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Ads have made modern cricket a richer, more innovative game. They have also made it unwatchable on television

Devangshu Datta
COLUMNIST

Illustration: Saurabh Deb

LIKE MOST committed atheists, I am used to defining the absence of an attribute in terms of something else I do not do: “Being an atheist is like not having a popular hobby — I don’t watch television either.” The absence of television in my life seems to cause more bafflement than the absence of faith. Delhi houses many atheists. But I am apparently the only Rajdhani resident who doesn’t watch any television.

My indifference to the boob tube initially arose from the lack of nipples thereof. There wasn’t enough nudity to compensate for hours of mind-numbingly boring programming. The indifference turned to active antipathy as I was inundated by bad ads.

Since any programme I have to catch is usually available online, either live or archived, and can be streamed off normal broadband, I’ve long since ceased to have a television connection. The last time I watched television at home was in 2007, during the Twenty20 World Cup. It was the only way to see it live.

Most sports is now available live on the web, usually with far less advertising than on the equivalent television channels. I’ve ‘websurfed’ the last football World Cup, innumerable club matches, tennis, chess, poker, the Olympics, etc. Cricket, unfortunately, remains a bastion of ad-overload. It is tough to get live feed, stripped of ads, though I would cheerfully pay a premium for it. The compromise is to track live scores on the web, keep an eye on Cricinfo commentary and catch the visuals later if it’s a good game.

The World Cup. Should I install a television tuner and IPTV? That will mean suffering through endless iterations of the same inanities being looped, often with one ball per over being cut off by the ads.

There are certainly ways to get clean, raw, zero-ad feed. But those hacks are either outright illegal, or skating on thin ice, so I won’t go into details. It’s a difficult world for a law-abiding, ad-hating, sports-loving citizen!

It’s bizarre to think how toxic the advertising really has become, and how much it has vitiated what would otherwise be a great viewing pleasure. To put it in perspective, I’ve happily risked sunstroke, dehydration, hypothermia, police brutality and mob violence to watch sports live, but I find it near-impossible to sit through commercials in the comfort of my drawing room. During the average ODI, you will see the same ads aired 100-odd times in succession. Even full frontal nudity or an SRT straight drive would pall, given that sort of repetition.

Telly watchers develop ‘make-and-break’ concentration circuits. They can switch their attention off the instant an ad starts. I’ve never learnt to do that. I cannot help but watch the ads and suffer through them. Or flip channels and suffer through a different set of ads.

Yet, one cannot deny the utility of advertising. This revenue model has driven a tsunami of cricket innovation in the past 25 years. The cash has created and sustained different formats, and the new formats have driven technical innovation across the board — in batting, bowling, fielding, sledging, umpiring and, above all perhaps, in captaincy methods and mindsets.

 

Modern cricket is a much richer game than its ancestor and not just in terms of money. The average 21st century cricket team has a much broader arsenal of skills than the best squads of yesteryear. No modern cricketer, apart from the uniquely-gifted Chris Martin, is a one-trick pony. Most tailenders know how to bat and most batsmen can turn their arms over. Everyone, including Martin, can field.

The batting lexicon has been enriched by reverse sweeps, paddles, scoops, forehand crosscourts, uppercuts and inside-out/outside-in driving. Prior to 1990, the last major batting innovation came in the 1890s when Ranji leg-glanced. Modern bowlers routinely vary length, pace, bowl doosras, carromballs, reverse swing, and maintain pinpoint accuracy while doing all of the above. The last big bowling innovation prior to reverse swing was the googly, circa 1900. Ground fielding and outfield catching have hit new dimensions of excellence. The art of field placing has become much more of a science. Captains have learnt to be flexible and to switch tactics mid-over and to implement plans to counter each rival squad member.

The game has always been graced by great players and thinking, aggressive skippers. There have always been free spirits who experimented with technique. The 21st century cricketer is no more intrinsically talented than his or her forebears; the difference is that the modern game has turned erstwhile innovation into standard practice. If something new works, the best methods of doing it are now worked out quickly and implemented by a large number of practitioners. For example, in 1990, there were perhaps four chaps in the world who could bowl reverse swing — now just about everybody can, with varying degrees of skill.

I have risked sunstroke, dehydration and police brutality to watch sports live, but I find it impossible to sit through commercials in my drawing room

The crowd-sourcing and standardisation of innovation has meant an increase in the overall quality of play. Certainly, talented cricketers of past eras could have learnt to do all the things modern cricketers do. But they had little incentive to learn.

I love Test cricket and I’ve been watching it since the early 1970s (1972-73, Tony Lewis versus Ajit Wadekar, India won 2-1). But as the above should indicate, I’m more than fond of ODIs and Twenty20 and what they’ve brought to the game.

The short formats are richer in tactical content than Test cricket (though they have less strategic content due to the absence of the draw option). Every ball is critical in Twenty20; every over counts in an ODI. The compulsion to get on with it has driven players to find new ways to do things.

INDIRECTLY, THE short formats are also responsible for creating more aggressive, result-oriented mindsets in Test cricket itself. You cannot play for a draw in limited overs; ergo you stop trying to play for draws in Tests. Hence, more decisions. It’s no accident that some of the tightest Test series ever have been played in the past 15-20 years. (Higher decision rates in Test cricket have also undoubtedly been helped by the necessity to bowl 15 overs per hour — no more of the 12 per hour crawls that Clive Lloyd popularised.)

All this has been driven by ad revenues and there’s no denying that. I’ll watch the World Cup anyway and if need be, hold my nose and watch the associated ads as well. But is one obliged to love the smell of urea just because a flowering tree owes its fragrance to the manure fertilising it?

devangshu@yahoo.com

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