The mad world of television production

The bundles of thick cables by Gate 7 at Green Park were a dead giveaway. They ran into a room filled with black boxes containing equipment that is more widely travelled than the Indian team. This was where Trans World International (TWI) had set up a studio; pictures from here are uplinked and then broadcast to over 100 countries.

A producer there took me under his wing, and into the room where images are cut, replays rewound, statistics culled, and the sound on the stump-mike amplified after close decisions. "How long do you think this took to set up?" he asked, sweeping his arm around the room. "Five-and-a-half hours, including testing." The room was packed with equipment and the floor littered with wires. Then, over speakers set up across the room, a voice announced: "We are back on air." It was the director, hunched forward in his chair before a wall of monitors covering every conceivable angle on the field. There were feeds from the stump camera, the ones placed on either side for run-outs, and even one focused on the commentators, who picked up the cue immediately. "The partnership [between Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Kaif] is 67 off 102 balls," came Rameez Raja's voice over the speakers on resumption.

When the tour ends, the men and women with TWI, the production company assigned by the Indian board to produce this series, will have been at it for 45 successive days. For the cricket fan, the tour involves three Tests and six one-dayers. For the people producing the series, even the days in between count. Planes need to be hired - "Don't even ask about the cost of one of those," said the producer - bureaucratic local associations need to be dealt with, visas need to be acquired. All of this needs to be done in an instant, as had happened this time around because the BCCI awarded production rights only three days before the series began. Even in the high-pressure atmosphere of live production, this was some task. "We asked the guys to remain on standby in case we received the rights," the producer said. His work was helped by the timing of the series, because there were no other sports events at this part of the year. This meant that the cameramen and technicians were all free to cover the cricket.

This team has 45 members, 12 of whom are on the cameras. Most are hired hands, in one country one day, a continent away the next. But some are regulars. Like the statistician, who doesn't need to be BCCI-approved. In fact, once the rights are awarded to the lowest bidder, the cricket board does not play much of a role, barring the selection of commentators. While this could be seen as a progressive step, the local cricket bodies then take it upon themselves to improve or degrade situations. "I don't want to come back here ever again," a crew member said, referring to the facilities at Kanpur. "The lights went out yesterday. The night before an international match! In comparison, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Jamshedpur were television-friendly. Here, we have to pay for the fans, the tables, even the drinking water." What about food? He laughed.

Dilemmas are avoided by a reconnaissance team. They arrived in Kanpur three days before the game to figure out what was needed, which holes needed to be plugged, what exactly the ground allowed them to do. This job requires patience, luck, and a spot of divine backing.

Once the stage is set, the task is exacting. The drinks break was met with a surge towards the loo, and between innings the crew had 15 minutes for lunch. Between overs they hovered above their consoles, and stepped into action when the countdown before the next over began. It is a task that requires absolute concentration, for when things run smoothly, only the bumps are remembered. "We could have a great day when everything works out well," the producer sighed, "but if we make one mistake, that's what people will recall."

With live television, mistakes are inevitable. For some time, with the changing appearance of the game, the way it is portrayed has changed too. There are nearly five cuts between balls, giving it the slick appearance of a Hollywood action movie. The scope for mistakes is high as the director announces relentlessly, "Six, take six, ten, take ten ..." to switch cameras rapidly between deliveries. But these mistakes could also be glossed over in the barrage of imagery.

Besides this, there is much to be done on a typical matchday. Wake up at five, be at the ground by six, get everything going, handle the game, pack up by eight or nine, send off the equipment by a specially chartered cargo plane, hit the sack by midnight, and catch a flight at an unearthly hour not long after. The times vary, but the intensity remains the same. Did this not drive them mad, I asked the producer? "You simply get used to it," was his reply.

"What about Delhi? How will you manage that?" I queried.

"We'll manage it somehow."

Producers frequently agree that dealing with cricket coverage in India tends to be chaotic, with unbelievable demands placed on production companies at short notice. But even by the hectic standards of today, the last game of the tour threatens to create the most dire problems. One observer at the Ferozshah Kotla said yesterday that it was far from complete. This, the obsessive security and the placement of President Musharraf's viewing box could all prevent cameras we take for granted from functioning normally. You don't miss a run-out cam until it isn't there, do you?

I left them as Rameez ambled into the studio, looking spiffing in a pink shirt, amid technicians loading boxes and preparing for the next match. Outside were generators in trucks travelling by road to Delhi. These generators, according to one source, had been due in Delhi at 5pm today. There was no reason for it. The Delhi association just wanted them there by five in the evening.

That's what production is like. Mostly maddening, and sometimes quite inexplicable. But you simply get used to it.

Rahul Bhatia is on the staff of Cricinfo.