Sriram Veera writes: The way we watched the game

Of all the mind-boggling figures that have popped up during the current conversations on broadcasting rights of Indian cricket, one stat stands out: Television viewership is dropping, and digital streaming rights are increasing. It’s a story of our times — the disappearance of the communal experience of watching sports with family and friends. Watching sports has become a solo pursuit, a monastic experience. It’s rare now to react to a moment in a game by going beyond one’s own heart and head and peeping into the emotional — occasionally dark — hearts of others.

TV IPL ratings have been dropping significantly while the streaming digital rights are escalating. Not just in sports, television viewership is falling in general. TV revenue is estimated to grow by just 6 per cent over the next five years while digital rights are expected to leap by 30 per cent. DTH operators such as Tata Sky, Airtel have lost viewership. DTH signals the death of the communal experience of TV viewing. Media rights fetched the BCCI Rs 48,390 crore, with Disney-Star bagging TV rights for the Indian Subcontinent and Viacom18/ Reliance sweeping the digital segment.

The mind goes back to childhood — to a living room in the maternal grandparents’ home where uncles, cousins, neighbours, friends would congregate for a cricket game. It was a household in which the choicest abuses flowed freely during matches and viewers, more than the cricketers, were its targets. Like the bearded Kaccha, a distant relative whose real name never really registered in my mind. Kaccha was the singularly most abused man in that home.

Quite early in our cricket-watching lives, it was clear that the jovial lungi-clad Kaccha, who had the ability to talk to kids in a genuinely friendly way, was a jinx who had to be avoided at all costs. The door and three windows had jaalis running across, and, a piece of towel or saree would be spread across them, so that Kaccha’s “evil eye” didn’t cast its effect on the game. Sealed out, he might have been, but he was either amused or masochistic: Kaccha would always turn up, and linger outside the front door to gather cricket tidings from our shouts of joy or disappointment.

There was another middle-aged man, simply called “Mookan” (‘the nose’ for obvious Nasser Hussain-ish anatomical reasons) who lived down the road. A more parochially ferocious supporter of the Indian team one hasn’t seen — the kind who would believe that Balwinder Singh Sandhu could hit out against Imran Khan or Malcolm Marshall with healthy doses of French cuts, and win the game. The grandfather would needle him by talking up the opposition and face Mookan’s abuses, who, in the same breath, would smile shyly at the grandmother and ask for a hot cup of filter coffee with “sakkarai konjam thookala” (extra helpings of sugar) — he was a borderline diabetic and not allowed such cubed luxury at home. And of course, Mookan hated the guts of Kaccha. Fun times. The stadium-like experience in a living room with people with a great sense of humour, and the occasional invective thrown in, was something worth cycling for a few kilometres.

It’s something the young generation may never experience.

But such experiences have been lost for a while now. The latest broadcasting rights have only sealed the loss. It’s been a while since smartphones have taken over. Even at night, with their kid listening to a podcast, husbands and wives are either glued to Netflix or Insta. Cricket was already trapped in the small rectangular screens of our palms.

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