The state of Indian cricket broadcasting

With notes from a decade and a half of watching the game

Does anyone remember Neo Sports?

The network’s still alive, but has no cricket on it of any real consequence. But for a spell of time, Neo owned India’s home season.

It was a bad time to be a fan.

The telecast was geared towards the lowest common denominator, with no real analysis or intelligent commentary. It had programs like Ballebaaz and Heroes, which featured only, and only, Indian victories, and milestones by Sachin, Sehwag, and the like. If you watched Neo, you could have been forgiven for thinking that India was the pinnacle of the sport at that time. It wasn’t. But Neo was basically a propaganda instrument. It showed you things that made you comfortable, fed you platitudes about our players that made you feel good as a fan, and never told you, say, how useless we were in England against a moving ball, or on South Africa’s bouncy tracks.

I’ve never heard a good word about Neo in all this time. Most India matches were hosted by this (very evidently) Tamil host called Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan. He was godawful at his job, and the inanity with which he presented the Indian home season was only surpassed by the extraordinarily bad broadcast standards. If Yuvraj was diving to take a catch, he would not even have hit the turf before the channel would bring on the ads. I would groan and growl in exasperation, but they could do what they wanted to. The Australian and England home seasons, at that time owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox-owned Star, were bliss to my eyes, with solid commentary and analysis, and production values that were state of the art.

In time, the India home season was bought by Star, and boy was I glad. I knew that Star, already with the English and the Australian home seasons (Ten had the Proteas’, and Sony had the Kiwis’), would deliver. Star Sports had a great crew, and provided real analysis that told me something about the game I did not already know. I was thrilled to bits, as Star elevated the product into an experience.

These were good days, with Star launching a cricket specific channel called Star Cricket, where I could watch Australian domestic cricket (the Ford Ranger/Ryobi Cup in its entirety, and some Shield games), county cricket, and any other cricket they would be able to find.

It was at this time that the English tried spicing up their age-old system with something called T20. They even spruced up the old Sunday league as a 40 over tournament they called the Pro40. All of this was on TV, and made for delightful watching. Not just the cricket, but also as a window into the respective cricket cultures of other countries.

And as any sane cricket fan would at that time, I started to write to Star asking them when I would be able to watch our own first class tournament, the Ranji Trophy, live. If I could watch Shield games from Canberra, surely I could watch Tamil Nadu vs Railways live from the Indian Air Force grounds at Palam. That wish was granted only a couple of years ago, as India’s first class and List A games began to be broadcast regularly. The Ranji one day games aren’t on TV yet, but the Duleep Trophy is, and it’s great fun. It has no context, played between made up sides (India Red, Blue and so on), but it features the top players in the country, is super-competitive and more often than not features great cricket.

For a while, it was clear who owned what, and where I should go to watch which series. The IPL was on Sony, Indian home games were on Star, and if you wanted to watch New Zealand, you’d better stream it. English and Australian cricket was on Star too, and so were their respective domestic leagues, including the high-quality Australian T20 league, The Big Bash. South African franchise cricket was on Ten (sometimes), and that was basically all the cricket in the world, except ICC tournaments, which went to Star anyway.
All of that has changed this year. There has been a major, major shuffling in Indian cricket rights that will change the way we watch the game.

First, the IPL is coming to Star. Which means no more Extraa Innings. I thought it frivolous, but it fit perfectly into Sony’s idea of the IPL as entertainment first and sport later. What Star does with it is something worth looking forward to. Also, with Star also acquiring the India home rights for the next 5 years (for just a little less than a mind-blowing billion dollars, or 22500 crore), any cricket played in India will be broadcast by Star.

Second, Star has lost the England and Australia rights to Sony. Pertinent to this is the acquisition of Ten Sports (previously owned by Zee) by Sony, giving them the South Africa and Zimbabwe rights too. 
So there it is, two huge media conglomerates have now divided up the Indian viewership between them, leaving crumbs like the Bangladesh Premier League, the Pakistan Super League, and one-off tournaments like the recent Nidahas Trophy for the rest.

This is the biggest consolidation in Indian cricket broadcasting since I’ve been following the sport.
With the launch of region-specific sports channels like Star Sports Tamil (our old friend Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan is here these days), and domestic sport-focused channels like Star Sports First, Star is signalling that it intends to stay. And Sony, which now owns everything else — England, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Indies, and Sri Lanka cricket — will have to position itself as a serious sports destination. The Ten network (now Sony Ten) is already seen as such, but channels like Sony Six and Sony ESPN will take some time to establish themselves.
What will be interesting to watch, now that there are only two major networks in play, is how the viewing experience changes for the Indian cricket fan. Mega bucks going to the BCCI mean nothing if the quality of what is expected is not held to a higher bar. Sony’s late arrival to the game means that it has a point to prove, but that can only happen if there is effort enough to improve the end product — just broadcasting the Australian and English coverage won’t be enough.
All of this should mean interesting (and hopefully, intelligent) viewing for the Indian cricket fan for a good while. After all, it is his prodigious appetite for the game that keeps the money flowing in. I think he deserves it. I know I do.