February 22, 2012

How soon before broadcasters have a say in selection?

Television has benefited cricket, but it is a relationship that can get far too cosy for the game's good

For Elton John and Bernie Taupin, "sorry" is the hardest word. For a sporting hero, the assemblage of vowels and consonants that does most to fuel dread is "goodbye". Don't just ask Ricky Ponting. Ask the ghost of George Headley.

For the opening Test against England in 1954, West Indies recalled their erstwhile Atlas at a ripe 44; more than five years had passed since his previous cap. That the venue was Sabina Park, in his native Jamaica, was seized on as incontrovertible evidence that a Caribbean custom had been shamelessly upheld. What better way to boost receipts and rum sales than to ensure a local hero - in this case a walking, talking, living legend - was centre stage?

In fairness, Headley had just made a gritty 53 not out against a powerful MCC attack. "That was enough for me," wrote captain Jeff Stollmeyer, who stated in his autobiography that the return of the so-called "black Bradman" was backed by the selectors. Sir Errol dos Santos, the board president, was merely the highest-ranked dissenter.

Beyond Jamaica, noted Stollmeyer, the selection "was greeted with cries of 'cricket politics'… especially after he failed with the bat". (In mitigation, as Stollmeyer duly pointed out, Headley's cheap second-innings dismissal was hastened by Tony Lock's "faster" ball, one the victim claimed he never saw and which would be no-balled by more than one umpire in subsequent weeks.) In his history of West Indies cricket, even Michael Manley observed - somewhat gently, of the fellow Jamaican he had seen plunder 270 off an MCC attack as a ten-year-old and whom he hailed as "black excellence personified in a white world and a white sport" - that it was "a perhaps nostalgic gesture". One can only guess at the depth of disapproval in Wisden: instead of bidding adieu with due reverence, the good book makes no mention of Headley in either its match report or tour summary.

This unhappy footnote to Headley's inspirational career sprang to mind a week or so back in the wake of a tweet by Tony Greig. Bridling at India's decision to rest Sachin Tendulkar in the Commonwealth Bank ODI series, he proposed that Channel 9, his employer, demand a refund - an intriguing possibility. Headley's return to colours may have been just one example of a hometown selection - a temptation particularly easy to succumb to in the Caribbean, where inter-island rivalry courses so deep - but, naïve as it may sound, the idea of a cricketer being chosen to appease or please a broadcaster had honestly never occurred to me. As a lifelong conspiracy theorist, the shame was profound.

Yet the more the thought nagged, the more sense it made - and the dafter I felt. Why wouldn't broadcasters seek to influence selection, especially now that rotation policies, the upshot of a suffocating fixture list, for which they are at least half-responsible, are here to stay? The more eyes glued to the goggle box, the happier broadcasters, and the advertisers and sponsors, are. If that means having a discreet word about the final XI with a captain, coach or chairman, why wouldn't you chance your arm? After all, more movies and plays reach screen and stage because an A-lister owes the producer a favour than because a D-lister was born to play the lead.

The scene is scarcely difficult to envisage:

Producer: "Julian, old bean, I need a solid."

Board chairman: "A solid? What, like a lump of gold?"

Producer: "No, you sweet boy, a favour."

Board chairman: "Oh. Sorry for being so unhip."

Producer: "Fugeddaboutit. Thing is, the advertisers are on my back after those three-day Tests and I need to keep them sweet, so would you mind awfully making sure Davies passes that fitness test and plays today?"

Board chairman: "But the skipper wants to try out this nifty young Glamorgan left-hander. He's averaging 135 in his last six games and our coach reckons he could be the next Hutton."

Producer: "Hutton, schmutton. Look, Julian, darling, I don't want to get all, y'know, heavy on your bottom, but contract negotiations begin next June. You wouldn't want us to reduce our offer, would you?"

To date, the most infamous episode of this ilk occurred hours before the 1998 FIFA World Cup final in Paris, when Ronaldo, Brazil's totemic striker, suffered a seizure. One team-mate remembered him "foaming at the mouth"; the hotel director heard fellow guests wailing, "He's dead, he's dead." Omitted from the starting line-up, then unaccountably restored, he laboured listlessly as France won at a canter.

Not unnaturally, conspiracy theories abounded, prompting an inquiry by the Brazilian parliament: had Nike, to whose marketing campaign Ronaldo was so integral, pressured him, via the national football association, into playing? That it got that far, attested congressman Aldo Rebelo, demonstrated that Nike's contract with the governing body violated "sovereignty, autonomy and national identity". Unsurprisingly, given the colossal sums at stake, Ronaldo and the footwear giant both emerged smelling of Chanel No. 5, but the stench of ethical flexibility retains its potency.

In India Today earlier this month, apropos Messrs Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, Shantanu Guha Ray touched on this treacherous terrain from another angle: "Retaining all three is not mere sentiment. [The BCCI] knows television viewers tune in to watch familiar faces." The logical extension of this, conversely, is that the resting of Tendulkar bathes the BCCI in a favourable, even courageous, light (ditto Australia's dropping of Ponting). Indeed, if we weren't talking about the BCCI, one would be sorely tempted to use the p-word - principled. Besides, it would take a highly fertile imagination to imagine Tendulkar being rested for the IPL.

"THE SURVIVAL OF CRICKET depends on how it shapes its relationship with broadcasting." Thus did Jack Williams conclude his thorough-going study Cricket and Broadcasting, published last year. A highly respected academic, exaggeration is not among his vices.

Without television, most of us would never have seen a fraction of the goose-pimpling innings and spells and finishes we cherish. Without television we'd be denied all those wondrous/monstrous YouTube clips. Without television we wouldn't be able to talk cricket with anything remotely redolent of knowledge, much less conviction

That relationship may be too cosy by far, on several counts, but only a visually impaired curmudgeon could fail to see the wider benefits. How many games that might otherwise have been delayed or drowned have proceeded purely because cameras were present? While this is by no means always welcome - most notably when conditions are unsuitable overhead or underfoot, or favour one side - it does not seem unreasonable to argue that this aspect has, overall, been a boon. No sport, after all, is so partial to putting its feet up.

Without television, most of us would never have seen a fraction of the goose-pimpling innings and spells and finishes we cherish. Without television we'd be denied all those wondrous/monstrous YouTube clips. Without television we wouldn't be able to talk cricket with anything remotely redolent of knowledge, much less conviction. Without television Richie Benaud would be a common or garden Test captain-turned-hack, David Lloyd an amusing after-dinner speaker, and Bill Lawry a noted pigeon-fancier. And without television, of course, there would be no DRS - which, no matter how fervent a disbeliever you are, can surely be hailed for unskewing the balance between bat and ball.

But there must be a line; a line that must never, ever, be crossed. Trouble is, if it does exist, it is so faint as to be undetectable. How else can we explain the stupefying surfeit of ODIs? How else can we explain the seam-bursting Future Tours Programme, that occasion-neutering lust for quantity over quality? Between January 2013 and February 2016, to cite the most glaring example of foot-blasting lunacy, India are scheduled to play seven-match ODI series against England, South Africa and Australia - the last twice. At the heart of it all, beyond mere greed, lies a sad if forgivable lack of confidence in the product(s), in cricket's capacity to hang on to imaginations and pockets, much less capture those of future generations.

So how Faustian is this pact? Soon enough, the sparring will resume, at stake the ICC's next deal with ESPN STAR (or AN Other Inc). Midway through 2011, word leaked out that the broadcaster wasn't terribly keen on a World Test Championship - which carries no guarantee of Indian involvement - and would rather the chaps in Dubai stuck to the original plans for the Champions Trophy. Sure enough, the first proper test of Testmanship will now not be with us until 2017, at best. Does anyone seriously doubt the ease with which tail is now wagging dog?

In December, however, the backdrop shifted when the BCCI terminated its contract with Nimbus for falling behind on payments. For the first time in two decades, contended Kunal Pradhan in the Economic Times, questions are being raised about "the viability and future of India's cricket economy". Overkill, begetting empty seats and channel-flippers, is part of the problem. Ditto "reality" shows, increasingly seen as a more reliable magnet for the masses. Motor racing and golf, moreover, are said to be challenging cricket's hegemony in reaching those juicy niche markets. Had the BCCI driven up costs, wondered Pradhan, "pushing broadcasters to a point where there is no wriggle room; where any factor, from a struggling global economy to a dull series, can render the telecast of matches unprofitable?"

Then came the bust-up with Sahara: a lesson, dare we hope, in humility and reality. As it is, the sound of bubbles popping is close to deafening. And even if it isn't happening already, how much longer before broadcasters start demanding their pound of flesh and meddling in selection?

Faust, one suspects, would have been proud.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton