Editorial\Book of human life
Cricket and the camera
Letters to the Editors

The entire human gene sequence has now been mapped. It is not unsafe to say this will be one of the great scientific achievements of the century. It is almost assuredly a turning point in mankind’s knowledge of itself. The entire physical basis of homo sapiens — three billion chemical letters in which are imbedded some 100,000 genes — will soon be as available for perusal as a telephone directory. The human genome breakthrough marks another turning point in contemporary science. Namely, the arrival of the private sector as a key player in frontier scientific discovery. The genome was not mapped by the traditional team of scientists at a university or government research laboratory. The book of life was transcribed by a private United States biotechnology company, Celera.

The presence of men in suits on the cutting edge of knowledge troubles many. Environmentalists and their ilk have painted scary pictures of corporations “owning” a person’s genetic code. More reasonably, scientists worry that the transparency so essential to the pursuit of knowledge will be circumscribed. Recently the leaders of the United Kingdom and the US, Mr Tony Blair and Mr Bill Clinton, urged that “raw fundamental information” about the human gene sequence be placed in the public domain. When Wall Street turned down its thumb, Mr Clinton hastily added that he supported profits made from inventions derived from genomic data.

The debate is being waged out of ignorance or, at best, because the intellectual property rights surrounding genomes exist in a grey legal area. Celera cannot patent the human genome. And though it has, like other companies, filed patents on several thousand specific genes, the courts are yet to allow these claims. As gene sequencing becomes easier, it is unlikely they will be accepted. Celera wants to patent a few thousand genes and surrender the remaining information to the public. More importantly, it expects to make money from packaging the huge mound of genetic information it has gathered and selling it bit by bit to pharmaceutical firms. Some will complain Celera will withhold data while it sifts through the information it has gathered. This is only fair. It spent millions of dollars on sequencing. As it cannot patent the genetic map, it will have to keep the information secret until it has gleaned what money making spinoffs it can.

There is a rival billion dollar human genome project being funded by the US government and the Wellcome Trust. This is a traditional, public minded project. But it has moved at a snail’s pace compared to Celera. It expects to have its final genome map out by 2003. Celera and its owner, Mr J. Craig Venter, have shown typical private sector innovation by developing a software driven means of mapping called whole genome shotgunning. With the genome under their belt, it is expected that laboratories will soon launch nothing short of a new medical revolution, generating special treatments and medicines for thousands of diseases and ailments. Again, it is the private sector that will lead the way.

There needs to be more clarity on what exactly is patentable in all this. The best solution would be to argue that genomic information cannot be protected, but the use or tailored packaging of such information can. This would allow pure scientists access to any data gleaned by a private company as well as provide an incentive for firms to continue to pump in billions of dollars into research.

With the human genome in hand, mankind is setting out on a new adventure in science. But it must be an adventure in which business is recognized as a necessary partner. Otherwise, it will be far slower, far less productive and much less profitable, in all meanings of the word, than it should be.    

Cricket’s relationship with the camera has passed through three stages. In the beginning the camera existed to record cricket for posterity. Don Bradman was available on television last week, in black and white, demonstrating in some long dead nets, his trademark shots. Recently, I watched the final moments of the tied test between Australia and the West Indies. A day before that there was a documentary film about Graeme Pollock and I watched hypnotized because it was the first time I had seen footage of the great man at the crease. Movie cameras in those early years produced a scrappy and incomplete archive of cricket gone by.

With the coming of TV the camera took on another function, it now existed to relay cricket to contemporary audiences. To start with, that is all it did; it was radio commentary with moving pictures. The commentators talked just as much as they had on radio till they learnt that their descriptive function had become largely irrelevant. We didn’t need to be told that Sobers was running in to bowl because we could see that for ourselves. Nor was the commercial potential of camera relayed cricket exploited. Cricket associations made no money from the telecast of their product because it was seen as an elaboration of radio commentary and therefore a form of public service broadcasting. Also their commercial horizons were limited to gate money and the paying public, so in many countries, matches weren’t telecast in the city they were being played in to make sure that local fans didn’t stay home and watch for free.

Slowly, people got used to the medium and began to understand and exploit it better. Commentators stopped narrating the game and began to explain it instead, in brief asides. The audiences that TV made possible began to attract commercial sponsors and money came into the game on a scale unimaginable before TV. Today cricket’s economy is largely based on TV revenues.

Much more interesting is the way in which TV made cricket spectatorship different. Cricket is made for TV in a way that no other team game is (with the possible exception of snooker or American football). There are many reasons for this but the most basic one is that thanks to the zoom lens and the close-up you can see the game better on TV than you can in the stadium. You could argue that this is true for all sports but you’d be wrong. Take football. In football the action happens more or less continuously over the whole pitch; in cricket it is largely confined to a single set-piece repeated over and over again on a 22 yard strip in the middle of the ground: it’s a bit like watching a tennis match from a distance of 70 metres. While the stadium spectator in football gets a view of the action that is broadly comparable to camera coverage because the ball is large and the action spread over the field, the cricket camera delivers pictures that are incomparably better than anything you could see from a stadium seat.

You can see the ball turn, you can see it swing and reverse swing, you can watch the seam hit the ground upright or wobbly, you can watch McGrath’s mouth make obscenities and if the the stump microphones have been left on “accidentally” you can hear him. And then you can watch it again...on the slow motion replay. What you miss most in the stadium is the luxury of seeing things again and savvy stadium administrators have plugged that hole by erecting giant replay screens. Now spectators and players test what they have seen with their own eyes against the omniscience of the TV camera.

Spin Vision, the Snickometer, the virtual strip used to assess leg before wicket decisions are elaborations of the close up and the slow motion replay: they make an arcane game with complex laws graphic and explicit (and we are not talking sex here). But doesn’t this happen with every game? No it doesn’t, not to the same extent. Partly because in no other game is stadium spectatorship so difficult and limiting. But the main difference between cricket and football is that the continuous nature of football makes the replay much rarer. In football there is no equivalent for the dead time between one ball and another so a replay happens only after a goal or whenever the ball goes out of play for a reasonable length of time. So the slow motion replay as a way of ratifying real time action dominates cricket like it does no other sport.

The point of all this is to show that the nature of cricket has helped make the TV camera authoritative. Thanks to Kerry Packer and Channel 9, the camera’s record has become the authorized version. This brings us to the latest role that the camera has begun to play in cricket, that of regulation. The camera not only records and relays cricket, now it also regulates it. Since the South Africans pioneered the third umpire for adjudicating run outs via slow motion replays, we have seen more and more decisions referred to the third umpire: dubious catches, marginal stumpings, close boundary calls, have all begun to fall within the jurisdiction of the camera and its slow motion replay.

In an astonishingly short time, cricketing audiences have begun to take the camera’s jurisdiction for granted. The umpire sketching a rectangle in the air, so bizarre when it first happened, now seems normal, so normal that we forget that cricket is singular and exceptional in this use of the replay. In football the referee makes all his decisions without reference to video-footage or replays.

To some extent this difference is explained by the tempo of football: it isn’t possible to hold the game up while an off-field referee decides if the offside call was good. But surely marginal decisions about goals (did the ball cross the line before it was intercepted, was it Maradona’s hand that knocked it in or his head) could be referred to the camera without disrupting the game, since a goal creates an interval in play.

So why doesn’t football use the camera’s testimony in the way that cricket has enthusiastically begun to do? Why doesn’t tennis? Why isn’t the dodgy ace or the baseline-clipping ground shot quickly reviewed by the camera angles that are available to the viewer? It can’t be the hold up in play because play is routinely held up by players disputing line calls. On clay in the French Open, it isn’t unusual for the umpire to climb down from her perch to inspect the mark left by the ball on the surface to confirm or overrule a call. So why do these games not use the available technology in the way that cricket does?

I think the answer to that is that in cricket, the camera’s view of the game is a) so patently superior to anything the human eye can see, and b) so frequently aired via slow motion replays, that cricket watchers, administrators and players have become conditioned over time to accept it as conclusive. In no other game do these two conditions apply to anything like the same extent. Neither is the difference between the naked eye and the camera so great nor is the camera given so many opportunities to rehearse its omniscience. In these games, therefore, the camera’s view has not had the opportunity to become hegemonic.

Alone amongst major sports (with the exception of American football) cricket has chosen to submit its decisions to the judgment of the camera. Most other games choose to live with a margin of human error, but cricket in recent years has been seduced by the prospect of perfection. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, so long as cricket’s administrators are consistent in their use of technology. During the Pakistan tour of Australia last winter, we heard Australian cricketers past and present criticize the minute examination by camera of the bowling actions of Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar. Chappell said many fast bowlers in the past whose actions were accepted as legitimate had kinks in their action similar to those of Lee and Akhtar; only now these kinks were being blown out of proportion because superior cameras made them apparent. Rackemann suggested that the question of chucking be left to the unaided judgment of the umpires in the middle. Justin Langer opposed any action against them because they were great entertainers who helped bring crowds back to cricket.

This position is plainly wrong. First, because it is inconsistent. When the camera captures a batsman a hair’s breadth short of the crease or on the line, nobody complains that it is being pedantic or too literal in its interpretation of cricket’s laws. Similarly, if the camera spots a kink, however small, that falls within the definition of chucking, its evidence needs to be used. Secondly, the idea of an allowable “kink” is hugely unfair to bowlers like Donald, Akram, Ambrose, Srinath, Walsh, who suffer terrible physical stress trying to bowl fast within the definition of a legal delivery.

Finally, the argument that Lee and Akhtar ought to be exempt from a rigorous enforcement of the law because they are entertainers who bring colour to the game and crowds is appalling because it reduces cricket to the level of WWF wrestling matches. Cricket is entertainment because it is a credible contest. It is credible because it is defined by strict laws. Bend or break those rules in the name of entertainment and you convert cricket into dishonest spectacle where players become performers instead of contestants, ingratiating themselves with an audience rather than battling each other. The camera is a stern god; it demands complete submission.    


Close to the madding crowd

Sir — To what does one attribute the fact that one day, the latest crowdpuller, Hrithik Roshan, attracts thousands in Calcutta but on another day, his failure to turn up does not dissuade any of the 1,35,000 people from attending the tamasha match between Indian cricketers — current and former — and filmstars of the Mumbai and Tollygunge brands? Is it the still working charm of Mithun Chakraborty or the evergreen spontaneity with which Bengalis respond to a good cause? One would tend to think that it takes the correct combination of both these factors to win over the city’s heart. And from the reaction of the visibly moved Mithunda, it was not difficult to see why it must always be Calcutta for his fund raisers.

Yours faithfully,
Srija Guha, Calcutta

Massacre of hopes

Sir — The massacre of 36 Sikhs by Muslim jehadists in the Chattisinghpora village of Anantnag district is one of the most barbaric acts of fundamentalist hostility (“36 gunned down in first strike on Kashmir Sikhs”, March 22). Jehadists are active beyond Jammu and Kashmir too. It is suspected that money from the west Asia and explosives are coming into Mumbai. The Inter-Services Intelligence has been found to be involved in several such cases. The repeal of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act has not had favourable consequences. It is surprising to see the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government — the BJP’s professed stand against Pakistan is stronger than that of the other national parties — not reenact TADA with much more stringent provisions.

The Indian government should take a lesson or two from the way Israel fights cross- border terrorism. Laws should be enacted to fight foreign nationals illegally carrying out subversive operations in India. Such laws should contain provisions like the prompt arrest, and disenfranchising or keeping under surveillance their Indian abettors. Terrorists must be eliminated from the country. There is no point in keeping them in jails, only to be released at the demand of hijackers.

Yours faithfully,
K. Srinivas, Hyderabad

Sir — Chattisinghpora has brought into light the dismal failure of the Indian security forces . The Central government as well as the Farooq Abdullah-led state government proved utterly incompetent in dealing with terrorism in the valley. The last decade has seen the butchering of Hindus in the state and the driving away of Kashmiri Pandits from it.

The perpetrators of such crimes are the least true to their “jehad”, which is a struggle in the name of Islam. Is the religion glorified by such killings? It is time for India to seriously think whether surface and air links with Pakistan are actually helping the cause of the terrorists rather than promoting friendship between the two countries.

Yours faithfully,
Mili Das, Sindri

Sir — Following the Chattisingpora killings which were immaculately planned to coincide with Bill Clinton’s arrival in India, world leaders including Clinton himself spared no strong words to condemn the massacre. This is not new. But what has been the net gain for India? Little else other than empty sympathies that the government seems to find immensely comforting.

The government must be really naive not to notice this time around that none of the “sympathizers” seemed to have anything to say about the outrageous statements issued by Hurriyat Conference leaders regarding the killings being the handiwork of the Indian government. Will the government ever take the hint?

Yours faithfully,
H.M. Bardhan, Naihati

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