January 30, 2016

When entertainment becomes intrusion

Broadcasters' desire to get in players' heads for the sake of good TV is beginning to affect game play

Under surveillance: the Spidercam is just one of several broadcasting intrusions in the game © Getty Images

Wimbledon, some time in the future: Young Dougal Murray is serving. It's championship point. He bounces the ball three, four, five times, and readies himself. Suddenly, in his earpiece, he hears the voice of an old Swiss master: "Hey Dougal, Roger here. Tell us, what are you thinking right now? Tactics, I mean, not emotions…"

Laconic at the best of times, Dougal mumbles back: "Don't really know, Rog. Slice down the middle, three-quarter speed…?" He bounces the ball, 11, 12, 13 times.

Atavistic competitive fires stirring, Federer scoffs: "Really?!" He unfurls some data about the Serbian opponent's behaviour at match point down on the ad court, chucks in a Gladwellian hunch, and hey presto, junior Murray serves himself to a Slam.

All of which may seem far-fetched today, yet given the encroachments of broadcasting in sport - a lot of it genuinely illuminating, plenty gimmicky and intrusive - you have to wonder. Give them an inch…

A couple of incidents these last few days illustrate how, far from being a simple neutral eye on proceedings, cricket's broadcasters are enacting Heisenberg's principle and starting to affect the game play.

In Centurion, in South Africa's first innings, JP Duminy missed an ungainly heave at Moeen Ali, was hit on the back thigh, and looked forlornly down the wicket at Temba Bavuma, hoping the little man might put fist to forearm. Bavuma wasn't even looking. Instead, he was peering over at the dressing-room balcony, presumably for some sort of steer on the reviewability of the decision. None came, and Duminy had to go.

Should cricketainment be restricted to T20 - and to franchise T20 at that, with its pantomime rivalries and bonhomie? If bilateral T20Is are to retain a vestige of meaning, then should the microphones be restricted to fielders?

Cricketers being inveterate advantage-seekers and loophole-finders - from Vaseline on edges to speculative reviews - the sport's growing technoskeleton does open up the possibility of having a snap decision relayed from the balcony by someone delegated to the task, even without a replay being shown until the DRS window has elapsed. It also undermines the notion of cricket as XI v XI, a team of self-sufficient players resting on their native wit, which was always a bit of a myth.

The second incident - Virat Kohli giving a miked-up Steve Smith a voluble send-off in the Adelaide T20 - was altogether more intriguing, foregrounding the way in which concessions to broadcasters - to the abstract concept of entertainment - might impinge upon the integrity of the game. "We are in the entertainment industry" is a common enough refrain. True, but is entertainment a by-product of the sport being played to a high standard with committed players in meaningful contexts, or something with its own demands, its own centre of gravity (or levity)?

Australia were 82 for 1 off eight overs, chasing 189, having just taken 19 from Hardik Pandya's first over in international cricket. They had momentum. Adelaide was buoyant. Mindful perhaps of Kevin Pietersen's request in the Big Bash to be allowed to get in before chatting, the commentators waited until Smith had 20 (from 12) before dropping in at the start of a Ravindra Jadeja over, during which Smith talked the commentators, the millions of viewers, and any fielders within earshot through his thinking. Even while he was running singles. Even when the bowler was jumping into his delivery stride.

This Access All Areas showed Smith assessing the match situation ("plenty in the shed"), answering Mike Hussey about his plans for Jadeja ("just watch the ball and see what happens"), bantering with Mark Nicholas about premeditation, praising Aaron Finch's strokeplay (Nicholas: "You commentate for us, mate. You've got it covered"), and even calling for runs when the game rudely interrupted this conference call:

Hussey: "That's really interesting, Steve. No premeditation at this stage. You're just seeing the ball and looking to react to it?"
Smith: "Oh yeah, you never know what's going through our minds…"

You don't talk a good game, mate © Getty Images

Which is no doubt the point of all this. The Chris Gayle furore was, in part, the result of television's desire to attain the private thoughts of players, the inner sanctum of the dressing room, which is effectively turned inside out for T20 cricket. There are pros and cons with this access, of course, potentially exposing behaviours about which polite society is squeamish, while perhaps modifying them for the better through self-policing. But then, are we getting the truth, warts and all, or something more sanitised and vanilla and artificial? Does that defeat the object?

Anyway, having premeditated that he wasn't going to premeditate, Smith tried to work a ball that gripped slightly from 18 inches outside off through the vacant midwicket gap, and succeeded only in getting a leading edge to Kohli, who either starts telling the "lobster walks into a pub" joke, or proffers the universal "chat-chat-chat" gesture.

Of course, Kohli enters the field as does an Alka-Seltzer a glass of water, but there are legitimate grounds to feel aggrieved, if not with the content then the timing of Smith's comments. While Smith was placed in an invidious position, it could be considered showboating, a breach of sporting etiquette, much as South American defenders don't take too kindly to multiple stepovers when 4-0 down.

There was a degree of hubris, then, when Smith's dismissal prompted Nicholas to say, rather sheepishly: "Steve Smith is out, and he's unable to talk us through that. Understandably." Rather tellingly, the montage of the incident on the broadcaster's website edited out all but the first four words, the implication being that Smith had been distracted, that there was some guilt.

Coincidentally, Smith and Kohli had been involved in incidents with Spidercam - a dropped catch in a Test, a four-turned-dead ball in an ODI - and while neither proved decisive, they could easily have done, a point made by Dhoni, who suggested there should be "$2000 per hit" (it not entirely clear whether he meant fines for the broadcasters or prizes for the batsmen) while calling attention to those close-up shots of dismissed batsmen, which have the air of paparazzi about it.

India didn't have a player miked up in Adelaide, and perhaps Dhoni, from a country of one billion, a sizeable chunk of whom are cricket fanatics, can afford to be more blasé about marketing the sport.

So where do you draw the line with television's "intrusions"? Is Kohli-Smith the thin end of the Bunnings Warehouse wedge? How much ground do you concede before the game becomes a circus? Should cricketainment be restricted to T20 - and to franchise T20 at that, with its pantomime rivalries and bonhomie? If bilateral T20Is are to retain a vestige of meaning, then should the microphones be restricted to fielders?

That it probably wouldn't happen in a World Cup seems tacit admission that it interferes with the game, which brings us back to the fundamental issue of fairness. Moments before Smith's dismissal Ian Healy had remarked: "He's darting them in, angling in to the right-hander. 103kph." This could either have been commentary or advice to the batsman. The age of Bob Woolmer's walkie-talkies may well be here.


It's Johannesburg, an indefinable point in time. Two mega-rivals slug it out in an epochal fixture. A six is smitten, bringing the equation to six off four. Into the batsman's earpiece comes a commentator, a compatriot, a neutral eye in the sky. "Tell me, Misbah, are you premeditating right now?"

Scott Oliver tweets here