Four Essays (i)

That ear you play by, it listens in1
by Isabelle Sully

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In the 1970s, now buried at the base of cricket’s three-tier wicket, Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer, invented the in-stump microphone. The ‘candid microphone,’ as it came to be known. Engineered to bring the viewing audience closer to the site of action, this apparently innovative encroachment onto the field of play became, and remains, a divisive debate around the right to (player) privacy and the defamation of the 'gentleman’s game.' In reckoning with this parasitic microphone—parasitic in that it was developed by a billionaire for the sole intention of increasing profit and continues to be, as a form, a contagious affliction to the game—and as a sport of our own, let’s try and settle the score.

For dispute’s sake, if we were to compound the long-running debate surrounding the value of said microphone into one frame of argumentation, the affirmative points could be set out as follows:

1. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps increases entertainment. Meaning, as viewers the experience of watching play becomes more dynamic.
2. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps increases player accountability when it comes to verbally sledging, riling and heckling players of the opposite team.2 Essentially, the microphone acts as evidence.
3. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps strengthens education surrounding the nuances of the game. As in, we can watch and learn at once.

On the other hand, with rebuttals temporarily to one side, the negative team could offer the following points:

1. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps can (and has been proven to) result in the commercialisation of playing time. An explanation being that players have made verbal reference to their sponsors when standing by the stumps, turning the field of play into an exercise in free advertisement.
2. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps encroaches on the use of tactics within a game and results in limitations to unmediated expression. Concerning privacy, there simply isn’t any.
3. Affixing a microphone to the base of the cricket stumps has resulted in the opposite of containing negative player behaviour. Instead, it has extended the frame of play, leaving players finding more inventive and off-field ways to evade the record of the all-hearing stump microphone.

Though of course, such things aren’t so easy, and announcing them with the brevity of exact speech and the commentary of information doesn’t do much to reign in the outliers. Rebuttal directed at the first point and the concept of ‘entertainment’ alone could prove this on its own. For what is more entertaining: the truth that really, when it comes down to it, the chatter around the cricket stumps is deeply banal and the rush is merely that we have access to it? Or alternatively, that what goes unsaid and, therefore, often unseen, contributes the mythology of the game, in this case making it clear that the adage ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ really need not always apply? In the end, there is no way to truly know: it can only be answered at spectator discretion.

By now, fifty years on, the stump microphone has augmented into various contemporary manifestations—such as the equally schismatic ‘hawk eye’ of tennis or the digitally enhanced starting blocks of sprinting—but none have carried the consequences for communication as heavily. And this capacity to ‘listen in’ has reverberated and morphed itself into various unintentional spectres of communication’s present, though this time without the help of Kerry Packer’s media-monopolising reincarnation, whoever that may be. Instead, brought on by the current global pandemic, once-sidelined broadcasting companies and streaming services have mutated into stump microphones of their own, or centre-pass microphones, or top-of-the-key microphones, suddenly and accidentally becoming eavesdroppers by default of a game without an audience to sound them out.

When opposition to the stump microphone was at its highest, cricket players opted for the promotion of rival sponsors or the discussion of private matters made public as a means to generate momentum for the microphone’s removal. Such moves successfully drew closer scrutiny to the situation, since if you can’t control what is being picked up in a live stream, how can you censor your content to meet industry standards (as with no advertising on free-to-air TV) or rating suitability (one player notoriously bantered about a night he had recently spent with a lover, others uttered expletives so frequently it seemed like it was just for fun)? Similar things can be said about the recent push online—the ways in which we joke we are living at work rather than working from home stand-in as proof that the stump microphone has found its way into our lives and made itself comfortable at the base of the lump we often find ourselves in on the couch. We’re no longer just the ones passively listening in: we are now on the playing field and the ‘spectators’ are leaning back in their office chairs while running the show.3

But this is all getting a little extemporaneous, so let’s try and keep this debate on track. For much can be said in the affirmative for the in-house microphone too, which, through a sudden increased clarity of communication, has seen speech travel in ways bodies can’t, with the effects of quiet cities echoing back out to finally speak to global need. There have been many moments where this detachment between speech and body has caused confusion—teachers enquiring into the black abyss as to whether their students are still there, or screen glitches amplifying the loss of body language’s assurance even more—but something must be said for these moments of silence too, or these ways in which sound has begun to carry with it a different temporality and has thus been able to train a surprisingly honed ear. Now that we can hear everything in a way we couldn’t before, ‘entertainment’ starts to have a more futile ring to it. As we are left so exposed to it all, all we can do is begin to make decisions again—informed ones this time, no longer as the passive spectator defenceless against the background noise that gets in the way of true transmission.

Just before Australia went into its first serious lockdown, the prime minister wanted one last rush of passivity: he decided to go to a national football game on the eve of the introduction of curfew measures he himself imposed. It made no sense. It was like someone finding out they had a fish allergy and eating one last potentially deadly salmon fillet before committing to never doing so again. Evidently, following the crowd was far too exhilarating for him to resist; he is a spectator at heart, after all. But now that the dust has settled, the political jargon has somewhat sounded out and the stadiums are relatively empty, there is a certain liberation in communication that we just can’t deny. Before we lose this pause to cardboard cutouts and digitally rendered fans—accompanied by fake cheers that mark the advent of sport’s own laugh track—we can hear with crispness the passing of the ball, the solidaric instruction or the receiver’s request: all things that the microphone picks up with the slightest of leans in, leaving the rest of us out there in the stands of life, calm yet enraged and, as concluding lines go, completely stumped.

1 In debating it is customary that the debate topic is a statement beginning with the word ‘that’, such as, ‘That education should be free.’ It’s also a very Australian attitude to imply casualness (whether actually felt or not) by saying something like, ‘let’s play it by ear’—an idiom meaning, ‘let’s just see how it goes (and not prepare in advance).’
2 ‘Sledging’ is a cricketing term used to describe the tactic whereby players attempt to distract the opposing team by insulting them in the throws of play, often with comments of a sexist or racist nature. A stereotypical (and actual) example goes something like this: Player A (wicket keeper, positioned behind the batter): ‘Why are you so fat?’ Player B (batter): ‘Because every time I make love to your wife she gives me a biscuit.’
3 Think here of the constant anxiety around if you really have muted your Zoom participation when watching a serious talk with not-so-serious company on a Friday night.