Hard News by Russell Brown


Unscripted Drama

I will never tire of quoting the late Sir Terence "T.P." McLean on the topic to which he devoted his professional life: sport. Sport is, TP said on many occasions, "The study of the human under stress."

That's perfect. Reality television is sometimes referred to in the broadcast industry as "unscripted drama", but it's almost always dull, irritating  and contrived in comparison to the drama that unfolds in a great sporting contest. And the characters usually suck.

If you were to search for a greater social benefit, you might observe that sport (sometimes) sets an example that benefits overall public health, provides opprtunities for young people who may not have any other choices as good and generates substantial economic activity. But you're soon stretching there, and it really doesn't matter. People read detective and romance novels, or pay to see comedy films -- we don't trouble ourselves too much with grand justifications for those.

Some sports, of course, are better to watch than others. And, as mystifying as the fact might be to the uninitiated, there is no grander sporting drama than that to be found in test match cricket.

Cricket is exquisitely connected to the physical environment and conditions in which it takes place. Sure, there are many sports -- sailing, for example -- that rely on environmental conditions , but in no other game is there quite the sense of mystery about how it does so. We can stare at  a patch of grass and muse about how the first ball might bounce, but the truth of it is we don't really know until someone tries it out. We can suppose that the patch of grass in the middle might degrade over five days to the advantange of one sort of bowler over another, but it might take us five days to find out for sure.

And although science has shown us that the popular belief that a cricket ball swings more in humid weather is incorrect, the same study indicated that overhead conditions do in fact have a bearing on swing bowling.

And then there's cricket's paradoxical characteristic of scale. It takes place on a broad oval, but the key action is often a matter of millimetres: the whisper of an edge, the shot being played a half-second later rather than earlier.

Modern broadcast technologies have brought us progressively closer to the pitch, of course. We can see the humans under stress -- in punishing, slo-mo close-up or with the assistance of motion-tracking if need be. And yet, the game worked for centuries without such aids. That's because in few sports is the personal character of the players projected so vividly on the play itself. You could tell a lot about Viv Richards by seeing him bat, and know more about Richard Hadlee by watching him bowl in the middle than listening to the Dalek clank of his speaking voice.

There are also elements of the game's physics that are only apparent at the ground. I watched from the short, straight boundary of Eden Park's South stand as Tim Southee took Sunday's first wicket in the test against India. There was palpable time and distance between the ball taking the edge of Cheteshwar Pujara's bat and landing in BJ Watling's gloves for the dismissal -- long enough to think "I hope he catches this ... HE HAS!" You don't get that on TV. TV flattens it all out.

I only watched two sessions at the ground. The last session of the first day, for which I forked over $25 for two hours' play, and the first of what turned out to be the last day, when a kind friend passed a comp ticket through the fence for me. The daily ticket price -- $45 -- was too much for me and I clearly wasn't alone. At a guess, the Board of Control for Cricket in India misread the market and insisted on the higher price. New Zealand Cricket aggressively dicounted prices via its loyalty programme, but I missed that.

It was a shame, because the very length of test cricket creates dramatic twists of fortune and surges of momentum that lend themselves to the decision to walk up to the game. Get to the ground, because something's happening!

On the other hand, sitting at home watching the surge that brought New Zealand to victory was a splendid way to end a Sunday that also included a visit to the Big Gay Out and a swim in the harbour. Glorious, awful anxiety gave way to release, redemption and joy. Any dramatist would aspire to such a script.


Sport's not all good, by any means. The New Zealand Sevens' team's win at the weekend was inevitably overshadowed by the behaviour of some moronic spectators (you wouldn't call them fans). And the world is currently looking at an extraordinary example of the misuse and abuse of sport's hold on the popular consciousness.

Unfortunately, BBC Worldwide has taken down from YouTube the copies of last week's Panorama programme, Putin's Games, a withering depiction of the political corruption and public suffering that forms the backdrop to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Staggeringly, as much as half of the incredible $US50 billion showered on Sochi has been dishonestly channelled into the pockets of President Putin's associates and others. Whistleblowers have been persecuted, advocates for the local people harassed, arrested, beaten.

But the games are there there, on three Sky channels, and it's watchable -- not least because, if you receive HD pictures, it looks amazing. Unlike the summer Olympics, we see little of the athletes' bodies, but what we do see is colour; the brilliant fluoro of skiers' costumes against the sharp white of the snow. The curling coverage this time is a revelation: in some of the shots there appear to be little men skating around in a vivid cartoon.

I do realise that all this goes no way to convincing some of you, and that's fine. Many of the winter sports are a mystery to me too. (But the biathlon -- really fit women skiing then pausing to shoot things -- who thought that up?) You may however enjoy the great John Clarke on farnarkeling ...

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