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