This is the product of some thoughts about the contrasting nature of cricket as viewed through the prism of television, when compared with the experience of watching a game in person.
It’s the kind of thing that comes into the mind late in an English winter, when you’re starting to become desperate to see some real cricket.
English winters come in varying forms. There is difference – some are cold, this one has been wet, wetter than anyone alive has ever seen or experienced – and there is also similarity, uniformity. There are always long months of predominantly grey skies and early darkness. This is normal.
For anyone who loves cricket, and, for reasons of time, or money, or both, cannot travel to those parts of the globe where cricket takes place throughout the English winter, the months between October and April are strange ones. Cricket goes on; indeed, if you have access to Cricinfo and Twitter, and, most important of all, Sky Sports, cricket is everywhere.
But it is not cricket as it really is. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn on your television and see cricket; one day it is Perth, the next it is Sydney, then it is Wellington, Dubai, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Antigua. But as much as you can see the skies, and marvel at the depth of their blueness, rare in Britain even in summer, or almost convince yourself that you can feel the heat or the humidity by thinking back to a time and place when you were there – or somewhere similar – you cannot really feel the rhythm of the game. It is refracted and distended through the lens of the TV camera, while the commentators’ perceptions – skewed by experience and biased by nationality and personal taste – can influence the way in which you see things. Moreover, you can never feel the wind on your face, or properly hear the shouts of the fielders, or the crowd. If you tire of watching from behind the bowler’s arm, you cannot watch from midwicket, or low down at long-on, or chatting at square-leg. You have not travelled to the ground, or arrived there; you will not have the experience of packing your bag and leaving at close of play. Unless you have an unusually barren life, perhaps one where you have no work to do and little need to eat or sleep or leave your house, it is rarely possible to watch entire sessions of cricket in the way you would do if you were there. Thus, some of the light and shade of batsmen’s innings – fluctuations of tempo and mood – and bowlers’ spells – changes of pace, of flight, of spin, of field, are lost. If a bowler’s field is altered it may be mentioned by the commentators, or the moved fielder may be shown, but the way in which that changes the impression and the purpose of the field as a whole can be obscured.
What a winter of televised cricket can do is reduce the game, with all its grandness and glory, to a series of distilled impressions, presented to you by the director and his cameramen and mediated by the commentators’ personal tastes and opinions. It is a very different way of experiencing the game, but it is by no means an entirely bad thing.
Advances in technology increasingly mean that a television viewer has a closer view of the action than someone at the ground will ever have. Seam position, rotations of the ball as it spins, the way in which batsmen’s eyes instinctively close upon impact as they play a hook or pull off their nose, or the way the blade of the bat wobbles on impact with the ball, are all evident to the television viewer in ways they will never be to someone watching from the boundary. And in the Test match arena, as in anything long, and stirring, where emotion and feeling play their part, you can draw many conclusions from being able to see the whites of the players’ eyes or the precise way they use their bodies.
Over recent English winter weeks it has been possible to experience the impression of surprise and incidental pride on BJ Watling’s face as he hears the announcement that he has broken a world partnership record, and to see him shake hands with Brendon McCullum as the crowd on one of the Basin Reserve’s banks rises to acclaim them. Or it has been possible to look in detail at the way in which, as his form slowly returned at St.George’s Park, Hashim Amla’s bat emerged from its distinctive backlift with all its straightness and ethereal timing, relying on the nuances of wrist and hand positioning for its power and direction. As Australia slid to defeat in the same game, it was possible to see the way in which reverse swing took hold of the ball in the split second between it leaving Dale Steyn’s hand and destroying the stumps of Brad Haddin. Or, also from Wellington, it has been possible to enjoy the beautiful, persuasive neatness of Ajinkya Rahane, or Brendon McCullum’s return to the changing rooms, 302 to his name and a small, vulnerable, but immensely proud cricket nation saluting him. Week in, week out (it seems), there is the compactness, power and technical efficiency of the man who currently looks like the best opening batsmen on the planet, David Warner. And there is Kohli. There is always Kohli.
Cricket viewed through the prism of television is different. In many ways it is a more limited, less rounded, less involving experience. In others it is richer and more concentrated, while also more artificial.
Now it is March in England, things begin to change. It still rains, but the days are longer, and, when the sun is out, there is a meagre warmth in the air and the quality of the light is indefinably distinctive.
Soon, as surely as the world turns, it will again be time in England for the real thing.
Different Shades of Green, 2nd March 2014