Category Archives: Commentary

Solving Cricket’s Commentary Problem

Harsha Bhogle has written a characteristically perceptive piece on what we can do now to improve cricket commentary. The most radical suggestion is to offer viewers the “no-commentary” option; that is, just enjoy the visuals and graphics without an annoying man injecting his interpretation (or, more typically, silly anecdotes) into your ears. Here are some general thoughts:

1) I am not a fan of the Indian commentary team (except Bhogle, of course), but I will always leave the commentary on when I watch a cricket game. I don’t know why this is; I think we’ve been conditioned to have both sound and sight together (and by ‘we,’ I mean kids born in the 1980s era, not you old radio-only fogies). Do other people feel this way? Would you prefer no-commentary to insipid commentary?

2) Bhogle argues that cricket viewers deserve more choice, since they are, ultimately, the consumers funding the whole enterprise. So if some, like Jarrod Kimber, want nerdy cricket talk, they should be able to get it; and if others want Danny Morrison, they should deserve to die in hell. (My words, not Bhogle’s.) This is part of the overall drive to customization that the Internet has unleashed (the “Daily Me,” as it’s known), and it’s good in that it seemingly empowers particular niche preferences, but it’s bad in that it does, in a sense, fracture the community. Didn’t we all once upon a time fall in love with Richie Benaud and hold his voice as the standard to be met? [Some may argue that the universal Benaud-love was hardly so, and instead catered to a particularly powerful community -- old white guys -- who had the power and now don't.]

3) Bhogle seems to think that because the visuals have gotten better (technology wise), the sounds should inevitably follow. That’s not quite right. There are plenty of professions that suffer from Baumol’s cost disease — the famous example is that it takes just as much time and effort for a quartet to play a Beethoven piece now as it did in the 18th century. No, one of the great attractions of commentary is that it is indelibly human. Commentators, as we know, make mistakes; they say annoying things; they go off on useless tangents, and they are also, quite often, insightful. Cricket telecasts have become increasingly artificial — the graphics, the silly 3D replications of a bowler, Hawkeye…Why not resist the perfectionist drive of technology and retain the flaws of the commentator?

Cricket Commentary’s Math Problem

M.S. Dhoni has been giving some pretty interesting interviews lately, a nice contrast to his usual, “Well, of course, [insert useless, inoffensive, cricket player talk here].” I particularly liked this note about his future plans:

“I can’t become a television commentator. I would not be able to remember all those statistics and will have problems in matters relating to techniques,” he added.

Two points: 1) Why has commentary become so obsessed with statistics? There is this idea that all these numbers will yield some insight into what players are trying to do (i.e., their strategy), but there’s plenty of nonsense stuff — like wagon wheels. Has anyone looked at a wagon wheel and discerned any insight? Unless you come across a rare innings in which a batsman has decided he will absolutely not score anything on one side, wagon wheels just don’t tell you all that much. I’m also relatively neutral about pitch bowling maps: yes, on several occasions, they will show a bowler’s erratic ways, but most of the time, they show bowlers hitting the “good” or “full” lengths. Big deal.

I recognize that silly statistics — “Record sixth wicket partnership between two Jharkhand players for India in India against Australia at Rajkot” — are a long and respected part of cricket discourse, but is the emphasis on “analysis” as old? Wasn’t there a time when commentators preferred to deal in narratives, characters, and plots, rather than numbers? Say what you will, but I like Harsha Bhogle; I think he’s still up there with the best commentators precisely because he knows he needs to tell a story. The TestMatchSofa kids are similarly intriguing because they seem to resist the statistical nonsense; they treat their players like villains and heroes — and are more than happy to let us know (in the foulest of language) what they think.

2) It’s impossible not to read Dhoni’s statement about techniques as a pointed critique of commentators’ know-it-all tone. Dhoni seems to be saying, “I have a shit technique, yes, but I am also India’s best ODI batsman and enjoy a more than sufficient Test average.” Certain commentators — Sunil Gavaskar, definitely — act as if they wrote the cricket textbook, and they delight in pointing out players who violate the orthodoxy. Pedantry is terrible, and cricket pedantry is the most terrible.

Teesra Does It Right

I’ve long been a fan of Devanshu Mehta’s blog Deep Backward Point, but I am an ever bigger fan of his side project, Teesra. It started off as a sort of “What if The Onion covered cricket?” but it’s now something more. Devanshu understands that cricket blogs — and blogs in general — are outdated; we prefer tweets, gifs, and images, and in many ways, they are often better in the service of a good argument. For an excellent example, take a look at Devanshu’s post on the Dominica Test match, in which he nicely weaves together statistics, graphics, and text in one compelling narrative.

I’m aware of the irony of using a blog to condemn blogging, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I think there’s a proper place for people like Kartikeya who need thousands of words to diligently analyze a particular issue. And there’s demand for that! But blogging, at least done traditionally, also tends to encourage a top-down relationship between author and the reader. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (I bow down everyday to my Old Batsman shrine), but it’s not taking full advantage of the Internet’s possibilities. Too much of cricket is top-down, and that’s a trend that will likely worsen as more corporate money floods the market. For too long, the reigning image of the cricket fan has involved him/her sitting idly in front of a television screen. But now we too have the power to create our own stories, to remix our sport, and to make it ours. If that means dressing up like a big bear (a la The Two Chucks), or turning Chris Gayle’s power into a series of GIFs, or approaching the ICC cricket rules as a lawyer would, or reaching out to cricket greats and interviewing them for a podcast series, or getting a bunch of friends together to provide your own brand of commentary…then, you’re doing something right and great. This is our generation’s pitch invasion.

So Long, Tony Greig

I know nothing about Tony Greig other than “Oh, he’s smashed that” and “Right, here we go” — and that’s more than enough for me. I first started following cricket during the 1996 World Cup, when I’d say Greig was near the height of his influence (in South Asia, at least). His love for the Sri Lankan team (never-waning, it seems), along with his apparently genuine fondness for all things in the subcontinent, made for a perfect introduction to such a strange sport.

If we are charting storylines, 2011 was supposed to be the height of Indian cricket: two major tours to test the greatest batsmen ever produced. It didn’t work out that way, and 2012 has given way to a more frustrating and unsatisfying narrative of forever goodbyes. Dravid and Laxman have gone, and now, so have Ponting, Hussey and Greig. What’s so distressing — from a completely selfish, narcissistic point of view — is that each retirement (and, in Greig’s case, death) serves as another dreadful reminder that time keeps passing. Greig is gone, and so is that 11-year-old who fell in love with cricket. Yes, Grieg is gone, and when I heard so, I confess a moment passed when I couldn’t imagine the game the same anymore.

I’ve suggested before that cricket is something like a collective ritual, much like a visit to Catholic Mass. The pitch report, the commentary, the rhythm of an innings — we veteran fans know what to expect, and the particularly bright among us know all the patterns. Greig excelled because, at his best, he was both congregant (as delighted and ecstatic as we were) and priest (revealing to his laity the joys to behold). But how will our rituals change once these men leave? How will we?

Harsha Bhogle Is Really Good

The chief attraction of Harsha Bhogle is his outsider nerdiness. As a non-athlete, he stands alone among cricket greats and legends in the studio. In doing so, he gives the cricket fan a vicarious thrill: if he can talk to established cricketers, so can I. By being so inclusive, Bhogle is a creature of the rise of televised cricket, which expanded the boundaries of the cricket world — a very clubby circuit, once upon a time — to include a currently impossibly large cast of characters. And whereas others prefer to talk technique, Bhogle possesses the gift of narrative. See, for e.g., this:

Again, the focus on stories and characters — Rahane, student; Dravid, guru; Rahane at the bottom of the mountain; Dravid at the top; Rahane’s backstory and his slow rise to fame — exemplifies Bhogle’s everyman appeal. More than most, he understands that cricket is a complicated game that often defies analysis. Rather than explain it, he talks about experiencing it; what matters to him chiefly isn’t strategy or the mechanics of swing bowling (though he no doubt understands both), but the humanity behind the spectacle. If you get the chance, watch his Step Out W/ Harsha YouTube series — unlike Mark Nicholas, who often comes across as rehearsed, Bhogle’s earnestness never seems to dim. I’m a fan.

Linear Thinking Watch

This is an old hobby-horse of mine: You can’t assume that a match result would have been different if a particular incident during the match didn’t occur. For example: Rajasthan Royals lost by one run against the Deccan Chargers. In the last over, the umpire didn’t call a wide. Ergo, the Royals owner tweets, if we had that wide (an extra run, an extra ball), we would have won. Not really, as I wrote before:

This logic assumes a linear narrative — that is, batsman is dropped, batsman goes on to score runs, therefore, drop led to defeat. But it’s also entirely possible that different realities are created with each ball.

Who knows what would have happened if that wide was called? The batsman, calmed by an extra ball, may have reacted differently to the next one. The bowler, angry that he had given away an extra at such a crucial point, may have found the inspiration to pull off an in-swinging yorker. It’s silly to focus one missed chance and view it as the “cause” of the loss; if anything, I’d blame the Royals for losing from a position of 15 off 12.

If anyone wants to use this post as an opportunity to teach me about chaos theory, please go ahead. Otherwise, I’ll be hosting a viewing of Sliding Doors later. You’re all invited.

On Virat Kohli’s Anger

Sharda Ugra and Satadru Sen both have very good essays on Virat Kohli’s displays of anger over the Australian tour. Since I’ve long been a supporter of the spirit-of-cricket meme, I too have a problem with players flipping the middle finger at crowds and mouthing sister-fucker as part of a debut century celebration.

But I want to add a cautious dissent: analysts and commentators often offer tributes to hyper-rational players who, possessed of a “cricketing brain,” are able to astutely judge a match situation without allowing it to overwhelm them. What is conjured up is a homo economicus figure straight out of the Enlightenment (and maybe the Victorian era): cool, calm, without emotion.

This model, however, has been under attack in the social sciences, particularly in the field of behavioral economics, for about two or three decades now. We know that the human mind relies extensively on emotions in decision-making and that particular situations often dictate how a brain operates. It’s not that we are all irrational, only that we are predictably irrational in many ways (for e.g., we tend to worry much more about potential losses than we’re happy about potential gains). It’s not a battle between emotion and rationality, but perhaps choosing between the right emotions (anger could lead to a Kohli century, or, as we all know, to the dark side).

Which is all to say that I don’t particularly mind it when players draw upon emotions — in this case, anger — to power their on-field behavior. We’ve seen it time and time again — I wrote about Yuvraj Singh’s anger after being sledged by Andrew Flintoff in the 2007 World Cup, when he hit six sixes off Stuart Broad. There’s also Zaheer Khan, who began his comeback on an England tour after having jellies thrown on the pitch by a mischievous Alistair Cook. I clearly haven’t thought through my take on how emotions work, but I know at least some of the time, they do. So let anger, pride, sorrow, fear work its way into our understanding of cricket.

Lay Off Saeed Ajmal

Here we go again: another South Asian off-spinner takes a few wickets (at the hands of some clueless white men), and the commentators start yapping about his action. Saeed Ajmal gave the performance of his career after a week of breathing fire to anyone who would listen. Matt Prior had the decency to say he couldn’t care less about his action, but here’s Bob Willis:

“The delivery that I have a problem with is the doosra,” Willis said. “The ICC have accommodated this delivery; they changed the rules to allow these bowlers to bend their elbow 15 degrees, which is what makes it so difficult for the batsmen.

“The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox offspinners to bend their elbow to a degree. If they are going to be allowed to do that then England have to address this and decide whether we should be teaching our young spinners to bowl like that as well.”

Let me say this once more: the rules were not changed to accommodate any specific type of player. They were changed because the science showed that it was impossible for the human eye to see any inflexion below 15 degrees. I know that Willis — and many, many others — refuse to accept this tale, but to indulge in silly conspiracy theories makes them sound, well, positively South Asian. If you believe the ICC committee that decided this rule based its decision on something other than science, then show me the evidence.

And here’s some pseudo-science from the Daily Mail, which purports to do what an independent ICC panel didn’t and make the case against Ajmal’s arm. I’m not sure taking a crappy picture and putting an angle on Ajmal’s arm is going to beat the 3D modeling the ICC panel used, but at this point, I’d rather stick with the authorities than a tabloid. The real danger is that these people will do to Ajmal what they did to Murali; that is, it’ll come to the point that even when commentators finally agree about the validity of his action, they’ll still bring it up to say it’s cleared, only serving to reinforce the ambiguity behind the whole affair.

Let’s nip this in the bud, people, and enjoy the prospect of an overseas defeat for England. Let the revenge begin!

Satadru Sen Needs To Calm Down

This is part of (an otherwise great) guest post from Satadru Sen:

When the Indian cricket team returns from Australia in a few weeks, the Customs and Immigration officers at Delhi or Bombay or wherever their plane lands should give the players, along with Duncan Fletcher, a good public beating. Then Srikkanth should be summoned to the airport to receive his own thrashing, for screwing up the bowling attack.

Again, I understand the anger and frustration, but calling for public beatings when those events are all too common in India isn’t necessarily kosher. Recall Dhoni’s house being stoned during the 2007 World Cup? Or the various effigy burnings that usually occur when India does badly?

I was struck recently by how Gautam Gambhir described public criticism of the team. He said: “We have given the opportunity to people back home to give whatever they are giving [us].”  It’s a strange way to construct a sentence, but it belies the siege mentality the Indian cricket team has to adopt. If we do badly, he seems to be saying, we give these people the rope to hang us with.

Sins Of Star Cricket Commentary

If it’s hard for a bowling side to watch batsmen pile on the runs, as the Australians are doing in Sydney right now, it’s even harder for the audience to listen to the commentary. Moments like these are a real challenge for the microphone-wielders: what do you talk about when it’s clear just where the Test match is headed and there are few strategies or tactics to dissect? Here’s what Ian Chappell and Co. tried out:

1) Female streakers. A truly bizarre moment: Chappell sees Michael Clarke hug Ricky Ponting after reaching a double ton. “I’ve never seen the need to hug anyone on a cricket field,” Chappell said, betraying yet another sign that his hyper-masculinity may all be an elaborate attempt to compensate for a secret penchant for cross-dressing. He then qualified his statement, noting he did in fact hug two streakers once. “What gender?” Shastri asked, mischievously. “Female,” came the fast reply (God forbid the other option!). I think Chappell then went on to suggest the women in question were strippers. I’m really not sure.

2) Ian Chappell discusses the other boring Test match. What’s better than discussing the current one-sided Test match unfolding languidly before your eyes? The other boring Test match across the world, namely Sri Lanka receiving a pummeling from Kallis and Co. I can just see Chappell’s producers pleading with him through his ear-piece to talk about the weather, or Sydney tourist attractions instead.

3) Tip Foster. Apparently, there was once a dude who captained England in both football and cricket and did reasonably well in both. He scored 287 on debut in Australia. He also died early from diabetes (at age 36). I know this because one commentator — Dean Jones? — decided he needed to talk about it, and Wasim Akram repeated the exact same thing a moment later.

4) Diabetes is really terrible. Just to follow up on Tip Foster — Wasim Akram issued a public service announcement on how to avoid diabetes. (Hint: it involves not eating biryani every day.)

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