Despite their long histories , whether it's Soccer, Rugby, Athletics or Tennis...there just don't seem to be that many documentaries in any of the sports.

    Wonder why this is ?

  • Owen on February 23, 2009, 6:12 GMT

    Whilst I agree that there are few intelligent, comprohensive and interesting cricketing documentaries a couple leap to mind immediately, albeit from an Australian perspective. They are firstly 'Calypso Summer' which recounts superbly the 1960-61 West Indian Tour of Australia starting with the first ever Tied Test and ending with the inaugural trophy being named after the losing captain Sir Frank Worrell. Anyone who watches this documentary would be hard pressed not to suggest that this was the greatest test series ever.

    The others are a series of documentaries called 'Cricket in the 70s' and 'Cricket in the 80s' that analyse Australian cricket over these periods, from the halycon days of Lillee, Thompson, Chappell and Marsh to the difficulties the players had with the administrations, they are both interesting accounts of cricket in this period.

    I think this is the extent of decent cricketing docos I have seen. Will be interested to see what others are recommended though.

  • Tim on February 23, 2009, 4:45 GMT

    It's probably because most good movies get to a climax and finish. Very rare is it that a cricketer's career finishes at the top of a hill, to be followed by a documentary.

    Perhaps something along the lines of the "Who killed the electric car?" style of documentary - taking a look in depth at one issue or problem through history, and drawing on archives, footage, interviews and so forth.

    "Who killed the West Indies?" would be an example, looking at the downhill fall from the glory days during the 80s.

    How about a doco on the different grounds and experiences by the name of "Perfect Pitch"?

    "The death of a fast bowler" - a series on why fast bowlers these days suffer from so many injuries and why they don't seem as deadly as in past eras. I'm sure Thommo would have a few words to chirp about in this!

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  • Tim on February 23, 2009, 4:45 GMT

    It's probably because most good movies get to a climax and finish. Very rare is it that a cricketer's career finishes at the top of a hill, to be followed by a documentary.

    Perhaps something along the lines of the "Who killed the electric car?" style of documentary - taking a look in depth at one issue or problem through history, and drawing on archives, footage, interviews and so forth.

    "Who killed the West Indies?" would be an example, looking at the downhill fall from the glory days during the 80s.

    How about a doco on the different grounds and experiences by the name of "Perfect Pitch"?

    "The death of a fast bowler" - a series on why fast bowlers these days suffer from so many injuries and why they don't seem as deadly as in past eras. I'm sure Thommo would have a few words to chirp about in this!

  • Owen on February 23, 2009, 6:12 GMT

    Whilst I agree that there are few intelligent, comprohensive and interesting cricketing documentaries a couple leap to mind immediately, albeit from an Australian perspective. They are firstly 'Calypso Summer' which recounts superbly the 1960-61 West Indian Tour of Australia starting with the first ever Tied Test and ending with the inaugural trophy being named after the losing captain Sir Frank Worrell. Anyone who watches this documentary would be hard pressed not to suggest that this was the greatest test series ever.

    The others are a series of documentaries called 'Cricket in the 70s' and 'Cricket in the 80s' that analyse Australian cricket over these periods, from the halycon days of Lillee, Thompson, Chappell and Marsh to the difficulties the players had with the administrations, they are both interesting accounts of cricket in this period.

    I think this is the extent of decent cricketing docos I have seen. Will be interested to see what others are recommended though.

  • Roger@1stSlip on February 23, 2009, 8:04 GMT

    Interesting article. Thanks Samir.

    I don't think as a sport Cricket is alone in not necessarily having very many great documentaries. Despite their long histories , whether it's Soccer, Rugby, Athletics or Tennis...there just don't seem to be that many documentaries in any of the sports.

    Wonder why this is ?

  • Samir Chopra on February 23, 2009, 17:46 GMT

    Tim: I think those subjects are all good ones; each worthy subjects of in-depth explorations.

    Owen: Thanks for the tips; much appreciated. Were these produced by ABC?

    Roger: You're welcome. And your question is one I was grappling with even as I wrote this post. I'd have to say the best sports documentaries I've seen have been American (on baseball and some NFL ones). Your question deserves a more considered response though.

  • Ram on February 23, 2009, 19:28 GMT

    Samir,

    I remember seeing a movie on the Bodyline. It was a Australian production. Agent Smith from Matrix plays the Jardine in the movie. I thought it was reasonably well made. It's not a documentary but a movie.

    -Ram

  • Mike Holmans on February 23, 2009, 19:50 GMT

    The BBC did an excellent documentary on the D'Oliveira affair, but I can't think of one about the actual playing of the game.

  • Jeremy on February 23, 2009, 22:27 GMT

    As mentioned by Owen, a number of quality documentaries on Australian cricket have been produced by Mike Coward and the ABC in the past 10 years. In all, they span roughly 40 years of postwar cricket in Australia to the '89 Ashes victory, with interviews from a number of protagonists with the highs (1960-61 WI series, 74-75 Ashes, '87 World Cup, '89 Ashes); lows (1969-70 tour of SA, '81 Ashes, mid 1980's); and controversies (underarm incident, SA rebel tours, WSC, sacking of Bill Lawry, Ian Meckiff called for chucking). In all, I believe there were 5 1-hour documentaries produced.

    Given the romanticism with cricket literature, it is very suprising the dearth of quality documentaries. The great sportswriting in sports such as baseball and boxing has contributed to several fantastic documentaries, and the NFL was probably the first sport to archive game footage, mike up coaches and players, giving NFL Films plenty of quality footage and several great productions

  • Nick Carson on March 4, 2009, 21:56 GMT

    Enjoyed the comments, here is a response from a seasoned documentary filmmaker who is also an umpire in the Sydney grade cricket competition.

    Why aren't there any really good cricket docos?

    First and foremost they are greatly accentuated by the usage of archival footage and guess what- acquiring it is prohibitively expensive!

    However, I have recently made two cricket docs that will soon be launched on dvd:

    "Howzat?"- a quirky look at those strange creatures known as cricket umpires (this had a brief run at a local Sydney cinema)and the first instalment of "Cricket Legends".

    Also, we have just commenced production on a doco series "Centre Please, Sahib!" that looks at cricket in India from the early days of the Raj to IPL.

    We will advertise the availability on Cricinfo nearer the release dates.

  • Abhi on June 22, 2009, 2:56 GMT

    Empire of Cricket ... Awesome Documentary about Cricket in England, West Indies, India and Australia. Its a must watch for Cricket Fans

  • Bill Bartmann Scam on September 5, 2009, 17:55 GMT

    This site rocks!