December 21, 2009

Let them watch TV

Cricket administrators care little about fans at the grounds because home audiences are seen as priority. In fact the contempt for live viewers is greatest at cricket's big-ticket events

Last month, the generally tranquil links of Kingston Heath were besieged for four days by a noisy occupying army. The reason, of course, was Tiger Woods, who was being paid $3.5 million to come win another $270,000 in the Australian Masters. The result was traffic jams banked up for miles, a heaving throng over which it was barely possible to see anything, and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, many good walks spoiled. Such was the crowding, you could watch Woods only for a hole every so often, and then usually from a distance. Compelled by the decree of deferential tournament organisers to observe the champion's insistence on sepulchral silence, third-round spectators even had to return to Woods the driver he hurled at them out of annoyance at the temerity of a fan taking a photograph. Mind you, Woods did have to put up with a posse of drunks who between holes insisted on referring to him as "Eldred": boys, the name is Eldrick.

This, everyone agreed, was a huge success - for the tournament anyway. For the spectators, those misbegotten souls who put up with the jams and jostling for the privilege of the occasional glimpse of the great man through the crook of someone's elbow, who knew? And, well, who cared? The television ratings were good. The sponsors were happy. When it comes down to it, in fact, the punters were only ever props, part of the scenery, there to make it look exciting for the far-more-important virtual audience. Their satisfaction was as incidental as that of a hooker's after sex: the relationship between the Masters and its crowd was wholly transactional.

Makes you glad to be a cricket fan, eh? No traipsing around in quest of an intermittent peek. No need for don't-blink-too-loud quiet. In fact, it's all rather civilised. But for other reasons, cricket has become dangerously indifferent to the lot of its spectators, to the detriment of the game and its culture, and urgently needs a rethink.

If you contemplate the contexts in which crowds are usually invoked in cricket today, you will find that they are almost uniformly negative. Crowds are deplored when they misbehave, whether they are Indians apeing Andrew Symonds, Australians being investigated for racist epithets hurled at Indians, Englishmen drowning their sorrows and irrigating their occasional celebrations, West Indians over-excitedly overrunning their outfields.

But crowds are also deplored, contrarily, when they are not enthusiastic enough, or fail to materialise. Where, for instance, were West Indians during the 2007 World Cup? Thus, too, the ritual of complaint about the paucity of Test-match crowds. Where were the Indians last year at Punjab CA Stadium when Sachin Tendulkar became Test cricket's highest scorer?

Crowds are deplored when they fail observably to support the home side. Thus the infamous Tebbit Test, articulated by Norman of that ilk in April 1990, when he complained that ethnic minorities in England were failing to assimilate because many were continuing to barrack for their countries of origin.

But crowds can also be deplored when they do support their home side. Thus Peter Roebuck's idée fixe with the crowd at The Oval in 2005, who at the prospect of England regaining the Ashes for the first time in a generation had the audacity to cheer when bad light favoured the draw their team needed, thereby reducing themselves to a "pitiful state of orchestrated nationalism".

Crowds have no association, no lobbyists, no agents, no spin doctors, no ghost writers. Who has protested the scurvy treatment of fans in Kolkata and Johannesburg, deprived of international cricket by ludicrous administrative turf wars?

A team had been invited to play a series of matches only to be subjected to this abject and crass self-glorification. They had come from a country that has fought side by side with its host in four wars. Numerous foreigners had also arrived to support their team. Thousands of children were watching…

Manifestly spectators were more interested in England winning than in watching top-class cricket. They were happy because the interruption meant that their team had a better chance of drawing the match. To that end they were content to spend hours twiddling their thumbs. Anything was better than the possibility of defeat.

Even when cricket was played, the mood of the crowd bordered on the demented. To watch the faces of English supporters in the public stands when an Australian wicket fell was to see a mixture of hatred and hysteria. Not the least shock experienced while sitting amongst spectators was the discovery that the people singing about Andrew Flintoff were not inebriated students but well-heeled 40-year-olds. What the hell are these people doing with their lives? What the hell is happening in this country?

Who knows? Perhaps people were enjoying themselves. Frankly, for what English cricket fans pay to watch Test matches, the security indignities they undergo, the general dilapidation of grounds and the killjoy prohibitions of administrators, they should be allowed to parade in the nude if they so wish. But there's the rub. Crowds, in general, are simply assumed, like sightscreens and drinks breaks, and reported with a similar degree of understanding by journalists high above them in air-conditioned comfort, who haven't had to pay to get in.

Nobody speaks for them: they have no association, no lobbyists, no agents, no spin doctors, no ghost writers. Who has protested the scurvy treatment of fans in Kolkata and Johannesburg, deprived of international cricket by ludicrous administrative turf wars? Where were the thundering denunciations in England when the ECB cancelled a Twenty20 Cup quarter-final 10 minutes before the start because of a dispute about a player's registration, thereby wasting the journeys of 4000 hapless fans? When wronged, fans have no recourse but the withdrawal of their interest - a self-penalisation.

The main reason for this indifference to the spectator's lot, in administrative circles at least, is television. For 20 years and more, cricket has been obsessed with its telegenia - how to improve the experience for viewers, and so to maximise the value of the game as a media property. And as viewers have grown in financial importance, so live spectators have diminished.

Twenty years ago, about a third of Cricket Australia's turnover came from "match revenues" - that is, gate receipts; now it is less than 10%. When CA consented five years ago to the broadcast of international cricket in Australia live against the gate in the host city, it was an act not of caprice but of accumulated indifference. In key economic respects, in fact, the home viewer is greatly preferable to the ticket purchaser: no need for authorities to build expensive infrastructure, to deal with grasping booking agencies, to lay on particular comforts or additional attractions.

The subordination of the game to television priorities has had many perverse outcomes, but one of the strangest is this: where the accent of television coverage of the game used to be about making the viewer feel like he or she was "there", today the opposite is true. Televised cricket, shot from every angle and at every speed, screened in a uniformly pleasing light and reported in a uniformly upbeat voice, bears no resemblance to that viewed by those sitting in the crowd. Yet it, rather than actually being physically present, has come to be regarded as the definitive experience: the emphasis at grounds is now on striving to replicate what the game would be like were you watching at home. There are big screens for replays of every boundary and wicket, and advertisements at every break; there are entertainments in each intermission, so you need never feel unamused or, heaven forbid, reflective; there are radios for sale, so you can listen to the television commentary, and frankly you sometimes need them, the conditions having been made so absurdly complicated in one-day internationals that games can border on the incomprehensible - just ask John Dyson. Are we in the first Powerplay or the second? How many players are allowed outside the circle? Why is there a VB ad on the scoreboard when I want to know how many overs Mitchell Johnson has left? And why does Cricket Australia object so strenuously to the Barmy Army's bugler when it is intent on turning our stadia into discos for the middle-aged with non-stop prog rock from the 1980s?

To be fair, by comparison with most boards of control, CA appears to give half a damn about its country's live fans. It has kept tickets affordable and available; it has gathered data on their expectations via market research; it has striven to maintain consistency of fixturing so that people know basically that there will always be, for instance, a Test on Boxing Day in Melbourne, and a Test around New Year in Sydney. Would other boards give even a tinker's cuss.

The protracted shambles of the last World Cup was a case in point. The organising committees of the WICB prolonged the tournament's proceedings to the point of pain, and pitched admission prices as high as US$120 in the first round and $390 for the final; attendances, mysteriously, were only two-thirds of the claimed ticket sales. The environment was so torpid that, Adam Gilchrist admits in his autobiography, it communicated itself to the players: "The tournament itself didn't seem to be going very well, with high ticket prices blamed for low crowds and a lack of atmosphere. There were perceived to be too many games with too-long breaks between them. It was during one of those long breaks that I dropped to another low, missing Mel [his wife] and the kids so badly I pretty much wanted to go home." It was worse for the fans, as Tony Cozier reported pithily in Wisden:

Strict regulations everywhere…conspired to spoil the usual Caribbean revelry, before public and media pressure prompted officials to relent. No alcoholic drinks could be taken through the gates (a ban defied by Trinidadians who sneaked in their rum in plastic suncream bottles); musical instruments had to be pre-vetted; conch shells - an identifiable sound of West Indian cricket - were disallowed, as they were deemed a potential weapon; and initially no pass-out tickets were issued.

Security was understandably tight, given the safety fears that have haunted all such sporting occasions since the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, not to mention the sponsors' demands for utmost vigilance against ambush marketing. It was also often excessive, even after the furious public reaction when World Cup stewards were pictured frisking police officers at a warm-up match in Barbados.

Indeed, it is in cricket's showcase series that the contempt for fans seems to be at its greatest. Last year in India, for instance, the BCCI held a Test series involving Australia, which they seemed not to care if it was attended at all. Tickets were absurdly difficult to obtain, often requiring a visit to a specific bank branch; in Mohali the crowds consisted of a few intrepid Australians and some uniformed schoolchildren bussed in to take up space; in Nagpur it was necessary to buy a ticket for all five days, for a game at a new venue 12 miles from the centre of town. Perhaps the most egregious recent example of a casual disregard for the paying public, however, was seen at the last Ashes, when the ECB was cajoled by cash into scheduling the first Test at Sophia Gardens, capacity 16,000, so that even fewer people could attend than usual. Not a mile away stood the silent reproach of Cardiff's plush 75,000-seat Millennium Stadium.

In this unspoken shared belief among administrators that somehow it is immaterial if crowds no longer gather, and that only the vast, diffuse, invisible audience of viewers counts, lies the seeds of a grave crisis for cricket. In the most straightforward sense, crowds matter aesthetically, in a way ratings never can. They ratify by their presence an occasion's importance; they dramatise by their passion a game's excitement; they negate by their absence an event's significance. Tendulkar's 12,000th Test run should have been one of the great moments of Indian cricket; it will be remembered instead, as even ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat noted, with dismay and disillusionment.

Those who trouble to attend cricket are also its core constituency; to set aside a day for a Test or a one-day international involves a huge investment of time and money, which deserves proportional return. Yet the members of this core are being treated as political parties sometimes treat their most loyal voters, and listed corporations their most steadfast small shareholders: marginalising and alienating them as they take them for granted - and no party or company has done this long and prospered. On the contrary, commercial organisations dependent on public patronage lavish extraordinary efforts on keeping their most loyal customers, encouraging them to return by loyalty cards, bonus programmes and other incentive systems. Why does cricket, so purportedly savvy in the ways of commerce, care so little? Australian golf might have looked a little ludicrous at the Masters last month with its serpentine queues, star-struck melees and striving for church-like quiet - but at least it was trying.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer