A weekly newsletter that often deconstructs but always explains the business of sport from India
Good Evening Dear Reader,
It’s been a hell of a week for Indian cricket. Last Friday, India lost the third and final Test against South Africa in Cape Town by seven wickets, thereby conceding the series 1-2. Conquering the final frontier—South Africa is the only country where India haven’t won a Test series yet—will have to wait for a few more years. And then, the very next day, Virat Kohli stepped down as India’s Test captain.
It’s hard to believe that just over two months ago, Kohli was leading India in all three formats of the game. Today, he’s not the captain in any of them.
But before his surprise decision to give up the Test captaincy, Kohli found himself at the forefront of a big controversy in Cape Town.
The politics, economics, and conspiracies behind Hawk-Eye and cricket broadcasting
It was the final session of the third day of the Cape Town Test. South Africa were at 60/1, chasing 212 to win the match and the series. Indian off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin was bowling the 21st over of the innings.
On the fourth ball, Ashwin came in from around the stumps to the left-handed Dean Elgar. The ball hit Elgar’s pads in front of the middle stump and well below the knee roll. It looked plumb, and umpire Marais Erasmus concurred as he raised his finger to signal the wicket. However, the batter asked for a review and the Decision Review System (DRS) had to step in. But the Indians looked confident.
DRS confirmed that there was no bat involved, so it was only a matter of tracking the path of the ball to see if it would have indeed hit the stumps.
To everyone’s astonishment, the ball-tracking technology showed that the ball would have gone over the stumps. Umpire Erasmus was heard on the stump mic saying, “That’s impossible,” as he was forced to overturn his decision. The Indians were incensed.
[Source: Hotstar screengrab]
At the end of the over, Kohli, still clearly furious, went over to one of the stump mics and said, “Focus on your team as well eh, not just the opposition. Trying to catch people all the time.” KL Rahul chipped in, saying, “The whole country against 11 guys.” Ashwin added, “You can surely find better ways to win, SuperSport.”
Kohli was also later heard saying, “Don’t hit them on the pads, boys. Either stumps or caught behind, that’s it. Real experts sitting in the DRS column, boys… Different ball been shown for tracking, lads.”
What Kohli was insinuating was that the host broadcaster, SuperSport, was rigging the ball-tracking technology in favour of South Africa. It was a pretty serious claim, with no proof backing it.
In the end, Kohli and the rest of the Indian players were not even fined or penalised for their comments; they were just let go with a warning from the International Cricket Council (ICC). Meanwhile, SuperSport released the following statement: “SuperSport notes comments made by certain members of the Indian cricket team. Hawk-Eye is an independent service provider, approved by the ICC and their technology has been accepted for many years as an integral part of DRS.”
Hawk-Eye is a 20-year-old company that provides optical tracking, vision-processing, video review, and creative graphic technologies for sport. It’s used in multiple sports, including cricket, football, tennis, badminton, and golf. In cricket, it’s used in ball tracking, which is an essential part of the Decision Review System that helps umpires make decisions.
To understand if Hawk-Eye technology can indeed be manipulated, I spoke to a few cricket broadcasters who know how it works. “It’s very difficult to willfully manipulate it,” said Turja Sen, who has been a cricket broadcaster for 21 years. He explained the entire process:
“Normally, there are around five Hawk-Eye operators working in each production schedule and they each have their own specific roles. One of them is in charge of ball tracking, which is the last of the replays that is played in a DRS protocol because it’s not instant and takes time to build. Why? Because the operator has to feed in certain data points into the system.
These data points are generated by the six cameras placed around the ground to trace the path of the ball as it releases from the bowler’s hand and reaches either the wicketkeeper or where there is an impact [with the batter]. Once the operator feeds these data points into the system, an animation is generated that shows the path of the ball. So, there is a human element involved in the technology.”
Can the ball-tracking operator be coerced into feeding the wrong data? Sen doesn’t think so.
“In my experience, I have not seen any broadcast director or producer actually influencing the Hawk-Eye operator. Because the director can’t see the readings that the Hawk-Eye guy gets from the cameras. So, there’s no way that the director can preempt or convince the Hawk-Eye guy to put any particular reading into his system. There can be an error made by the Hawk-Eye guy while noting down the readings. But I don’t think anyone would put their career on the line because all these readings for contentious decisions are ratified by ICC. The ICC monitors the role of Hawk-Eye as well.”
But while the ICC monitors the role of Hawk-Eye, the company is not contracted by the governing body. It’s the host broadcaster that pays for Hawk-Eye, and the broadcaster is appointed by the host country’s board. And this is the root of the whole controversy. Cricketers probably feel that everything is being dictated by the top guns at the host broadcaster, which in this case is SuperSport, added Sen.
Now, SuperSport’s reputation probably also had a huge role to play here. The South African broadcaster shot to fame in 2018 when it caught Australian players tampering with the ball using sandpaper during a Test match in South Africa—also in Cape Town, incidentally. The scandal, which came to be known as Sandpaper Gate, resulted in three Australian cricketers—captain Steve Smith, vice captain David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft—being banned for nine months to a year. Australia’s head coach Darren Lehmann also stepped down after the series. SuperSport even produced a documentary on the scandal called Crossing the Line.
However, there were some suggestions that SuperSport was targeting the Australians during that series, “looking for ways the tourists were possibly manipulating the ball,” according to cricket.com.au. During the previous Test in Port Elizabeth, SuperSport reportedly put Warner under the spotlight for having tape around his fingers and thumb. Warner responded by writing the names of his wife and daughters on the bandages.
Gaurav Bahal, director of Sportzworkz, a New Delhi-based television production company that deals with sports and entertainment, told me about a conspiracy theory that did the rounds in cricketing circles following Sandpaper Gate.
“The cricketers believe that South Africa were doing similar things on the field, but the broadcaster chose to show only what the Australians were doing. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know because I’m not a broadcaster from Australia or South Africa. But this whole thing could be a fall-out of that.”
Another cricket broadcaster, who requested anonymity, had similar stories to share about the South African team. “I have faced a lot of flak for showing cricketers using their trouser zipper to shine the ball. There was the series in 2013 between Pakistan and South Africa in UAE. Faf du Plessis used his zipper to shine the ball. And when we showed the clip, the South African board threatened that they would take the rights away from broadcaster Ten Sports.” Du Plessis was fined 50% of his match fee after pleading guilty.
“A similar thing happened in Sri Lanka, where the broadcaster didn’t show South African players indulging in ball tampering because of threats from the South African board. To avoid controversies of this nature, we normally steer clear of this. We know certain players who are guilty of it. But unless they really cross a line, we tend to not show the pictures,” the broadcaster added.
SuperSport also has a reputation for turning up the stump mic volume during its broadcasts, which is quite engaging for viewers but not taken well by the cricketers. If you were following the South Africa-India series and the Ashes series in Australia, which were going on simultaneously, you would have noticed a stark difference in the amount of stump mic chatter you were hearing.
Normally, the broadcaster has an understanding with the two teams to not do this, said Sen. “But what has happened in recent times is that some of these clips of stump mic chatter have gone really viral. It started with the 2018-19 Australia-India series, where the banter between Tim Paine and Rishabh Pant became really viral. So, there are broadcasters who are very keen to boost up the audio volume for commercial reasons.”
[Source: YouTube screengrab]
SuperSport would have been keen to milk the India series, considering it is the most lucrative tour for any broadcaster. And especially since the series is being played behind closed doors due to Covid.
In fact, the tour was almost cancelled because South Africa became the epicentre of the new Omicron variant of the virus. If the series, which includes three Tests, three one-day internationals, and four Twenty20 internationals, had been cancelled, Cricket South Africa would have reportedly lost R700 million (US$46 million). CSA had announced a loss of R221 million (US$14.6 million) for the 2020-21 financial year due to Covid.
Globally, cricket’s financial pie is divided in four-yearly broadcast cycles for each of the major Test-playing nations, and within that cycle a visit by India is the most essential.
Hosting unions earn the bulk of the broadcast rights, sponsorship and gate revenue of home tours. No team demands higher broadcast and sponsorship fees than India, while gate takings are nominal in a Covid world.
As the richest and most watched team in the world of cricket, and quite possibly in any sport given India’s passion for cricket and sheer population size, India’s men’s team is the lifeline of the sport.
Recently England cut short their tour of South Africa, costing CSA about R30-million (US$2 million) in revenue, if it cannot be completed in the current cycle.
Australia’s decision to pull out of their tour to South Africa earlier this year has also put strain on the calendar because they have committed to touring “at a later date”. No firm decisions have been made on the rescheduling of that white-ball series either and if it doesn’t go ahead sometime in the next 18 months, CSA would lose another R40-million (US$2.6 million).
India tour puts R700m on the line for financially fragile Cricket South Africa, Daily Maverick
Now you know where Kohli and the Indian players were coming from. That’s not to say their comments were justified. If they didn’t play for the richest and most powerful board in world cricket, they would have been fined at the least.
But it got me thinking about how such controversies can be avoided in the future. Perhaps Hawk-Eye should be contracted by the ICC and not the host broadcaster. The ICC anyway pays the match officials and reviews their decisions, including the ones made via Hawk-Eye. Although, I’m sure, Hawk-Eye doesn’t come cheap (I wasn’t able to ascertain how much it costs).
🏏🔵💰 The most successful team in the Indian Premier League (IPL) has signed the most lucrative sponsorship deal ever in the tournament’s 15-year history. Mumbai Indians have signed a three-year deal worth reportedly Rs 100 crore (~US$13.5 million) with credit card company Slice to become its principal sponsor. Slice will replace Korean electronics company Samsung on the front of the Mumbai Indians jersey from the 2022 season. Slice is also reportedly in talks with the new Ahmedabad-based franchise, owned by private equity firm CVC Capital. [The Economic Times and InsideSport]
🎮🤑 Microsoft is set to become the third-largest gaming company in the world by revenue after acquiring Activision Blizzard in a deal worth US$75 billion. Activision Blizzard is the maker of popular games such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush. Its controversial CEO Bobby Kotick is expected to leave the company, which is battling lawsuits over sexual harrassment at the workplace and gender pay disparity. The deal wiped US$20 billion off Microsoft competitor Sony’s market value in a single day. [Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg]
🏸💰 Indian badminton star PV Sindhu is the seventh-most paid female athlete in the world, with total earnings of US$7.2 million for 2021. A significant majority of that amount, US$7 million, came from endorsements. Tennis star Naomi Osaka is the world’s highest paid female athlete, after raking in US$57.3 million last year. Serena Williams came in second with earnings of US$45.9 million. [Forbes]
🎾📺 After Formula One and golf, Netflix will now also make a docuseries on tennis. The streaming giant has struck a deal with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the four Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open). Just like the super-hit Formula One: Drive to Survive, the new tennis series will offer an “unfiltered look” inside professional tennis through the perspective of players and their teams. [SportsPro]
What we're reading
After Kohli’s resignation from Test captaincy, the question on everyone’s mind is whether giving up the burden of being India captain will liberate the 33-year-old or whether he will silently fade into the background. Sandeep Dwivedi has a nice take in The Indian Express on why Kohli will survive, even without his crown. You can read it here.
Tweet/video of the week
The Nick Kyrgios show at the Australian Open is unfortunately over after the eccentric Australian was knocked out in the second round by second seed Daniil Medvedev. But that wasn’t before some typical Kyrgiosness on display in Melbourne. Just watch these clips for your dose of entertainment today: 1, 2, and 3.
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