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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sachin on February 23, 2012, 18:30 GMT

    Great article, extremely thought-provoking issue! I think profit-motives will always be there no matter what it is that we're talking about, people work for profit/income so they're driven by what their customers want so ultimtely it comes down to the customers (cricket-fans in this case) to question themselves whether they want what they're buying, so the fans also need to realize that the more they cling on to their heroes & focus less on the team's performance, the more such backdoor-decisions become likely so at the end of the day, it's upto the customers since they're the kings of the market

  • ian on February 23, 2012, 11:40 GMT

    @Gizza. From everything I have gathered it does appear that Tendulkar on his own has as many fans as the game of cricket itself in India - & he is rightly highly regarded in all cricketing countries. Apart from his impressive batting (when he was truly world class) I am most impressed by his unassuming nature; it must be very difficult for him to live a normal life at home. It would be good to think that he will give something back to the game that has rewarded him so richly. Even so, I have the distinct impression that he is currently enslaved by those who have a vested interest in his reaching this media-driven manufactured record of 100x100 that is virtually meaningless to anyone who is a serious follower of the game. The hero is the slave - how ironic! WG, Jack Hobbs & the Don never had to put up with all the commercial pressure that SRT has loaded upon him, despite the fact that they were all massive national heroes. PS I hope I live to see Rahul Dravid as President of the BCCI!

  • Aditya on February 23, 2012, 10:59 GMT

    Fair points, Rob. There is something however I don't understand. How can the BCCI be blamed for Test championship not happening? What do the other test playing nations do in the ICC? It's not like India has a veto in the ICC like England and Australia used to have. Surely they don't think that BCCI can harm the pockets of other boards without harming its own? Or is it that they can't get a well paying contract with ESPN for the test championship? So does that mean all the other boards are also equally greedy about it, while conveniently insinuating that BCCI is the one responsible? England and Australia (and they alone) have been playing 7 match ODI series post-Ashes for a long time. And again it's these boards playing 7 match ODI series with India. How is BCCI alone responsible for milking that cow? A lot of such insinuations serve to reduce many debates to simple BCCI-bashing, which the non-Indian media is happy to exploit.

  • shaan on February 23, 2012, 9:27 GMT

    and if this happens, the team names will b like this-- TEAM BBC, TEAM AAJTAK, TEAM ESS,TEAM CNN, TEAM ALJAZEERA , NEO XI etc etc

  • shaan on February 23, 2012, 9:18 GMT

    this will never happen......

  • Dummy4 on February 23, 2012, 7:35 GMT

    Why do articles such as these end up with such limited viewer interest and opinion, whilst a match could yield up to 200 plus comments. People don't have anything to say? If spectators are merely interested in the sole outcome of a match, the number of runs they score, the team winning or the wickets taken. There is indeed no point in this article. It's the match that matters. I believe spectators are that disconnected with the sport.

  • Roo on February 23, 2012, 6:50 GMT

    @Rob Steen :- "How soon before broadcasters have a say in selection?"... I should have stated the obvious in my first post... Remember Mr Packer who owned all the top players in the world back in the 1970's & created his own world series cricket?... He changed the face of cricket & how it is run... He also got cricketers onto decent salaries & away from their paltry labourer wages...

  • Girik on February 23, 2012, 0:54 GMT

    @Nutcutlet, Indian cricket will reach a very interesting point in time when Tendulkar finally retires from all international cricket and the level below that for every form (first-class, IPL, etc.). The truth is that many "cricket fans" in India are just fans of one person. When he goes the ratings and crowd attendances will plunge. Having said that out of the 1.2 billion Indians many of them are genuine cricket fans. Cricket did exist before 1989 (Tedulkar's debut) in India and it won't die just when on bloke leaves. It may however become more confined to the traditional centres such as Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta instead of the smaller towns. Also I think Tendulkar along with the other superstars may be pressured to still be involved in the game, either through coaching, commentary or umpiring.

  • Valerio on February 23, 2012, 0:41 GMT

    Excellent article Rob. I think the ridiculously flat pitches we have seen over the last decade have been due to the influence of TV. Both because TV/commercial interests want matches to last as long as possible and because they want faster scoring rates. It is not much of a sport when the knowledgeable fan knows that conditions have been set as such. These one day matches of 250 plus scores for each side are terrible. The boredom of these matches resonates from the commentators to the players to the fans. People still watch because they love the sport and also because they are addicted. It is ok to have some high scoring games, but the sport needs variability. Cricket is soaked in commercial imperatives. There is hardly a discussion of the game that does not involve commerce. There is no doubt that international sides are now selected with commercial interests at the forefront. There is no better example of this than Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, even Shewag on this tour.

  • Mark on February 22, 2012, 22:08 GMT

    7 match ODI series? Oh my days please stop the tedium .

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