The no-commentary broadcast option
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 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.