Back in the 80s, when I first started watching live cricket, there was a certain aura and anticipation each match, however routine, carried with it. Be it waking up early for live broadcasts from Australia, or listening to commentary on earphone-enabled transistor radios in the classroom or, in cases when there was no TV telecast or commentary (e.g. some India tests on foreign soil), being glued to the hourly AIR news bulletins for a score update – Cricket was important.
Memories of the matches I watched between 1984-1993 are still vivid, including specifics like commentary, team details and scorecards. I still watch cricket and that kind of vivid memory exists for key matches like World Cup games or important Test series held over the last two decades. But in between these important games are hundreds of other games that I have no recollection of!
The debate around “too much cricket” indeed seems real. India played a record 43 ODIs in 1999, vis-à-vis an average of about 18 per year in the 1985-1992 period. Of course, T20 cricket, including the IPL, compounds the too-much factor, even though Test cricket levels have hovered around an average of 10-12 Tests per year for a while now.
It’s not wrong to say that an “overdose” of any form of entertainment or leisure can lead to depletion in interest over time. However, there is a key component in the too-much-cricket debate that is never spoken of. The aspect that I call: Too Much Entertainment.
Most of the cricket in the 80s and the early 90s was in an environment free of satellite television. Cricket, when it was telecast on DD, was the only thing to watch. All eyes would focus on a game, even if it was an inconsequential one, such as some of the utterly random tournaments held in Sharjah in the late 80s.
In the 90s, as cable & satellite recruited more audiences, options began to multiply. India was playing a crazy amount of ODI cricket in this decade, peaking to that shocking number of 43 ODIs by 1999. The average for the 1996-2000 period was 37 ODIs a year. Yet, the clutter was never felt or spoken about as much as today, because other entertainment options were fewer in number.
Cricket fans (mostly men) had only about a dozen non-cricket channels to watch, which often carrying content targeted at women audiences anyway. It’s in the early 2000s that the satellite boom really made its impact felt, after KBC and Kyunkii Saas entered our lives in the year 2000. As the medium of television realised its true potential, it also created a problem of plenty. There was too much entertainment all around, and cricket occupied a much smaller share of this offering, only because the offering itself had grown in size.
The average number of ODIs India played in the decade of 2000s was 29, down from the 37 number mentioned above. But ironically, this was the period when the talk of too much cricket really gathered momentum. In reality though, it was not too much cricket, but roughly similar amount of cricket as a part of a too-much-entertainment environment.
The later half of the last decade complicated this matter even further, with the emergence of Internet as a strong entertainment delivery medium for the urban markets. That, along with the launch of the IPL in 2008, means that the too-much-cricket debate is here to stay for good.
Yes, cricket viewership may have dipped over years, but so has the viewership of most other genres. Top TV serials today deliver a percentage viewership (TVR) of less than half of what they used to about five years ago. New fiction launches rarely open at anything above 2.5 TVR, vis-a-vis 5+ TVR upto 2009. In contrast, cricket viewership for key events has shown only a 20-25% slide, and there have been games that have been immune to even this.
The too-much-entertainment environment is here to stay. It means too many films, too many songs, too many channels, too many serials, too many reality shows, too many websites, too many Facebook friends, etc. Too much cricket will always be a part of this list.
But the best in each category shall survive this overdose environment. There may be too many films, but a film like 3 Idiots will find its place in the clutter. Similarly, TV programs like KBC, Balika Vadhu, Taarak Mehta or Diya Aur Baati Hum shall find their place while the lesser ones fight the fragmentation. The rule is not very different for cricket either. The inconsequential matches (none less than India playing Sri Lanka in bilateral series over and over again) are the ones that tarnish the image of the sport, giving it the too-much perceptions and lower ratings.
The only way to counter an overdose perception is to create a perception of consistent quality. Picking the right oppositions and tournaments to play is the key, not the number of games itself. Being the cricketing superpower that we are, that’s the least we can command!
This post first appeared on mxmindia.com, on my weekly column ‘TV Trail’