ESPNcricinfo recently turned 20. I've been a user for all of those 20 years. It's been a long relationship, one made more tangible by my blogging here for the last five years. Through that time, the site has served as my central internet obsession: for as long as it has existed, in whatever shape and form, I've used it. Because I remember its birth and growing pains, I've even come to feel slightly proprietary about it, as if I had something do with its provenance. Like any long-term relationship it has had its fraught moments, when I thought we would have to part ways, but somehow we've endured. And hopefully will continue to do so.
In the beginning, there were Usenet newsgroups, spaces for online discussion, where cricket scores were occasionally posted (these included soc.culture.indian and soc.culture.british). Scores were reliant on phone calls from back "home" (wherever that happened to be), friends paying visits, and most exotically, newspaper clippings. A loyal friend in London sent me news - by letter - of Narendra Hirwani's debut, and yet another friend, arriving in the US for his first year of graduate school, told me a "new Gavaskar" was set to make his debut at the age of 16 against Pakistan. A little while later, after a cricket newsgroup, rec.sport.cricket, had been started, cricket news on the net became more accessible. More importantly, a space had been created where cricket fans could talk to each other, form alliances, and plan on how to make cricket news, views and scores available to all those who cared.
India's 1990 tour of England and 1991-92 tour of Australia were the first series I was able to follow while living in the US. For the latter, cricket fans were treated to the precursor of ESPNcricinfo's current ball-by-ball commentary: Robert Elz, an Australian computer scientist, who had made (or would make) significant contributions to the Linux kernel, typed up descriptions of each ball of play and posted them to the cricket newsgroup.
I was then working at Bell Laboratories, and would arrive at work not knowing how the day's play had gone. I would grab a cup of coffee, head to my office, type in "rn rec.sport.cricket" and get to reading Elz's "commentary". It worked like a tape-delay broadcast. I would read the commentary from the beginning of the day's play to the end, groaning each time I came to a "OUT" for an Indian wicket (and cheering for an Australian one), and conversely revelling in, and mourning for, runs scored in similar fashion. This was how I experienced Tendulkar's 114; I "read" the innings.
A couple of years later, as excellently described by Vishal Misra and Rohan Chandran, thanks to Internet Relay Chat, dougie the scoring software, and the Gopher interface, we had the rudimentary beginnings of Cricinfo. To say that the change for the cricket fan was revolutionary would be an understatement. We were now connected to the game, no matter where it was being played; we had live scores, we had live commentary.
Cricinfo became a home away from home. I spent endless hours on IRC, talking to other fans. I checked Cricinfo whenever I connected to the net. I conducted an interview with Aamer Sohail once; I took questions on IRC, typed them in, and a young Pakistani in Lahore read them out to Sohail, and then typed in his answers. Everyone, it seemed, did his little bit, and the whole thing came together and worked.
ESPNcricinfo's evolution is of a piece with the rest of the net: it worked because everyone shared, openly and freely, and gave of their precious time; it worked because the love of the game brought people together and made them give of their best. Its story is like that of the best software on the net - it was "free" and "shareable".
As we fans watched, it grew in sophistication and size; it acquired features we had not thought possible. From being a simple repository of scores, it became the internet's largest single-sport site, featuring statistics, match reports, and all of the other bells and whistles that the modern fan now takes for granted.
As Cricinfo grew, as its original developers and founders moved on to newer responsibilities and commitments, some of its older users were alarmed: would the site stay true to its fledgling roots or would it, like so many other entities in the world around us, become yet another vehicle for corporate pablum? There were changes in ownership, the most notable being Wisden and then, finally, ESPN. I was not optimistic, and said as much in my blogging then. A little later, I grew suspicious of what seemed to me to be ESPNcricinfo's England-centric coverage; I dashed off a couple of irate emails and got into testy exchanges with Andrew Miller and Martin Williamson (links here and here). The primary sentiment that underwrote these spats was a worry that the old Cricinfo, my "home" on the Internet for so long, the symbol of everything that was possible on the net when cricket fans could come together, would become yet another bastion of the traditional cricket world with its Anglocentric county-cricket-and-Ashes obsession.
But I was also beginning to notice that ESPNcricinfo paid attention to cricket everywhere, that it had expanded its coverage dramatically, and even if it seemed to have missed the boat on live video streaming, was still the place I turned to for cricket news and writing.
As Cricinfo grew, as its original developers and founders moved on to newer responsibilities and commitments, some of its older users were alarmed: would the site stay true to its fledgling roots?
And it had started to feature blogs as well. When I was invited to start blogging for ESPNcricinfo in 2008, I accepted. I finally had a chance to contribute to it after using it for so long. It was the least I could do. More to the point, I figured that there was no point complaining about the Anglocentric nature of cricket coverage; the best thing to do was write on topics that I felt deserved coverage as well.
Five years and some 175 posts later, I'm still here. ESPNcricinfo is still my home on the net: it's one of the half-dozen sites I open in tabs every morning when I sit down with my morning cuppa. Over the years it has served as a connection to a game that is by now much more than a game for so many of its fans; for a diasporic Indian like me its significance is even greater. Indeed, I feel strange connecting to ESPNcricinfo when I am in a cricket-playing country like India or Australia, given how much I have associated it with a passage to another realm, away from my current station in the US.
ESPNcricinfo, besides serving to make cricket accessible, still has an important role to play in world cricket because, quite simply, it shows what fans can do for the game. In Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, I wrote:
As the history of ESPNcricinfo makes abundantly clear, dedicated fans can do a great deal to make access to the game possible. The devotion, dedication and labour of the internet pioneers who set up the services that have turned that fledgling enterprise into the world's largest single-sport website is truly awe-inspiring. Before its commercialisation - and its starting to provide employment to many cricket fans - it was entirely fan- and volunteer-run. But such fans are not in charge of the game and neither are they treated as partners. Instead, the BCCI has a hostile relationship with ESPNcricinfo, viewing it as a pesky gadfly rather than as a lifeline and resource for cricket fans the world over, often doing more to popularise and market the "product" than the BCCI or the ICC.
The prestigious media partners of the national boards and the ICC often do not bother to cover the remote corners of the cricketing world. But ESPNcricinfo does so diligently. Ball-by-ball text commentary is available, as I write, for Test cricket, English county cricket (both divisions), the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the Sri Lanka A tour of England, the ICC Under-19 World Cup qualifying tournament, and the Sri Lanka Inter-Provincial Twenty20 tournament. These unglamorous corners of the cricket world need the spotlight shone on them as well if cricket is to flourish.
The unpleasant spat between the BCCI and ESPNcricinfo in the IPL's opening season, when the site was denied media access to all games, was a reminder of the skewed, ahistorical, fan-unfriendly approach of the IPL council. If the game, as opposed to the balance sheet and the desire to maximise revenues, was paramount, then a friendly relationship with ESPNcricinfo might have been deemed important by the IPL. But that would have required some knowledge of the game's history, and that, sadly, has been lacking in many levels of management of the game.
I made sure, in Brave New Pitch, to include a disclaimer noting that I was a paid blogger at ESPNcricinfo, but I still stand by what I wrote above. The site's history is adequate testimony to what is possible when fans become involved with the game. Those who run the game would do well to pay attention to its history and bring the same passion to their administration.