Will stump microphones make all the noise in the absence of crowds?
Mumbai Call it the candid microphone. On YouTube, some of the most watched cricket videos are the pirated ones, where voice scores over visuals. The magnet is stump mic chatter—players using an abusive word, indulging in banter to distract rival batsmen or merely discussing tactics.
In the best of times, the words are often drowned as the fans bay from the stands. When the mic picks up the chatter though, it provides stuff for endless debate. With the pandemic set to take the crowd out of the equation when international cricket resumes, TV audience will hang on to every word the stump mic magnifies.
With no fan emotion to turn to, broadcasters brainstorming over innovation are discussing turning up the stump mic during live coverage to get fans closest to the in-stadia experience. Simulated crowd noise (from past matches) at stadiums is also likely to become the new normal to help players feel the buzz.
The stump mic though is central to the plan. Channel Seven experimented on India’s tour of Australia in 2018-19 when commentators went silent for an over as the banter between Rishabh Pant and Tim Paine was caught on stump mic.
Pant calling the Australia skipper ‘temporary captain’ and Paine’s jibe that MS Dhoni was back for the ODI series and the young stumper can baby-sit his kids was all in good humour, though the response from the players was mixed.The Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) chief Alistair Nicholson said it doesn’t want players unnecessarily sanctioned for “unintentional and accidental” on-field comments and sought clarity from broadcasters on the “rules of engagement”.
It was a hit in the media space though, and Pant provided a happy picture of his holding Paine’s kid. Dhoni’s quips to teammates from behind the stumps often went viral—‘uska pair dekh, kaise khada hai volleyball ki tarah, anticipate kar’ or ‘Sree, udhar girlfriend nahi hai, idhar aa ja zara’.
“We would love to do it (use stump mic more) but it can be done only after conversations with match officials and having made the players aware,” says Alvin Naicker, production head of SuperSport, South Africa’s leading sports channel.
Channel Seven could innovate after the International Cricket Council (ICC) eased stump mic restrictions in 2018, allowing its use even when the ball was dead. This was as a deterrent, to rein in player behaviour after the 2018 sandpaper-gate scandal and an acrimonious Australia-South Africa series. The rule change though led to then Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed’s suspension for a racist comment to South Africa’s Andile Phehlukwayo. West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel was penalised after stump mic caught his banter with Joe Root. He admitted he made a homophobic remark to the England skipper.
Former Australia skipper Ian Chappell in a column early last year criticised ICC’s new stump mic guidelines, to allow fans “to get closer to their heroes”. He asked: “What about when a fan hears what they perceive to be annoying comments from a player?”
Teams have protested that host broadcasters use the audio selectively. And Australia stumper Adam Gilchrist showcased player response in a series against Bangladesh in 2006 when he slipped in the names of rival sponsors. “C’mon Bing (Brett Lee), now one for boys at Travelex now” and “keep it well-oiled from Castrol, boys” hit home. The stump audio went mute.
On the controversial 2018 tour of South Africa, Australia’s request to have the fader of the stump mic turned down between deliveries and when the ball was dead wasn’t acceded to. The visiting players then resorted to ambush marketing, shouting the names of their sponsors.
Not everyone has an issue, and India wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel is among them. “I enjoyed the Paine-Pant banter. You just have to be yourself when close to the stumps. I am talkative with the gloves on, but I don’t engage in abuse. If that’s how you are, why worry about the mic?”
Those tasked with producing live sport minus the cacophony of spectator noise say innovation is inevitable. “We may definitely look to use more of stump mic. Also, perhaps use more mike-up interviews of coaches and players. Anti-corruption rules permitting, listen to what the coach is telling the players on the side-lines. You might allow a speaker by the stumps to allow speaking with the wicket keeper. You have seen during broadcast in Australia the miked-up Spidercam talking to players during drinks,” says Hemant Buch, who directs live cricket around the world.
“Players in general are not happy to move out of their comfort zone. But this is not a time to be in a comfort zone, and I think everybody realises it.”
Still, the stump mic can’t be amped up all the time, says cricketer-turned-commentator Aakash Chopra. “If it is, I don’t think it will add too much value. Players are not foolish. With no crowds and no noise cancellation, they will be, if not cagey, careful,” he says. “If Dhoni says widedaal de, voh sweep marega, and the batsman attempts that shot, it becomes gold. If he is just saying shabaash, shabaash how long will we listen to that?”
On the last Australia tour, after a Virat Kohli-Paine mid-pitch exchange was played up, the India skipper was asked if the stump mic was intrusive.
“As long as there is no swearing out there on the field and there are no personal attacks, the line doesn’t get crossed,” he told reporters.
“With the stump mics and cameras and all these things, honestly when the bowler is bowling you aren’t thinking whether the stump mic is on or the camera is on or not.”