Published in Cricinfo Magazine, July 2009
Distance abetted by obscurity can sometimes be a gift. Residing in Toronto, Canada, I am blessed with cricket coverage that should make viewers worldwide salivate in envy: I watch cricket free of commercials.
Three channels stream cricket matches live to my screen in the form of the raw feed, which elsewhere gets fortified with packages of commercials ad nauseam. The chasm between what I am fortunate to view and what others do is stark. Certainly I might happen upon a flash of advertising during an innings break or at the fall of a wicket, but typically, the natural interruptions of the game – between overs or during drinks breaks – are filled with a panoramic view of the playing area accompanied by the sounds at the stadium, simulating the audio-visual experience of sitting in your own seat in the arena. This is when the rest of the world is peddled a plethora of products in slick advertisement packages.
This year’s edition of the IPL, though, breached my security cover. Armed with the security of a telecast bereft of product pitches towards my face and ears, I had settled in to enjoy the spectacle, but it wasn’t long before I realised that commercial free isn’t really commercial free anymore. The geniuses at the IPL had ensured that the DLF Maximums and Citi Moments of Success that had made their appearance last year were now adhered to with supreme diligence by the commentators. Even the breathless bellowings of Ravi Shastri and the serpentine verbal meanderings of Ramiz Raja were broken up by the mandated chanting of the sponsors’ names repeatedly, and especially during tense moments in the game. The organic raw feed turned out to be processed after all.
Cricket is unlike football, the continuity of which makes sure the live telecast is not intruded on by commercials. Cricket with its inherent rhythm of stops and starts permits the unobtrusive injection of marketing nuggets into the gaps. But the efficacy and feverishness with which these gaps have been filled are akin to the diligence of a concerned denizen furiously plugging holes in a leaking dyke, lest the game seep out.
As a captain plots with his star bowler, tension or deviousness writ large on their faces, at the beginning of an over, one leans forward imagining and relishing what could ensue, but does anyone actually remember the last time we savoured this tête-à-tête? Our fervent hope these days is that nothing of any significance occurs on the first delivery of any over, given the frequency with which the trailing end of an extra commercial blots it out. Neil Postman, in his seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death, premised that “the form excludes the content”, and cricket telecasts appear to be on a twisted mission to validate that statement in a literal sense.
The spectator experience in any sport has a cadence to it. It is a cadence elucidated by the rhythm of the game’s language, its rules, its playing conditions, and the visuals and sounds at the venue. One relies on this cadence to be the background music for the story about to unfold. You tap your feet to its drumbeat as you revel in the spectacle in front of us. It is the thumping heartbeat, the sharp inhalations and expulsions of breath, the humming under the breath, the shuffle of the feet and also the laughter and sighs of any healthy sport.
A laissez-faire attitude has been cricket’s de facto reaction to every intrusion into its cadence. No spectator sport has endured this much interference this rapidly and this invasively in recent times. Authorities and controlling bodies expect a free hand with which to chisel away unabashedly at the edifices of the sport. Sometimes this chiselling comes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as was evidenced by the brazen insertion of the “strategy break” this year in the IPL. Do we need a more illustrative example of commercial interests marring the flow of what was already a compressed version of the sport?
Visuals have a cadence too, and here cricket has over-achieved and broken new ground. Business-development gurus have morphed into real-estate agents with their sale of areas of turf to the highest bidder. What started off as the odd Hero Honda logo between the stumps and the sightscreens has spread like weeds, and now even regions square of the wicket are carpeted. Often one loses sight of a fielder sprinting across the field as he disappears into the multi-coloured underbrush only to emerge behind a speeding ball suddenly. This is sometimes pushed to extraordinary extremes, like during a South Africa-Pakistan game in 2007. A spray-paint job defeated by dry weather and dead grass didn’t deter authorities from tacking on, literally, a huge rug emblazoned with a logo, onto the turf. When a hapless Makhaya Ntini tripped over its protruding edges and stumbled, ending up with grazed skin and bloodied elbows, the most extreme reaction it elicited was a mild admonition on the air. The rug stayed, of course.
With the dawn of a professional league in cricket modelled after the ones in other sports, it is common these days for administrators and fans alike to reel off potential collations (“I can see the IPL surpassing the English Premier League in years to come.” – Lalit Modi). So let us indulge ourselves in some comparisons. The visual of the pitch at Old Trafford, where Manchester United clinched the EPL title in May is exactly the same as that of a pitch diagram in a football manual. Why then does the other Old Trafford have a collage of logos on its turf? In America, where the amorous coupling between sports and corporate marketing has reached its pinnacle, not an inch of the playing area of a baseball field has been rented out to corporate insignias. There is no painted Pepsi logo on the turf in an NFL game, nor a hint of a Nike swoosh on the hardwood floor at NBA games. These professional leagues are not non-profit organisations, but they have been resistant to the lure of this real-estate market.
Cricket, not satiated with just the turf, ventured on to player equipment and the apparatus of the game, lining them up for the slaughter. Bats, stumps and sightscreens have already fallen prey. The bails have escaped, lacking in size, and so has the ball, messages painted on which risk erosion. The pads await their fate now. Why not emulate Major League Baseball here, with no graphic other than the team and league logos being permitted anywhere on the players or their equipment? Speaking of player uniforms, has anyone enumerated the number of corporate insignias plastered on this time around in the IPL? Players at post-match interviews have begun to resemble Formula-One drivers all of a sudden.
All of this does add up. The cumulative effect of every one of these invasions can jeopardise our enjoyment of the sport. As the boundary ropes creep in, tightening around the playing area’s neck, and as live telecasts get scrunched up on your television by two swathes resembling billboards at the top and bottom, the question to ask ourselves is not whether each of these intrusions can be justified as necessary or as necessary evils. We should be asking ourselves why cricket, of all major spectator sports, is hurtling at such an unprecedented and unfettered pace towards a climactic crescendo of corporate cacophony. And ponder why its visual and aural cadence is being subsumed by a disconcerting claustrophobia so rapidly and with no opposition.
We have all been complicit in this. Our collective apathy in the face of the relentless interference in cricket’s cadence is singular and unparalleled. A tsk tsk here, a snicker there, a sanctimonious outburst periodically, but we move on. Que sera sera begets déjà vu every time. I, for one, have begun to savour a sense of morbid schadenfreude at our own suffering of every shrieked-out “Citi Moment of Success” and “DLF Maximum”. Surely we deserve nothing less.
Or is all of this evidence of a tacit admittance by us that we have no choice other than to mutely accept the meddling, and more importantly peddling, that has rapidly reduced the signal-to-noise ratio in cricket’s cadence? Have the hucksters on the managing bodies represented by the ICC and its associated member boards, with their core values of spinelessness, chicanery and greed, rendered us impotent observers of this ever-evolving encroachment into the spectator experience? Their diligence in seizing every moment has had a rapaciousness to it that would have brought a flush of embarrassment onto Walt Whitman’s cheeks.
Periodically newspapers bring us images of the Twelve Complacent Men of the Indelibly Complicit Council, sequestered in plush and comfortable meeting rooms in Dubai and London. They then emerge and render their latest judgments and opinions on the state of cricket. But the sport has no reason to rejoice that justice has been served. For there is no discernible evidence that there is anyone with the principles or the fortitude of a Henry Fonda on this jury.