Saturday, June 9, 2012

Cricket on TV - The Machine is Human

Guest post by Joe Ruffell

One would imagine that if once an image could had summed up the the game of cricket it would had been similar to one of those tacky watercolours of village cricket grounds. A little piece of land surrounded by the countryside, taped off but within the distinctly ideological world of the English pastoral aesthetic. Rolling hills in the background et al. Nowadays, it is that great establishing shot of the modern televised game. The long shot, filmed from the stand behind the bowlers arm, as beautifully framed as an Angelopoulos zoom shot. Full of green, white lines, the umpire’s back, the batsman fidgeting and shuffling preparing to play. This is the set up, the contest, no doubt ever present in the sport but foregrounded by the very nature of the televised spectacle. Subtlety and guile, still present in spin and swing bowling, have taken a backseat as fifty over and especially twenty over cricket, shorter games and bigger hitting, made the game a billion dollar concern. Can the bowler blow away the batsman stumps? Can the batsman avoid the ball hurtling down the gauntlet and strike a blow of his own across the boundary rope?

The shot continues: if the batsman makes good contact, a frenzied wobble, pan or zoom to catch up with the ball. This one uninterrupted piece of television forms, save some running between the wickets perhaps, 90% of the action. It is the heart of the televised cricket match. But as in Eisenstein so at Edgbaston. The context that the this one shot appears in actually furnishes the action with meaning. So we get the ball rolling over the rope in close up (the batsmans success) or the reverse shot from the other end of the scowling bowler celebrating a dot ball (his small victory over the batsman). We may have a side on slow motion of the pitch, the helpless player facing down aggressive short pitched neck high bowling. The slip fielders glancing at each other - agony and ecstasy by the split second in ultra slow motion. The crowd from three different perspectives cheering, baying, dressed daftly. And now the first establishing shot again, this time in slo mo to remind us of what he saw in the context of those edits. The montage makes the spectacle.

In his essay The Smash of Rage, mourning the brutality of modern tennis, the great French film critic Serge Daney noted how televised coverage with modern techniques had changed the sport:

"Elegance has therefore disappeared as the TV spectator's eye expected something else from tennis. All this …. deepened the scenography of tennis with a new dimension: that of the close up after the rally, of the disarticulated replay, of the stroboscopic ordinariness of the slow motion, of the microphone at court level. The number of events per second inflated with all the affects, tics, drives and silent rages that a body is capable of.

Since it was no longer a question to suppress the aggressiveness in tennis, and since it was no longer enough to simply observe it on the image, it was about defining the vocabulary of its gestures, a visual vocabulary. … the young ones of the eighties who, despite their gifts, did not all have the famous killer instinct, felt "obliged" to manufacture gestures that everybody could see, inelegant but "human" gestures, where one could read their sadness of never being enough of a killer. This is the moment when the incest happened between television and tennis.

The code of this aggressiveness is now known: closed fists, bended necks, curved bodies and evil gazes. As if it was necessary to maintain oneself as long as possible in a state of hate, without assigning any particular object to that hate. For this frenetic body language is not directed at the opponent, but at one's self-image, at the image the public is creating and the image the cameras are coldly recording."
No doubt the televised spectacle must alter the cricket players image of themselves, perhaps sometimes with mischievously ironic self-deprecation (as in Warne) but more often as the steely professional on-screen. So in 20-20 cricket we have these gladiatorial contests between bat and ball raised to be the very meaning of the game. The old glory, the batsman as artist - doing something incredible to raise a period of play to an amazing level just about survives but the tight rhythm of the montages makes the crowds reaction little more than canned laughter. This is sport in a further alienated form: the big six down the ground does not just signify playful abandon or beautiful technique but a marketing opportunity, the replay will be used to sell mobile phones, fried chicken or Sky Sports subscriptions. The secret that gives the advertisers montage of sixes meaning - the machine is human.

If the spectacle is a key element in understanding sport as a commodity, the televised montage is the ultimate shorthand for contest opposed to play. Whether used in the recording of the game itself or advertising purposes it further alienates player and public from a joyful relationship with sports and games.