On some days, television delivers a feast of live cricket from sunrise to post dinner, action starting early morning in New Zealand and finishing late night in South Africa. The carpet coverage serves an interesting mix of formats, Tests to T20s, and the passionate viewer is spoilt for choice deciding which channel to watch.
If the cricket is different, so is its presentation and packaging. Broadcasters customise commentary to give viewers what they want. For those who swear by Tests, the pace of commentary is unhurried. During Tests, commentators have time to chat, discuss. There is space to be entertaining, flippant, funny; there is scope for banter and serious discussion. Such freedom is sadly absent when the game shrinks to 50, then to 20 overs. If batsmen are under pressure to get going from ball one, commentators also face this pressure. When cricket is boring, unfolding from a pre-determined script, it’s not easy to keep inventing words to describe shots that are similar. When every third ball disappears over the boundary (some of them mishits), it’s tough to be creative. In T20, bowlers and commentators run out of ideas because cricket is one-dimensional. Commentary, caught up in this rush, ends up echoing the frenzy.
But commentary has a purpose beyond describing action and conveying the flavour of the on-field contest. The viewer wants information and the broadcaster wants engaged viewers. With media rights fetching big money (`60 crore for every India game) the commentators play a role in retaining eyeballs. The game of TV coverage is about capturing action and audience. Nowhere is this game played as cleverly as in India. Broadly, commentary is at two levels, both targeted at a specific audience. On one hand is the vast non-English regional audience; Indian cricket connects with them in a language that is chatty.
Research shows this overwhelming majority comprises young fans and women who love cricket for its drama but give analysis a miss. The Hindi audience outstrips all others by some distance. In contrast, English coverage is more theoretical and occasionally, annoyingly, technical. It is meant for the evolved followers. Technical jargon is thrown around with talk about wrist and seam position and revs on the ball. One distinct feature of Indian commentary is excess. Pre-match shows start hours before the game, and the post-match wrap can last longer than it takes to bowl 20 overs.
Compared to this non stop chatter in India, England follows the ‘less is more’ principle. There, images are allowed to speak and commentators step in only to enhance the visuals. Nasser Hussain is a fine example of someone who offers interesting information, sharp insight and opinion.
With advancing technology the objective is achieved without a word being said. Cricket coverage is regularly upgraded with better camera work, new angles, miked-up players, spidercams and, now, even drones.
Increased role of on-screen graphics has also changed viewer experience. Indian fans have a great thirst for statistics, and broadcasters feed viewers with a constant supply of data. Cricket commentary must cede space to camera technology and data analytics, and uphold the time-tested principle that a visual is more powerful than the spoken word.