Your online shopping app. Your barber. Your internet provider. Your dinner menu. Your dog’s dinner menu. Your mobile phone, especially your mobile phone. If you want to indulge in any of these products or services, you are spoilt for choice. From diabetic kibble to phones which still have keypads, you can find almost anything. Which is why, in this era of insatiable consumerism, sports commentary seems a little out of sync with the times.
Sure, commentary has evolved, and now includes voices that cut across both geography and gender, as long as the ex-cricketer box is ticked. T20 cricket has driven much change: the era of the ‘Benaud Pause’ is long gone, replaced by a ‘more the merrier’ formula (and yet, among the excess, the Delhi Daredevils invariably find themselves abbreviated). But there have rarely been jumps in this evolution, and if you are stuck watching cricket being called by a commentary team you don’t want to listen to, you have no choice but to suffer through or switch to mute. It’s the equivalent of going to a supermarket with empty aisles on one side and just one brand of cereal on the other.
The broadcast of this Indian Premier League (IPL) has changed that to a degree. Broadcasters Star Sports have tapped into the potential of the regional commentary market, offering the IPL in six different languages, a count that went up to eight for the final. And on their premium English channel, they offered The Dugout — a program with less advertisement breaks and more in-depth, predictive analysis than regular commentary provided. Considering most Indians are bilingual (trilingual if you count how well we speak cricket), if they don’t like the commentary on one channel, they can switch to another, where a different commentary team with (hopefully) distinct perspectives will compete for their mind-space.
The move reflects a trend seen in cricket worldwide, of providing more options to viewers within the same broadcast. When India toured Australia in January 2016, Cricket Australia partnered with the media company ‘Indian Link’ to provide a Hindi radio-commentary option on their app and website, targeted at the large Indo-Australian community. Alternative commentary options like Test Match Sofa (now Guerilla Cricket) and White Line Wireless have been around for a while, but in the last three years, they have moved decidedly closer to the mainstream.
Dan Norcross, the primary voice of Test Match Sofa, is now employed by the BBC Radio for their cricket coverage, despite never having played international cricket. And earlier this month, Guerilla Cricket became the official radio broadcaster of Ireland’s inaugural Test, marking their first opportunity to broadcast their irreverent opinions from the venue rather than the TV, again with no former cricketer behind the mike.
The target audiences for these commentary outlets are often not the hardcore cricket fan. “We’re a bit different”, says Nigel Walker of Guerilla Cricket. “There’s a bit of drinking on air and we have jingles, so were a bit looser. I think the audience likes that, certainly the Irish administrators we had in seemed to be enjoying themselves.” Norcross believes moves like these would help cricket appeal to a wider audience, something the England Cricket Board (ECB) are currently trying to do through more drastic, complicated means. “We usually get a lot of time spent on the predictive analysis, trying to figure out how the bowler is going to get the batter out and all that. The choice is going to be more geared towards entertainment.”
Both Test Match Sofa and Guerilla Cricket were and are viewed by the establishment with a certain contempt. On the other side of the globe though, New Zealand Cricket (NZC) has proven more liberal and far sighted. With their blessing, the Alternative Commentary Collective (ACC) has been providing digital radio commentary with a team of comedians and radio personalities for New Zealand’s home games.
Instituted after New Zealand crashed to 47 all out in a Test against South Africa in 2013, the move aims at capturing the interest of more fans, who love the game but “weren't necessarily interested in things traditional commentary would cover.
“Not necessarily everyone wants to know how short of a length a delivery needs to be to Brendon McCullum to dismiss him”, said Mark Lane, founder and content director of ACC. “So we brought the more ludicrous angle, a bunch of comedians who would just talk about anything but cricket between ball-by-ball.”
The ACC have the benefit of accreditation, which means they can actually be at the ground to call games. Their popularity led Sky Sports New Zealand, the game’s broadcaster, to add their commentary to the television coverage of the pink-ball Test between Australia and New Zealand earlier this year. By pressing a button on their remote, viewers could switch the audio from the regular commentary team to the ACC. “People are looking for more entertainment, because cricket is a funny game” Lane said.
“The coverage is always dominated by former players as well, where people talk about cricket too much. People don't always want to hear that, especially in a game that can last seven to eight hours or five days.” Norcross labeled the move ‘game-changing, and hoped that Sky in the UK would consider something similar. It is not something that they haven’t tried before. “With internet rights still being fairly cheap, soon even bigger sites like Cricinfo and Cricbuzz will come into the game," he predicted.
While the ground is shifting towards the lighter note in most other countries, in India the shift has been towards “bringing cricket back at the heart of the broadcast”, which is marketing for more analysts with wagon wheels and less cheerleaders doing cartwheels. Norcross is not surprised. “In India you have a more sophisticated cricket watching audience, a captive audience that was frustrated. Here in England, cricket is marginal. That’s why broadcasters are moving towards entertainment, thinking all the time about how to make cricket more appealing.”
Also, Star’s decision to bring in an active international coach, New Zealand’s Mike Hesson, as well as WT20-winning captain Darren Sammy, who is a regular on the T20 league circuit, could set an important trend. Although The Dugout did not completely purge ‘banter’ between ex-cricketers from our living rooms, it might mark the beginning of the end for the excessively-ex cricketer. T20 is a system in a high state of flux, with the most direct experience concentrated within the playing and coaching group.
In such a situation, current players and coaches who are immediately involved in the game might be able to provide more insight than ex-players who hung up their boots before the format was introduced. “The game is evolving so quickly”, Hesson told Firstpost. “We all love the insights of older players and players who are experienced at playing the game, but the game changes so quickly, it’s good to have people that are at the forefront of the modern game. I think is critical to the broadcast of T20. All those things will add to the product.”
Product is the key word. With costs associated with buying sports packages on DTH only set to increase, it’s only fair that the viewers get a panoply of options, and other networks are sure to catch up. Having gotten a taste of what the Indian end of the spectrum looks like, Hesson was keen to see a point where the market demands more analytical commentary in New Zealand as well. “I think NZC have looked outside the square and this (ACC) has come upon them. Chuck something like The Dugout in there, and you’ve covered all your bases.”
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan
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