July 28, 2009

The loss of cricket's cadence

Sriram Dayanand
Cricket has outdone other sports in commercialisation, at the cost of the viewing experience - but perhaps that's no more than we deserve

Distance abetted by obscurity can sometimes be a gift. Residing in Toronto, Canada, I am blessed with cricket coverage that should make viewers worldwide salivate in envy: I watch cricket free of commercials.

Three channels stream cricket matches live to my screen in the form of the raw feed, which elsewhere gets fortified with packages of commercials ad nauseam. The chasm between what I am fortunate to view and what others do is stark. Certainly I might happen upon a flash of advertising during an innings break or at the fall of a wicket, but typically, the natural interruptions of the game - between overs or during drinks breaks - are filled with a panoramic view of the playing area accompanied by the sounds at the stadium, simulating the audio-visual experience of sitting in your own seat in the arena. This is when the rest of the world is peddled a plethora of products in slick advertisement packages.

This year's edition of the IPL, though, breached my security cover. Armed with the security of a telecast bereft of product pitches towards my face and ears, I had settled in to enjoy the spectacle, but it wasn't long before I realised that commercial free isn't really commercial free anymore. The geniuses at the IPL had ensured that the DLF Maximums and Citi Moments of Success that had made their appearance last year were now adhered to with supreme diligence by the commentators. Even the breathless bellowings of Ravi Shastri and the serpentine verbal meanderings of Ramiz Raja were broken up by the mandated chanting of the sponsors' names repeatedly, and especially during tense moments in the game. The organic raw feed turned out to be processed after all.

Cricket is unlike football, the continuity of which makes sure the live telecast is not intruded on by commercials. Cricket with its inherent rhythm of stops and starts permits the unobtrusive injection of marketing nuggets into the gaps. But the efficacy and feverishness with which these gaps have been filled are akin to the diligence of a concerned denizen furiously plugging holes in a leaking dyke, lest the game seep out.

As a captain plots with his star bowler, tension or deviousness writ large on their faces, at the beginning of an over, one leans forward imagining and relishing what could ensue, but does anyone actually remember the last time we savoured this tête-à-tête? Our fervent hope these days is that nothing of any significance occurs on the first delivery of any over, given the frequency with which the trailing end of an extra commercial blots it out. Neil Postman, in his seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death, premised that "the form excludes the content", and cricket telecasts appear to be on a twisted mission to validate that statement in a literal sense.

The spectator experience in any sport has a cadence to it. It is a cadence elucidated by the rhythm of the game's language, its rules, its playing conditions, and the visuals and sounds at the venue. One relies on this cadence to be the background music for the story about to unfold. You tap your feet to its drumbeat as you revel in the spectacle in front of us. It is the thumping heartbeat, the sharp inhalations and expulsions of breath, the humming under the breath, the shuffle of the feet and also the laughter and sighs of any healthy sport.

Cricket's reaction to every intrusion has been one of laissez-faire. No spectator sport has endured this much interference this rapidly and this invasively in recent times

A laissez-faire attitude has been cricket's de facto reaction to every intrusion into its cadence. No spectator sport has endured this much interference this rapidly and this invasively in recent times. Authorities and controlling bodies expect a free hand with which to chisel away unabashedly at the edifices of the sport. Sometimes this chiselling comes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as was evidenced by the brazen insertion of the "strategy break" this year in the IPL. Do we need a more illustrative example of commercial interests marring the flow of what was already a compressed version of the sport?

Visuals have a cadence too, and here cricket has over-achieved and broken new ground. Business-development gurus have morphed into real-estate agents with their sale of areas of turf to the highest bidder. What started off as the odd Hero Honda logo between the stumps and the sightscreens has spread like weeds, and now even regions square of the wicket are carpeted. Often one loses sight of a fielder sprinting across the field as he disappears into the multi-coloured underbrush only to emerge behind a speeding ball suddenly. This is sometimes pushed to extraordinary extremes, like during a South Africa-Pakistan game in 2007. A spray-paint job defeated by dry weather and dead grass didn't deter authorities from tacking on, literally, a huge rug emblazoned with a logo, onto the turf. When a hapless Makhaya Ntini tripped over its protruding edges and stumbled, ending up with grazed skin and bloodied elbows, the most extreme reaction it elicited was a mild admonition on the air. The rug stayed, of course.

With the dawn of a professional league in cricket modelled after the ones in other sports, it is common these days for administrators and fans alike to reel off potential collations ("I can see the IPL surpassing the English Premier League in years to come." - Lalit Modi). So let us indulge ourselves in some comparisons. The visual of the pitch at Old Trafford, where Manchester United clinched the EPL title in May is exactly the same as that of a pitch diagram in a football manual. Why then does the other Old Trafford have a collage of logos on its turf? In America, where the amorous coupling between sports and corporate marketing has reached its pinnacle, not an inch of the playing area of a baseball field has been rented out to corporate insignias. There is no painted Pepsi logo on the turf in an NFL game, nor a hint of a Nike swoosh on the hardwood floor at NBA games. These professional leagues are not non-profit organisations, but they have been resistant to the lure of this real-estate market.

Cricket, not satiated with just the turf, ventured on to player equipment and the apparatus of the game, lining them up for the slaughter. Bats, stumps and sightscreens have already fallen prey. The bails have escaped, lacking in size, and so has the ball, messages painted on which risk erosion. The pads await their fate now. Why not emulate Major League Baseball here, with no graphic other than the team and league logos being permitted anywhere on the players or their equipment? Speaking of player uniforms, has anyone enumerated the number of corporate insignias plastered on this time around in the IPL? Players at post-match interviews have begun to resemble Formula-One drivers all of a sudden.

All of this does add up. The cumulative effect of every one of these invasions can jeopardise our enjoyment of the sport. As the boundary ropes creep in, tightening around the playing area's neck, and as live telecasts get scrunched up on your television by two swathes resembling billboards at the top and bottom, the question to ask ourselves is not whether each of these intrusions can be justified as necessary or as necessary evils. We should be asking ourselves why cricket, of all major spectator sports, is hurtling at such an unprecedented and unfettered pace towards a climactic crescendo of corporate cacophony. And ponder why its visual and aural cadence is being subsumed by a disconcerting claustrophobia so rapidly and with no opposition.

We have all been complicit in this. Our collective apathy in the face of the relentless interference in cricket's cadence is singular and unparalleled. A tsk tsk here, a snicker there, a sanctimonious outburst periodically, but we move on. Que sera sera begets déjà vu every time. I, for one, have begun to savour a sense of morbid schadenfreude at our own suffering of every shrieked-out "Citi Moment of Success" and "DLF Maximum". Surely we deserve nothing less.

Or is all of this evidence of a tacit admittance by us that we have no choice other than to mutely accept the meddling, and more importantly peddling, that has rapidly reduced the signal-to-noise ratio in cricket's cadence? Have the hucksters on the managing bodies represented by the ICC and its associated member boards, with their core values of spinelessness, chicanery and greed, rendered us impotent observers of this ever-evolving encroachment into the spectator experience? Their diligence in seizing every moment has had a rapaciousness to it that would have brought a flush of embarrassment onto Walt Whitman's cheeks.

Periodically newspapers bring us images of the Twelve Complacent Men of the Indelibly Complicit Council, sequestered in plush and comfortable meeting rooms in Dubai and London. They then emerge and render their latest judgments and opinions on the state of cricket. But the sport has no reason to rejoice that justice has been served. For there is no discernible evidence that there is anyone with the principles or the fortitude of a Henry Fonda on this jury.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yogesh on July 30, 2009, 23:08 GMT

    Though you have mentioned many valid points, the greatest bane of commercialisation is pitches being made to last the distance. This has contributed to some of the boring draws the game doesn't need.

  • Brian on July 29, 2009, 20:40 GMT

    People are totally missing the point Sriram is making. As he says, America is the pinnacle of the "amorous coupling between sports and corporate marketing" - there is no dispute there. His issue is the speed with cricket has caught up and broken new ground so rapidly. Look at the two photographs in the article. No North American professional sport allows this at this point. And to the person who said Formula-One uniforms being similar to cricket's now says that cricket is no worse for it, I rest my case. Great points Sriram. Kudos.

  • Sridhar on July 29, 2009, 20:03 GMT

    I agree with Dayanand. The coverage of the IPL is easily the worst. bakkab has also made the valid point about coverage being always confined to the 'back of the bowler' end. I get far more pleasure listening to the BBC Test Match Special than watching the action on the telly in India.

  • Aniket on July 29, 2009, 15:23 GMT

    I totally agree with Mr. Dayanand here. And I believe most of the people who have commented and are objecting seem to have overlooked the main point of the issue. The problem isn't the fact that advertising has changed cricket. Everybody agrees that cricket telecasts these days are a lot better than the 60s or 70s and that in general, cricket has gained a lot from advertising. But there is a definite need to draw the line somewhere. Because now with the strategy breaks, DLF maximums and constant appearance of logos all over the screen, we have really gone too far. And though its true that the BCCI is trying to sell a product, it is equally true that by encouraging such rampant advertising they are undermining the value of their own product. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before we kill the golden goose that is cricket broadcasting and then wonder where we went wrong.

  • Roshanth on July 29, 2009, 11:14 GMT

    Absolutely super article. It is very frustrating when these unwanted ads come up when you are listening to an interesting commentary or something exciting is shown. One way of promoting a sport is obviously by giving the audience a chance to experience it to the maximum. My fingers would point directly at the Indians - they are the culprits and do not value the sport but the commercials. It's like watching a bit of cricket in-between commercials. Set Max is one of the wort channels in this regard. May be ICC & the respective cricket boards should have a clause in the agreements with regard to commercials. I am sure that they can cover the same amount of revenue by having less adverts - may be a flat rate than a per insert rate.

  • Seventy Two on July 29, 2009, 7:19 GMT

    Advertising in cricket is not inherently evil. In fact it provides money not only for the offices of the ICC mentioned in the article but more importantly for the domestic, district and junior competitons that not only provide millions with a chance to play the game but is needed to sustain the game at the top level. I do agree that shoving a mat on the grass and calling every six a DLF Maximum is taking it too far but what else is taking it too far is to say that ad breaks are wrong. As long as it doesn't stop us watching the game the advertising should stay.

  • Suda on July 29, 2009, 6:46 GMT

    I completely disagree with Mr Dayanand.

    I started watching cricket in real earnest around the mid 1970's and developed an abiding passion for the game around the early 80's.

    Cricket broadcast as it was in those days was boring to say the least because barring a few very good commentators who could bring the match alive the visual experience was not very enthralling. In fact there was a time when the TV would be on for the sake of watching but muted so that I could enjoy radio commentary.

    But come the early to mid 1980's and the Aussies changed the paradigm of cricket telecasting and then the game has grown and flourished in most markets. Today the game is in reasonably good shape thanks to the sponsorship monies that are coming in.

    Yes there is nothing more irritating than getting the first and the last ball of the over lopped off or to have 100 distractions on the field when all you want to do is to watch the game, but I guess one has to take the good with the bad and move on?

  • Ravi Kumar on July 29, 2009, 6:07 GMT

    The tragedy is that while we cricket fans - including the likes of Sriram Dayanand - have the right to enjoy cricket as it is shown, with or without ads, with or without Citi Moments of Success, the likes of Cricinfo, presumably a website dedicated to enjoying and celebrating the sport, likes us to believe that our enjoyment of the cricket in IPL is somehow inferior to their pompous dislike of its commercialism. Who cares for the commercials - I don't and I watched the IPL, nor do a lot of others who watched and enjoyed it. Such articles are rubbish, because I suspect they are intended to force us to remember the IPL - but not for the beauty with which Kumble removed Gilchrist with off the fourth ball of the final, or with the latter's battering of Delhi in the semis or with the exciting arrival of Manish Pandey - but with an incessant rant singularly directed at the money in the sport. Get off your high horse and spare us this incessant moaning, please!

  • srinivasa on July 29, 2009, 4:55 GMT

    without sponsors there is going to be no tv coverage.. pls get over this holier than thou and the "everything was good before the wheel was invented" attitude.

  • Chris on July 28, 2009, 23:27 GMT

    As every day passes and cricket fans around the world have the opportunity to trade their thoughts on the development of the game via the world wide web its becoming more and more apparent that each region has is own unique perspecticve on how the game is and should be developed, played and governed. As cricket fans I think we should try and respect each regions view of this a bit more than what we currently do via forums such as cricket info. That said Mr Dayanand has given more insight into how Indians see the game developing. The huge push for T20 and comparisons to American sport continue to worry purists of the game. What it appears Mr Dayanand is highlighting here is that the commercialisation of the game is now starting to have a negative influence for the viewer. The questions should be asked then, is this due to the American influence and T20's influence? Further he discuss' the ICC lack of transparency, a theme more and more cricket fans also agree with. Nice article Sir.

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