Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni's cry of anguish that the sloppiness of the television production house robbed his team of a certain victory over the West Indies has let the cat out of the bag: Interests of television far outstrips that of any other stakeholder, including that of the game itself.
The T20 match in Florida, which India desperately needed to win, and thus draw the series, was not started on schedule as the production house had issues with satellite uplinking. Although the weather was ideal for cricket, the umpires, along with the match referee, did not allow the match to start until the telecast set-up was primed to go. This led to a terrible waste of excellent weather, a fact only magnified by late morning rains aborting the match and thereby India’s chance to draw the series.
For some time now, it has been obvious that the conduct of international cricket has revolved around the needs of television, in appreciation of the fact that the medium was bringing in mega bucks into the game. Consequently, all three forms of cricket were tinkered to ensure that the interests of television were protected.
In Tests, television's biggest heartburn was that some matches were finishing within three and four days. Channels which had pumped in huge sums of money to bag rights to telecast Test series, especially the ones involving India and marquee series like the Ashes, were thus taking a beating.
To overcome this, host cricket boards opted to prepare pitches that would last five days. The game's administrators also wielded the stick, threatening to blacklist any venue that provided "dangerous" pitches. The attendant financial losses would have been so huge that they prudently agreed to play ball.
Thus, pitches worldwide became more batsmen friendly and this is borne out by the fact that of the 43 all-time batsmen who have an average of above 50 in Tests, a whopping 20 — close to 50 per cent — are modern-day cricketers whose careers ran into the new millennium.
Australia's Adam Voges, who made his debut in 2015 and has played 18 Tests thus far, has a stunning average of 72.75, second only to the peerless Don Bradman. The list of 20 does not include legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Allan Border, Greg Chappell, Javed Miandad and others who quit international cricket before 2000.
Their's was the era when Australian pitches were usually pacy, bouncy and a handful for batsmen; West Indian pitches were two-paced, two-bounce fiends; Indian pitches more often than not crumbling tracks tailor-made for home team spinners; and England's pitches were ideal for swing and seam bowling.
However, by the start of the new millennium, most pitches were uniformly beaten flat in a manner that the Test would go into the fifth day. Pitch covers were mandated to be taken off as early as 7 am to ensure that any help to seamers would be minimal and only at the start of play. Spinners too were blunted to the extent that they could not get purchase on the first two days of a Test.
All these ensured that a number of batsmen made hay right through the first decade of 2000. They enhanced their reputation to a great extent, but escaped the tag of "good-wicket" bullies. It was only subsequently that England selectively provided green tops or Australia chose pacy, even wide-cracked strips for some series. India too provided rank turners only occasionally when they encountered a must-win situation to boost their standing.
The bottomline though was not about exaggerated batting averages, records and reputations, but Tests lasting for more than four days and consequently providing huge monetary rewards for television networks.
Likewise, ODIs also saw a sea change, in an effort to cater to television's interests. Pitches were made high-scoring flat tracks. Two new balls, one from each end minimised reverse swing opportunities. Additionally, field restrictions were also altered to suit batsmen. Only four fielders were permitted outside the inner circle till the start of the 41st over. This completely neutered spinners and allowed batsmen to have a field day.
In the process, channels promptly earned more opportunities to telecast advertisements.
Simultaneously, T20, a cash cow if cricket ever had one, was treated like putty for television. It was pulled, pushed, squeezed and swatted to suit the interests of television. This included twiddling with match timings, not to mention strategic breaks and other gimmicks.
So while Dhoni might fret and fume with righteous indignation that the rules of the game permitted a match to be delayed only owing to rain, bad light or unsuitable playing surfaces, "match delayed owing to satellite uplinking" or some such television-motivated issue is a reality that cricketers and fans would have to live with.