In the sands of human history two decades are no more than a speck, but it is the sum of life for the World Wide Web. The internet has been around in some form or the other since the early 1980s, but websites as we know them didn't come around till about 1993, by when, incredibly, Cricinfo existed. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Google, before Hotmail and Yahoo, before iPhones and BlackBerries, and even before proper web browsers, there was Cricinfo.
Familiarity dulls our sense of wonder and we are prone to take for granted things that become part of our daily routine. But consider this. Before Cricinfo, the only way to find out what was happening in the game from a non-cricket part of the world was to put in an expensive international call. I have a friend who had his mother in Delhi post to the US newspaper clippings of each day's report after every Test. She once forgot to include the last day's report, which left him tormented for days.
As Simon King, who led a bunch of cricket samaritans in shaping and nurturing Cricinfo through the early years said: before Cricinfo, it was the dark ages.
So as we begin celebrating 20 years of the existence of the website that is now part of the game's fabric, we must first pause to give thanks. I speak here as a fan of the game and of Cricinfo long before I became a part of it: it is difficult now to imagine life without the site.
But seen in a broader context, Cricinfo's contribution is far more seminal and far-reaching. It can, with absolute certainty, be said that Cricinfo pioneered online coverage of sports, and indeed of live events, online. Its live scoring system, developed and perfected over years, was nothing short of genius. And long before anyone had heard of blogs, let alone Twitter and social media, groups of volunteers around the world delivered ball-by-ball text commentary from remote locations. Many of them never met each other.
Innovating with technology is only part of the story. The history of the internet is full of stories of innovation and enterprise. Only a special few have grown to significance. Cricinfo survived and endured because it was also sustained by love. Its creators and those who kept it going through tough times were drawn to it not because they were innovators or entrepreneurs but because they believed in the idea: through Cricinfo they were serving the game they adored.
It is that love for the game that still runs in the veins of ESPNcricinfo, as it is now, and that's what draws the people who work for it. I came to cricket journalism as a diversion but have stayed 12 years, ten of those with ESPNcricinfo: it has been the hardest job to leave, and that has been true for most of my colleagues.
ESPNcricinfo could never have been conceived in a corporate boardroom. When confronted with the task of drawing up a business plan, the founding directors drew a blank. Among the investments they made after receiving their initial funding was sponsoring the women's World Cup, and writing out a donation to Zimbabwe cricket. But the website has been incredibly fortunate to have found the right kind of backers. Satyam Infoway kept it alive in the worst times of the dotcom business; the Wisden takeover not only saved it from closure but gave it a certain editorial heft and structure; and ESPN concluded the cycle by giving it stability and the ideal environment for growth.
With hindsight, it appears now that everything happened for a reason, and each of these events propelled the site ahead. As a media company, ESPN has a simple mission: to serve the sports fan wherever sport is played. Cricinfo wears the ESPN badge proudly and tries to fulfil this mission every minute because that's what it was born to do.
Long before anyone had heard of blogs, let alone Twitter and social media, groups of volunteers around the world delivered ball-by-ball text commentary from remote locations. Many of them never met each other
Over the last ten years we have added layers and layers of editorial to the site. ESPNcricinfo adheres to the highest journalistic principles and conduct; we engage the finest cricket writers around the world; and we aim to do what very few media organisations, bound as they are by the compulsion to serve their local markets, can afford to do: provide a truly global perspective on cricket.
In a game increasingly riven by national and parochial interests, ours is a global voice. We embrace the spirit of internationalism openly and conscientiously. Our writers and correspondents bring to their journalism local knowledge and insights, but we recognise that our obligation is to the game and not to any particular team or country.
This is from our internal mission statement:
Our obligation is to tell the story as it is. Our journalists bring local knowledge and insights to their writing, but they are free of the trappings of parochial concerns. It is wonderfully liberating to see issues from a wider perspective, and to be able to see the game in its truest, most elemental sprit: as a contest between bat and ball.
We have the responsibility to tell the story accurately, fairly and quickly. In that order. It is beneath us to take sides and inflame passions… Our reach gives us a certain clout and we must wield it responsibly. We must never forget that we owe everything to the game, and the welfare of the game must count among our top priorities.
But while adding professional rigour and discipline, we have also held on to the founding spirit of ESPNcricinfo, which was to cover as much cricket in as many places as possible. Our scorers and correspondents travel far and wide to cover games that might have no commercial consequence; we have steadily been growing our coverage of the domestic game, even as mainstream media retreats from it; and our commitment to the integrity of our database is absolute. As cricket fans, working for ESPNcricinfo counts among the highest privileges, and we are ever prepared to accept the responsibilities it brings. Never for a moment do we lose sight of the fact that the world relies on us to keep it connected to cricket, so taking our eyes off the ball is not an option for us.
In terms of developing the site, our 20th year has already been among our busiest. Our upgraded iPhone app was launched last week, and it was only couple of months ago we launched The Cordon, which brings together some of finest cricket writers outside the mainstream - in a way a throwback to the early era of the site, when the writers were fans first. We have also built a home exclusively for fans in The Stands, which apart from fine writing, lively discussions and contests, also features some outstanding photography from you. It is now among my favourite sections of the site.
And while the live scorecard is almost inviolable because of its timeless simplicity, we have given you in Match Companion another way to follow a game. It is, in digital parlance, our second-screen scorecard, which recognises changing consumption habits.
ESPNcricinfo began with the objective to provide cricket scores to those who had no access to it, but gratifyingly more and more of you now use our ball-by-ball scores and commentary even while watching a match on television. Match Companion is designed to enhance your viewing experience through match cards, which serve up trivia, stats nuggets, photographs, links to recommended reading; and with live graphs and curated Twitter feeds; but more crucially, it allows you to be an active participant though a live engagement window. The ball-by-ball text on the Match Companion page is now a true collaborative effort: our commentary and your comments.
The preparations for our 20th-anniversary celebrations have taken us closer to our roots and brought us in contact with some of the remarkable characters who brought the world's favourite cricket site to life. The ESPNcricinfo story wasn't unfamiliar to us, but in the process of getting reacquainted with it, we have been reminded of our good fortune to be associated with the site.
We seek your indulgence over the rest of the year to feel good about ourselves. We will bring you the ESPNcricinfo story in many parts. It is a story worth telling, and one worth knowing.
Sambit Bal is the editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo
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