February 27, 2014

Does the media think fans are fools?

Why does television seem to think that cricket followers only want to know about their team when it is winning?

We rarely get 90 overs in a day anyway, so why not review every contentious decision? © Associated Press

"Integrity has no need of rules"
- Albert Camus

Brisbane faces the curious prospect later this year of hosting a Test match where the local tabloid will not be able to name most of the players involved. They will be referred to only by their batting or bowling styles, and intelligent readers, all 17 of them, will have to guess who scored runs and took wickets. This wonderful game of guess who was initiated last year by an innovative journalist, who in the noble interests of vilifying players who are alleged to have been dishonest, took this honourable stance against Stuart Broad for infamously not walking at Trent Bridge in 2013.

The thing about honour is that it is a matter of consistency rather than convenience. Honour is honour - it should play no favourites. This tabloid now faces a moral conundrum after both Nathan Lyon and Chris Rogers in the series against South Africa edged balls and didn't tuck their bats under their arms and trudge off like the honourable chaps - of whom Broad clearly wasn't one. Virat Kohli, one of the most exciting players likely to be on show at the Gabba, will have to be content with being "the right-hand batsman from India" after he edged one and didn't walk when there was a Test that needed to be saved in Wellington last week. With eight months still to go before the next Gabba Test, there are bound to be more such cases of batsmen from India and Australia not walking when they nick it to the keeper, so if this honour code is indeed more than the mere jingoistic rubbish that it initially looked like when Broad was targeted for abuse, expect this Brisbane tabloid to cover the Test without mention of any names. The umpires too should be included in this admirable stance against dishonesty. Just call them penguins!

This case brings into focus the small-minded editorial policies of many commercial sports media outlets in Australia. Unlike the public broadcaster ABC, many of the commercial TV stations covered Australia's loss in Port Elizabeth with the maturity of a three-year-old who plays hide-and-seek by covering his eyes and hoping that if he can't see his pursuers, they can't see him. The highlights package on pay TV lapsed as far back as 36 hours behind the actual game to hide the margin of the first-innings lead and Hashim Amla's 93 not out overnight. As if not showing the up-to-date scorecard would somehow wipe the result from history. When the highlights were eventually put on air, the focus was on the umpiring and DRS errors, as if the playing condition about only having two unsuccessful reviews had been sprung upon Australia as a complete surprise.

Australians love their sport however it is wrapped. It is a country that champions the notion of a "fair go", and this applies to sport too. Like any nation, winning is of course more fun but when it is bad news, they still want to see it for themselves, warts and all. They are not looking for propaganda when they switch on the morning news to see what transpired in South Africa overnight. They just want to know the facts - winning or losing a game of cricket is merely that. The same applies anywhere in the world I imagine, despite passions running high. Triumph and disappointment aside, people still want the facts. Being taken for a bunch of idiots by a media that sells propaganda is frankly insulting. Just give us the scores and the highlights and let us make up our own minds about how we feel.

On one commercial channel, a 30-minute sports magazine programme, devoted exclusively to overnight sporting highlights, covered the result of the Port Elizabeth Test 23 minutes into the show. It came after domestic football trials, injury updates, basketball and EPL soccer results.

Before I knew the actual result, I knew then that Australia must have suffered a dramatic collapse. When they won six tests on the trot, it was often the first item on the main news, let alone the sports programmes. Do they honestly think we are that shallow? It applies to all sports - whenever the national team suffers a loss, you can guess the result just by watching the news and seeing if it gets mentioned in the first few minutes.

Quite often, the reporters covering the story have no clue about the nuances of the game. "Australia robbed by an umpiring error in the last over" fails miserably to adequately capture the cut and thrust of a fascinating sport that requires teams to make agonising decisions about when to use the review system judiciously. When you get it wrong, like England did regularly in the last Ashes series, and Australia did in Port Elizabeth, the ramifications can haunt you in the very last play of the game. That is the beauty of the current system as it stands, which, flawed though it may be, is a system agreed to by both teams. South Africa were desperate to win and used up their reviews too, so the game was tantalisingly poised to hinge on something as predictable as a minor error in judgement from either batsman or umpire. That is cricket's romance.

Perhaps the DRS needs to be reviewed but not because of this one incident. If the ICC is keen to get every decision 100% correct, then forget the implications of wasted time and allow the umpires to ask for assistance whenever they feel the need. Take the decision-making away from the players and damn the torpedoes. We rarely get 90 overs in a day anyway, so why the fuss? It's clear that the modern international cricketer, no matter where he hails from, will not walk when he nicks it (with very few exceptions). By referring every marginal decision to the video umpire, you potentially remove this hypocrisy where you see players shaking their head in disbelief when they get a poor decision but show no shame whatsoever when they benefit from an edge that the umpire did not notice. The honour code is a thing of the past - we need to accept that and leave it to the umpires. It is clear that a quota system for reviews is an imperfect solution, often drawing attention to the last play of the match, when previous mistakes are conveniently ignored (where teams injudiciously used up their quota of reviews).

In any other walk of life, it is inconceivable to defend a system that offers justice to victims on a quota basis. Maybe cricket needs to embrace that concept because hard-nosed professionals (and simplistic media) cannot be expected to act honourably. The winner-takes-all mentality is evident now in every aspect of the game, from sledging to pitch preparation to not walking to governance. Let's dispense, then, with all notions of honour and be sticklers for the rules (imperfect though they may be too, especially if those rules are designed by the all-powerful).

If captains want to review a decision that they feel strongly about, perhaps have some sort of system that gives a 20-run penalty for every incorrect review (added to sundries in the scorebook). That might force them to only review decisions that are absolute howlers instead of using reviews as a tactical ploy.

In the case of umpires, it is as much an issue of perception as of reality. It was not so long ago that theirs was the last word on the matter and learning to live with their honest mistakes was part of the charm of sport, but that is now a thing of the past, exacerbated by a shallow media that often obfuscates fact in favour of cheap propaganda.

Even off the field, as evidenced by recent scandals at ICC and IPL level, integrity can no longer be assumed as a guiding principle. Any proposal that even contemplated immunity from relegation for the richest (India, Australia and England) and was agreed to by some of the smaller countries is clearly bankrupt of everything but money. Perhaps even media rights will one day be granted to agencies that only tell you the score if your team is winning. A loss may just be expunged from the records. Thank god for ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru or there might one day be no record of New Zealand beating India recently. No integrity = no losses = no relegation. How convenient. It is the past we have forsaken and the future we deserve.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane