May 7, 2013

The internet and cricket: a brave new world to be seized

The game must find a way of showing itself off online, of allowing the fans to access and enjoy it

How about making highlights of every day of Test cricket played anywhere in the world available on Youtube channels? © AFP

Early in the morning on Christmas Day 2012, I was surrounded by bawling babies. Three of them.

I was in a maternity ward at a Brooklyn hospital, waiting for the pediatrician resident to conduct the requisite series of postnatal checks on my newborn daughter so that she, her mother and I could all go home. Because it was Christmas Day, the hospital was understaffed, and the young Indian woman who was working as resident on duty was clearly overworked.

As she diligently made her way through her battery of tests - hearing, respiration etc - I waited patiently, ready to sign the discharge forms that would soon be sent my way. As I did so, I suddenly realised that according to the cricket calendar, India and Pakistan were due to play the first of two Twenty20 internationals that day.

There were no televisions around; in any case, no channel would be telecasting the game; I had no internet connection with which to stream the game.

But I was giving up too soon. For didn't I carry a smartphone in my pocket? One on which I had installed the mobile app for my online cricket streaming service? Time to fire it up and see if my wireless carrier would come through for me. It did.

A minute or so later, I was watching Bhuvaneshwar Kumar commence his three-wicket demolition of the Pakistan top order. As the wickets fell, and as I emitted discreet, strangled sounds of appreciation, the pediatrician looked over, and amused at this display of cricket obsession, asked, "Is there a match on?" I replied, almost sheepishly, "Yes."

In my 25 years of watching cricket in the US, I've experienced a few Virginia Slim Moments, when I like to say, "You've come a long way." This was one of them. How could it not be, when my arc of following cricket in the US had traversed a path that went from reading weeks-old scores sometimes delivered via letters from England and India that also occasionally contained news clippings, sometimes delivered via online postings in Usenet newsgroups; to text commentary on Internet Relay Chat; to borrowing VHS tapes and DVDs from South Asian video "libraries" in New York City's ethnic enclaves; to pay-per-view purchases of one-day internationals on New York cable stations; to jerky streams, jittery and pause-filled, sometimes bootlegged, sometimes not, all requiring very particular hardware-software combinations; to finally, this, a moment of what seemed like utter freedom and adaptability to one's life: a live telecast of an India-Pakistan game that I would watch, live, in high-quality video on my phone in a hospital ward in Brooklyn. The promised land - cricket anywhere, anytime, available for perusal - was here.

But not quite. Cricket telecasts are still marketed under onerous territorial restrictions: cricket fans in the US often cannot watch games played in the Caribbean; fan-posted cricket videos on Youtube suffer takedowns orchestrated by media-rights holders; cricket administrators wax nonsensical about internet piracy threatening cricket; gigantic archives of cricket telecasts from years gone by gather dust in copyright-protected vaults; bootleg streaming sites continue to meet unmet market demand; and so on.

Cricket, and those who run it and sell it, still suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to thinking about how cricket can draw on the net's possibilities in making itself available to its fans, in utilising its possibilities to show itself in the best possible light to those who already love it and those who might. (Dave Hawksworth's recent post on The Cordon is an acute reminder of the opportunities that present themselves here. I can add: highlights of every day of Test cricket played anywhere in the world, available on Youtube channels a few hours after the day's play ends.)

I have written on this topic before, both in my open letter to Giles Clarke last year, and in the chapter on cricket and the media in my book, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, so I fear I may sound like a stuck record here. But at a time when cricket is often jostling to offer its wares in competition with other contenders, the game must find a way of showing off on the net, of allowing the fans to access and enjoy it, of making the net its friend, and not an enemy to be feared.

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