It was late afternoon on the fourth day of the third and final Test between India and West Indies at Dominica earlier this month. The West Indies were tottering in their second innings, seven wickets were already down, Rampaul, the pace bowler, had just joined the dour Shivnarine Chanderpaul. A risky run was taken, Rampaul made a dive towards the wicket-keeper’s end, the fielder at square leg made a sharp, accurate throw, Dhoni collected the ball and thrust the bails out. While Rampaul was still clearly out of the crease, the field umpires were not altogether sure though whether Dhoni had the ball actually in his gloves when he broke the stumps. They referred to the third umpire, who took quite a while before making up his mind, looking closely at the video takes from different angles. Seconds ticked by, suspense mounted in the field and among the millions watching the match on the television channels. Time is money, each second works out to perhaps a few thousand dollars or more, the telecast was peremptorily interrupted, what followed was a rush of maybe a dozen advertisements stretching for a full five minutes, the viewer had no way of finding out during this interregnum whether Rampaul had been declared out or not, agony got added to the continuing suspense. It was only after the telecast was resumed to show Fidel Edwards keeping Chanderpaul company that one had confirmation that the eighth West Indies wicket too was down.
A safe wager to take; the same commentary was being telecast by some channel or other in the West Indies, in England, Australia and New Zealand, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, possibly in South Africa as well, in none of these countries were the viewers denied their right to know the third umpire’s decision the moment it was flashed across the big screen on the field. In India, it had to be different. Capitalism is here rushing to its climacterics. Money-making — maximization of profit — is here not merely a humdrum professional goal of the business and industrial communities; it is the be-all and end-all of their existence. Squeeze to the limit whatever is squeezable is a religious credo, the rate of return must be pushed up and further up. In the context of this overriding objective of profit maximization; all other considerations are of zero worth. A television channel owes its allegiance only to the quantum of money it makes through the display of advertisements, not to the game of cricket; the Test match commentaries are merely a cover for the advertisements that are the source of amassable wealth; letting the viewers watch the proceedings while the game is actually on is reckoned to be enough, the time the third umpire takes to give his verdict cannot be allowed to go to waste. What do the Indian entrepreneurs care about the agony of the cricket buff?
The perpetrators of this kind of outrage that reduces cricket lovers to helpless fury have of course their own point of view. They are not the least apologetic in airing it either. Cricket, they will argue, has long ceased to be an indolent game to be savoured in a lazy, leisurely manner, conforming to the civilities of pastoral life. It is now an industry, an international industry; it is entertainment: at the same time, more than entertainment, like horse-racing or motion pictures. Cricket as business involves investment of millions and millions of dollars. If these millions were sunk elsewhere, the rate of return would have been of a certain order. If investors fail to attain more than that rate from their outlay on cricket they will have no alternative but to move away, that is to say, phase out their investments in cricket and depart with their kitty for other pastures. Among other things, that will also mean the end of global telecasts of cricket commentaries, a surcease of the luxury viewers enjoy, lounging in their living room in Patna or Madurai and watching Sachin Tendulkar launching on a delectable straight drive to the fences — which also fetches him his umpteenth Test century — the moment he launches on it. The viewers have a choice, they either accept cricket telecasts with all their imperfections and alleged crudities or push back the game to the insularity of the pre-information technology revolution era. Indian entrepreneurs, it will also be added, are least bothered about the extent of consideration accorded to the viewers by the channel in Australia, England or South Africa. None of these countries can match India’s scale of civilities or rate of growth. Cricket in India, in the manner it has been organized and managed in recent decades, has played its humble part in propelling this magnificent national growth. Those associated, directly or indirectly, with the business of cricket, including the channels, are determined not to do anything that could adversely affect the prospects of India’s rapid and yet more rapid economic progress. Is not the whole world watching in awe the spectacle of Indian capitalism single-mindedly at work?
Which means here in India cricket telecasts will continue to be choked off the instant someone gets out or an appeal to declare him out is posted with the umpires; no opportunity will be provided to the viewers to learn what the commentators have to say on the nature of the ball that claimed the wicket or the stroke that felled the batsman or the quite unbelievable catch the third man has taken — and of course there is no question of permitting television watchers in Mumbai and New Delhi the privilege of sharing with spectators in the field at Port of Spain the moments of exciting uncertainty preceding the decision of the third umpire on a dicey leg-before-wicket appeal. Pampering such flippancies harms the cause of profit maximization.
In a society assumed to be free, there ought to be some space for devil’s advocates. Consumer sovereignty is one of the essential features of the free market. It puts the imprimatur on the process that leads to profit maximization. Advertisement money spent by the sponsors is intended to win over the legions of cricket fans who sit glued to the television sets. Their number has already reached millions and is likely to grow even faster in future. They are, besides, quickly travelling through the learning curve and coming to appreciate to an increasing extent the charm wrapped in the mystique of this somewhat sophisticated game. Viewer psychology is a complex phenomenon. Once a sufficiently large number of television watchers enters the ethos of cricket, these watchers would conceivably like to experience every moment of it and share, along with the spectators actually present at the Test match venue many thousands of miles away, the excitement and suspense over an appeal pending for leg-before-wicket or a run out or a stumping, they will hate any distractions at this point. Initially, there will be no grouse, they will endure the sales pitches for the goods and services the sponsors are anxious to sell them. One never knows, as capitalism matures, consumer taste too can mature, tolerance can gradually gravitate towards impatience; impatience can beget irritation, that may, in the course of a short time, develop into hostility. When that stage is reached, the advertisements may turn out to be counterproductive. In the recesses of the mind, the wares being advertised can begin to be considered as infernal nuisance, sabotaging the right of viewers to enjoy their cricket. What a calamity, the sales curve may in fact start wobbling.
Such is the problem with resurgent capitalism. It does not at all know, or does not know enough, about the boundary conditions of profit maximization. A rising rate of profit tempts its protagonists to target an even higher rate of profit. At some stage, any sense of proportion gets lost, howlers are committed, howlers that have a negative impact on earnings, dragging down the rate of profit. The seekers of insensate profit, therefore, every now and then, need advice and counsel for their own good. In the present instance, sponsors have to fill in that role, and for their own interest. The consumer is sovereign; an excess of advertisements that cuts athwart the consumer’s right to savour his coveted leisure can be costly beyond measure.
But, then, there is a school of thought which is confident that capitalism of the Indian genre is maturity-proof and consumer preference too will always remain overwhelmingly banal.