Losing Their Religion?

Losing Their Religion?

Viewing figures for Test cricket in India may be down, coming a distant third to T20 and ODIs, but Star Sports are intent on reviving the appeal of the five-day game. Henry Cowen found out how they’re going about it.

We’re frequently told that cricket is a religion in India. It’s a platitude that doesn’t take into account changing attitudes, the number of options open to citizens of the modern, digital world and, crucially, cricket’s different formats. The days of a single sport dominating a country are over – consider the rise of both football and kabbadi in India – and when competition within cricket is taken into account it’s little surprise that the Test game can no longer assume it has the right to be forever popular.

While the IPL continues to dominate the country’s sporting landscape – and indeed its entertainment landscape – interest in Test cricket continues to wane. Low attendances during the India-England series continued a trend and although they can be partly explained by the government’s decision to implement demonetisation without warning, it is also symptomatic of a bigger picture.

It’s not just attendances that are down. Star Sports – India’s lead sporting broadcaster – have for some time been grappling with the number of people tuning in to watch on TV. There has been a reduction in viewing figures of almost 50 per cent since 2012. It’s a concern to them. They want the Indian public to engage with Test cricket. The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar in 2013, at the same time as the departure of Laxman, Dravid and Sehwag, essentially saw an entire generation of cricket fans switch off.

Star have seen viewing figures for Tests drop
Star have seen viewing figures for Tests drop

Star’s business head for cricket Sanjog Gupta explains the conundrum: “Unlike England and Australia where people have grown up watching Test cricket and appreciating it as the true form of the game, in India an entire generation of cricket lovers grew up loving ODI cricket and watching Test cricket. Unlike that generation, the millennials have been brought up on the fast-paced action of T20 cricket and are bound to have limited appreciation for a format that is so different from the limited-overs cricket they’re used to enjoying. What we see now is that T20 has the most viewers and the biggest slice of the pie, followed by ODIs and then, far behind, Tests.”

The question this naturally raises is how you go about reinventing something that’s been rumbling on for the best part of 140 years. How do you make Test cricket an attractive prospect when viewers have been brought up on the stunning immediacy of IPL? It’s akin to convincing someone addicted to the breaking news world of Twitter that a newspaper is actually what you need. And we know how well that’s going…

***

Kohli can help the Test game (Image: AFP)
Kohli can help the Test game (Image: AFP)

One answer – according to presenter Mayanti Langer, a well-known face in India who has covered four cricket World Cups – is Virat Kohli. “The biggest thing for us is our captain, because Virat Kohli this year has been so proficient,” she explains. “He’s such a role model to the youngsters in IPL and ODI cricket and he can translate that into Test cricket. He makes Test cricket very attractive.”

Kohli, as his countless brand ambassador roles demonstrate, is cool. He can bring fans over to Test cricket from the IPL, and that is what Star Sports want to help him do. They’re not imagining that new fans are going to be created and start immediately focusing on the longest and slowest form of cricket, but the game’s intricacies can be understood by an IPL fan – as long as they’re unpacked.

Fifty per cent of India’s population are under the age of 35, a figure that’s on the rise

A conscious decision was made to delineate how the different formats are broadcast. “Tests are for people who love the game far more passionately,” says executive producer Ankita Hooda. “A lot of people who love cricket don’t tune in to Tests any more, and they follow the game passively. Our plan is to build enough reasons for them to tune in and watch actively. One of the things we’ve tried to do is establish that there’s enough action in each session of a Test match and that there is a compelling narrative beyond the scores, both with the team and the individuals, that you need to tune in for.”

“It’s not just about the glamour and the razzmatazz and it’s over in three-and-a-half hours,” adds Langer. “It’s Test cricket for a reason and we want to emphasise that.”

Star's coverage of a Test is beyond comprehensive
Star’s coverage of a Test is beyond comprehensive

To that end Star Sports have incorporated a number of features all focused on breaking down the intricate technicalities of Test cricket so that your average fan can become well versed and appreciative of the players’ efforts. ‘Fittest, Fastest, Strongest’ is a science-driven feature, using biomechanics amongst other data to investigate how the skills of Test cricket work and to build the ‘wow’ factor around attributes of performance unique to the long-form game. Meanwhile, ‘Inside Scoop’ takes you into the nets with the players – this means slowing down footage of players and analysing their movements in meticulous detail – while segments such as ‘Game Plan’ use in-depth analytics to help deepen the involvement of the viewerin the game by essentially taking them into the dressing rooms of the two teams and showing them how the players are thinking.

Footage at Mohali saw Kohli in the nets, with a graphic on the wicket demonstrating where he’s strong and where he’s not quite so strong. It would have been useful viewing for the England bowlers.

ODI games are better attended
ODI games are better attended

The initial signs are encouraging. This has been the first Indian summer for a while that has seen a number of nations come over to play Test cricket (13 Tests in total) – and it continues with the visit of Australia and Bangladesh in 2017. Since a disappointing series against South Africa in 2015– marred by pitches that, while conducive to spin, weren’t conducive to good Test matches – viewership has risen 30 per cent for the England series. Numbers were also up for the preceding series against New Zealand, despite them not being a traditional Test powerhouse in the eyes of Indian fans.

It’s no bad thing, of course, that India are winning. Part of cricket’s popularity in the country stems from the fact that there are few arenas in which the general public see their countrymen compete on a global stage. The national football side has never risen above 94th in the world and while there are other sporting superstars – in tennis, boxing, field hockey, badminton, wrestling and shooting – their profiles aren’t significant internationally. Cricket in India has very often done more than simply compete, it has excelled. This explains in part the popularity of Sachin Tendulkar – a young boy from Mumbai who stood head and shoulders above everyone else in his field.

There was a 30 per cent increase in viewership for the India-England series, compared to the India-South Africa series of 2015

There are others now who continue Sachin’s work – principally Mr Kohli – but the idea of reminding fans about the achievements of past heroes is still very much part of Star’s thinking. With 50 per cent of India’s population under the age of 35 (a figure on the rise), you have an army of 15-25-year-olds who started watching cricket in the Nineties. Star’s offering needs to be relevant to them.

“Many of our viewers may only have seen our pundits [Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, VVS Laxman] when they were playing IPL,” says Langer. “We need to establish how heroes that young viewers grew up watching across formats still love Test cricket more than anything else. And that’s a big reason for their inclusion in the commentary team. They’ve played with most of the players on the field so they know them very well and also tend to think like today’s players, which is deeply insightful.”

Part of Star's offering is deep statistical unpacking
Part of Star’s offering is deep statistical unpacking

Deep statistical unpacking and respect for the past form two of Star’s three pillars for returning Test cricket to the pinnacle of the game. The third, as touched upon by Langer, is making Test cricket cool. “We want to make it young,” says Hooda. “It’s traditionally perceived as fuddy-duddy, old, a has-been – something your father grew up watching. That’s the kind of consumer feedback we used to get, and we don’t want it to be like that.

“We’re not disengaging the already-existing viewers,” she continues, “but we are saying to them, ‘You’re cool, because you’re watching Test cricket’. We’re trying to make it more inclusive by making it more exclusive.”

***

India’s rise to No.1 and the fact that they may remain there for the foreseeable future is good for our game. Strong India, strong Test cricket. If they keep winning, the fans should keep coming back.

Victory over England at Mumbai in the fourth Test was the most-watched game of Test cricket in India since Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement (around 60 million tuned in). Consolation for England, maybe. Their series defeat might just have helped save the game.

***

“It’s about making good TV”

Dean Jones is one of Star Sports' pundits
Dean Jones is one of Star Sports’ pundits

Star Sports pundit and former Aussie battler Dean Jones on how he feels it’s a commentator’s duty to revitalise Test cricket. 

They’re not frightened of doing something different. There’s no doubt that Star Sports love Test cricket and they also want to work with the boards to get it on at premium times.

At their own expense they put on a pink-ball trial last year, for example, which demonstrates how keen they are to make it work. The viewers in India are very conservative but they actually liked it. They’re looking at how they can increase the viewing figures in any way, shape or form.

It’s vitally important that we’re able to bring these viewers back. It’s the biggest thing with Test cricket and the question of whether it’s dying. It might be big in England, it might be big in Australia, but Asia’s got to get it. They’re so keen on the IPL – the kids love it – and by 2025 50 per cent of India’s population will be under 25, which is massive. Their watershed moment is more about Kohli playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore than it is him playing a Test for India.

Victory over England at Mumbai in the fourth Test was the most-watched game of Test cricket in India since Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement

It’s up to us as commentators to point out how riveting and exciting Test cricket is and, in those moments when maybe not much is happening, to point out the bigger picture. We know it’s a game of skills and execution and as commentators it’s our responsibility to explain why the battle between bat and ball is important, and why it’s not just a case of pinning your ears back and slogging it. There’s more skill to it than that and that’s our job.

I’ve been coming to India for many years now and I do the Professor Deano stuff. He talks about analysis a lot, who gets out a certain guy a lot and what percentage chance there is of him getting out here. Star Sports have taken it to the nth degree: where are his hot spots, where are his weak zones, how is the bowler executing, what length is he bowling, what’s he trying to do? Sometimes it gets a bit personal to the players – they don’t always like being ripped apart in such a way!

All in all it adds to the package. There are more skills involved in Test cricket and it’s really good to be able to unpack that. I love the analysis and crucially the kids love it. It’s about making good TV.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Top