Couch Talk Episode 84 (play)
Guest: Rohan Chandran (One of the original members of Cricinfo)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Navigate to various sections of the conversation by clicking on the following links
Introduction Rohan’s role in the birth of Cricinfo Simon King and Rohan’s Relationship Early Days of Cricinfo Cricinfo Takes Off Inaccuracies on ESPNCricinfo Timeline Cricinfo Today Commercialism What more could Cricinfo do?
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is Rohan Chandran who was one of the first people to be involved with the coverage of cricket on the internet 20 years ago. He talks about the various things that he, and his various friends, had to do back then to access cricket and how it gave birth to Cricinfo and opines on what Cricinfo is today.
Welcome to the show, Rohan.
Rohan Chandran– Thanks very much, Subash. It is a pleasure to be talking to you today.
SJ– The story of Cricinfo, the larger story is very well known – you can read it in many places, including Cricinfo. There are plenty of souls involved in the birth of Cricinfo. But, for the listeners’ sake, can you tell us your specific role in the birth or origin of Cricinfo?
RC– Absolutely. I think it is important not to understate how many people were involved when Cricinfo was started. It was not how you look at organizations starting with someone who has a very clear concrete idea and said “Let us form an organization. Let us execute this.” It was a wonderful, organic evolution that could have only happened in those early days of the internet. From my standpoint, I came out to Stanford as a freshman in the Fall of 1992.
SJ– You were coming from Hong Kong, correct?
RC– Yes, I was coming from Hong Kong. It was really a departure from the norm for me – all my friends and classmates went off to the UK and to cricketing environment. The one thing I did when I came out here – to give you a sense of my focus on cricket – was I called up Stanford, asked them if there was a cricket club, made sure I spoke to the people at the cricket club, understood that there was an opportunity to play and be involved with the game and only then did I accept the offer at the place.
When I came out here, my big dilemma was how I would keep in touch with cricket and soccer. The only thing I could figure out was that I brought with me my shortwave radio and I had a subscription to Sportstar, which is now a defunct magazine. Any Indian fan from that generation should be familiar with. Those were my life and blood.
When I came out here, suddenly I was introduced to the whole new thing called the internet. I knew absolutely nothing about it. But, we were all set up with an email account. I was playing about with the internet, such as it was. I discovered how to send an email, actually, first, to receive an email. I didn’t know how to send it.
SJ– This is 1992, correct?
RC– This is September – October 1992. I was poking around, and I discovered this thing called Usenet. I discovered some newsgroups there. Someone earlier that year had set up a newsgroup called rec.sport.cricket. I thought “fabulous, maybe there is some information in that!” And, I started reading the newsgroup. It was mostly people chatting about cricket. Anyone familiar with the history of usenet, will know it always descended into all kinds of flame wars and all kinds of stuffs. That was par for the course. No matter what the topic was, it ended up with an India-Pakistan battle.
SJ– Just like any internet forum.
RC– You see that on Cricinfo after some of the articles as well.
So, a bunch of us on there would exchange opinions. We get information that was delayed by days. People will type up articles from Sportstar and share them on newsgroup, and that would give others an opportunity to read and discuss. The social conglomeration around the sport that you would have at home but you couldn’t have as an expat.
Somewhere along the lines, the discovery of IRC – the Internet Relay Chat – was made. So, a bunch of us again who were sufficiently obsessed found ourselves with IRC in our UNIX boxes and logged on and started chatting in real time rather than post messages and wait for a response. We were doing all that. We had a couple of guys from Australia – George Heard from Tasmania was one of them. He would get on to IRC and would give updates. India were touring Australia at that time, and he would send in updates from that tour. There were people posting scorecards to rec.sport.cricket as well.
In December that year, a student in South Africa, called Jacques de Villiers produced a piece of software called “Dougie”. I won’t get into the details. It allowed people online to view a live scorecard of the game. Obviously, someone had to be maintaining that scorecard. It was a scoring software with the ability to distribute over the internet such as it was. What that created was the sense that we could have live coverage of some form.
When I came back to Stanford after my Christmas break, in early 1993, England were touring India. India hadn’t performed well overseas recently, and there was this opportunity for India to set things right. We had no source of information. Early on, David McBean, who would play the most critical role in this, he is a Jamaican who was doing his PhD or he might have been doing his post-doctorate at Oxford. He would provide some of the updates. A couple of guys called Neeran Karnik and Vallury Prabhakar – Vallury was in Stanford and Neeran was in Minnesota. We were a part of group that was routinely discussing cricket on IRC. Those guys discovered this program called VAT. It was developed at Berkeley. We played with that and figured that we could transmit audio over the internet. Somebody, I am not sure who hit up on the idea – had David, at Oxford putting his radio in front of his computer transmitting the Test Match Special commentary from there so that we could all listen to it in the USA.
Another guy who was involved- Manas Mandal – he FedEx’ed over the cables that were required for David to hook up his walkman to his workstation. Before we knew it, we were listening to the Test match commentary of the game between England and India at Eden Gardens.
SJ– Over the internet. That was the first instance of cricket being broadcast over the internet, right?
RC– Absolutely. I am sure it was completely illegal, if anything else. We had audio feeds. For us it was a remarkable thrill at the time. The first thing we did was to share it with everybody else out there at that time. We were this little exclusive band of 5 or 6 people. Sometime, Simon King was critical among them, as he went on to make everything happen. We will be listening to the commentary and typing it out ball by ball. There would be first 10s and then 100s and then I think we talked to about 1000 people on the IRC cricket channel listening every ball. If there was a network interruption, people would go nuts. It is that, a scarce resource suddenly appears and then teasingly pulled and pushed at you and everyone is really getting into it.
What happened was we started having commentary for the matches, but these were over night in the USA. Vallury and I were sitting in Mechanical Engineering lab at 3 AM in the morning at Stanford, typing up commentary. Not everyone would be in a position to be able to stay up all night listening to the commentary. We had people show up in the morning or early afternoon in the USA time, the next day, asking for the scores, “What happened in the game? What is the score? Give us some details.” We didn’t have perfect memories of everything. We were pretty tired during the day a swell. this became a constant frustration for us. How do we deal with this? Why are people so ungrateful after we have done all this hard work for their benefit?
This is where, for me, Simon had the insight or brilliance to do something about it.
RC– Pre-Cricinfo, he was one in the group that was always on IRC and chatting. He was involved heavily in what we did with VAT. He was one of the guys and he was in Minnesota, who was listening to the commentary and typing it out as well. That was a challenge for him. I remember, he had to have cigarette breaks at the right times. We always had to make sure someone was there for transition commentary when he needed that next cigarette. He was heavily part of that group of 5 or 6. He was the guy who made that critical decision to do something about the challenge we were facing.
SJ– The primary challenge was creating a repository of the information that you were already gathering?
RC– The live coverage was transient. Once it was gone, it was gone. There was no record of it. We didn’t even know the latest score. There is a little step in between that often gets overlooked. There is a gentleman named Mandar Mirashi, who was a IRC admin, sort of an expert who ran the IRC networks. He knew how to do the scripting and so on that we could do on the IRC. So, he created an IRC bot which is essentially a bot which could do things. One, it maintained an e-chatroom that we were all communicating in and typing the scores to. Second is, he created a simple capability where you could send in a message saying something like “What is the score?”, something to that effect, and it would respond to it with something like “India 214/3. Azharuddin 114*”. It was very rudimentary. What Simon said was, “If we can do that, if we can put a whole file system behind it, and we can save all these score cards, we can do all sorts of fabulous things.”
Honestly, none of us understood what the internet was all about. The web browser didn’t exist at that point. We hadn’t even discovered Gopher which later became critical. It was like, “That sounds very exciting.” None of us really appreciated the value of it. He (Simon) went away, wasn’t a coder, he taught himself how to code and built this up. He came back a few weeks later with “Cricinfo”. It was phenomenal because it was simple. He created a file system on UNIX file system. The script he had was basically a responsive command to file system to pull a file from it and deliver to you. When we look at that today, that seems trivial. But at that point of time, it wasn’t at all. He did that on March 15th 1993, just after the India-England Test series had finished.
Cricinfo was then introduced to the users of IRC. That is where it all started. The audio play we did, and getting that together is the genesis of it. And then, Simon made the big decision that made it all happen.
SJ– The two biggest prized possession of cricnfo are stasguru and ball-by-ball commentary. Those are the two major things that differentiate it from any other major cricket portal on the internet. You mentioned about David McBean streaming the audio to you and you were typing it out. Was it the first instance of ball-by-ball commentary?
RC– I think there were other attempts outside of Cricinfo. For example, dougie, the software de Villiers built allowed for that. There were patchy efforts on that. Some matches were covered in parts but not necessarily continued through a match. When we did the coverage using VAT Audio, that was the complete coverage of the match that has happened ball by ball. What we didn’t have at any point there was a scorecard that was updated ball by ball. If you could look at a ball and then if you were at IRC at that time you could see what was going on. But you couldn’t see what was the latest scorecard. All you could see was that the last ball was a 4 or this ball was 2 and so on.
When Simon built the Cricinfo bot, we maintained an infrequently updated scorecard. So, along with typing out the commentary, every few overs someone would update the scorecard. It might have been every 10 overs or so. We have the file format there. we went to emacs. Maybe when a wicket fell, you would update so-and-so bowled by de Freitas for 36 and update the score.
One series that we were covering after the India vs England series. It was telecast at Stanford through a friendly arrangement by the C-band satellite dish operator, we were able to intercept signals that were not meant for us and watched cricket on campus as well. Those were the heady days – free cricket on TV in the USA.
SJ– I remember reading about it. I think these were unscrambled signals being transmitted from the West Indies that you guys downloaded and watched on campus. You did quite a lot of illegal things.
RC– Absolutely. Like all the great internet companies like napster and all. They were at the forefront of that movement.
SJ– So, March 15th, 1993, officially, Cricinfo was born. So, till then, the bunch of you guys – Simon, yourself, Mandar and all those guys, working on it – once Cricinfo is formed as a company, what is your role here now along with Simon?
RC– This is where things are interesting. We didn’t form as a company, just that the service existed. Cricinfo never incorporated till around 1996, around the world cup time. It just existed in some amorphous state until then. When the bot came out, one of the big things that happened is that we went out recruiting people to help us provide content. That was when the whole volunteer thing was born. There were countless people I could never even start to name them all who got involved with everything from illegally typing up match reports and articles from Sportstar and Wisden and Cricketer Magazine and the like, manually typing in scorecard from old Wisden Almanacks – that was how the database was built up initially. That is how people went to each of those old scorecards and copied them into the database.
There were literally 10s and 100s of people who were actively involved in putting this together. When we had live coverage of different series, it was a wonderfully co-ordinated effort. “There is a series coming up, who would have access to it and who can be available on the internet? Can they help us in it?” the great thing was that people liked to help. It was like the wonderful crowd-source spirit that we see today. People will put their hand up and say “I have a TV feed, I am watching the match right now. I would love to give commentary.”
Going back to the question about my specific role, it varied at different times. We didn’t, in those early days, have people assigned specific jobs. I managed various aspects of web development, manage scorecards coming in. I did a lot of the efforts which involved media technology. It was my interest. I was doing a computer science degree and I was getting exposed to new technologies and things. Therefore, by default, started driving some of that. One of our big leaps forward was in this.
Even in 1995, 1996, the Hong Kong sixes, was when we did our first audio commentary over the internet. And there we had big guys like Michael Holding as commentator. We did what I would called pseudo-live video coverage. It was the first attempt anything to do with video. We actually, in partnership with a local internet company, a small ISP in Hong Kong, built a custom java applet, had webcams in the stadium at Hong Kong that focus on the cricket action and the applet would pick up 5 frames a second of still images. We were transmitting some sort of stop-motion video. Later on, Cricinfo partnered with Mick Jagger and Jagged Internetworks, kind of a similar thing for videos from Sharjah and elsewhere.
RC– There were three big inflexion points for Cricinfo. One was when Neeran set us up with Gopher and it took Cricinfo outside the confines of IRC on to the broader Internet. The next was when we convinced outselves that this web thing was not just a fad and we should go with it and see how it works out – a good decision as it turns out, and the third was the 1996 World Cup when we got in to the position where we were the official coverage of the World Cup on the Internet and that was the source of information on the net. There was a lot of press and PR about it. There is a great article on the Cricinfo site by Vishal Mishra who basically saved us during that World Cup by taking the old “Dougie” software and converting it so that we could use it to score the matches, because the official sources that were promised didn’t work out.
I’d say I was heavily involved up to 1996 when I was an undergrad. As I became a graduate student after that, my involvement waxed and waned depending on the different things going on. Right until the end of 1998, I was fairly involved. My last major involvement was in 1998 when we covered the “Wills International Cup”, basically the Champions Trophy equivalent, in Bangladesh. We actually had a big group go out there. It was one of the times when, as Cricinfo, we were officially entrenched with the ICC in providing live coverage from the ground. Even today, most of the commentary you see on Cricinfo – and a lot of people don’t realize this, is done from the offices in Bangalore.
SJ– You had written a blog post on this, giving a run down of the early moments, or “movements” as you called it, and then there were some inaccuracies in the timeline published on the ESPN Cricinfo 20th anniversary microsite. Could you set the facts straight?
RC– Most of these [inaccuracies] are around the early days, and to be fair to Cricinfo, it is not entirely surprising because it is hard to get the information. As an organization, we weren’t formal [back in 1993]. There were a handful of things as I looked through that timeline and thought, “Wow, that’s inaccurate or missing the point entirely”. The whole seminal part of Cricinfo, the audio coverage of the India-England series is pretty much missing from the timeline. They mention a notion of a narrowcast towards the end of 1992 from England. The timing is wrong because it was late January-early February 1993and the whole genesis of it is missing. That was as critical to the Cricinfo story as any other.
When the Cricinfo Bot was launched, it says in the timeline, it was the Ball-by-Ball commentary, but that is entirely untrue, because it was just a scorecard and dispensing the files with the score. The commentary was entirely independent of the Bot and was happening on IRC and wasn’t part of the Bot or the program. I think the Gopher timeline mentioned on there is also wrong as well. It puts it in 1994 where as it was in the same year the Bot was launched, late June-July 1993. The timeline talks about the first live coverage from Pakistan being during the world cup in 1996 but we had live coverage from Pakistan in 1994-94 when Australia toured there, including the famous Test which Pakistan won with byes off the last ball. Another one I noticed was, it talks about the first online interview – with Mohd. Azharuddin in June 1996, but I think the first interview that Cricinfo was 2 years earlier than that when in early 1994, we had Shoaib Mohammed the Pakistani cricketer on IRC.
SJ– I thought the Mohd Azharuddin interview didn’t happen at all, as he withdrew in the last moment?
RC– Yeah. Actually the first official interview, after Cricinfo was incorporated was with Winston Benjamin. Alex Balfour and I did it in Southampton. They miss the entire audio and video coverage that I talked about earlier, which was during the 1996 Hong Kong sixes which was bfore Jagged Internetworks got involved. Another critical thing that’s missing, which in context of what Cricinfo has become today, is the launch of Cricinfo Interactive which was primarily run by a gentleman named Rick Eyre in Sydney. He still runs a great blog and is actively involved. He put that whole thing together, and we had features like “Random scorecard of the day”, “Today in cricket history” which essentially still survives on Cricinfo. Essentially, that was the birth of the journalistic aspect of Cricinfo and it’s remarkable to me that it wasn’t given the credit it deserved.
SJ– Let’s talk about what Cricinfo is today. Did you envision the growth of Cricinfo in to what it has become today? It is the internet home of cricket and is the largest single sport website, from a very amateurish/volunteer spirited organization to a corporate entity.
RC– I’d love to say that we envisioned what would happen but the truth is, as I alluded to earlier, we had debates as to whether the web thing was even interesting or not, so we had very little sense where this was going to go. What we did know was that there was no tool or destination point for information about cricket, and we could create something and it was going to be hugely popular. The scale wasn’t something we imagined—at each of those inflexion points we were stunned by the scale we saw, even in the early days at IRC. We never saw ourselves as journalists, per se, what everyone loved doing and it was partly for themselves as individuals, and I’m talking about the collective hundreds here where we all wanted more information and coverage, and we found ways to make that happen and that’s really what it was all about.
A couple of things we did always get, to give ourselves credit where its appropriate, was we always understood that live coverage was really the key there, and that’s the driver. I don’t really have the stats today for Cricinfo, but I’m sure that’s 95% of the activity that’s happens on the site, is live sports. To your question, if we’d been more prescient, or perhaps more intelligent, we could have done a lot with Cricinfo a lot earlier. My assessment of it is that the entity derailed a lot in the middle years, so to speak, we didn’t know what we were trying to be. There was a lot of tension around – should we officially partner with boards and the ICC, should we be completely independent, is it about scores and stats, is it about journalism and opinions. All of those got experimented with, and what we failed to do in those middle years… and I should point out that during the middle years the majority of the original folk were no longer really actively involved. It was a new set of people.
Travis Basevi, who has done a just unbelievable job creating StatsGuru in particular, is one of the few guys who is a legacy of the fairly early days who has stayed on with Cricinfo throughout. But I think what happened in those middle years was there was a failure, frankly, to embrace technology as it came about. What’s happened with Stats Guru, whats happened with video on internet, internet media rights for cricket and so on, are things Cricinfo should have been embracing a lot earlier than they did. So I look at it and the site doesn’t have the personality that perhaps it had as a volunteer organization today, but if you judge rationally by the service that is provided, and how it has evolved under ESPN in the past few years, I doff my hat to what they’ve done. There is always more that can be done, but it’s a great and there are cricket fans who can’t imagine a world without the Cricinfo that exists today, and that’s testament to what everyone who has been involved over the years has done with it.
SJ– From the point of view of you and the few other pioneers of Cricinfo across 20 years—would you call Cricinfo now a journalistic entity? Or is it a cricket entity? What is it? How do you see it?
RC– It is very much all of those. Honestly, I look at it and—again, I consider myself to be a very small part of the group that made it all happen—I look at it with a lot of pride as to the fact that this is what its evolved to. I look at the positive of it that you have to evolve with the market and what people need, and I think Cricinfo has done that. I’m kind of glad, to be honest, that it’s not just a stats oriented site. The reality is that’s not what most people want. Again, I’ll say most people want the live coverage and, for my money, as long as Cricinfo focuses on the best live coverage around, I think everything else is going to be somewhat a fringe benefit, or “gravy,” as you say, and we have a former Cricinfo group and every now and then we are in touch with each other chatting about where Cricinfo has gone today and what’s happened with it, and generally it’s just pride to have been a part of that story.
SJ– In terms of the metamorphisis from a few people with everybody chipping in, to the point where Wisden, who has been associated with cricket for 140 years or so, when at the time they bought Cricinfo, an then it goes on to a proper out and out coorporation, which is Disney. Was there any, “oh, what is going to happen to Cricinfo,” did your hearts miss a beat when you guys met together and talked about it?
RC– Absolutely. Particular with ESPN and Disney being American entitities, “How is cricket going to fit in to this? Is the cricketing genesis of the site going to go away?”. So far, it hasn’t.
But this is a question that has been asked many times along the way. When Cricinfo was incorporated as a company in 1996, and essentially moved from being a volunteer collective which was all about ‘What can we do for cricket” to a concern that was pointedly looking to make money. That changed the culture right then and there. I don’t want to blame that per se, but that was part of the reason why a lot of the people initially involved, became less directly involved because a whole new group of people came in and this was the dotcom era. You knew that people were coing in thinking, “Hey, I can make my million dollars”. None of us in that initial group including Simon had gone in to this thinking, “Here is a million dollar opportunity”. It was really about the love and passion for cricket. The personality of the company changed at that stage.
In essence, when Wisden salvaged Cricinfo later, and by that time I wasn’t heavily involved but I was aware through other people of what was going on to a reasonable accurate detail. Wisden had to save Cricinfo because people that were running it at that time struggled to keep it a profit making entity. It lived the good old dotcom story, gone up to $150 million in valuation and ended up selling to a few order of a million dollars to Wisden. That was heartening in some way because one thing Wisden was about, was cricket. So for a lot us, it was positive that cricket was gonna be at the root of this and commercialism might be second.
As I look at Cricinfo as a ESPN therefore a Disney enterprise, you ownder where it will go but at the same time, you accept the reality that’s the way of the world and at the end of the day, the service that’s provided is great, I’m all for it.
SJ– Last couple of questions. 1) Do you still see that kind of volunteer spirit that built Cricinfo up, not per se, but that spirit existing in the Cricinfo organization?
RC– That’s a really great question because that hits upon one change. When I look back particularly to the very early days, even the first 5-8 years of Cricinfo, every user of Cricinfo felt like they were part of this community. In the early days, of course they were, because they were contributing as well. I don’t get that feeling any more right now because you get the feeling that Cricinfo is a corporate entity and we are all subscribers and users of it. There is a group of people who run it and dispense the information, who are very distinct from us. It’s like you listen to the Channel Nine commentary, Richie Benaud, Mark Nicholas and Ian Chappell are very much separate from the rest of us and we consume what they provide. That is a huge change in the culture and personality of Cricinfo when we talk about what it is now. It’s different, whether that is good or bad, but ultimately, without going in that [commercial] direction, it will be hard to provide the scale of service it does and the operational excellence you have to have. There are trade-offs in life and you have got to be real about those.
RC– I said earlier that it had lost its way in the middle years and there was no enhancement of services for a long time in the 2000’s and it was pretty much the same old Cricinfo. They had missed the boat in terms of video over the internet. They are playing catch up now. The guys at Willow TV are fantastic and I’m so thrilled for what they have done for cricket on the internet. If you think about it, Cricinfo should have been before them. When you look at what StasGuru is now for example, that whole set of data should have video built in. You sort of imagine a world where I could go in and see “Sachin Tendulkar cover drives for 4”. In a world where video consumption is becoming more and more commonplace, you can imagine a StatsGuru with videos embedded already in it.
Ultimately, you can do all the video shows you want with all the talking heads, the excitement for most fans is the cricket and the cricketers. There is only so much you want to listen to even the best commentators and opinion writers talk and talk, and see their heads on screen. The more you can integrate [cricket action video], that would be a huge value for Cricinfo to offer.
Another thing I’d like to see, may be it’s just a personal pet peeve of mine, my frustration – I don’t know if you have ever tried this Subash, but if you have the TV on with the commentary and the Cricinfo commentary alongside, you will realize that you are often not getting original commentary. They are ctually parroting and paraphrasing what the guy on TV says.
SJ– Some of the times, yes.
RC– There is no new insight coming there. Back in the day, we used to actually make up commentary a lot. There were times when all we got on phone from Pakistan was “A four. In the over there were 8 runs” and we would completely make up stories about glorious cover drives and flicks and what not. But that’s an extreme. But what was happening was that the personality of the individual doing the coverage was coming through and that gave Cricinfo a personality, right? Today, as to our earlier discussion, it doesn’t have that personality. Today it is a corporate media entity that is stamping itself on it. Where as with TV commentators, each of them has a character and has color, I don’t get that with the BBB commentary we get today on Cricinfo. I don’t feel any insight from the commentary.
Any final thoughts Rohan?
RC– No. Just want to say real pleasure talking to you, Subash and it was agreat honor to be on The Cricket Couch. Thank you.
SJ – It’s absolutely my pleasure having one of the “first guys”. Thanks a lot Rohan. Pleasure is mine. Cheers.