Cricket Commentary – An Art or A Marketing Gig

By Rijul Nadkarni ( Railways BG )

“He’s danced down the track and smacked him for six over long on. Whatyaa playa whatyaa wonderful playaa “. Just this quote is enough for cricket followers to know which player danced down the track and who was smashed over long on and of course who the commentator was. If you didn’t, just google “desert storm Sharjah 1998”. The power of cricket commentary has touched all of us at some point. While these days we tend to watch matches in mute, there were days when cricket watching wouldn’t have been complete without commentary. Even today many old timers remember the 1983 world cup by the commentary on radio. It was a time when action could not be made visual to a large part. It had to be described to the viewers who expected the same level of excitement as watching it live on ground. Compare this with other sports. Almost all other games must be viewed to be enjoyed. In this regard, cricket was uniquely tailor made for broadcasting. Despite limited reach (just 10 countries in the cricket world cup vs 32 teams in soccer world cup), cricket’s revenues are immense. It helps that the entire subcontinent with over a billion people are hooked on to this game passionately. Now to be able to reach all of these people, broadcasting becomes an important part of the game. However, its recent slide in the style and substance has robbed viewers of much of its appeal.

Cricket broadcasting began in Australia in 1928 with the introduction of an independent commercial broadcasting system. By 1932, a national government-owned radio network – which we now know as the ABC – delivered live nationwide broadcasts of Test matches for the massively popular, but controversial Bodyline Series against England in the summer of 1932-33.

Cricket broadcasts generated large radio audiences. During the 1946-47 home Ashes series against England, nearly 30% of households with radios tuned into Test match broadcasts: a figure which exceeded the audiences for peak time programmes like Dad and Dave, a popular commercial radio serial.

The introduction of television to Australia in 1956 changed everything, but not necessarily for the better. The ABC continued to be the home of cricket broadcasting, and by the 1960s controlled both radio and television broadcasts.

As it turned out, not only did television come to dominate cricket broadcasting after the 1970s, but the ABC’s influence over the game fell away with the takeover of the game by Kerry Packer’s Nine Network. While the ABC lost the TV rights, its radio broadcasts continue to attract sizable audiences.

Commentary in 1980s and 1990s was a good blend with the poise of Richie Benaud , Bill Lawry , Michael Holding & Ian Chappell , the extravagance of Tony Greig , Ravi Shastri and Geoffrey Boycott and near perfection of the legendary Harsha Bhogle.

From 2000-2002 , the ‘Few Good Men’ commentary team that included Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, Alan Wilkins , Geoff Boycott , Navjot Singh Sidhu and Ian Chappell covered different series for ESPN around the world  .

Ashes Cricket has always had the best roaster of Cricket commentators. I remember following the in famous 2005 Ashes very closely and of course along with the quality of cricket on show, the cricket commentary was of the highest standard. The manner in which the commentary team presented those fiery spells from Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison was an absolute treat. Richie Benaud , an absolute stalwart in Cricket broadcasting ,  called an end to his illustrious career in cricket commentary with Glenn McGrath claiming Kevin Pietersen’s wicket .

Given its illustrious history, cricketing broadcast requires not just verbal command, but also a thorough knowledge of cricketing terms and the articulation prowess to provide that information to the viewer/listener. For instance, a leg break bowler bowling, important information to be provided are: over the wicket or around the wicket, googly or conventional, where is the delivery pitching, line and length and the batsman playing it with/without spin towards which side of the field and finally which fielding position was engaged with the ball.  Another instance is before the start of an over, the commentator could give an account of the field set and give his prediction of the line and length the bowler could bowl. Such insights add to the excitement. With this much information, a viewer/listener would be able to get a complete picture of the action.

Off late, commentators have become unmindful to state these things. Typically being former players, these players engage in describing moments from their playing days and a trip down memory lane. Agreed, all of us would love to hear about their glorious moments of which not too long ago we were also a part of, but the game is the last place, one would expect to hear it. There are separate interviews of these legends, which we thoroughly enjoy watching. So instead of displaying their cricketing knowledge about the field placements (which few do), many often engage in interviews which is not what we expect to watch. Such engagements get the listeners to make accusations of certain commentators being biased. But if the delivery of commentary became conventional, such accusations would never surface.

Star India / Hotstar who own the broadcasting rights for series involving India and for big ICC Tournaments should opt a similar approach to ESPN ‘Few Good Men’ project from the early 2000s.  Cricket broadcasters while signing the bumper broadcasting contracts should also put in more effort in choosing the commentary roaster as commentary has been such a big part of our childhood and it’s not amusing to view matches on mute. All action points don’t exist in Broadcaster’s scope only. Perhaps, even with a flamboyant left handed wicket keeping batsman walking in at number 4 , commentators can resist the urge to go for power shots every single delivery and “shoulder arms” to few ones?

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Prasenjit Sen

Well researched article. Happy to cherish the good old days of wonderful commentary by those legends!

Nijeesh Padmanabhan

Very well written. I was a Tony Greg fan. 🙂