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- Coverage of International cricket in India raises quality questions

Two balls left with India needing six to win. And your nails are all ragged.

Sanath Jayasuriya bowls a gentle spinner and Mahendra Singh Dhoni does what you were expecting him to. Oh good, the ball is soaring up and up — but wait, has Dhoni got enough on it to clear the Rajkot ground'

Farvez Maharoof sprints… he is about to collide with a teammate… but he keeps his eyes on the ball and, oh-oh-oh, takes a brilliant, tumbling catch. Groan!

Then, before the Blue Billion can blink, Neo Sports has let loose an Ambuja Cement ad with Boman Irani in a double role, trying to break a thick cement wall.

You want to break it more than him, by banging your head.

Okay, it’s over – but no, a second ad is blocking the view.

Meanwhile, Jayasuriya has bowled the last ball of the second ODI and Sreesanth has split the air with his bat. Game over.

Someone is alert at Neo Sports. The second ad is cut short midway and the tail end of Sreesanth’s swing bobs into view. For a second, you don’t understand what’s going on.

You see the Lankans celebrating and the disappointment on the Indian faces in the pavilion. After several confused seconds, it’s back to replays of Dhoni’s dismissal, followed by Sreesanth’s heave and miss.

Make that Neo Sport’s hit and miss.

The channel that has wrought a revolution by bringing domestic tournaments like the Challenger, Duleep and Ranji trophies to your living room is under increasing criticism over its coverage of international matches.

And it’s only the beginning. Sister company Nimbus Communications, which is supplying the feed, has the rights to all BCCI events till 2010. For the Indian fan’s sake, it needs to learn quickly from the recent flop show.

The lessons were all there, a press of the remote button away. Just by switching channels you could have seen the efficient and pleasing way ESPN-STAR Sports was covering the tri-series in Australia.

Clear pictures, myriad camera angles, unobtrusive ads, gripping commentary and easy but in-depth analyses. And, of course, a wealth of graphics and special software looking to disentangle every strand of the game and lay bare all the nuances.

Take, for instance, the laser black-and-white pictures that showed you if the ball had hit the bat and exactly where. A clear improvement on the snickometer which, with its jagged waves, merely says the ball has hit something.

Or the super slo-mo combining with precise camera angles to help you make up your mind over a tricky stumping, or the Dartfish catching the ball and its seam as it spins, loops and lands, then spins in another direction.

And listening to Richie Benaud and Bill Lawry to find out what your eyes saw but your mind missed.

“What makes Channel 9 (producing the feed for ESPN-STAR) stand out is the quality of the commentary team and the camera people. The likes of Benaud, Lawry and (Ian) Healy focus on the nuances instead of stating the obvious,” says sports journalist Sanjay Rajan.

“They explain instead of mouthing cricket jargon, and the camera crew work in sync. It just proves that experience is what counts in cricket coverage.”

Sheetal Paknikar, cricket buff and creative director of a Mumbai-based ad agency, cites an example to explain the gulf.

“I saw Rahul Dravid hit a six against Sri Lanka on Neo, and the camera couldn’t track the ball. As soon as a cameraman sees the batsman coming down the track, he must anticipate what he might do. The crew must understand the game.”

Paknikar says that when Andrew Symonds hits one into the stands, ESPN-STAR not only follows the ball through its journey, but is good enough to catch little details of individual spectators’ reaction when it lands near them.

To Paknikar, as to many other Indians, “ESPN-STAR’s coverage has become a yardstick, and watching cricket on Neo is a bit of an anti-climax.” The visual communications expert finds Neo’s graphics and information far too “overboard”.

“For broadcasters like Channel 9, the depth and quality of information is the priority. They don’t jazz it all up or use unnecessary colours.”

How did Nimbus bag the rights'

“We had two separate bids for telecast rights and production. Nimbus won both,” said Board of Control for Cricket in India secretary Niranjan Shah.

“We had laid down detailed technical criteria… the bidders needed to have proven experience in cricket coverage. We had also specified the graphics and other features to be used, the number of cameras, etc.”

Is the board happy with Neo’s coverage' “Yes, they are doing a good job,” Shah said. “They are a bit weak on commentary — the other channels had already signed up the established commentators.”

ESPN-STAR’s array of commentators and match analysts includes the likes of Harsha Bhogle, Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram, while Sony Max has Ian Chappell, Barry Richards, Geoff Boycott and Tony Greig.

But Neo Sports CEO Shashi Kalathil is upbeat. “Neo deploys up to 30 cameras on the ground. You need a minimum of 15… the Sri Lanka matches had about 30, I think.”

Kalathil said his channel had all the software that rivals used. “If you are talking of Hawkeye, we have it, too. Only it’s called Virtual Eye. We have stump-to-stump vision and Spin--Meter.”

Given the sums involved in the award of telecast rights, BCCI’s decisions have often been controversial and have even led to court cases.

“When have the technical criteria mattered' It’s always been about money,” said an official with a cricket broadcaster who wouldn’t be quoted.

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