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

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