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.