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TV Review :Caught in the deep

Bizarre though it may seem, English cricket—and the televising of English cricket—so accurately reflects the wider economic and cultural changes of British society in recent years that it is simply uncanny. For those who care to remember, leisurely games of cricket on the village green were central to John Major's vision of a society at ease with itself, along with warm beer and old ladies cycling to church on Sunday mornings. And while Major's vision was overtly anachronistic, cricket has always tended to embody much that is considered to be distinctively "British": the old Gentlemen versus Players class distinction, the quiet civility of the English tea, the resolute application and grit of the undefeated all-day batsman, and—more often than not—the stiff upper lip of those in extreme adversity. Of course, the game has changed over the years along with wider society and few would disagree that it has become harsher, nastier and more competitive. English cricketers have been, if we are to be charitable, poor at acclimatising to the new conditions. Today there is something of the metaphoric frightened rabbit about them as they are repeatedly showered under a hail of West Indian bouncers, spun out of their senses by passing magicians from the sub-continent and battered by the explosive and inflammatory verbals of the Australians.

Cricket in England had always been an essentially timeless phenomenon—like the "season", Wimbledon, Last Night of the Proms and much else. That TV coverage of cricket reflected this is fairly obvious. Few could have died of excitement at the sound of John Arlott and Jim Laker coaxing England towards a draw on a dank Tuesday afternoon at Old Trafford. High drama it certainly wasn't, though perhaps one of the finest accolades given to them by a critic was that they at least made five days of sitting in an armchair watching the grass grow seem like a veritable pleasure, and indeed for a few million every summer it was. But now the BBC have lost the Test Match coverage franchise for the first time—along with so much else too—and things are not quite the same. The greying, sedate affair hosted by the BBC has left the field of play, retired hurt, to be replaced by something altogether more brash.

A loud appeal
Channel 4's cricket coverage has certainly blown away a few of the old cobwebs. Indeed, just as the new technology of capitalism constantly serves to revolutionise that system from within, so at last (though more prosaically) has TV cricket coverage been revolutionised by elements of that same technology so as to accurately reflect the dynamic of society as a whole. From the "speedster" and the close up action replay through to the "snick-o-meter", Channel 4 is knocking on the door of the twenty first century, bringing to sports lovers the aids to comprehension and the sheer excitement that befits a technologically advanced civilisation. And yet there is a downside, as there always is in the market economy.

While the technological advancements of civilisation open up whole new vistas, so at the same time does society itself become less "civilised". Not only does Channel 4's coverage come with a good deal of the brashness we have come to associate with so much else of the fast-food culture we inhabit, but it extends to breaking point public tolerance of commercially-orientated TV. The advertisements that have crept into cricket and other sports over recent years, from the advertising hoardings at the grounds and the sponsoring of competitions and then teams, to the painted advertisements on the pitch itself, have now been supplemented by particularly insidious versions of the ubiquitous TV commercial.

As each session of play in a Test Match lasts for at least two hours, usually without formal interruption of any sort, the advertisers had a headache reconciling the needs of the game and of the viewer on the one hand with the dictates of the market and profit on the other. Their solution has been to run a 20 second-or-so commercial every few overs of play, completely untelegraphed to the audience. There is no programme theme music, no couple of seconds of silence as the programme "card" comes up by way of warning—in fact, there is no warning at all. It is effectively a bizarre, elongated version of subliminal advertising. It is immensely irritating and not surprisingly, has been almost uniformly condemned. Yet, ironically, without the increasingly bizarre adverts for cars and bottled lagers which now infest the screen during cricket coverage, there would probably be no improved coverage of the type Channel 4 have been able to provide.

There may be more important examples of the irrationality of capitalism and of how the market system is unable to properly use the technology it has helped develop so as to meet human needs, but few illustrate it so graphically as the changes undergone by cricket coverage, and exemplified by Channel 4. Cricket is now a more compelling TV sport than it ever has been, except that it is ceaselessly undermined with adverts which seek to distract and intrude rather than genuinely inform. Just as the market gives with one hand, so it takes back with another because the rational planning of human services will always be a secondary consideration quite some way behind the making of profits.

One final thought: does the cricket "third umpire"—called upon to make adjudications with the help of a TV monitor and replays—have to sit through some near-subliminal rubbish while he tries to make a decision over a marginal run out? Somehow we think not. And is he doesn't have to, then why the hell should we?

DAP