In the year 2020, if it is not on YouTube, did it even happen?
Drifting across the batsman's body, pitching outside leg, and then turning away to beat the outside edge and hit the off stump, the delivery Muttiah Muralitharan bowled to S Ramesh, from around the wicket in Colombo in 2001, should be the stuff of legend. A fair-dinkum contender for the ball-of-the-century title. A mirror image of the ball of the previous century: Shane Warne doing the same to Mike Gatting.
We at ESPNcricinfo are running an internal poll to identify the ball of the 21st century so far. This Murali delivery is on the list of contenders but perhaps it wasn't as well remembered as it should have been. I must confess it didn't make as much of an impression on me back when it was bowled as it ought to have done. I remember more hype in India around the Warne delivery eight years before that; I put that down to the occasion, the commentary, the writing around it. Also, at 18, I had other preoccupations than tripping over a delivery in a one-sided Indian defeat.
It was six years later, working for Cricinfo Magazine, that I took real note of the Murali delivery when we published an issue on cricket's magical moments down the years. Now in 2020, not many at ESPNcricinfo remembered Murali v Ramesh. So to introduce our colleagues of younger vintage to the magic, we had to look for a clip on YouTube. We couldn't find one.
To our rescue came Mainak Sinha, @desi_robelinda on Twitter. His handle - literal translation: "indigenous robelinda" - is a tribute to the original @robelinda, Rob Moody, who runs the biggest cricket video library known to cricket fans on YouTube. Sinha happened to tweet out a clip of that dismissal, but even before all our colleagues could watch it and vote, the tweet was taken down because of copyright claims.
Now there exists for a majority of young cricket fans no proof that Murali bowled to Ramesh on a muggy Colombo afternoon a delivery that in isolation was every bit as good as Warne's ball of the century to Gatting.
Anirudh Kalra, another great YouTube repository of cricket highlights, stands suspended because of copyright infringement. And early on the morning of June 16 this year, Moody received a copyright infringement notice from Cricket Australia, which resulted in a temporary suspension of his YouTube account. It caused a meltdown among cricket fans, Tom Moody and Aaron Finch among them. This wasn't Moody's first tryst with the copyright police either, which is evident from the "2" in his current handles on YouTube and Twitter. Fortunately the CA chairman, Earl Eddings, himself a fan and one of those whom Moody's clips helped get through the tough cricketless days of lockdown, was quick to retract the notice, sent "in error".
It is a win-win for both parties. Moody gets to continue with his passion, his fans continue to love his offerings, and CA gets free publicity for footage shared by Moody but owned by the board. And yet, CA (and for them only Moody) remains an exception to the rule: fans at large can't share cricket clips on their social media because various boards and the ICC don't allow them to.
To be fair, cricket rights are expensive for broadcasters to buy. And broadcast money runs the game, at least as lucratively as it runs right now. It is natural for rights holders to be possessive about clips from recent matches. A little less explicably, and depending on where you look, between them boards, broadcasters and the ICC hold tight to themselves archival footage of older games. None of these parties wants to part with the footage for free, but nor do they have subscription services for people to access that footage. There is hardly a place online where you can watch an old cricket match. Even for a fee. (Free highlights on iplt20.com remain a welcome exception.) This impasse serves nobody.
There is a reason why Moody is so wildly popular - he has more than 700,000 subscribers on YouTube, which is more than many broadcasters do, and more than a tenth of CA, which is the best board at fan engagement online, does. He actually shows cricket at the viewer's convenience. That spreads cricket. For arguably short-sighted - if understandable - reasons, cricket doesn't want to make footage of old cricket available in an unrestricted manner to digitally minded fans, in an age when it can do with the oxygen of publicity.
Once in a while an IPL team might approach rights-holders and pay big money for a 30-second clip, the magic of which their players helped create, but archival footage is not worth a lot otherwise. The IPL still is a hugely popular product, but imagine being county cricket and not allowing your own teams to use clips that could help keep a dying pastime alive - as was the case with county cricket till not long ago.
When a fan uses footage and shares it, the appetite for the live product grows. This is precisely why the NBA actually welcomes the use of its highlights for free.
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"We promote the posting of our highlights," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said two years ago to strategy+business magazine. "The highlights are identified through YouTube's software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogise our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they're still going to want to eat meals - which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings."
Moody and his Indian acolyte, Sinha, don't use official highlights footage but digitise their own old tapes, and they don't make money off the clips by running ads on them either. There are thousands of fans waiting to do wonderful things with the medium if they are allowed to post clips on their YouTube channels and Twitter feeds. Like Moody recently compiling a reel of every time Steve Waugh ran someone out - adding fuel to a one-sided Warne-Waugh spat on Twitter. Or Sinha putting together 27 great close-in catches, across formats, taken by Rahul Dravid. Or an NBA fan putting together each of Steph Curry's three-pointers from each side of the court. Wonderful things that no organisation might be able to do even if they hire professionals, because you can't match the numbers and the free spirits of the fans.
Unlike with piracy of music or books, say, this is largely victimless - if piracy it even is - in that these YouTubers are not denying broadcasters and boards revenue. And if they do choose to monetise their work, it is easy to track, and cricket boards and broadcasters can clamp down on them or claim a share, as the NBA does. If they don't, they still end up hyping the live product. And that, last checked, was the aim of all the boards and broadcasters.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo