Indian cricket in the post-Independence era might look staid and stiff in comparison to the breathless action of the present day, but it was no less colourful. In the 1950s, Abbas Ali Baig from Hyderabad was a flamboyant figure. He was dashing, handsome, Oxford-educated and had scored a century on debut against England in England. In short, he had all the trappings of a star.
But that was not Baig’s sole claim to fame. When Australia toured India in 1959, he played a crucial role in helping his team force a draw in the third Test at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. For all his hard work, he received a rather interesting reward. During a break in play in India’s second innings, a young female fan planted a kiss on Baig's cheek in full view of the capacity crowd, making him the first (and maybe only) Indian cricketer to be kissed on the field.
Another factor made the incident more interesting. Vijay Merchant, the former Indian captain and then a commentator known for his stentorian voice, was commentating live on radio when the incident occurred. Venkatraman Ramnarayan, a former Hyderabad Ranji Trophy cricketer recounts in his memoir exactly what Merchant said to his Australian co-commentator Michael Chilton, in his inimitable lilting tone: “I wonder, Michael, where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds?”
The social media phenomenon
The modern game might be unrecognisable from Vijay Merchant's playing days, but the one thing that remains relatively unchanged is commentary. Like other mediums, it has evolved – from radio, it migrated to television and is now increasingly going digital. As technology has improved, today’s commentators take recourse to increasingly specialised tools to make sense of the game as they see it. And with the advent of Twenty20, the volume of the intonation has changed. For example, Danny Morrison’s impassioned shrieks of excitement during an Indian Premier League match would have been strictly frowned upon in earlier times.
And yet, there has been a distinct change in how cricket is consumed. The numbers tell a story – the India-Pakistan match at the 2015 World Cup saw 16.94 lakh tweets sent during the game, with 2.5 crore interactions about the match on Facebook. But even that looked tame compared to the numbers for the India-Pakistan clash on March 19 at Kolkata – there were more than 1.2 million tweets, making it the highest tweeted international Twenty20 match ever.
Clearly, sport is consumed differently now and cricket, being India’s most popular sport by a distance, makes for an interesting case study. Matches during the just-concluded World Twenty20 trended routinely on Twitter, sometimes even on a ball-to-ball basis. Cricket fans engaged with each other on social media, sharing insights and instant analysis. Commentary once used to be the sole source from which analysis was disseminated. Now, however, cricket fans prefer to rely on their own insights.
Levelling the field
The Twitter handle @cricBC is a case in point. With close to 12,000 followers, it is a prominent voice on Twitter, often making funny and irreverent comments on the game that go on to become wildly popular. “The internet and social media has leveled the playing field for everyone to participate and speak out,” said Rajesh Tiwary, one of the operators of the handle. “But I also see the quality of commentary going down constantly and traditional mediums getting a pushback from keener fans. Watching cricket with Twitter is an immersive, at times, exhausting experience. A bit like watching a game at the bar with your best buddies.”
It's a common lament that the quality of commentary has been going down. Much resentment stemmed from the fact that the Board of Control of Cricket in India had popular commentators such as Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri on its payroll, with many wondering how the former cricketers were expected to remain objective about the game. Even the Justice Lodha committee report on cleaning up the BCCI was quite scathing on this topic: “Objective commentary ought to be permitted about everything connected to the match, allowing the commentators to express themselves freely and objectively.”
This has also led to the rise of alternative commentary streams like Guerilla Cricket and White Line Wireless which promise a different experience from conventional mainstream commentary at cricket matches.
The rise of alternative commentary
“TV commentary excludes its audience," said a representative for White Line Wireless, a popular alternative commentary stream. "By only featuring ex-cricketers, there is no link with the ordinary fan watching at home. Only a select few are allowed to discuss the game. It is absurd to suggest that among India’s billion people, not a single non-cricketer is qualified to talk about the game. What alternative commentary does is democratise cricket. It allows ordinary fans a chance to try commentary, and those with a talent for it can develop that skill.”
It is a popular refrain that current mainstream cricket commentary remains cocooned in its own shell, unwilling to adapt to newer trends. “The mainstream commentaries build a brick wall between themselves and their audiences,” said Nigel Walker of Guerilla Cricket. “They don’t really want a two-way flow of information.”
And fans are voting with their feet. Every major game draws plenty of buzz on social media with in-game events being discussed almost as they happen. Even football has taken a leaf out of cricket’s book – despite some of India’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers not being broadcast on Indian television screens, fans of the Indian football team ensured that the match trended on Twitter.
In many ways, it is a democratisation of the way sports is being consumed. From merely being listeners in the previous era, fans are now controlling the way they consume their favourite sport, and ensuring that those preaching to the choir can hear them.