August 28, 2015

It's better from behind the stumps

It used to be routine in the old days but is confined to replays now. The absence negatively affects our experience as viewers of sport on TV

Rear view: A shot from behind the keeper gives you a sense of what it's like to face a fast bowler © Getty Images

During Sri Lanka's second innings in the recently concluded second Test against India, Dinesh Chandimal, in the course of a brief stint at the crease, dramatically hooked Ishant Sharma for six. Television viewers who had missed the action - or had not seen it in acute enough detail - were then treated to two replays of the shot. Those replays reminded me of a long-standing peeve of mine against modern television coverage: the marginalisation of the behind-the-stumps view of the batsman.

Perhaps beginning with Channel Nine's telecasts in the 1980s, TV coverage of cricket has been distinctive for its use of two primary television cameras, placed at either bowling end, for capturing and transmitting live action. When bowlers change ends, producers move their dominant perspective; as a result, viewers are always following the bowler running in, with the batsman facing. The other perspectives - side-on from point or square leg, among others - are made available to the viewer on replays. But we are never allowed to view live action from behind the batsman. Or at least, I cannot remember any such occasion in recent memory. I can last remember such an angle used by Indian television in the 1980s. This perspective is only made available on replays. But not on all replays. As in the case of Chandimal's hook for six.

Capturing a hook shot from the back lets you see the bowler's reaction as well © PA Photos

The first replay of Chandimal's shot was via what I will term a hyper-or-super close-up. This perspective zooms in - and down - to provide a closer look at the action, but it goes excessively close. As a result, so much is missing from the frame that the viewer actually sees less; a batsman's shot or a bowler's action looks peculiarly incomplete when the body of the player is not entirely visible. Somehow the desire to inspect the action at close range overrides a basic cricket viewing principle: background, setting, and context matter. In the replay of Chandimal's hook shot, we follow the ball down the pitch, we see a bat flashing (and lots of grass and earth) and then an attempt to follow the ball off the bat. It is a wholly unsatisfying and unedifying experience.

The second replay was a mere reiteration of the original live shot of the hook - once again, shown from the front, with the batsman facing.

The most "sensible" i.e., most revealing, replay would have been one from behind the batsman. It would have captured Chandimal's step back and across with the right foot, and his subsequent movement back with the left, wonderfully. The viewer would have been able to inspect a classic of cricketing action from an angle best suited for the purpose.

Indeed, such perspectives on the hook shot were often used by cricket photographers of yesteryear - some of the most dramatic photographs of hook shots are taken from behind the batsman. (These photographs provided additional information to those who gazed on them, because the bowler's expression was visible too.)

This, I agree, is a hell of a nit to pick. Surely, I can't be complaining about the visual aspects of modern television coverage? Complain all you want about commentators but leave the actual live action and its replays alone. I agree in large part, but I'd like to insist we are missing something crucial by being denied the perspective that the older model, where the camera stayed at one end, used to provide. (The BBC continued to use this model into the 1980s as well.)

It's all in the angles © Getty Images

For instance, we only rarely view a fast bowler's or a spinner's action from the batsman's perspective. But we want to know: What does a fast bowler look like as he runs in at full tilt? What does a spinner's pivot on his front foot look like? We normally view these when commentators want to make a point about bowlers' actions - about "the head falling away", or about a bowler getting close to the stumps, or something along those lines. But the dominant perspective remains from behind the bowler's arm.

This does injustice to batting too: a batsman's footwork is inspected differently by the viewer vis a vis the view the wicketkeeper has; it is why keepers are able to provide additional insights on the action to their bowlers and captains. Television producers are aware of this: for instance, their replays of catches in the slips are sometimes shown from behind the stumps. That angle often works best to catch the slip fielder's movements. But it is not a lesson that broadcasters seem willing or able to internalise.

Spectators at a cricket ground would, I think, be bored if their excellent seats behind the bowler's arm were always behind the bowler's arm. They enjoy the pair of perspectives made available to them by the change of ends, and are able to fuse them into a stereoscopic vision of action, one that is richer precisely for its incorporation of variety. In this regard, the television viewer really does suffer from a more-is-less problem. Our sense of the game, its live action, is impoverished if our view of it is so diminished.

Television producers are too wedded to the camera-at-either-end model to make substantial changes in their coverage. But I'll continue to hope that they will consider showing us a few deliveries once in a while from the angles I've mentioned. That will provide us couch-bound spectators a richer and more synoptic visual treat. In this day of high-definition and super slo-mo coverage, being deprived of the behind-the-stumps perspective is a curious famine in the midst of a feast.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amit on September 1, 2015, 15:30 GMT

    Samir, Thanks for pointing this out, now please use your contacts at cricinfo to pass on the message to the broadcasters as well. I am tired of the directors (I assume) trying out strange new camera angles.

    One thing that really really ticks me off is when they decide not to show the delivery or the replay from behind the bowler (the bread and butter camera angle of cricket on TV) and chose to show the ball cam, the ridiculous shot that follows the trajectory of the ball. Now I can imagine some one wanting to see that to appreciate the rotations imparted on the ball by a spinner , but how , please some one tell me how can u enjoy that angle when wanting to see the batsman's stance or shot, or the ball's swing or turn (which are seen relative to batman's position or bat movement or spin.

    IMO all this recent non sense is a result of poor domain knowledge and the eagerness to do something different. So all u directors and camera crews out get ur act together.

  • Richard on August 30, 2015, 0:08 GMT

    I don't remember anyone lamenting the passing of bumcam back when Channel Nine revolutionised cricket telecasts back in 77/78. We were heartily happy to get the bowlers angle from both ends. Be careful what you wish for, it's not all it's cracked up to be, staring at player's rear ends, unable to see if the ball seams or spins, or carries to the slips...........sometimes nostalgia is just silly. This is one of those times. Of all the issues one could chose to write an article on, of all the issues that are of critical import to the game, the things that are really begging to be discussed.........well, this isn't one of them, this is just filler. Slow news day maybe?

  • o on August 29, 2015, 21:47 GMT

    People critiquing Samir's article are mostly old guys talking about inferior quality obviously if it was reintroduced today it wouldn't replace what already exists as a static lq fixed cam it would just be another angle to switch to especially after bouncers or balls carrying through to the keeper and of course it would be a modern HD example even from drone or spider cam nothing like the old footage just an modern improved quality alternative angle.

  • Dummy4 on August 29, 2015, 18:23 GMT

    I couldn't agree more with this article. All views by TV broadcasters do not do any justice to the difficulty and challenge the cricketers face. As a viewer, I want to see what it would really be like to be in their shoes. I would love it if the pace of the delivery were to be in real time not the slightly slowed version they show also. Been thinking this for years, thanks for writing the article.

  • Dummy4 on August 29, 2015, 17:23 GMT

    Why do we get caught up in an 'either-or' trap? Show every delivery twice at real time speed from both perspectives - bowling end and batting end. Technology can and there is lots of time between each delivery nowadays when even 4 minutes is not enough to complete an over. After all Lance Gibbs or Bishen Singh Bedi is not bowling nowadays!

  • Vinayak on August 29, 2015, 17:01 GMT

    Samir, I am a part of the production crew who is covering the test series between Sri lanka and India. Let me explain you my job profile, I am the one who is coordinating the replays here, so i offer replays to the Director and then its his call to take it or not. As far as The Chandimal's Hook incident is concerned, the replays depends on lot of factors, like TECHNICAL FACTORS. There are so many instances when there could an issue with camera, an issue with a cameraman, issue with replay machine, issue with the operator, time constraint before the next ball and engineering issues. Obviously you won't be aware of any of these issues. So what you guys see on TV in your drawing rooms goes through a channel, proper channel. A channel which has people with over 15 years of experience in this industry. As far as reverse coverage is concerned, I think people in this industry have worked really hard to make it look this good. Nobody would like to go back to the 70's.

  • Xiong on August 29, 2015, 16:03 GMT

    @JaysKrish But the best place to see if the ball seamed, swung or spun is from behind the bowlers arm. It's also by far the most likely to make a television viewer understand what happened in a delivery in a single viewing. On another note, I don't know what country some of the commenters here are from but in most test cricket I've seen replays are always from a variety of angles, usually from a the angle that gives the best perspective on the action. Really, televising cricket evolved (like everything) to show the best possible viewing angle. In the past I'm sure broadcasters would have killed for the funding to have a camera at either end, but they simply couldn't. Now that we have the facilities some people want it changed back. What next, black and white? I hear it's charming in a way colour just isn't. Seriously though, I've seen a replay shot from behind the batsman a billion times in the last year but for a live delivery on TV there is simply only one angle that makes sense.

  • JaysKrish on August 29, 2015, 13:22 GMT

    It would be nice to have live action from different angles for a change. Currently, we are stuck with just one angle and we are used to it. There could be better viewing angles if they are willing to experiment. For example, there could be different options for fast bowling, spin, a bowler who tends to use short balls a lot etc., also different viewing angles in different playing conditions might help (swinging conditions, spin, pace etc.,)

  • Dummy4 on August 29, 2015, 13:00 GMT

    Completely agree with this. The consistency of the bowler's end view is great but they don't have to show every single delivery from this same angle. I'd like to see some from mid-off/cover and mid-on/midwicket.

  • Dummy4 on August 29, 2015, 12:37 GMT

    With smart television evolving, may be a good idea to give viewers access to the cameras. They should be able to choose which view they like!