TWC commentator’s poll

The latest issue of the Wisden Cricketer features the now regular poll on readers’ favourite commentators. Geoff Boycott takes top spot, followed by Jonathan Agnew, David Lloyd, Michael Atherton and Michael Holding.

What does everyone think about that?

And why was Mark Nicholas only eighth? Am I the only person around of the opinion that Nicholas is an unheralded broadcasting genius and at least the equal of Richie Benaud? Or do I go too far?

Life after Benaud

On Desert Island Discs, you are allowed one luxury. Given mine would be a magical television that showed all available live cricket (as well as choice re-runs), I’d be able to pick my favourite pundits to describe the action. Who are my top commentators? In theory, I would only need two to cover the matches, but that would be unfair on them (I’m not a tyrant), so I’d hire five to mix it up and give the others a rest.

Richie Benaud in the comm box

Therefore, below are my five favourite commentators. Benaud would have been there, of course, as would Brian Johnston, but we must all move on. There are honourable mentions for Lloyd, Gower, Holding, Dujon, Nasser, Knight, Ward, Smith, Lawry and Greig, but these five pick themselves.My Top Five: Michael Atherton, Jimmy Adams, Michael Slater, Geoff Boycott and Simon Hughes.

I can’t imagine anyone will disagree, but then it’s your island. Pick who you like!

Celebrity commentators: Tony Benn

A fruity voice, outspoken, opinionated – and best of all, easily impersonated. Imagine how entertaining the rain intervals would become.

Previously, Jools Holland

Celebrity commentators: Jools Holland

As predicted, the rain is tumbling down. Not quite as bad in Leeds as it is here in London, which is encouraging, but I doubt there’ll be any play at Headingley until mid-afternoon. Hey ho (Flint), stick some music on, make a cuppa cha. I’m watching Jools Holland’s Later from last week with a frightening looking Joan Armatrading bitching it on a Fender. Rawk. Incidentally, Jools would be a shoo-in for my Celebrity Cricket Commentators list – welcoming everyone in the comm box. “And here, today, we have the brilliant, the extraordinary, the multi talented…AGGERS! Thank you!” etc.

So Jools would be one, Alan Partridge another. Who else?

Broadcast Views

Reverse Swinging Mark has his say on Sky’s broadcast roster.

The classic sports arrangement consists of a commentator who actually describes what’s going on out in the middle, alongside a ‘colour’ man who, well, adds the colour to the picture the commentator has described – effectively providing deeper analysis of what’s going on.

Every other sport seems to recognise this – football commentary is left to the professional commentators (Motson, Davies, Tyler) with ex-pros like the exemplary Andy Gray, just providing the ‘colour’ – the same with Rugby Union where Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes have developed a level of understanding that rugby hasn’t witnessed since Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were strutting their stuff.

Sky Cricket’s problem is that they have too many ‘colour’ guys and not enough commentators – in fact, they haven’t actually got any at all. You need balance to ensure that the commentary flows with the game – but instead, with Sky, we get a series of ex players who feel that they have to continually justify their presence with elaborate analysis of every thought, word and deed of the players in the middle – plus a whole lot more beyond that, without realising that all we actually need is some sort of insight into what is actually happening, and why. No one is doing orthodox commentary, because no one has been asked/told to – so the Sky product is fundamentally flawed.

As it happens, I tuned in my television to watch the New Zealand vs Sri Lanka Test match, and to my surprise the first voice I heard was that of the veteran West Indies commentator, Tony Cozier. Whether or not he’s emigrated to New Zealand, or doing some freelancing, I have no idea, but it was a delight to hear him.

Cricket in New Zealand is broadcast by Sky NZ, and it suffers from almost the opposite problem to that described by Mark- too much commentary, and not enough colour. I’m not sure where Jeremy Coney has got to, but the rest of the local commentators are too descriptive and.. boring.

Unfortunately, there’s not a great market for Test cricket in New Zealand. Shane Bond is giving the Sri Lankans a royal grilling before a nearly empty stadium, and so when broadcasting in this sort of environment, it is important to ‘pep it up’ a bit. You do not need the ‘Barmy Army’ to create atmosphere but you do need to have more then 15% of the seats sold.

This isn’t meant to be an attack on Sky NZ, who are doing a great job- the camera work is as good as anything Nine in Australia can come up with. The graphics are smart and professional. They just need to think ‘outside the square’ somewhat to liven things up. If they hired Tony Cosier to this end, then they have made a good start.

Tufnell and Gooch at Adelaide

Good shot of Phil Tufnell and Graham Gooch commentating for the BBC in Adelaide

The Holy Trinity

Test Match Special.


The importance of being earnest

Tim de Lisle opened up in Cricinfo with an interesting post relating to independence in the media.

Trescothick is much liked, and even after his story changed, most commentators were gentle with him. But one pundit was conspicuously tough: Mike Atherton, cricket columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, who said Trescothick’s virus line was “so utterly implausible” that “ridicule is the only proper response”.

Atherton used to open the batting for England with Trescothick. He was a team-mate for years at Lancashire of Trescothick’s agent, Neil Fairbrother, who also came in for criticism in Atherton’s piece, albeit unnamed. The condemnation possibly went a touch too far, but it came from the right place: a belief in honesty. Atherton can’t stand spin – of the PR variety – and he is right to highlight the way it is spreading through the sports world.

Atherton is one of the best ex-player pundits for three reasons. He wants to get better; after a tentative start, his writing has steadily acquired more scope and flair. He is curious: he asks questions, while some ex-players still wait for the questions to come to them. And he has a clear grasp of the importance of being independent. He knows he is now batting not for England, but for his readers.

In a free press, that distinction is straightforward. In televised sport, it is becoming a grey area. The ultimate producer of cricket in India is now the Indian board. Atherton, who commentated for Sky on the India-England series, says local commentators were “asked not to mention sensitive subjects”. This provoked denials, but it will continue to be an issue. And some ex-players just don’t seem to see that it matters.

I posit that it is not quite so simple as this though. As a general rule of thumb, in whatever field you work in, you do not crap in your own nest. Cricket authorities are different in various places but all of them expect their broadcast partners to be supportive. And the management of the broadcasters themselves would be most displeased if the commentators were to disparage the game, lest they invite viewers to change the channel.

After all Michael Atherton would hardly expect the Sunday Telegraph to be very friendly to him if he bagged the paper in his column.

That is why there will always be a role for newspapers and blogs in cricket and indeed, in many other areas. We can ask the questions that broadcast media can not ask.

Commentators allured to Twenty20 madness

Last week in Australia was one which may in hindsight be seen as a
historical turning point. Monday night brought the first home Twenty20
international won comfortably by Australia in front of a record crowd for
the Gabba of 38,894 patrons who left slightly deafer than when they came in
thanks to an atmosphere more reminiscent of a disco than a cricket ground.

But this was not the historical event: everyone has known for some time the
potentialities of Twenty20 cricket and their implications, not so much for
Test cricket as for one-day cricket, whose humdrum nature is shown in even
more stark relief. The truly fascinating development was the role of the
Channel Nine commentary team, who abandoned all pretence of being
disinterested critics of the spectacle before them, and turned into carnival
barkers: ‘Hurry hurry hurry, step right up and see the AMAAAAZING cricket
match!’ During South Africa’s insipid and incompetent reply to the
Australian total, viewers were told repeatedly that what they were watching
was the most exciting innovation since penicillin. One expects this from
Tony Greig, of course, who has been selling ghastly gew-gaws for years. But
here were Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Mark Nicholas and Michael Slater, almost
tumescent with excitement, essentially doing the same: selling us a
one-sided one-dayer as though it was the Tied Test. No wonder Rich and
Chappelli had the night off; George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother was a
model of parliamentary dignity compared with Slater’s desperate attempts to
endear himself to his temporary bosses. This reinvention of cricket
commentary as infomercial raised some provocative questions. Is the
commentator there to call the game, or to sell it? Is his duty primarily to
the viewer, to his employer or – strange anachronistic notion, this – to the
game of cricket? The commentators here are on a slippery slope, but they
look determined to slalom down it.

It was almost a relief to watch the comparative dignity of the opening VB
Series game on Friday evening, another damp squib thanks to the serene
inertia of Sri Lanka’s Martin Van Dotball, but with a soundtrack neither so
hysterical nor hyperbolic. It was possible to savour instead the
restoration of heart-warming traditions like the sound of Murali being
no-balled by one of those famously knowledgeable and hospitable Melbourne
crowds – something, of course, to which the commentators were far too polite
to refer. But ho! What have we here, with Nicholas and Healy at the
microphone? Mr Smooth and Mr Shrewd wearing false moustaches as part of a
beer promotion involving a talking Boonie doll! Pure ruddy gold. Kerry
Packer might have gone to his reward, but his spirit is alive and well. If
you can bear to sit through the eye-glazingly dull games, there’s some
veeeeerrry interesting stuff going down in Aussie cricket at the moment.

Tony Greig joins Channel 4 team

Tony Greig joins the Channel 4 team for this summer’s Ashes. Here are the following voices you’ll be listening to in a few weeks time:

Mark Nicholas, Richie Benaud, Mike Atherton, Geoff Boycott, Michael Slater and Simon Hughes

Slater joining Channel 4

Following his admittance of depression, I had hoped Channel 4 would renew Michael Slater’s contract as a commentator this year – and they have. Great news. He’s enthusiastic, interesting and a good foil for Mark Nicholas this summer.