Few words have invoked such derision within cricket as ‘cricketainment’ – which is, if you can distance yourself from the pious conservatism of much of cricket’s commentariat, rather strange.
‘Cricketainment’ can be said to have begun almost innocently way back in 2003 in England in the Twenty20 Cup. Hugh Chevallier recalled in the Wisden Almanack, “jacuzzis, fairground rides, bouncy castles, face painting, barbecue zones, boy bands, girl bands—you name it, it was there as a sideshow.” It has spawned from these modest beginnings to encapsulate essentially anything seen to be ‘adding’ to the entertainment of the cricket.
But what cricketainment represents—beyond the admittedly sad depreciation of cricket’s perceived commercial value without such epiphenomena—is an attempt to expand cricket’s audiences and grow its revenue. Which is, like it or not, principally one of the main objectives of cricket administrators in the fiercely competitive capitalist jungle that is modern sport and leisure.
Cricket is not a simple game and it never will be – its laws are voluminous and complex, its language confusing and contradictory, its traditions myriad and bizarre; and cricket is in far more than merely competition with itself – namely other leisure pursuits, and a rebranding of its image via cricketainment is not only logical but perhaps even advisable, especially so in an age of brevity and distraction.
Cricket’s problem with cricketainment should not be cricketainment itself, but rather the effects cricketainment has on other aspects of the game’s presentation.
Cricketainment’s influence has been pervasively significant. Although it has directly impacted T20 most conspicuously it has broadly devalued the essence of all cricket to make the sport itself merely another wheel within the machine ‘product’ that cricket has fast become.
Television coverage of almost all international cricket is fiercely oligopolistic. Very few channels, which themselves are subsidiaries of even fewer owners, namely Zee Entertainment, News International and Disney, dominate the global cricketscape. So intwined are the fortunes of these owners with the ‘product’ of cricket given the money invested in it, that coverage and promotion are becoming one of the same.
Cricket is increasingly commentated on as an entertainment first, and a sport second. This coverage is pervasive. Only some areas of the written media, and to an extent English broadcasters, BBC and Sky Sports, have escaped the black hole of hyperbolic, trash-talk more interested in trivialising than teaching. That is not to say the trivialisers are wrong and the teachers right, rather they are different. Harsha Bhogle, speaking to ESPNcricinfo’s ‘The Huddle’ during the 2013 IPL explained the rationale behind excitable modern commentary.
“A lot of the research is showing that all of us who like to believe that we are very knowledgable and know everything that is happening around the game…we are in a very tiny minority. That most people who watch cricket [on TV] have not actually been inside a stadium, so they don’t even know the layouts of stadiums, they don’t know the geography they don’t know what moving backward square leg a touch finer is and they are the majority. That’s what research is saying. Which is why all our promos are about fours, sixes and wickets! With the amount of cricket there is and attention spans getting shorter and the non-core viewers coming in and out…they are looking for fours, sixes and wickets.”
Given the inaccessibility of cricket to first-time and early viewers, cricketainment is a useful, perhaps integral tool in cricket’s future. But so too is what we could call ‘cricketelligence’ – the in-depth analysis and evaluation of the game itself, and there is no doubt the latter has been tarnished by the former in cricket’s headlong pursuit for more money.
It’s perhaps easy to believe that beneath the vernacular of contemporary cricket coverage, from the commentary box to the newspaper column to the Twitter storm, the game itself has become more unsubtle and more vacuous. In fact, the opposite is the case.
While at every visible level cricket is lobotomising itself; at every invisible level cricket is intellectualising itself. Forget the administrators, forget the media, forget the fans, forget just for a moment, everything but the game, and the game itself has never been more fascinating. A grand coalescence of globalisation, modernisation and technological development have accelerated and radicalised the depth, breadth and scope of analysis and intellect within the game to levels never before reached. With every passing day cricket becomes more interesting to follow.
In August 2011, an interview with England’s analyst, Nathan Leamon in The Sunday Times revealed the depth of cricket’s cyber advancement. Leamon, a former Cambridge mathematician, revealed how he had built a computer program that using deep and exhaustive historical data simulated hundreds of possible scenarios of matches to enable England to gain a tactical advantage over their opponents.
“We feed into the simulator information about pitches and the 22 players who might play, and it plays the game a number of times and tells us the likely outcomes,” Leamon said. “It helps us in strategy and selection. I’ve checked the program against more than 300 Tests and it is accurate to within 4-5%.”
Leamon is at the forefront of such analysis and it is spreading around the world with similar, real-time data tools beginning to be utilised in the IPL. Indeed, it could be argued that T20, with its emphasis on the finest of fine margins, is the format where deep data-analytics is more valuable than any other. According to AR Srikkanth, Kolkata Knight Riders data analyst, “T20s have made data analysis more complex.” he said in 2013. “For instance, for a batsman, a release shot – a stroke that follows a couple of dot balls – has become very important, so you have to let a bowler know what a release shot usually is.”
Crucially this intense level of analysis has not yet made it to the coverage of cricket, especially in the telecast. In an age in which administrators are very eager to point out “revenue streams” cricketainment gets one stream flowing but builds a Danny Morrison-sized dam to cut off another.
If, as is often pointed out, cricket is being run like a business, then it is being run like a very bad one. A good business would maximise profits. In ostracising its oldest and keenest followers cricket isn’t doing that. There remains a huge and high-value market in deep-level analytics. Cricket, immersed in numbers and obsessed by statistics is sitting on a gold mine.
ESPNcricinfo have begun the shift. Their live-scorecards recently have included “control” statistics for batsmen and more nuanced pitch-maps and wagon-wheels, their Statsguru tool is also being updated. Wisden India have teamed up with Impact Index while WASP, poorly explained and widely misunderstood, does feature on one or two broadcasts. CricViz is another revolutionary chapter in this crucial struggle.
A struggle—not to rid the game of cricketainment, but to counter it with cricketelligence—that could well shape the future of the game. Cricketainment v Cricketelligence represents the conflict between cricket as entertainment and cricket as sport.
Freddie Wilde is a freelance cricket journalist.