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November 19, 1999


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All's nice about Nine

Harsha Bhogle

For a long time I have been wondering what it is about cricket in Australia that makes it such compelling, even obsessive viewing. Every year around this time, I get up early to watch the Channel Nine telecast. I see the same faces, Ian Chappell still does the toss, Tony Greig is by pitchside and Bill Lawry always describes the first ball. And yet, there is rarely a sense of deja-vu; never have I said 'Ah, I know what he is going to say' and gone on.

Television is a magic medium and in the hands of the Nine Network, it has a magic brush. The secret of creating a successful telecast is to convince the viewer that there is something round the corner all the time. It could be a cricketing event, a great shot or a brilliant catch; or it could be something that the commentator is about to say and this is where Australian cricket and the Nine Network have such a happy marriage.

Nine gives Australian cricket the best commentary team ever assembled. The wisdom of Richie Benaud, the narrative skills of Ian Chappell, the exuberance of Bill Lawry and the spontaneity of Tony Greig. Now, two others have entered the hallowed box and by all accounts, they have a great future there. Ian Healy has a lovely deep voice but it has something more as well; it has a friendly ring to it and on television that is a huge asset. And to listen to Mark Taylor is to realise how much he has worked on making television a new career. Taylor is a man with vast insights into the game but his delivery made listening to his thoughts a little laboured. Now, he is fluent, his words more clearly enunciated than ever before and his arrival means Nine have the three best Australian captains in the box in Benaud, Chappell and Taylor.

You can also sense that there is an additional component to it which goes largely unnoticed. At the heart of every great telecast is a great production team and you can see it at work in the new gadgets they come up with every year; in the innovative camera angles and in the little tidbits that they keep introducing. That is what keeps the telecast fresh and it requires great skill to be able to do that consistently.

But if Nine give Australian cricket a great platform, remember too that the quality of cricket that Australia throws up provides Nine with a gorgeous spectacle to present. The pitches in Australia in the last few years have been outstanding; they have produced wonderful positive cricket and that is great news for a television network. To that, add lovely lush outfields, beautifully maintained stadiums and the sunshine that nature blesses Australia with and you have some very very pretty pictures to shoot.

The Brisbane Test is a wonderful example of the point that I am trying to make. From first day to last, it maintained a consistent high bounce which, from a batsman's point of view meant that he could play shots aware of how the ball was going to come onto bat. From a bowler's point of view, it meant that there was always the chance of getting a batsman with pace and bounce and there was something in it for the spinner as well. As a Test match wicket, it was outstanding and it produced very high quality cricket. The speed of run-making was a touch abnormal but you can be pretty sure that in the games to follow, you will get a good run-rate. And that is very good for spectators and viewers.

The quality of cricket on display is clearly the main attraction then but it acquires this little halo because of the quality of the colours it is dressed in. The outfields look lush, in fact they look healthy, and you can tell that there has been some love showered on it. The colour of the seats in the background matters as well and the reason all this looks good is because of the quality of the light and the atmosphere.

Being a very low pollution country, visibility is a lot better and it produces sharper pictures. In India because of the dust that our brown outfields produce, the pictures always look a bit hazy. It doesn't help either that pollution levels are higher and especially in the late afternoon it starts settling making it even more difficult for cameras.

Advertising film makers often speak of the quality of light in Australia. They think it is good enough to warrant the extra cost of going there to shoot a 30 second film. That, one of them once told me, is the real reason the telecast from there looks so stunning. I would like to believe there is a little more to it but it certainly helps.

On day four of the Brisbane Test, with Pakistan trying hard to come back into the match, I saw something else that I loved; something that we sadly see very little of. Saeed Anwar, by a long distance Pakistan's best batsman now, had been dropped on 4 and on 12, Shane Warne appeared to take a clean catch. But almost immediately, he drew a little rectangle at the on-field umpire suggesting that he wasn't sure he had taken it cleanly. Tony Greig was quickly off the mark saying he wasn't sure Warne could ask for a replay but I was very interested in hearing what Healy had to say. "Warne couldn't tell," Healy said, because with low catches, the slip fielder is never sure. When the fingers go underneath and the fielder is falling over, he cannot see whether it has come straight in or has bounced in front.

There are two ways of reacting to such a situation. Either you can claim a catch and leave it to the umpire's judgement or you can admit, if asked, that you are not sure yourself. The second is the more noble option and Warne took it. Anwar scored a brilliant century but it didn't seem to matter to anyone on the field. Indeed, it didn't even surprise anyone because in recent years, the Australians have made this a habit.

Mark Taylor was very clear about it and I wonder if his attitude has rubbed off on the others. Taylor was a very fair man and if he comes to occupy a place in cricket's hall of fame, it will be as much for the manner in which he played cricket as for the number of runs he made.

There was a time when we were growing up when we were told that the English were the fairest of cricketers while the Australians didn't care too much about it. It is amazing how such things can turn around within a lifetime. It is especially pertinent now that England have a captain who has quite a history of not caring too much about these little gestures.

In India, sadly, we are entering an era where young cricketers appeal for just about everything and don't seem to worry too much if the ball bounced before it came to them. The example of people like Mohammad Azharuddin and Gundappa Vishwanath, who always admitted to a bump ball, has got lost somewhere and that is why it is important that more young men see what Warne did.

So if Australia is fast acquiring a reputation for fair play (though West Indians will be very quick to remind everyone of Steve Waugh's bump catch in the West Indies a few years ago), why is it that they continue to sledge at the opposition? It is an aspect of the game I have never understood and it was therefore extremely disheartening to read an interview with Chris Cairns recently where he called it 'gamesmanship'.

He suggested that it was part of the game and that if television companies did not want to set a bad example before aspiring cricketers, it was upto them not to show it.

Cairns is a very good cricketer and very realistic about his abilities but it is a disappointing statement to make. Maybe the Nash epidemic is catching but as the New Zealanders leave India, I hope they leave the dignity of their captain Stephen Fleming behind rather than the extremely forgettable behaviour of their fast bowler.

Maybe it was great practice for India's cricketers. They are going to hear a fair amount of chatter in Australia. India's viewers though are going to be in for a fantastic viewing spectacle.

Harsha Bhogle

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