April 27, 2009

Night of the screamers

Why the commentators' desperate hawking of the IPL may have started to work against the tournament

It's working. Two weeks of the second season of the Indian Premier League and it's finally been drummed into me who the damn sponsors are. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Now GO AWAY!

Actually, had I money to invest, I'd be wondering why DLF, presently being squeezed by slumping property values and a share price a quarter of its peak, and Citigroup, insolvent but for Barack Obama's indulgence, were wasting shareholders' funds on staking sixes and endowing so-called "success". As I don't, I'll simply vary that old Bob Hope gag concerning the night he went to a boxing title fight and a game of ice hockey broke out: the IPL is fast degenerating into a series of three-hour advertisements through which are sometimes discernible glimmers of cricket.

Cricket, of course, has much to thank television for. How much richer is our appreciation of a Shane Warne legbreak or a Kevin Pietersen cover-drive for the luxury of studying it, frozen in time; when we can hover over each detail of the harmonious human mechanism. But either Lalit Modi is pumping nitrous oxide into the commentary box, or the IPL is bearing out JK Galbraith's observation that television allows for persuasion with no minimum standard of literacy or intelligence.

One expects a certain degree of phoniness from Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, who as IPL governing council members are busy getting high on their own supply. But the rest of Modi's fawning courtiers, even super-smooth Mark Nicholas and pawky Jeremy Coney, have been reduced to carnival barkers, whether greeting a full toss slogged for six like the news of VE Day, pretending that the tactical time-out is something other than a sneaky commercial trick, or, above all, hawking the sponsors like Jim Cramer used to ramp shares on Mad Money. Could Citigroup be scattering moments of success for its own morale? Can it be that somewhere in the fine print of DLF's sponsorship contract is prescribed a specified number of long-hops and full-tosses per hour, to guarantee a minimum of "maximums"? The result is that whatever the game looks like, it sounds as forced as the canned laughter in an American sitcom.

Some of the artificiality of season two has simply been made more obvious by the inclement weather, diminishing novelty value, fewer thrills and more spills, which has left the appointed interpreters straining for effect. But that can't explain everything. There was plenty of glitz and hype in the first season of IPL, but the excitement of the fans was stunningly, thrillingly real. Away from India, the IPL lacks that authentication. It is a distant and diluted re-run, with contrivances to redeem its deficiencies.

Even when it's right, they somehow get it wrong, as at the end of Rajasthan Royals v Kolkata Knight Riders on Thursday, when the best game of the tournament and the best result in cricket was capped by a climax as fake as Sally's when she met Harry. Are the commentators, then, straining to act as proxies for their main audience back in India? If so, it seems a doomed enterprise.

Because the commentators' clueless desperation now feels as though it is working against the IPL. When something great happens, they have nowhere to go, no upper register left to use. When 20 off 10 balls exhausts your superlatives, how do you describe a hundred off 50 balls? When a young Indian domestic player getting away a couple of beefy blows is so thrilling, what tone do you adopt for Sachin Tendulkar? As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in The Gondoliers, "When everyone is somebodee / Then no one's anybody"

When something great happens, the commentators have nowhere to go, no upper register left to use. When a young Indian domestic player getting away a couple of beefy blows is so thrilling, what tone do you adopt for Tendulkar?

A further complication is Twenty20's inherent unpredictability, its mixing of the sublime and the ridiculous. When commentators hype a batsman up for consecutive boundaries only to watch him perish to an imbecile smear, or praise a bowler to the skies for four dot-balls, then see him smacked into orbit twice while closing the over out, they subtly erode their own authority - such authority as they had, anyway.

The television commentator has always been sensitively placed. His network has paid good money to broadcast, and thus has an interest in the game being perceived as representing high-quality excitement - even when it is not. Richie Benaud didn't become His Richieness by saying: "This is a boring game between two mediocre teams and represents an ideal opportunity for you to go mow the lawn."

With Twenty20, however, there is the added imperative of promoting a format in which exorbitant sums and giddying hopes have been invested. The consumer has not just to be sold the game he is watching, but the Twenty20 concept in general; persuaded that he is witness not just to a contest of teams, but a contest of genres, with Modi responsible for the most exciting breakthrough since penicillin. It forces the commentator even further from the ideal perspective of disinterested critic, bringing to bear a weight of experience and a talent for observation; it reduces him to sideshow huckster, flogging the game like a patent medicine from the back of his covered wagon.

Nor am I sure it ultimately does the sponsors much good either. There are two sides to brand recognition: one where the sponsor's name conjures up warm and positive associations; another where it stirs irritation and objection, as a result, perhaps, of incessant, cloying, annoying repetition. So, yes, we now know which sponsors to find, and also, if so moved, those to avoid.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rohan on May 4, 2009, 23:17 GMT

    Finally, an article that tells it like it is. A six is a six. Not a "DFL Maximum". Or a "DLF-er". The constant, abrasive display of commercials and shout-outs to sponsors may help the sponsors in the short run, but in the long run, it will affect brand loyalty. Not loyalty to DLF or Citi, but to the Mumbai Indians, and the Royal Challengers. The sooner Modi and Co realize this the better.

  • Gurunath on May 1, 2009, 17:56 GMT

    "When a young Indian domestic player getting away a couple of beefy blows is so thrilling, what tone do you adopt for Sachin Tendulkar?". You said it all in a nut-shell. Just this observation alone is enough to show how idiotic the commenting has become. Shastri was a commentator I used to like, now he disappoints me greatly. Gavaskar is not yet there. I think in a Twenty20, guys should comment on the state of match and strategies, not cricketing skills of the players; comment about Twenty20 'cricket smartness' in a player, his ability to smash the ball or his agility - please don't say that these are his 'excellent' "cricketing skills". I just feel that as playing Twenty20 is different than playing test cricket; commentators also need to look into commenting on 'Twenty20 smartness' in player rather than his cricketing skills. There is a broad distinction between excellence in test cricket and excellence in Twenty20.

  • crazydesi on May 1, 2009, 8:40 GMT

    i'm with china_cricket! hit the mute button and turn up the punk rock! in fact if there was technology that linked the mute button to a counter, the sponsors would realise how (in)effective the overuse of phrases like 'citi moments of success' and 'dlf maximum' are. i always think 'silly moment of success' when i hear the former, anyway! which somehow seems more appropriate! it is irritating and annoying and, as far as i'm concerned, completely ineffective. and the vodaphone commercials in india are annoying too. however as it is the price to pay to watch some very exciting cricket notwithstanding the hyperventilating and forced commentary, i for one grimace and bear it. no sorry, i can only grin when it goes from annoying to sublimely ludicrous.

  • Arvind on April 30, 2009, 21:37 GMT

    I know! Its so funny how Ravi Shastri cannot refrain talking about the size of every batsman that walks out to bat! :D "He is tall man" "He is a short man" " He is well built" lol.

  • alan on April 30, 2009, 13:26 GMT

    I have watched most of the games of both seasons on setanta sports and have found the cricket to be both exciting/entertaining even when one side is getting tied down by good bowling (its good to see the bowlers doing so well this season!) The commentators overuse of "citi moments of success" for pretty much everything is extremely annoying but its a small price to pay to be able to watch legends from all the great teams around the world play with and against each other!

    The thing i find ridiculous is setanta's decision to regularly interupt the commentary so that two guys sitting in a studio in england can put in their two cents worth. The worst is Ronnie Irani who hasnt said a positive thing all season. they throw to him everytime there is a wicket and he just completely rips into the batter who got out (even if 2mins earlier he had been praising him as the best thing since sliced bread!) Thankfully I am able to fast forward everytime I hear his voice!!!

  • Chaitanya on April 30, 2009, 9:56 GMT

    The problem is not with the Sponsorship itself or for that matter with the sponsors extracting their pound of flesh! Surely, no one would expect to run a high profile tournament like IPL with no sponsor money. The whole issue is about this "in your face" commercialism. The bang for your buck does not necessarily come from TV commentators announcing your name several times during the telecast! The charm of the game, the novelty of the format, the great stars of cricket both current and retired are enough to garner huge support and viewership (both at the stadium and on TV!)The sponsors I hope will realize that consumers of cricket will love them for their serious support for the GAME and definitely not for their commercial greed! Commercial obligations cannot be bigger than the THE GAME itself! I hope sponsors will begin to respect that and demand subtlety (on their own accord) which will give them the appropriate brand mileage and the viewers their cricket!

  • SRINI on April 29, 2009, 11:06 GMT

    Does anyone seriously expect DLF, Citi etc. to fund entertainment for tv viewers and income for cricketers and remain anonymous? Who sets the standard for the no. of times their names are called in a game? The market forces will decide that anyway.

    It is basic. Either we watch what is dished out with at least tolerance or abstain from viewing the program.

  • Debanjon on April 29, 2009, 10:11 GMT

    Well, this article has echoed the general notion about the sponsorship madness in the best way. Really Modi needs to get his act together. Good business sense is one thing and brazen attempt to maximize profits is something totally different.

  • Nihad on April 29, 2009, 7:10 GMT

    Finally! Thank God someone has said what needs to be said. Commentary with every word a superlative is excruciatingly boring. Mark Nicholas, for all his smoothness, has nothing of substance to say. The cheerleaders are not only superfluous, but divert attention from enjoying the sixes and wickets they purport to celebrate. Yusuf Pathan's hitting does not need the dancing as a side-dish. T20 is loads of fun most of the time, despite these distractions and irritations.

  • Amar on April 29, 2009, 4:06 GMT

    ah yes, the gentle English game of cricket has fallen prey to the financial overtures of the rapacious Modi and co. How absolutely horrid that someone actually wants to make an honest buck in Africa. I mean, doesn't Modi know that the only way to make money in Africa is to rob the natives?? Darn that ivy league educated Modi, had he been educated at jolly old Oxford, he'd have known how to go about this the right way...

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