Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, international cricket resumed on 8 July 2020, when the England men’s cricket team took the field with West Indies in a test match at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton, in England. The first experiment of its kind in cricket occurred inside a bio-secure stadium with no spectators. The test series was a success, and since then the Pakistani and Australian cricket teams have also toured England. But before the England-West Indies series could begin, the organisers had to ensure on-site hotel accommodation, medical screening facilities, sanitising amenities at the grounds, clearance from the UK government, and extendable space for match officials, players and media. In the interim, the International Cricket Council (ICC) also prohibited the use of saliva to shine the cricket ball and introduced a COVID-19 player substitution policy.
Who do batsmen raise their bats to? How do captains of the home-team cheer up their cricketers if they cannot turn to the audience?
The declining number of COVID-19 cases in the UK in June 2020 provided the necessary impetus for cricketing bodies and the UK government to organise the England-West Indies cricket tour. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) feared losses of up to GBP 380 million if there were no cricket matches during the summer cricket season. Although the pandemic hasn’t subsided, more cricket matches have already been planned. Meanwhile, as India is still struggling with rising COVID-19 cases across the country, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) decided to shift the Indian Premier League (IPL) to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After delays, it is now being held between September and November 2020. A cancelled Indian Premier League (IPL) season would have resulted in a loss of INR 4000 crore (USD 0.54 billion) for the BCCI which had sold its IPL television and digital rights to Star India for INR 16,348 crore (USD 2.55 billion) for the period 2018-22.
Apart from ensuring the safety of the players and officials involved in organising the game, one of the most challenging aspects of conducting matches during this time has been to replicate the experience of stadiums filled with cheering fans. How do you recreate the sound of a roaring stadium when cricketers get out or hit a six? How do you capture the tension and excitement of the audience? Who do batsmen raise their bats to? How do captains of the home-team cheer up their cricketers if they cannot turn to the audience?
The broadcast spectacle
Cricket has three formats played throughout the year: the five-day test cricket, the 50-over one-day cricket, and the three-hour 20-over cricket (T-20). Although the T-20 format has increased in popularity, each format has unique features which appeal to different kinds of spectators, their popularity varying depending on when and where they are being played. The test match crowd in India varies in size and character depending on whether the match is played in Ranchi or in Chennai. Boxing Day test matches in Australia are often the highlights in the cricketing calendar because of the country’s long tradition of holding test matches the day after Christmas. When IPL is played under floodlights during the summer holidays, the atmosphere and sound is different to any other game played either in India or across the world. Cricket crowds in Sri Lanka and West Indies have been known to play drums and trumpets during matches. A Sri Lankan government official who has played papare, a local genre of music, since he was 15 says “If there is no papare, there is no cricket. The cricket we know comes with the papare.”
There are also dedicated fan groups who travel with their favourite teams and bring unique colour to the game. Starting as a group of around 30 backpackers, Barmy Army has been part of the England cricket team’s travel group since 1994-95, and has its own flags and chants. Another fan group called Bharat Army, which supports Indian cricket teams, emerged during the 1999 Cricket World Cup and is constituted mostly of members of the Indian diaspora. Both Barmy Army and Bharat Army are now commercial enterprises which sell match tickets, merchandise, and arrange travel plans for cricket fans and enthusiasts. With the emergence of IPL, cricket fans in India have become a product of the convergence of sports, entertainment and consumerism. Cricket writer Boria Majumdar describes new-age Indian fans as a consumer of spectacle, “more interested in the synergy between entertainment and sport than the sport itself.”
Club-level cricket and sporting events which don’t draw in huge TV audiences or fetch lucrative broadcasting deals are facing a huge crisis because tickets sales are still a critical source of income.
The broadcast experience of cricket is deeply steeped in the specific experiences and traditions of those watching the match. Cheerleaders, film stars, DJ music, fireworks and horns only add to the spectacle. Since audiences at the stadiums take forms particular to their context, realistically simulating those audiences is an impossible task. But just as businesses in the entertainment industry have had to forgo live studio audiences, broadcasters and sporting bodies are experimenting with different ways of simulating the energy and experience which spectators bring to the stadium.
For example, after the relaxation of lockdown measures, the German Bundesliga introduced strict physical distancing measures and prohibited spectators in the stadium. In Dusseldorf, match organisers filled the stands with 13,000 cardboard cutouts. Many stadiums played music and recorded cheers during the match broadcasts. When the English Premier League (EPL) resumed, they used artificial crowd noise during their broadcast, which evoked mixed reactions in fans. Those who played matches in empty stadiums also had varied responses: while captain of India’s cricket team Virat Kohli, a regular international player, said that the fans would be missed, other players said they were accustomed to empty stadiums because of domestic cricket. The EPL broadcast had some exciting moments as well – the big screens in stadiums featured live video feeds of supporters from each club, and broadcasters projected viewer celebrations when players scored goals. These experiments offer a new kind of engagement between fans and the game which might be used intermittently even when stadiums are once again packed with people.
While the broadcasters of the test matches between England and West Indies used a low-level hum of crowd noise during the game to compensate for the void, the broadcasters of IPL might have to do more. After all, watching IPL on TV was completely different to watching a test match played in England pre-COVID-19. Uday Shankar, the chairman of Star and Disney India, which holds the TV and digital rights for international and domestic cricket matches played in India, also considers people in the stadium an integral part of the spectacle. He believes that the circumstances allow for experimentation never considered before, as long as it makes sense financially. Shankar is even open to capturing the reactions of audiences watching cricket on their mobile screens if necessary, to replace broadcast cutaways that would otherwise focus on drama in the stands. While sporting bodies and broadcasters are likely to experiment with various simulation techniques to compensate for an absence of crowds, the de-territorialisation and simulation of sport is not new.
The first television transmission of test match cricket took place in England during a match between England and Australia in June 1938, only two years after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had its first television broadcast in 1936. Engineering graduate Ian Orr Ewing orchestrated the coverage from Lords using three Marconi Emitron cameras. The technology was held together with string and sealing wax but the BBC transmitted up to three hours a day for every test match of the series. Compared to the reach of radio, TV coverage of the test match was limited and could only cater to a few thousand people, mostly from London. Despite its poor reach, the cricket administration in England was worried that televised cricket would dissuade people from going to the stadiums to watch test matches. Indeed, post-World War 2 the BBC even agreed not to transmit any footage before 3.00 pm.
Eventually cricket opened itself up to television. And although it faced tough competition from other forms of entertainment and leisure, broadcasting (including radio broadcasting) increased spectatorship worldwide. Today, the game finds its largest audience in Southasia. The first live radio commentary of cricket in India was broadcasted by All India Radio (AIR) in 1934 for the match between Muslims and Parsis played at Esplanade Maidan in Bombay, while the first TV broadcast of a Test Match in India was in 1969, when India played Australia in New Delhi. TV allowed for lucrative sponsorship deals and opened the gates for private broadcasters to bid for telecast rights, often for large sums of money – a business logic that became the basis of the sport we know today. And cricket was truly brought from street to house, according to Cricket Commentator Narottam Puri, when commentaries were translated into Hindi. In Ball by Ball: The Story of Cricket Broadcasting, BBC commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins notes “nowhere has cricket commentary grown more quickly than on the Indian subcontinent.” In his first visit to India in 1976-77, he was shocked to see a variety of commentators speaking at different times in different languages.
Even at international-level, power relations are skewed. Only countries that draw larger TV spectatorship – like India, England and Australia – earn substantial incomes from broadcasting.
Today, commentary and TV replays in multiple languages, stump mics, digital graphics and Decision Review Systems (DRS) have become so integral that international cricket matches can’t be played without them. Broadcasting allows viewers to be distributed across the globe. Spectatorship occurs at varying replay speeds, angles and magnifications and across different mediums. Sports fans are not only connected through TV screens but also via the internet and mobile phones. The ease of digital communication and rise of global networks allows people to enjoy the game on the move and makes sports more interactive. As people watch their favorite players, they also create their own fantasy teams, form online fan groups, play online games and compete to win prizes in cricket contests. Fans in the stadium click photographs and share them on social media platforms, making their experience more spectacular.
In India, there are even ‘fan parks’ for cricket fans who can’t see IPL matches in their cities. These fan parks live telecast IPL matches on giant screens for cricket-lovers. They also have music, DJs and merchandise stalls so the park is a consolidation of fan groups and consumers. All of these are part of the unique socialisation, spectatorship and de-territorialisation enabled by capitalism and the mediatisation of global sport.
The coming convergence
The disruption created by the pandemic has accelerated the convergence between new and old forms of sports. In the absence of live sport, many broadcasters resorted to showing hours of e-sport – sports via video games – including football stars playing FIFA. E-sports have been quick to adapt to the current situation. With new-found players and audiences, e-sport has been trying to become more mainstream. At the same time, traditional sport is exploring online means of reconnecting with spectators who cannot go to a stadium, leading to a convergence between the two ways of engaging with sport.
With the emergence of IPL, cricket fans in India have become a product of the convergence of sports, entertainment and consumerism.
Despite the burgeoning of new mediums and locations for playing and watching sport, stadiums remain critical for the growth of sport all over the world. While some major sporting tournaments can afford to take place in a bio-secure bubble, most sporting events and bodies cannot. Club-level cricket and sporting events which don’t draw in huge TV audiences or fetch lucrative broadcasting deals are facing a huge crisis because tickets sales are still a critical source of income. In England, a county cricket match has already been piloted with limited capacity and physical distancing. This is likely to become a norm since many county cricket clubs can’t sustain empty stadiums for long; payments for stadium or club staff become challenging without revenue from ticket sales.
Even at international-level, power relations are skewed. Only countries that draw larger TV spectatorship – like India, England and Australia – earn substantial incomes from broadcasting. On concluding the test-match series between England and the West Indies, the West Indies test captain Jason Holder asked the England team to tour West Indies before the end of 2020, so that West Indies cricket (WI) could earn enough revenue to keep afloat. Since the host keeps the entire share of income earned from the broadcasting rights, WI didn’t profit from the tour of England. As a result of COVID-19 losses, WI also had to give its players and staff a 50 percent pay cut and take a USD 3 million loan from ECB. Jason Holder said WI will struggle to organise bio-secure bubbles at their venues given the additional costs. Even if England would like to tour the West Indies later this year, it is unclear whether WI will profit enough to emerge from its financial quandary.
The disruption created by the pandemic has accelerated the convergence between new and old forms of sports. In the absence of live sport, many broadcasters resorted to showing hours of e-sport – sports via video games.
Pakistan cricket was also suffering financially before the pandemic. Since the Lahore terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009, the country was forced to play home matches in the UAE and only recently resumed home matches in Pakistan. According to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ehsan Mani, a short test series in the UAE cost the PCB an extra USD 10-15 million (under normal circumstances) due to ground rentals, security costs and the loss of gate revenue. Considering the additional costs of organising a bio-secure bubble, it’s much harder for cricket boards like PCB, which have less financial space than boards like the BCCI, to shift their matches to more convenient locations like the UAE. This is why countries desperately need spectators in their own stadiums.
Although organising cricket matches in bio-secure environments is risky, given the business stakes, it appears that every attempt will be made to make it work until there is a proven COVID-19 vaccine or the threat of the virus dies away. In the interim, the desperate measures to organise cricket matches during the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed inequalities and skewed power relationships within the cricket fraternity.