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August 5, 1998


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Big brother is watching you

Harsha Bhogle

Editor's note: This article, written over a year ago, is the first of three pieces from Harsha's archives, being reproduced here. All three are written from the perspective of a television professional, and touch, either directly or tangentially, on the increasingly upfront role television plays in the cricketing arena.

For all its ability to delight and to amaze, it is not very often that cricket throws up statistics that cause you to hold your breath and swallow air. A great cover drive can do that quite often , but an unbelievable set of numbers? Only rarely.

In the last couple of years, it has only happened to me thrice. First, when Sanath Jayasuriya broke the record for the fastest hundred in the one-day game by a mind-blowing fourteen balls. And just when you thought he had done the equivalent of Bob Beamon’s “leap to infinity” , Shahid Afridi sliced another eleven balls off that record.

There was a third statistic too, comparable to the impact these two human roller coasters have had. It is an unlikely number, because you won’t find it in record books.

India’s World Cup quarter final against Pakistan was the country’s highest rated television show in 1996!

Six months later, India played Pakistan in a country halfway round the globe and on a ground that could seat a mere five thousand. But ESPN paid a record amount for the rights and were very happy with the viewership figures. That the Sahara Cup was a success (in the sense that it more than just met its objectives) was conclusive evidence that cricket was now a television sport.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone. Over the last fifteen years, the quality of cricket telecasts has improved every year. Sadly, that is not quite true of spectator amenities. At home, you can have a drink, have a sandwich and discover the joy of a clean toilet (experienced spectators tell me that a toilet is about as easy to find at a cricket ground as an eskimo; and even that eskimo can’t find a clean toilet!). And the only person who’ll ever frisk you is your little son, who is searching for the remote control to switch to his favourite cartoon network.

Now even the ICC have recognised the great cricketing value of a good telecast. It has suddenly become an organisation on the move, influenced strongly as it is by Australia and South Africa, the prime movers for induction of superior technology into the game. A couple of weeks ago, they enhanced the role of the television replay and left no one in doubt about the fact that they want to use the cameras even more.

The use of the replay in decision-making is a magical innovation, because we now have a million umpires and more. And every time television shows an umpire to be wrong -- and believe me, it is not their objective to make him look silly -- the pilgrims of the game call for greater intervention from the cameras. Now, in a move that has been applauded quite uniformly, the ICC have ruled that close catches can also be referred to the third umpire. You can be sure more umpires will be drawing rectangles in the air now.

The objective, as was the case with run-outs, is a noble one -- to bring greater objectivity and uniformity into decision-making. In doing so, the ICC have also acknowledged the role of the people who produce the pictures that all of us have got so addicted to. But while the new move is great news for batsmen and umpires, it means a tremendous extra responsibility on the television crew.

All along, the role of television was to illustrate; to show the game in as entertaining a manner as possible. Now increasingly, it is taking, or more correctly, having to take, the role of adjudicator. Television has done a fantastic job with run-outs and stumpings but the added job of providing proof of catches will, I believe, affect the way the game is being covered.

Increasingly , television has two masters -- its audience, who want the complete picture with crowds and all the associated drama, and the ICC (and through them the match referees and umpires) who want definitive proof of everything that happens on the ground.

In most situations that should not be a problem but, as Simon Wheeler who directs cricket telecasts for Trans World International (and who pioneered the Spin Vision concept) says, “Every camera that is used at a cricket match is a multi-use camera. It has to follow the ball, provide close-ups, provide crowd shots and play a part in providing a great telecast. A camera cannot be permanently locked on to the action.”

That is a most valid point. If a crack technical crew focussed merely on the cricket, they wouldn’t miss a thing. But it would make the whole telecast look a bit diagnostic. It would take the human element away. Normally the two cameras at the bowler’s end cover most of the action while the corresponding cameras at the other end, who have the batsman’s back to them, are searching for those little children eating ice-cream or for young men chewing fingernails or, increasingly, for smart banners. They provide the atmosphere to the telecast, tell you exactly what is happening in the stadium. They are as important, really, as the cameras that are following the ball.

The India-Australia match at Bangalore during the Titan Cup provides the best illustration of what Simon Wheeler is talking about. The cameras at the bowler’s end caught it all, but between deliveries the other cameras provided the most outstanding display of human emotion you will ever see. Every run that was taken brought forward a brilliant new expression from Anil Kumble’s mother. Suddenly, this wasn’t merely a contest between two teams, it was a mother willing her son on towards victory. It was great television, but it could not have been achieved if every camera had been trained on the ball to see, and more important, to prove, whether a catch was clean.

Slip catches aren’t as easy to prove as run-outs or stumpings. I remember the Edgbaston Test against England when Graeme Hick scooped a catch from Vikram Rathore on the bounce at slip. The BBC, who were providing the pictures didn’t find anything unusual. But on ESPN, we were getting the output from Sky Television who had the option of adding two cameras to the BBC’s output. Their super slow-motion cameras clearly showed the ball bouncing in front of Hick. It didn’t matter too much, because the umpires at that time didn’t have to call for a replay. But in today’s context, it can be very tricky because extra cameras are very expensive. And, as Simon Wheeler says, “an extra mid-wicket camera for example might provide one better angle in two games. But the cost of hiring a camera and a cameraman for an entire tour becomes prohibitive”.

Bat-pad catches are even more difficult to judge, especially when there is a very thin edge and, due to the proximity between bat and pad, very little deviation. Commentators sometimes talk of two sounds, but while that is a very good clue, it cannot always be proof. “ Sound cannot always be conclusive” says Wheeler. “It could be the sound of something hitting the ground, or bat hitting pad. Sometimes the cameras can pick up the deviation but it is a tough one.”

The problem with increasing use of replays is that when an umpire signals for one, he is announcing the fact that he isn’t completely sure. And if the replay is not available, the batsman has necessarily to get the benefit of the doubt. It is entirely possible that, on his own, the umpire would have taken the correct decision.

While a close slip catch would be an obvious candidate for a replay, the seemingly innocuous caught behind may not. And yet, the best umpires can make mistakes with those. I remember two very unusual decisions that umpire David Shepherd gave in Toronto during the third game. Aamer Sohail was given caught down the leg side and Ijaz Ahmad, outside the off stump. In both cases, there was daylight between bat and ball. As a consequence of such events , if umpires start asking for replays for every edge, genuine or otherwise (and you can be sure the pressure on them to do so will be enormous), we will start having much longer hours.

The line will have to be drawn somewhere. Ideally, at a point where television can provide proof without compromising on its primary objective -- which is, to entertain people.

That is why you and I love to watch it. That is why the networks love to show it. And that is why they are willing to contribute to its financial health.

Harsha Bhogle

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