It’s a small, round thing that pops up just behind the stumps, and it’s making big news today: the stump microphone.
Within about a week, it facilitated in getting two big-name cricketers banned, one for a racist comment and the other for a homophobic slur.
A little background on the stump mics first.
They were introduced in the late 1970s by Kerry Packer, the owner of Channel 9 that covered cricket in Australia. To Packer we must hold eternal gratitude, by the way. He jazzed up the sport by introducing night cricket, coloured clothing, etc, thereby making the game an attractive product to sell in a competitive market. Among his many out-of-the-box ideas were the stump mics.
The purpose was to get the fans closer to the action through sound. Visually, the big-lens cameras had already done it. We could now see even beads of sweat on a fast bowlers’ forehead. Packer wanted fans to hear the sounds of the game, the rustle of the bowler’s feet as he delivered the ball at 90 mph, for example.
Three decades later, stump mics have also become an important tool in the Decision Review System to help the umpires make the correct call.
With Test cricket’s waning viewership, it came as no surprise to me that some cheeky television channels found another use for those little things behind the stumps. To spice up the coverage, they put its volume up just to catch what the players were saying.
Packer wanted to enhance the action on the field. But this had nothing to do with action. All this was after the action had ceased. This was about catching some gossip on the field.
I was thinking, these are mostly 20-year-olds, picked only for their cricketing talent, not for their general view of the world or their articulation skills. They are in the midst of a high-intensity contest, pumped up with adrenaline. Now, along with their gestures, every word they utter will be beamed uncensored to the world.
With ICC, cricket’s supreme governing body, allowing free and unlimited use of stump mics, it became a godsend for these TV channels.
(To read Aakash Chopra's views on the stump mic topic, click here)
Within weeks of this relaxation, we had the host broadcaster in Australia taking this concept to the next level. They actually asked the commentators to shut up for one whole over! Just so that everyone could listen in to what the players were saying on the field in between deliveries.
Players, meanwhile, weren’t quite sure where the redrawn lines were. They learnt it the way after blundering badly.
Now here’s my point, and mistake me not, Sarfraz Ahmed and Shannon Gabriel’s remarks cannot be condoned and they were rightly instantly penalised by the ICC. But, players being players, isn’t it also the concern of cricket boards and TV channels as custodians of the game to take responsibility of the kind of content they offer viewers?
Why else is the odd curse on a freewheeling chat show bleeped out when it’s played out to the public? Sky television in UK started the practice of quickly taking the camera away if a player was using some profanity on the field that you could lip-read. They were being respectful and conscious of what their viewers were watching in what is essentially a family TV show.
Yes, players must be responsible as public figures. They must know what’s right and what has zero tolerance in today’s world. And in a way they do. When there is a microphone in front of them, they are very cautious about what they say, isn’t it? Unless of course you are Hardik Pandya.
The open cricket field with thousands watching is a public place. But it was still in many ways a private space for the players, where they could chat freely. Also, there is a certain kind of language that’s spoken on the field.
Imran Khan would have been half the captain he was, if the stump mics were constantly up during his time. He could not have possibly got his players to raise their game by saying, “Mr Qadir, could you please concentrate better and not misfield like that?” Imran knew some of his players understood only a certain kind of language.
Increased use of stump mics has nothing to do with enhancing the action like Packer meant it to be. Its intentions aren’t noble as far as I am concerned. But the fans love it. So it will stay on for a while, I guess.
Yes, it’s fun listening to Dhoni behind the stumps, and the Rishabh Pant-Tim Paine healthy banter definitely added to the entertainment. But for every Dhoni and Pant sidelight, there has also been a Gabriel and Sarfraz kind of fallout.
I see two outcomes from this latest development. One, players will become ultra-careful and just go mute on the field, while some, in trying to be too smart, would cross the dreaded line. It’s not just racist or homophobic slurs that people are offended by.
By opening up the stump mics the cricketing world has opened a can of worms.
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