October 9, 2013

The no-commentary broadcast option

It's time to provide viewers with a choice, and perhaps force commentators to step up their game in the process
23

Cricket could use a dose of the sound of silence © PA Photos

Whenever I'm watching a cricket match, I'm also tracking Twitter. It's filled with trolls and cynics, funny folk and wannabe comedians, critics and stats nerds. It can be enjoyable, excruciating and informative all at once, but all in all, it's good fun. These hardcore cricket nuts have an opinion on everything under the sun, and can be quite blunt and vocal, but one thing they all agree upon, and gang up against, is cricket commentary and the cliché-spewing automaton it has become.

It is quite common to see people tweet, "What did he say? Watching on mute." These are fans who want to follow cricket on TV but are willing to sacrifice the sounds of the game because they cannot put up with the inanities and over-the-top one-eyed pontifications that pass for expert commentary. They have chosen to forego one of the essential ingredients of enjoying any sporting event - its sounds. In fact, they have been forced to make that choice.

There is a possible solution - besides the obvious option of hiring commentators who are really good at their jobs - and that is to provide a parallel feed that serves "nerdy" cricket fans: with commentary that isn't mind-numbing and formulaic. But no television broadcaster would ever do that as it would increase the cost of production substantially, and hence would be economically unfeasible. In a recent podcast, commentator Harsha Bhogle said that though cricket nuts who would like a parallel feed may be a vocal section of the audience, and hence give the impression of being large in numbers, they actually represent a small segment of the total watchers, and TV broadcasters cannot cater to that minority.

He also brought up another reason why the expectations of this subset of fans aren't going to be met anytime soon: because ex-cricketers who find a career in the commentary box aren't hired for their ability to add value to the images on screen. With a few odd exceptions, they are picked "on batting averages or bowling averages".

The other option, as Bhogle again has written, is to have a commentary-less broadcast, with sounds from the ground - the oohs and the aahs, the sweet sound of leather on willow, the guttural noises that a bowler makes as he exerts himself at the delivery strike, trying to squeeze out the last ounce of energy - all piped into our TVs. Because as Bhogle says, "without audio, a cricket match is dead. We always talk about the picture. The audio and the sound quality [are] just as critical."

So could the broadcasters provide a no-commentary broadcast? Would they? Is there a sufficient number of cricket nerds to make this financially viable?

****

Nearly 33 years ago, on December 20, 1980, in an NFL match between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, motivated by the need to create a buzz around a dead game and boost ratings, the television network NBC tried to do something out of the ordinary: What if there were no commentators? they asked.

The no-commentary broadcast created a lot of interest all right. So much so that the game came to be known as "The Silent Game".

At kick-off, the pre-game show host put down his microphone and walked into the stadium to watch the game. The viewers at home were getting the sounds that anyone sitting in the stands could hear, and were also helped in some part by on-air graphics in keeping track of the score and the stats. There were cutaways to pre-recorded interviews with the coaches and players but the telecast went along without the guidance of a commentator.

NBC gauged the response of the viewers through a switchboard and it was decidedly in favour of the innovation (for: 831, against: 518). The majority of those watching on TV were happy without a commentator filling up airspace. Yet no one is really sure why NBC didn't take this beyond an experiment and use it to boost ratings, and perhaps break new ground with regard to the way we consume sports.

****

T20 isn't just a spectacle of monster sixes and nifty athleticism; the constant crowd noise and the thumping decibels from the PA system are part of the allure

T20 cricket, especially the IPL version, has brought in a range of innovations that cricket wasn't accustomed to, like cheerleaders, fireworks, sponsor-branded sixes and catches, and of course, a hyper Danny Morrison. The batsmen in T20 are constantly innovating to increase their run output - whether their approaches are risky or not is a whole other topic - and the bowlers have been adapting in their own right with a series of slower ones, bouncers, and slow bouncers. By its very nature T20 could be the perfect test case in which to try the no-commentary broadcast option.

I have never been to a T20 match but have played in a few at club level - where one man and his beer cooler were the entire audience - and have seen plenty of T20 matches on TV, far too many to count. T20 isn't just a spectacle of monster sixes and nifty athleticism; the constant crowd noise and the thumping decibels from the PA system are part of the allure. And though there are outlets like Test Match Sofa, conceived because of the putrid state of mainstream cricket commentary, that have developed a huge online following, they still cannot provide the aural ambience of a cricket match.

Last year I watched Shield matches streamed on Cricket Australia's website with pictures from two stationary cameras, placed at opposite ends of the ground, in line with the pitch. There was no commentary, no eye-catching graphics, and the humdrum of a first-class match was only broken occasionally by sudden bursts of action out in the centre. Sure, the quality of audio wasn't great, but on the whole it did seem to provide a pathway to a solution.

Lalit Modi accomplished something significant as IPL commissioner - a tie up with Youtube to stream IPL matches for viewers worldwide. So we do know there is infrastructure in place to allow for a simultaneous broadcast that carries the sounds of the game, without the commentators' voices, for those so inclined. An offshoot of this endeavour could, if it gains traction, force the commentators to step up their game, and not just settle for reading the numbers off the screen and emphatically declare that a batsman has a strike rate of 400, when he has faced just two deliveries and dispatched them both to the boundary.

There is a story about Sunil Gavaskar in his early days as a TV commentator. In his desire to express his exuberance at a batsman reaching a personal landmark, he wanted to crowd the airspace. That was when Richie Benaud, one of the few ex-cricketers to have made a successful crossover to the commentary box, put his hand over Gavaskar's arms to quietly inform him that he should let the crowd's reaction convey the magnitude of the occasion.

When it comes to cricket commentary, more can be said with the sound of the crack of the bat and the cheers of the crowd than by an ex-player in an air-conditioned box. Truly, less is more.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • landl47 on October 10, 2013, 4:00 GMT

    I think it's an excellent idea to have a no-commentary option. Cricket is a fairly east game to keep track of and the information bar at the bottom of the screen tells you almost all you need to know. Personally, I enjoy most of the English and Australian commentators, although sometimes they tend to say too much. However, the IPL crowd (Danny Morrison, etc.) turn the game into torture for the ears.

    By the way, I watched the NFL game in 1980. It was a total failure- American football is very hard to follow on TV without a commentator (and I live in the USA and understand the game very well). It's no surprise at all the experiment was not repeated.

  • santoshjohnsamuel on October 9, 2013, 9:36 GMT

    Great idea, and i've been following it for years. The mute option on the remote is really handy. Not just when the commentary gets on on our nerves but also during the ad break. It's cathartic. I've in fact attained a bit of mastery over this process; do it even during news broadcasts when the anchors get all worked up and become paragons of morality. The only dampner? Can do it only when i'm watching on my own.

  • TEEPEE1959 on October 11, 2013, 10:14 GMT

    A "no commentary" option,with only the "sounds" of the game, would be the best thing to happen to the viewer. I will go further and say that the audio from the stump microphone should be made available to the viewers so that they can really absorb the atmosphere out in the middle, apart from hearing the sledging etc from the players. It will also rid us of some of the inane and biased commentary from so called experts,who are not willing to talk about the real problems facing the game, like chucking, match fixing etc. We don't need Ravi shastri to tell us "and he takes the aerial route" when we can see that ourselves, do we? There are only a few like Ian Chappell who have the guts to "call a spade a spade", anyway.and there are plenty of them who grate on our ears. So we should have the option of only listening to those commentators who are worth listening to.

  • on October 11, 2013, 9:33 GMT

    Don't think "no commentary" cricket telecast would be feasible. The commentators keep the game alive. My wishlist is that we have an elite panel of commentators like they have for the umpires. Then the likes of Sivaramakrishnan would be gone.

  • on October 10, 2013, 15:33 GMT

    Sorry to say but useless and baseless article.The commentary is the life of a cricket match. it is extremely enjoyable. It enthrills the viewer .

  • J751 on October 10, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    I watch on mute not so much because of the commentary but because of the ads. The jarring ads intrude as soon as a wicket falls,or an over ends or for any other reason.Add to that the ads which appear on a shrinking screen as play is going on.I have almost stopped watching live cricket because of this.

  • msnsrinivas on October 9, 2013, 21:55 GMT

    I don't think there is a commentator better than Mr. Sivaramakrishnan at uttering a cliche. He is also very good at telling you absolutely nothing that you can't see on the TV. No subtleties, no finer points and no insight. Not from him. When he's on air, the game of cricket transforms itself from a spectacle into a catastrophic bore.

  • dpeerwani on October 9, 2013, 21:45 GMT

    This may be a good idea for a smartphone app. Many people I know follow live text commentaries on various apps while watching the game on the telly.

    Someone could come up with one that plays audio commentary too and it could be a hit. I know there are some out there already but they are just the usual bland, cliched commentaries. A station with witty commentary would definitely do well!

  • shillingsworth on October 9, 2013, 19:37 GMT

    Commentators are increasingly used to convey advertisements, promote the sponsors and, in the case of those employed by the BCCI, to broadcast propaganda. Attractive as a commentary free option would be to the viewer, the TV companies are unlikely to oblige.

  • on October 9, 2013, 19:34 GMT

    As cricket is watched around the world by people speaking more different languages than I can name, the answer seems simple to me... matches broadcast on the internet with a main feed of the video and match audio, then the user selects an audio overlay track by the commentary team in their language of choice. If you don't select a commentary track, you just get the main feed. If you want commentary, you can have it. Everybody is happy. This may even be possible with modern digital television broadcasts. Much the same way as the Wimbledon tennis tournament is broadcast in the UK, where you can enter a menu on your remote and select the court that you want to watch.

  • landl47 on October 10, 2013, 4:00 GMT

    I think it's an excellent idea to have a no-commentary option. Cricket is a fairly east game to keep track of and the information bar at the bottom of the screen tells you almost all you need to know. Personally, I enjoy most of the English and Australian commentators, although sometimes they tend to say too much. However, the IPL crowd (Danny Morrison, etc.) turn the game into torture for the ears.

    By the way, I watched the NFL game in 1980. It was a total failure- American football is very hard to follow on TV without a commentator (and I live in the USA and understand the game very well). It's no surprise at all the experiment was not repeated.

  • santoshjohnsamuel on October 9, 2013, 9:36 GMT

    Great idea, and i've been following it for years. The mute option on the remote is really handy. Not just when the commentary gets on on our nerves but also during the ad break. It's cathartic. I've in fact attained a bit of mastery over this process; do it even during news broadcasts when the anchors get all worked up and become paragons of morality. The only dampner? Can do it only when i'm watching on my own.

  • TEEPEE1959 on October 11, 2013, 10:14 GMT

    A "no commentary" option,with only the "sounds" of the game, would be the best thing to happen to the viewer. I will go further and say that the audio from the stump microphone should be made available to the viewers so that they can really absorb the atmosphere out in the middle, apart from hearing the sledging etc from the players. It will also rid us of some of the inane and biased commentary from so called experts,who are not willing to talk about the real problems facing the game, like chucking, match fixing etc. We don't need Ravi shastri to tell us "and he takes the aerial route" when we can see that ourselves, do we? There are only a few like Ian Chappell who have the guts to "call a spade a spade", anyway.and there are plenty of them who grate on our ears. So we should have the option of only listening to those commentators who are worth listening to.

  • on October 11, 2013, 9:33 GMT

    Don't think "no commentary" cricket telecast would be feasible. The commentators keep the game alive. My wishlist is that we have an elite panel of commentators like they have for the umpires. Then the likes of Sivaramakrishnan would be gone.

  • on October 10, 2013, 15:33 GMT

    Sorry to say but useless and baseless article.The commentary is the life of a cricket match. it is extremely enjoyable. It enthrills the viewer .

  • J751 on October 10, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    I watch on mute not so much because of the commentary but because of the ads. The jarring ads intrude as soon as a wicket falls,or an over ends or for any other reason.Add to that the ads which appear on a shrinking screen as play is going on.I have almost stopped watching live cricket because of this.

  • msnsrinivas on October 9, 2013, 21:55 GMT

    I don't think there is a commentator better than Mr. Sivaramakrishnan at uttering a cliche. He is also very good at telling you absolutely nothing that you can't see on the TV. No subtleties, no finer points and no insight. Not from him. When he's on air, the game of cricket transforms itself from a spectacle into a catastrophic bore.

  • dpeerwani on October 9, 2013, 21:45 GMT

    This may be a good idea for a smartphone app. Many people I know follow live text commentaries on various apps while watching the game on the telly.

    Someone could come up with one that plays audio commentary too and it could be a hit. I know there are some out there already but they are just the usual bland, cliched commentaries. A station with witty commentary would definitely do well!

  • shillingsworth on October 9, 2013, 19:37 GMT

    Commentators are increasingly used to convey advertisements, promote the sponsors and, in the case of those employed by the BCCI, to broadcast propaganda. Attractive as a commentary free option would be to the viewer, the TV companies are unlikely to oblige.

  • on October 9, 2013, 19:34 GMT

    As cricket is watched around the world by people speaking more different languages than I can name, the answer seems simple to me... matches broadcast on the internet with a main feed of the video and match audio, then the user selects an audio overlay track by the commentary team in their language of choice. If you don't select a commentary track, you just get the main feed. If you want commentary, you can have it. Everybody is happy. This may even be possible with modern digital television broadcasts. Much the same way as the Wimbledon tennis tournament is broadcast in the UK, where you can enter a menu on your remote and select the court that you want to watch.

  • on October 9, 2013, 17:38 GMT

    This could work as an idea, but it probably won't happen. I can't see live feeds from stump mics being possible as they'll pick up obscenities from the cricketers but maybe just background noise would be fun to make you feel as though you were sitting in the ground. Or, better for me you select commentators based on their ability to broadcast rather than what their name is!! I doubt many people on here have actually done any commentary, but it's not something everyone can do. I don't think you could teach someone how to do it from a book, which is why so many former players fail to get it right. I've only done radio, but I know TV is harder still, it's very difficult to know when to shut up and let the pictures do the talking. SO, rather than 'increasing training' actually pick people who can do the job, and believe me you don't have to be a former player to commentate on cricket.

  • ToTellUTheTruth on October 9, 2013, 15:30 GMT

    HB commenting on no commentary? Wow man! I think he heard himself talk and does not seem to like it. Love it. Sometimes I wonder listening to him, which parallel universe is he in at this moment!!!

    All for no commentary please.

  • ARad on October 9, 2013, 15:17 GMT

    It was really painful to listen to the CLT20 Final this past weekend. It was a tired-cliche fest. It is quite easy to provide a second feed via SAP (Second Audio Program) indeed. The test matches in many countries may be a very quiet affair since we may not hear anything except the bat hitting the ball or the 'c'mons' and the chirps from the wicketkeeper or the slip cordon. Still, even that may still not be as bad as having to listen to about half the cricket commentators working in the industry nowadays. I wonder if the increased 'professionalization' of cricket (since it tends to encourage BLANDNESS possibly, even in the dressing room, not just in front of cameras and keyboard) would 'train' them in such a way that it diminish the abilities of players to express themselves in an amusing and/or sharp manner.

  • former-wisdener on October 9, 2013, 13:29 GMT

    Maybe like different players for different formats of the game, broadcasters could employ different commentary teams for limited overs and Tests. Difficult to get viewers interested in what's going on, if you can't understand or are not interested in what's going on. For instance, no mute button needed for Fox Sports Australia's T20 commentary team. Likes of Mark Waugh, Symonds, Greg Blewett, Bredon Julian are not seated behind desks, but on chairs like other spectators. Their conversational commentary is lively, cliche-free, informal, interesting,insightful. They seem to enjoy the T20 format and each others' company. And their commentary enjoyably reflects it.

  • ShanteshRow on October 9, 2013, 12:46 GMT

    "That went to the boundary like a tracer bullet." Just one of those commentator cliches that should be bowled to Chris Gayle so that he can dispatch the same over the boundary like a tracer bullet, such that it never enters any TV set again. Honestly, instead of a wealth of analysis, all we get is Messers Shastri, Morrison, Mbangwa et al getting wealthy with their non-stop emphasis on the trite. Would love to hear some new voices in most broadcasts. Or like Subhash Jayaraman suggests, not hear a voice at all, but just the hum and throb of real sounds from the stadium. Till then, will have to make do with the mute button. Especially when I have to endure another Karbonn Kamaal 6 or DLF Maximum. If we need to make cricket so 'brand-blatant', why not just brand the cricketers as well? How about Sony Sachin or Vodafone Virat or Coke Cooke? That was an amazing century partnership between Relispray Rahane and Samsung Samson for Remington Rajasthan Royals...the possibilities are endless!

  • former-wisdener on October 9, 2013, 12:10 GMT

    Long overdue piece from long suffering cricket followers. I watched the recent CLT20 on mute. One of the many reasons for poor quality commentary is the growing generation gap between most current commentators and the modern game. Most of them have not played T20s (and the likes of Gavaskar struggled in ODIs too). So they don't understand subtle strategies, minute research, planning, mind games and even bluffs that feed the modern game - like making field changes for a particular length or line of delivery, and catching the batsman off-guard by bowling differently. It's a different ball game, and most of the commentators (on air now for decades) have little clue. Amazingly, Richie Benaud is still worth listening to - because he doesn't say much. There may not have been much difference between cricket in 1950s and 1980s. But there is a world of difference in cricket now from even since 1990s. Broadcasters need more younger former players as commentators, need to update training modules

  • on October 9, 2013, 12:03 GMT

    I'd love to listen to the stump mics and have no commentators. That would be Nirvana ! Most ex-cricketers are truly boring but let's face it they weren't great for their philosophy or thought, just their cricket. HOWSZAT ???

  • WalkingWicket11 on October 9, 2013, 11:54 GMT

    I don't understand how the no-commentary option will increase the cost. It should actually reduce the costs since the money they would otherwise spend for the commentators' salaries or fees will be saved.

  • on October 9, 2013, 11:37 GMT

    i think the worst commentator is ravi shastri,

  • fiffer on October 9, 2013, 11:04 GMT

    Anything that will spare us from Botham's statements of the bleeding obvious on Sky is a blessing. If I hear 'swing and a miss' as I see a batsman do just that or 'down the ground' or 'good shot' again I'll happily throttle him. Come back Richie Benaud.

  • on October 9, 2013, 10:07 GMT

    Excellent article. I particularly enjoy the experienced and articulate commentators from England. But the recent additions have been questionable, in particular Andrew Strauss and Shane Warne.

  • on October 9, 2013, 9:42 GMT

    "Cliched Blabber" is a synonym with most of the on-air commentary. But to be objective about it, even most of the commentators found the same players playing monotonous. I mean, how can anyone still be excited about the nth India-SL game? Thus , a no commentary option sounds a good option, at least in T20. But I think, in Tests, commentary is essential as it is more nuanced and generally, we have better quality of commentators during Tests. I wonder though, what magic was there during the days of Radio commentary that people from my earlier generation still swear by it?

  • ThinkingCricket on October 9, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    I could not agree more. There is little that is more painful than having to listen to the drivel spouted by some of the commentators. I wouldn't even mind, the experimental "fan commentary" that was tried at football- fans- one each of the two teams give blatantly biased, commentary from their perspective. It was actually quite funny.

    I hope they introduce a no-commentary option, but sadly it's unlikely.

  • ThinkingCricket on October 9, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    I could not agree more. There is little that is more painful than having to listen to the drivel spouted by some of the commentators. I wouldn't even mind, the experimental "fan commentary" that was tried at football- fans- one each of the two teams give blatantly biased, commentary from their perspective. It was actually quite funny.

    I hope they introduce a no-commentary option, but sadly it's unlikely.

  • on October 9, 2013, 9:42 GMT

    "Cliched Blabber" is a synonym with most of the on-air commentary. But to be objective about it, even most of the commentators found the same players playing monotonous. I mean, how can anyone still be excited about the nth India-SL game? Thus , a no commentary option sounds a good option, at least in T20. But I think, in Tests, commentary is essential as it is more nuanced and generally, we have better quality of commentators during Tests. I wonder though, what magic was there during the days of Radio commentary that people from my earlier generation still swear by it?

  • on October 9, 2013, 10:07 GMT

    Excellent article. I particularly enjoy the experienced and articulate commentators from England. But the recent additions have been questionable, in particular Andrew Strauss and Shane Warne.

  • fiffer on October 9, 2013, 11:04 GMT

    Anything that will spare us from Botham's statements of the bleeding obvious on Sky is a blessing. If I hear 'swing and a miss' as I see a batsman do just that or 'down the ground' or 'good shot' again I'll happily throttle him. Come back Richie Benaud.

  • on October 9, 2013, 11:37 GMT

    i think the worst commentator is ravi shastri,

  • WalkingWicket11 on October 9, 2013, 11:54 GMT

    I don't understand how the no-commentary option will increase the cost. It should actually reduce the costs since the money they would otherwise spend for the commentators' salaries or fees will be saved.

  • on October 9, 2013, 12:03 GMT

    I'd love to listen to the stump mics and have no commentators. That would be Nirvana ! Most ex-cricketers are truly boring but let's face it they weren't great for their philosophy or thought, just their cricket. HOWSZAT ???

  • former-wisdener on October 9, 2013, 12:10 GMT

    Long overdue piece from long suffering cricket followers. I watched the recent CLT20 on mute. One of the many reasons for poor quality commentary is the growing generation gap between most current commentators and the modern game. Most of them have not played T20s (and the likes of Gavaskar struggled in ODIs too). So they don't understand subtle strategies, minute research, planning, mind games and even bluffs that feed the modern game - like making field changes for a particular length or line of delivery, and catching the batsman off-guard by bowling differently. It's a different ball game, and most of the commentators (on air now for decades) have little clue. Amazingly, Richie Benaud is still worth listening to - because he doesn't say much. There may not have been much difference between cricket in 1950s and 1980s. But there is a world of difference in cricket now from even since 1990s. Broadcasters need more younger former players as commentators, need to update training modules

  • ShanteshRow on October 9, 2013, 12:46 GMT

    "That went to the boundary like a tracer bullet." Just one of those commentator cliches that should be bowled to Chris Gayle so that he can dispatch the same over the boundary like a tracer bullet, such that it never enters any TV set again. Honestly, instead of a wealth of analysis, all we get is Messers Shastri, Morrison, Mbangwa et al getting wealthy with their non-stop emphasis on the trite. Would love to hear some new voices in most broadcasts. Or like Subhash Jayaraman suggests, not hear a voice at all, but just the hum and throb of real sounds from the stadium. Till then, will have to make do with the mute button. Especially when I have to endure another Karbonn Kamaal 6 or DLF Maximum. If we need to make cricket so 'brand-blatant', why not just brand the cricketers as well? How about Sony Sachin or Vodafone Virat or Coke Cooke? That was an amazing century partnership between Relispray Rahane and Samsung Samson for Remington Rajasthan Royals...the possibilities are endless!

  • former-wisdener on October 9, 2013, 13:29 GMT

    Maybe like different players for different formats of the game, broadcasters could employ different commentary teams for limited overs and Tests. Difficult to get viewers interested in what's going on, if you can't understand or are not interested in what's going on. For instance, no mute button needed for Fox Sports Australia's T20 commentary team. Likes of Mark Waugh, Symonds, Greg Blewett, Bredon Julian are not seated behind desks, but on chairs like other spectators. Their conversational commentary is lively, cliche-free, informal, interesting,insightful. They seem to enjoy the T20 format and each others' company. And their commentary enjoyably reflects it.