The Sporting Spectacle: Out and About in the Imagined Community

In recent years, a curious media phenomenon has emerged in Scandinavia. Not the sepulchral greys of Nordic Noir, but slow television, as perfected by the Norwegian public broadcaster. The Oslo-Bergen railway journey; the Hurtigruten coastal cruise; the construction and lifecycle of a fire – large numbers of Norwegians have tuned into soothingly lengthy transmissions of the mundane. The foreign press picked up on it, another example of Scandinavian inscrutability and understated conformity. Those crazy continentals, the ennui of the rural and prosaic… One British journalist, however, made a salient point: the English had discovered Slow TV decades before. They had been televising test cricket for decades.

Cricket is the perfect background sport, a good picnic enhanced rather than a good walk spoiled. This is especially true when it comes to the more bucolic outposts of first class cricket, grounds like Arundel or Aigburth. Perhaps the apogee of unnoticed cricket is The Parks, the only free first class county ground in the country, set amongst the colleges and museums of Oxford. Few of those wandering past the match pay attention; few sporting events can have so many passing spectators in such close proximity to an event they are uninterested in. But the cricket, even unobserved, adds to the ambience. The sport belongs, like the strolling couples, procrastinating students and stately foliage. Cricket just works as a backing track, something to stumble across. Perhaps it’s the rhythm, pauses and stately rotation, or the aural stimulation, gentle exhortation, the crack of a well-timed stroke, the occasional hollered appeal. One can read, or eat, or chat, glancing up for each ball.

Even the finest of matches can recede into the background. The Lord’s Test may be a fiercely fought exhibition of international sport, but it is also a social occasion, a heady blend of red trousers, old school ties and bubbly. Allegedly the Test is always before the 12th August because that is the Glorious Twelfth, the first day of the grouse shooting season, and the MCC members were the sort of people with estates of Scotland to attend t Like a Tolstoyan ball, it is the place to be seen in order to maintain a certain social class. Decades ago, the most privileged attendees probably had connections to the England captain; nowadays, it is merely an entrenchment of privilege, set apart from the sport itself. The game is still a fine backdrop however, crisp whites on verdant outfield.

There has, however, been a shift in the type of spectator that sport, cricket included, is structured around. The viewer at home is now the target audience, setting schedules and sponsorship. Spidercam slides in front of spectators in the stands, the natural lulls between overs are stretched to accommodate advertising. The viewers at home or in the pub, vastly outnumbering those present, are now the people to please for those calling the shots. Moreover, this has led to the condensing of entertainment – if the game isn’t experienced as a day out, you haven’t got time to watch it in extended form. Hence the rise of Twenty20, the post work highlights turned into a match.  This is sport as an event, a focussed burst of competitive activity more akin to a football or rugby match. It demands attention, with density of occurrence built into its very nature. This is cricketing spectacle, gig rather than festival.

Yet intensity and focus does not displace the social. The collective is a crucial part of spectating at football and rugby matches, from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, via the tifos of Europe’s ultras. Communal watching enhances the event, especially in competitions involving regional or national pride. In his seminal book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson describes the role of the newspaper in creating the “imagined community” of the nation, knowing that people across the country, who you have never met and never will, are reading the same words at the same time as you, creating a bond and sense of belonging to the same cultural unit. The same could be said of major sporting events, such as World Cup football matches, millions of strangers undertaking the same experience with similar feelings. The surge that hits the National Grid at half time in England’s World Cup matches, thousands of kettles clicking on in unison (for cups of tea, of course!), could serve as a fine example of Anderson’s thesis. This is a different kind of sporting social event, communal focus with strangers, rather than the immediacy of meeting friends at the test match, half an eye on the field.

In recent years, however, the Indian Premier League has developed into a strange hybrid of the two, a focussed sporting event where few pay full attention, a tournament of underdeveloped identities and social spectacle. It is a television event where the focus is on those who are meeting in the crowd as much as those on the pitch. Imagine MCC members in the Kop, hobnobbing rather than singing, attending to be seen, not to see. Being seen in the hospitality box at an IPL match – with Preity! Shilpa! SRK! – is confirmation of arrival amongst the elite of a new India, commercial and commodified. It is a place in a parade of parvenus, unlike the ingrained privilege of a Lord’s Test, society calcified over generation. The IPL is often described as tamasha, pure entertainment, but another perception is of it as a “society of the spectacle”.

In the 1967 text of that name, the French philosopher Guy Debord presciently describes the shift from authentic social experience to a representation of it, based on commodification, alienation and consumer culture. There is a shift from “being to having”, and then from “having to appearing”. Social relationships become maintained through images and commodities. The IPL is a perfect example: the crowd attend to be seen, behaviour is altered to present a representation of the self. The cricket is condensed – a six at The Parks would be applauded by the picnickers who would look up for this rare highlight, a small but skilful sporting triumph. In the IPL, the six becomes a “DLF Maximum”, devalued through regularity.

Moreover, the sporting achievement is hollowed out – it is commodified into an opportunity for advertising, not an achievement worthy of celebration within the context of the sporting contest. The trumpet sound that punctuates lulls in the match and ensures the crowd remains noisy is a similarly odd construction – demanding attention during the natural ebbs that occur at any sporting occasion, but not refocussing the crowd on the game at hand. Instead it seems to serve as a reminder for television viewers and advertisers that the crowd is present (honest!), that there is a spectacle, an event, and it is being consumed.

Sport has always had a difficult relationship with reality – its narratives and importance questionably overblown. But there is a new need to periodically reanimate the crowd at the IPL because the cricket, despite its frantic nature, occurs in the background, part of the show with the cheerleaders and the celebrities, despite its focussed nature. It is a commodified spectacle, scenery, but in a quite different way to a first class match. Here the cricket is not a backdrop that enhances an otherwise pleasant activity. It is a canvas, onto which the elements of the spectacle are projected. The crowds and personalities would not be there if it was not for the cricket; nor would the sponsors. The cricket is a necessary component, but it is reduced, an inauthentic representation of a sport that people can choose to care about or not, but one that, in less elaborate contexts, is more real for its lack of spectacle.

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16 Responses to The Sporting Spectacle: Out and About in the Imagined Community

  1. Uff this is spectacular writing! I don’t agree with all of your conclusions, but I must commend the style of both the prose as well as the structure.

    I am a lone IPL supporter amongst most of the people whose views I respect, so take my views with a pinch of salt. But if we return to your post, I would add another layer to the development of cricket. For me, as a young man reading on cricket would be something I didn’t enjoy, since it would often describe the idyllic scenes you mention above. But for me, the first time I played cricket on grass was when I went to study in America at 17. Keep in mind that this is the only sport everyone I ever knew played. As a Karachiite, my cricket experience was of the gully, with dismissals including hitting in that one house with the angry aunty and 12 year olds who could reverse the tape ball or bowl a doosra. To me, the first time I saw T20 cricket it brought that mad thrill of the gully on to a cricket field. Gully games last six to seven overs, and every now and then teams from areas travel by bus to informally arranged matches, where they would stretch to 12 overs. Similarly, Ramzan has a slew of late night tournaments (including national ones) across the country where again the matches are never more than 15-20 overs.

    Moreover, cricket was the only cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, cross-class thing our fractured country had. Not cinema, not music, (both excellent but hounded) and not any other sport. I can’t get into it here, but lets just say that 2005 Pakistan v India in Karachi is what made me believe in the transcendental as a serious spiritual concept.

    The idea of using cricket as a spectacle is also intrinsic to a very popular understanding of the game in the subcontinent. There is no doubt that a DLF Maximum is devaluing, but there is IMO more to the IPL than that.

    In either case, loved this post.

    • Thanks a lot, and thanks for adding another layer. I agree that seeing cricket as an idyllic background sport is a limited view, and a conservative, English one. It probably isn’t representative of the cricketing experience of the modern English cricket fan or player, but it retains a strong hold in the imagination. The Lord’s test is seen as how cricket should be – and cricket isn’t at the forefront of that!

      Obviously playing the sport is very different, and I love your imput on the Pakistani/subcontinental experience of the game. I think T20 has the potential to give people a taste of professionals playing a version of the game that they recognise from the park or the gully – all sixes and chaos – but I think the IPL (not T20 in general) has created a layer of commercialization and insubstantial celebrity that stops the tournament from democratizing in the way it’s perfectly suited to. It’s a wonderful cricketing spectacle, in the way that county cricket really isn’t, but the gloss rather hides that.

      • Its funny but usually when I debate about the IPL with someone I don’t often disagree on the critiques, and usually wish to add what it does add to the table.

        Regarding the wonderful idea of spectacle explored in this piece, I would argue that the IPL is not pioneering the particular brand it embodies. For example, have repeatedly tried to understand my society’s obsession with Afridi. I am equally obsessed with but try and rationalise it as being a fan of his bowling and not considering his batting. But Afridi is and has been madly popular for 17 years on the promise of his batting. You can read this, http://tribune.com.pk/story/468621/art-afridi-aspiration/ but would be best to try and find the film “I Am Shahid Afridi” which can be watched without subtitles too, (tho not sober).

        Point being that even for me, the idea of SRK with Shoaib (IPL 2008) was so exhilarating, and this goes deeper into South Asia’s religious tradition and the veneration of either idols or saints, but that element of spectacle was always a part of the glamour of the sport here. It was in fact waiting to be tapped, as was the demographic that the IPL attracts as opposed to Team India. In either case, what is of most value here is your precise ability to recognise and describe the soceity as spectacle thesis.

  2. That’s fascinating, thanks for sharing. I think that English cricket has never really been about fulfulling the wishes of its fans – as I say, the sport is secondary to the society built around it. That idea of “gentlemen and players” being about cordial class relations, that cricket saved England from a revolution, when it was really another system of rigid social control. English football is far more about heroes and villains, regional pride and wish-fulfillment. English cricket is still slightly wary of being too serious (or demonstrative) – hence the suspicion of players like Pietersen (stealing the show for himself, forcing the crowd to watch) or Trott (too obsessively focussed).

  3. subash says:

    Chris,

    Congratulations on a wonderful post. I tend to agree with your take on it. My comment is in response to KarachiKhatmal’s comment and not directly addressing the post itself. I’m pasting the comments I had sent to KK over GTalk so it might seem a bit disjointed, I hope you’ll forgive my laziness. 🙂


    I think he has captured the essence of IPL as the spectacle it has been staged to be. That isn’t to say it is wrong. Kartikeya had made this point a long time ago to me on a couchtalk podcast —
    It is as follows: The success of IPL has hinged on the fact that it is dealt to the public as “Proper Cricket”, and that there is no difference in the cricket that we saw during an IPL game than in an ODI or Test. It is the same players, same rules (almost). same syntax, same commentators, same XI players a side, but the contest between ball and bat which is what cricket is, doesn’t really exist.

    And of course, it also feeds in to the appetite of us ‘subbies’ – the marriage of Bollywood and Cricket. The need to be seen aspect – whether at Lords or at VIP box, Chris is spot on with it, which is why you see Mega Stars at superbowls and NBA finals and FOX Network trots out its stars at pregame shows etc during World Series.

    I can see why T20 as a cricketing spectacle itself appeals to you — based on how you recognize it to be closer to the gully cricket we all have played at some stage in our lives but we were under no illusion that gully cricket is the pinnacle of the sport. If teams were to have only 5 wickets in hand in 20 overs, I’ll take the cricketing aspect of T20 little more seriously. Then there is more management of risk.
    The balance between bat and ball, and the inherent management of risk is what defines cricket as a sport – to me anyway

  4. subash says:

    I forgot to add. I watch my share of T20s too, especially the IPL variety. BBL, FLT20, CPL etc too sometimes but they rarely ever keep my continuous attention. IPL, since it has that little tribal aspect to it, from my POV, as someone from Chennai, and with a team for me to BIRG off of, kind of helps. Otherwise, as a sporting spectacle itself, T20s do not hold that much interest to me. I think Gideon Haigh said it in a post (but I could be wrong) of being in a vegetative state while watching the BBL games.

    • Tell Gideon to look up Shaiby at Eden Gardens, with the crowd on *his* side as he served up magic 😉

      • subash says:

        I remember that game very well. Shoaib coming back from injury for KKR vs DD. The trick that the devil has pulled is that in making us believe that the spells like that one from Shoaib is commonplace in IPL (or T20s in general) while it isn’t. Bowlers are severely neutered by having the chance to bowl only 24 deliveries while the batsmen can swing to the fences without a care in the world as there are only 120 deliveries and 10 wickets to spend.

        It is Shoaib’s greatness as a bowler that he transcended the inherent limitations of a T20 game. There was this spell from Steyn for SRH vs MI where he made a mockery of Levi and was operating on that Shoaib level where the bowler overcame the limitations and made a T20 in to a contest between bat and ball.

  5. Two broad ideological points here Subs.

    Firstly, the balance b/w bat and ball to me has been a relationship which has resonance with patriarchy and women. The history of the game has inevitably been batsmen (who almost always occupy administrative positions) changing the laws to protect themselves, and bowlers using subversion to create new tactics which are then outlawed again. Bouncers, reverse swing, doosras are all attempts by bowlers (and rarely something the game legislatively allows) to redress the balance. For every one tiny thing conceded to the bowlers (2 bouncers per over) the batsmen claim a 100 more (smaller boundaries, the ridiculousness of LBW clauses, bats, leaving the crease when they feel like vs bowlers having to bowl within two creases etc etc). So while we all prefer this balance, it is one that is missing from most of cricket.

    However, the above is more of a rant by me and not exactly responding to your point.

    Secondly, I feel that T20 and the IPL are modern responses. Cricket, and particularly Test cricket, asks an inordinate amount from the spectator. Can’t think of a major sport which happens almost entirely during working hours AND during the weekdays. Only the wealthy or the unemployed can be expected to ‘watch’ the sport that way, much less pay to attend it. T20 offers that escape. For me, this one point is at the heart of this debate, and it is a moral question too. For all the Test cricket offers, and there is a lot, surely asking for this much in this day and age would only end up attracting the well off.

    To try and give an analogy, I was very late amongst the blogging crowd (of which I was an active member) to join twitter. I hated both the brevity as well as the impermanence. Blogs were there to stay even if you missed out the comments fight till later, but with Twitter if you missed it,it was gone. And while that remains, there is so much more that Twitter has come to offer instead.

    Also, and this convo would need Hassan Cheema too, but I suspect serious Pakistani cricket fans would love the IPL (given that it includes Pak players) far more than serious Indian cricket fans.

  6. subash says:

    When I talked about the balance, i wasn’t exactly pointing to the rules but your point is taken. Here is that transcript of the podcast with KD – you should give it a read, especially the section where we talk about the balance between and ball. http://thecricketcouch.com/couch-talk/transcript-couch-talk-with-kartikeya-date/

    To use your analogy of twitter and blogs — As you very well recognize, there is some use of twitter but its nature is quite ephemeral. Though even that aspect of it in sport has it place and value – how much is it depends on who you ask – i think sport as a contest for me must require not only the attention to detail from the performers but also the audience.

    To say Test cricket demands too much of its viewers in terms of time (Money aspect of it we’ll get to later) and using that to justify T20 doesn’t really jive with me. Cricket is not a local sport any more, meaning, it is viewed across time zones instantaneously. So no matter what, there will be an audience for it, sometimes big, sometimes small. Which leads us to the revenue model, which has been tied in to TV broadcasting deals, and the digital broadcast deals. We can discuss how much money is enough money for a sport at some other time but that’s something that has to be answered by all parties concerned.

  7. I think that T20 is cricket for the time-poor modern world – brief and forgettable, but entertaining. It has a place in this form, but, as I point out, the IPL has overwhelmed the actual cricket with celebrity and sponsorship and is offering the impression (Debord’s spectacle) of quality short form cricket. It has its moments, thanks to the players it can attract and the natural competitiveness of the condensed game, but surely there can be an excellent short form competition that genuinely engages and attracts fans with pure sport (if pure sport can exist, but that’s another argument). It might not have balance (although not sponsoring sixes might help) but it would engage people. Test cricket isn’t a sustainable model for proselytizing, but new supporters would learn to tune into its cadences.

  8. Kartikeya says:

    I think the posts makes two separate points. Anderson came up with the idea of an imagined community because he felt that the left did not offer a good account of nationalism. Debord on the other hand is discussing a replacement – a replacement of lived experience (being) by ownership (having) and then finally by immanent imaginaries (appearing). The notion of replacement gives Debord’s critique its value in my view.

    In this sense, all sport produces an imagined community, simply because sport is governed by shared rules – rules which have to be shared to a greater or lesser degree by its participants and its spectators or followers. The IPL, in Anderson’s sense, is just another newly configured imagined community.

    Debord’s critique takes us further, because it lets us consider what the IPL is replacing. It produces the mere appearance of cricket. The society of cricket in T20 is constituted/mediated through this appearance of cricket. The appearance of cricket depends substantively on false oppositions being set up (partisanship being the obvious one), since the actual opposition – between bat and ball, substantively ceases to matter in T20 – nobody knows or cares whats going on there. Where as cricket was once constituted by a contest between bat and ball, made better by excellent bowling and excellent batting (each relying on the other to be possible, each revealing something about possibility of human lived experience), sport becomes, as Debord alludes “semi-ludic”.

    In his words –
    “False choice in spectacular abundance, a choice which lies in the juxtaposition of competing and complimentary spectacles and also in the juxtaposition of roles (signified and carried mainly by things) which are at once exclusive and overlapping, develops into a struggle of vaporous qualities meant to stimulate loyalty to quantitative triviality. This resurrects false archaic oppositions, regionalisms and racisms which serve to raise the vulgar hierarchic ranks of consumption to a preposterous ontological superiority. In this way, the endless series of trivial confrontations is set up again. from competitive sports to elections, mobilizing a sub-ludic interest. Wherever there is abundant consumption, a major spectacular opposition between youth and adults comes to the fore among the false roles–false because the adult, master of his life, does not exist and because youth, the transformation of what exists, is in no way the property of those who are now young, but of the economic system, of the dynamism of capitalism. Things rule and are young; things confront and replace one another.”

    • Thanks for expanding, that’s an excellent development. I was trying to show that when sport is more than pleasant background scenery and becomes the focus, it requires the imagining of communities to create meaning (i.e. the national sports team, or even a regional one). And, of course, codification is required for sport to work, creating further connections.

      I tried to see the IPL as something more (or less), not demanding attention, but paradoxically designed to do so to the detriment of the sport, because the sport doesn’t matter. You could argue that sport never matters, and that’s why imagined communities are created, giving significance beyond hitting or kicking a ball. That’s where Anderson’s ideas are useful. But IPL franchises are weakly imagined, transitory in terms of personnel, and associated more with celebrities than place (although I know some will disagree). The reason I invoke Debord is both this meaningless (or spectacle of meaning), and the commercialisation, knowing cricket is popular and therefore using its currencies to support your own interests, devaluing the original values in the process. At times, “real” cricket does break through, and the format is viable. It is the context that the game is placed in, the event as a whole, that is stripped of meaning, unable to imagine a community, but created for spectacle, and therefore offering so many “vaporous qualities”.

  9. pam says:

    I do not know where you got the idea that indians are more interested in the spectacle rather then the game. Maybe to downplay IPL? The guys i know follow their team and critic it just like how the indian team is crictized. We do debate about the composition of the team similarly to ODI or Test.

    I see T20, ODI, Test are different forms of cricket which require different skill set. Some are good in one while not so good in other. Guys like Kolhi/ABD are good in all forms while Yuvraj is just good in ODI/T20.

    That said i do not watch many IPL games these days nor do i have a team to support. The state where RCB is located does not have a single local player.

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