Soon after my marriage, my wife was surprised by my insatiable ability to watch cricket. Every time she wanted to watch HBO or VH1, she invariably had to switch to these channel from ESPN or Star Sports or Ten Sports. She knew I liked the game but she had not imagined such stiff competition from my love for watching cricket. More than anything else, she was amazed by the fact that how someone sitting in Pune can watch a match between two Australian clubs playing in Perth. But what she couldn’t understand was that like in a joke where presentation becomes as important as the content, I was glued to screen because of the quality of the broadcast - the hot spots, the super slow-mos, the hawk eyes and to top it all, the digital quality pictures.
I belong to the generation which entirely relied on DD for any short of entertainment. Thankfully, I made my cricket viewing debut in a series which was not produced by DD. While pictures were not of digital quality, I loved watching India – Pakistan 1989 series because for the first time in my life, I was watching cricket with full interest. You just love to stare at your first crush for hours and hours - looks, age, relationship, social status and in some special cases even gender doesn’t matter. Also, I didn’t even think about the picture quality because I had nothing to compare it with. If you don’t know how to drive a car, you wouldn’t even think about how comfortable it is to drive an Audi as compared to driving a Fiat’s Premier Padmini. For the record, I still don’t know how to drive a car.
From Pakistan, we travelled to New Zealand. DD didn’t oblige saying broadcasting rights were too costly. But DD was kind enough to broadcast the ODI series. For the first match, my father woke me up at 3:00 AM. Our TV, a 21 inch colored TV of the brand called Cenza, didn’t have any of the modern features. But a look at it sent me to different world. For the first time in my life I realized that watching cricket from the comfort of your drawing room can be an amazing experience. For the first time I realized that you can actually see the ball leaving bowler’s hand, reaching the batsman, moving to the boundary rope once batsman has hit it. And you can do it again in slow motion – the broadcaster actually shows it. I could only see the first innings as I had to rush to my school by the time second innings started but I was completely smitten by what I had seen. I enjoyed seeing cricket with such good camera work with the same glee as any female does when she walks past a jeweler’s shop.
India was scheduled to travel to England after New Zealand. DD was showing its reluctance to broadcast the series as rights were too expensive. I was still hopeful thinking they will at least broadcast the ODIs. They didn’t. I followed the entire series on radio.
The team came back home and played Sri Lanka. Things were back to normal or should I say way below sub normal. The broadcasting quality was so poor that all you could see was bowler running, batsman moving his body, fielder running, the crowd, and the multiple Samachhar breaks. If you had told some, who knew nothing about cricket, that they just act and there is no concept ball in cricket, he might well have believed you. I remember an incident. England was playing Board President XI in Lucknow in 1993. Graeme Hick got out. Commentator, I am sure he was sitting in DD’s office in Mandi House and watching the match on TV, said, “Hick is bowled.” Few seconds later he announced, “That was well bowled. Actually he was stumped.” His co-commentator said “I think he has been hit wicket.” Both of them were not clear and final verdict was “Dear viewers, we will soon find out and let you know how he got out” They must have found it out next day in the news papers that he was given out LBW. Alas, by then the match was over and they had no way to inform us about Hick’s dismissal.
I felt like a kid who was going to school after 2 months of summer holiday. After that series, it became a catch-22 situation for me. For the quality for broadcast, I prayed that India should always play out of India. But the probability that DD would buy the broadcasting rights for an away series was as low as they showing Basic Instinct on Saturday night. DD did show some of the matches of WC92. We were pampered. But those matches couldn’t avoid the regular breaks for Samachhars or Rangoli. Our viewing was hampered. Cable TV was making its inroads so reliance on DD for away series was reducing. But another event was about to change it all and change it forever.
Cricket association of Bengal (CAB) was organizing Hero Cup in 1993. They sold the production and broadcasting rights to TWI. It was a shock to DD. They wouldn’t have had any objection in taking the feed from TWI and broadcast it. But they were not going to get it free. Not this time. For them it was their birthright to broadcast any tournament held at home. Now CAB and DD locked horns.
There was also an issue with the cricket stadiums. Cricket stadiums in India had a complaint against broadcasting of cricket matches – if a match is broadcasted live, people in the city prefer watching it at home than coming to the stadium. To some extent, this was true. While DD’s picture quality was terrible, watching a cricket match in stadium was even worse. I remember going to Green Park in Kanpur for a cricket match (India – SL). Stadium was already full with more than half the capacity crowd waiting outside – valid tickets in their hands. With everyone shouting – “India will lose today,” it was not hard to get confused with the location of the match. It did look as if we were in Kandy and not in Kanpur. Injustice can so easily kill patriotism. India got bowled out at 78 replying SL’s 196. So the cricket stadium’s always wanted some royalty from DD in lieu of allowing the usage of stadium for broadcasting the matches. After all the stadiums were hosting the event which was used by DD free of cost as a feed to their broadcast. DD never paid a penny.
The war between DD and CAB was heating up. At one point of time it looked like Hero Cup will meet the fate of Kapil Dev’s epic 175 in WC83. The matter went to the court. A verdict came out which was revised. It was revised again, and again. After several revisions, the matter was sorted out. DD was allowed to air the tournament but they couldn’t use TWI’s feed. They needed to use their own production team to make their own feed. TWI was allowed to sell the broadcasting rights to other channels. Both the parties had their own production and broadcasting. For the first time, Indian viewers saw different quality at the same time.
While cable TV had entered India, its penetration was still shallow. At least it didn’t reach my home, not before 1998. Huge chunk of population was still relying on DD. So, if you had cable connection at home, you saw how Jadeja and Kumble suffocated South Africa in the middle over before Sachin won the Hero Cup semi final in his THAT over. I, with complete dependence on DD, saw Samachar and may be Chitrahaar during that period.
Things started changing after that. At least DD got a message that it can no longer take things for granted. And competition was arriving at its home turf, a stiff one. May be they realized something which power plants running on rice husk are realizing or will realize soon. In any business, raw material can never be free forever. If you have a consumer base of a decent size, better use the cost benefits of free raw material to build a brand, to penetrate the market and above all, ensure your consumers are addicted to the excellence of your quality. Otherwise, competition will set in sooner or later and someone else will do what you couldn’t. He will reap the benefits also – of higher magnitude and for longer time periods. DD lacked this vision. But changed scenario provided us a much better vision.
At my home, Bal Ganesha has just won over the highlights of Eden – 2001.
PS: I have written it entirely based on my memory. Any accuracy is regretted.