Cricket has always been synonymous with stability and tradition, and yet, it isn’t immune to the cult of growth that governs other spheres of our lives. In the last three decades or so, the game has advanced beyond recognition. The bat now comes with a thicker edge and perfect weight distribution to enhance power-hitting. The sturdier but lightweight helmet, coupled with a well-padded chest guard, allows the batter to pull and hook without much concern about safety. An improved fitness standard has prolonged the cricketer’s career. But one thing that hasn’t shown any semblance of improvement — instead, it has worsened with time — is television commentary. Perhaps cricket, here, is trying to imitate life, where money can solve a myriad of problems, but not all of them.
If good cricket commentary is music to the ears, modernday commentators are a band of discordantly tuned middle-aged men who think their lack of proficiency can be masked with a baritone voice and spicy lyrics. It’s strange when you consider that most of them have played the game at an elite level, and still, they mess up when it comes to talking about the game. The basic explanation is: playing cricket and talking about it are two totally different things. And unfortunately, that difference is lost on many of these cricketer-turned-commentator.
The direct consequence of this is that we’re stuck with a commentary panel that sounds eerily similar to a proverbial old man on a train journey blabbering on about every subject under the sun with impeccable authority. For every stroke that sails over the boundary, we’ll have them screaming “power” or “cracker”. For every yorker that uproots the stumps, we get “whoaaaa” or “knocked him”. And every time the batter gets hit on the crotch, we hear constipated giggles punctuated with “mighty blow”. Every event is an end in itself. Even though the quality of commentary has nosedived, popular commentators have managed to make a living out of rhyming Pooran (a West Indies batter) with churan and celebrating meagre moments like taking a single after hitting a six on the previous delivery.
Half of this crop seems to be competing with the sport itself, trying to outshine the action unfolding before their eyes with their words. The other half is busy churning out trendy Instagram content instead of demystifying the game for the layman. Let’s be honest, live sport is a spectacle good enough to grab eyeballs; there’s no need for commentators to create a parallel spectacle from their box. And when they’re not busy with these charades, they will be gossiping about everything from the best chole bhature eatery in New Delhi to a random match from 1897 where they played together. Or, they double up as a salesperson, hardselling every brand that pops up on the screen, as if their bonus figure is determined by how convincing they sound while promoting the fourwheeler that is parked behind the boundary. People tune in to cricket to watch the actual contest. To hear crazy banter and quirky raconteurs, as commentators often indulge in on live TV, we can always wobble to the downtown pub.
Long ago cricket had Riche Benaud and Bill Lawry. They were eclectic individuals who rarely wasted a word, remained totally unfazed by the action, and understood the power of silence. Live broadcasting is a tricky art. The ability to find the right words at the right moments, then, contextualise them in a larger scheme of things, and deliver them in a tone and tempo that mirrors the game is not an easy job. That’s why we adore Benaud and Lawry. There was a touch of minimalism to their craft. They knew when to stop and let the game do the talking. In contrast, commentators today chatter ceaselessly without making sense most of the time, hustling to get their share of space in an attention economy. Commentary is a thankless job. You need to be extremely good to create value for viewers, but it’s very easy to turn them off.
What are we supposed to do if commentary doesn’t add anything to our cricket-watching experience? One is to ask the stakeholders to improve the quality, which is like shouting into an echo chamber. It’s easier to imagine the end of cricket than the end of the unbearable commentary. The standard has already been set.
The last resort then, is to watch the entire thing on mute. It might be a bit disconcerting in the beginning but once you get used to it, there’s no going back. Similar to how every man who embraces solitude will tell you that it is intimidating in the beginning. But once you overcome the initial hurdles, you start appreciating the unbridled joys of being in your own company. The obvious upside is that you start interacting with the actual game on a more nuanced level; observing little things that might have eluded your sight in the presence of a sound. You don’t have to bother about the invasive presence of men ensconced in a cosy box telling you what to think, when to think, and how to think. Surely, you’ll be missing out on a lot of fun if your idea of fun is to hear former cricketers telling you about the most obvious thing like “sky is blue” or “cat is cute” or occasional mindboggling insights like “India lost because they scored fewer runs than their opponents”. Okay fine, cricket freaks!
Television is no longer the sole medium that holds monopoly over our engagement with the game. We vent out our frustrations on Twitter, rewatch the vital moments on YouTube, and hear the post-match dissection on Spotify. We don’t rely on televised commentary to enhance our understanding of the game. The Internet does the job with greater efficiency. Admittedly, there’s a valid counterargument, here, about how some of the greatest moment of sporting history is reminisced through the words of commentators. However, I would propose those iconic moments can stand on their own legs. The sight of MS Dhoni’s hitting a winning six wouldn’t have been less iconic if Ravi Shastri hadn’t screamed, “Dhoni finishes off in style”. Or if someone would have played “Baby Shark, doo-doo, doodoo” as Dhoni held his pose after his strike.
As Jonathan Liew noted in The Guardian, the job of a commentator nowadays is just to bring us back from the kitchen, and if that indeed is the case, perhaps one of those AI-powered chatbots can do this job with greater alacrity.