Almanac Cricket: Views from outside the clique welcome

by Shannon Gill

 

As Dirk Nannes’s comments filled the papers leading into day 5, perhaps the most important impact on Australian cricket was nothing to do with player behaviour but to do with a cricket broadcast setting an agenda.

The cricket broadcast as news has been all but bereft in recent summers. Social media has been abuzz for some time on the dissatisfaction around the Channel 9 commentary, symbolised by the infamous ‘Pizza Toppings’ question as analysis of last summer. Even more worrying was the lack of dissection and discussion on 9 after the breaking Clarke retirement announcement this winter straight after an Ashes test. A one minute interview with Warney and then cut to the movie? For god’s sake you’ve got six former greats in a commentary box and the Australian captain has just quit – there’s hours of mileage there. But Channel 9 have not been the only culprits on this front.

The time honoured ABC radio coverage had become lifeless and directionless. Since the death of Peter Roebuck there’d been no identity, with a revolving door of expert comments men and garden variety ABC sports types backing up veteran Jim Maxwell. It had lost any buzz and was struggling to make any impact. In two short seasons Fairfax Radio in comparison was putting on a much more compelling broadcast despite the commercials, spending more money but having greater identity in its product of ‘opinion commentary’.

The ABC broadcast needed a makeover of the proportions which are flogged as reality TV on Channel 9 broadcasts. It’s pleasing to report that two Tests in to the summer the revamped ABC broadcast is already becoming a package that is both informative and entertaining with an added dollop of newsy-drama. This is newsy-drama that the game desperately needs in a season with not much box-office appeal.

Nannes’ commentary has been a standout, a left-field but inspired choice in that he’s someone who was part of the elite cricket scene but not ‘of’ the elite cricket scene. He loves the game but he’s not enthral to any cliques or boys clubs. Frankly he’s too busy with Japanese ski chalets to be involved in that stuff, which means he’s a great commentator and the perfect counterpoint to any Channel 9 dissatisfaction.

His comments on the non-handshake of Ross Taylor and the wider issue of the way the team carries itself was quite brilliant, whether you agree with it or not.

This was not tabloid baying, nor was it the aggressive ‘wild dogs’ 2008-09 accusation of Roebuck, this was calm, and rational with counter points given. His relaying of the worldview of Australian cricket was particularly insightful and exactly what experts commentators should do – use their knowledge to tell us things we don’t know.

I can tell you from experience that it would have set Cricket Australia media spinners into apoplexy, nothing like player behaviour to get everyone jumpy,  but the bigger picture is that this sort of commentary creates debate and more media space for a game that is in need. It should be encouraged because next time it won’t be about player behaviour, it will be about day-night Tests or some topic that will move cricket into a media space it hasn’t been in for some time.

Fellow new expert comments recruit Simon Katich also has a track record of speaking his mind, even if his views on the game come from a more traditional vantage.

On the surface the addition of Gerard Whateley has been a masterstroke both symbolically and mechanically. There was consternation around ABC types that Whateley coming to the broadcast was some kind of flight of fancy and that he ‘just wasn’t cricket’. Those thoughts have been emphatically dispelled. While his profile may be limited to AFL states it’s a profile nonetheless that brings a gravitas that the coverage needed desperately.

Mechanically Whateley has some gifts that so far are being employed well, I’d argue his cricket ball by ball calling is better than his football calling, but it’s his ability to weave a news narrative into the broadcast that makes him such a great asset. The Nannes comments of Monday were in effect facilitated by Whateley and gently nudged along for all their news worth through his skill, giving counter-points and reason without histrionics. It’s a skill that Whateley has been able to employ in carrying a compelling nightly AFL television news show, so we shouldn’t be surprised, I think there’s just general surprise that he seems to be as passionate about cricket as he is with AFL and horse racing.

It also makes an interesting point about sportscasters today in Australia that we are very quick to pigeon-hole to one sport, with inauthenticity suspected if someone crosses over. In the US it’s much more frequent with the top echelon often flitting across their four major league sports. The reality is that sports lovers tend not to be monogamous with their love, Whateley is showing that the best are adaptable.

The news element is further enhanced through its lunchtime ‘Press Room’ show on digital radio. This is the news angle that cricket as a sport has been crying out for, where it’s been left behind by football codes. Members of the ‘Geek Pack’ Adam Collins and Geoff Lemon are fresh non-formulaic ABC voices that have popped up to provide perspectives with a passionate worldview that cricket broadcasting hasn’t touched in recent times. Lemon, ironically, wrote the online piece so critical of 9’s coverage last season that resonated so much with fans it was a viral sensation. Deliciously he’s getting the chance to put his talent where his mouth is, so far it’s working well. To be a fly on the wall in the media centres at grounds this summer…

Adam White helms the press room and much credit has to go to him in his role as new Senior Producer of the Test broadcast for the re-shape and the encouraging start.

The explosion in AFL news coverage and media chatter came from the time footy print journos started popping up on radio and TV. There is compounding interest that builds up when you need to keep your bread buttered – only now is cricket broadcasting following that trend.

The revamp and approach will provide Cricket Australia’s media department with some anxious moments, but they must not lose sight of the bigger picture – a new, more sophisticated news approach to broadcasting the game will help the sport infinitely, creating new storylines and column space, good, bad and indifferent, that the sport needs. It also takes the pull approach of dragging casual fans into a more sophisticated and in-depth coverage of the sport that has worked well in AFL, creating a whole army of more informed mega-fans. Who would have thunk that the most passionate journos would help the marketers that they seem so diametrically opposed too?

Let’s reserve final judgement to the end of the season, but who knows, if successful, the quaint little ABC Radio revolution may even influence Channel 9 in time. Kerry could never have imagined that.

 

[Apologies for any confusion regarding attribution of this fine piece by Shannon Gill – Ed]

Comments

  1. James Grapsas says:

    Good critique.

    A disadvantage of listening to the cricket on ABC is that one has to forego listening to the ads in between overs on Fairfax Radio.

    It’s hard to beat the Harvey Norman ad with Ian Chappell extolling the virtues of sound bars. They are a game-changer and avoid the inconvenience of pesky wires and bulky speakers.

  2. Agree entirely, Shannon. The ABC radio coverage has been a breath of fresh air (that came on the back of a couple of tough decisions) and what comes through in the involvement of the new experts, Gerard and the Press Roomers is a genuine love of and enthusiasm for the game. Channel 9 seems to think having played it for Australia in the ’90s means the same thing – it does not.

    I remember last summer someone said that listening to Channel 9 commentary was like eavesdropping on the conversation at the next pub table. This year it’s like the old couple at the restaurant that ran out of things to say to each other 30 years ago. That they have chosen to ignore the Lemon piece and its rapturous reception is arrogant and embarrassing in equal measure.

  3. I think Nine has taken note of Geoff Lemon’s piece Dave but the matiest mates who ever mated are what they are. They’re perhaps trying to be something different but they’re not too sure what it is.

  4. Peter Clark says:

    Incisive comments Brent. But in reviewing the post Roebuck era you have overlooked a recently retired ABC radio commentator who for many cricket fans was compulsory listening with bucket loads of experienced analysis, buzz and great humour: Kerry O’Keeffe.

    I have always preferred the ABC radio coverage of Test cricket. The constant, repetitive between-overs ads and within-the-over ‘commercials’ spoil the Ch 9 coverage of the cricket for me. The ABC radio broadcast is far more spontaneous and less scripted. A perfect accompaniment to a quiet afternoon in the shed crafting a home brew. You can always duck inside to catch a wicket or witness a milestone.

  5. The Australian XI, whether winning or losing, have never been very gracious to their opponents. It was wasn’t a big deal (the Ross Taylor incident), Whateley commented that it was merely an oversight which is likely to have been the case, but this only points to how boorishly self-absorbed the Australian team is, how obsessed they are with always playing hardball at any cost. It is clearly ingrained in them that “good sportsmanship” is code for showing weakness on the field. This was a failure in leadership by the boy-captain, but it doesn’t start with the current regime by any means, going back as far as “Captain Cranky’s” time. When it comes to sledging, on occasions the Australians have crossed well over the line … we remember the McGrath/Sarwan confrontation which demonstrated that Aussie players are better at dishing it out than at receiving it! And, although not owned up to by Aust at the time (mid-1990s), the despicable efforts of the slips cordon to try to destroy Chris Cairns’ concentration whilst at the crease by alluding to the then recent train accident death of his 19-year-old sister!

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    I feel the same with Nannes. I get the sense that he doesn’t need to care about what you think about what he is thinking, he is going to tell you anyway.

    He almost veered off into Skull vaudeville territory when I heard him talking about getting his truck license with his wife in between the first and second test, part of his appeal I guess.

    Katich and Rogers don’t seem to be different enough; a bit more contrast is needed there.

    Jim Maxwell must be wondering what to make of all this. I suspect that his days are numbered. One call that I remember from Brisbane was “He’s bowled him. Caught at slip”.

    I had my doubts about Gerard, but I was wrong. He’s proving to be a master at posing the right questions at the right time. His ball by ball is more than OK too.

  7. I just got a text saying that Mitchell Johnson is retiring after this test.
    It makes sense he has achieved all he can. Ashes victories,World Cups, test centuries our fourth highest test wicket taker.He spoke recently about retiring, now he’s done it.
    Good on him i wish him a happy life post test cricket.

    Glen!

  8. Terrific article Brent. You crystallised a lot of things rattling around in my head, and a lot of other Knackers by the look of it.
    We all agree Dirk and Gerard are a breath of fresh air, and Jim needs to be gently managed out the door with a gold watch and thanks. Like Swish I am not so rapt in Katich. I thought he continued to straight bat everything, much as when batting. Good commentary needs to stretch my thinking not tell me the bleeding obvious. . Chris Rogers was ok in the First Test, but he needs to be a bit more removed from his dressing room “maaates” to be good value long term.
    Have only caught one edition of the Press Room but it was great. Same with the Final Word podcast that Harmsy featured in last week. I reckon Cate McGregor is the first person I have ever heard out-raconteur him.
    I struggle to get my head around what is and is not on the Grandstand digital platform and when. I could not find the cricket commentary on Grandstand on the weekend, so it was back to the faithful tranny in the garden on Sunday. Am I missing something? Is the Press Room on live radio every day/some days or on the digital platform. Please explain.
    Cricket on the radio on Sunday was much better than the in the flesh version on Friday. The imagination and the other distractions of the day with radio as a companion, is much better than 7 hours watching flat track bullying. Radio gives space for other diversions. Light and shade (and the beer is cheaper).
    Great stuff Brent..

  9. Jeez – Shannon/Shane/Brent/Brutus? No wonder Ch9 sticks to maaaaate.

  10. G’day all,
    Shannon – your message is a strong one; well made. Thanks.

    PB – I had trouble too, but found a way to stream ABC grandstand via the Cricket Australia www.
    I needed to create an account to access the content.
    But it’s streaming now from this address: http://live.cricket.com.au/#/1557/39054/audio

  11. I appreciate the anti-siphoning laws in place to keep coverage of the cricket (and afl) on free to air.
    Sadly ch 9 dont respect the priviledged position that they have.

  12. I’ve certainly enjoyed the ABC coverage so far this summer, in particular Dirk Nannes.

    My only complaint is Simon Katich prefacing everything with ‘there’s no doubt.’ It sounds, at times, like he’s attended the Michael Clarke school of mindless blather.

  13. Pagan M: Shouldn’t bite but will. The Cairns ‘choo choo’ story is urban myth and will remain so regardless of how many front bar big-noters ‘know for a fact’ otherwise because their mother-in-law’s hairdresser’s son’s girlfriend plays tennis with the wife of a bloke who used to work with the next-door neighbour of an old school mate of Cairns’s chiropractor. Not my opinion but fact as repeatedly stated by Chris Cairns.

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