Plenty of negativity towards Channel 9’s Ashes commentary this season and for bloody good reason too.
In this article – originally published by The Roar – I argue for letting cricket speak it’s own language, letting commentators be themselves and ditching the clown charade altogether.
A few years back I toured England with Sydney University Cricket Club. Our travels coincided with the 1997 Ashes series. Remember that one? Matthew Elliott swatting Andy Caddick to all parts. Greg Blewett upright and imperious. Michael Bevan struck frozen by the rampaging Dean Headley’s belly-high medium-fast bouncers. A relatively reliable Graham Thorpe. An occasionally stoic Mark Butcher. Brendon Julian tagging along for a look. And rain. Buckets and buckets of the stuff.
Ah, the splendiferous John Smith’s fog of so many delays in play…
Back then the Australian side was managed by Alan Crompton, a one-time Chairman of what we now know as Cricket Australia. As luck would have it, he’d also been a treasured contributor on and off-field for Sydney Uni in his day. Crommo was a delightful bloke. Warm, affable and generous and only too willing to extend a welcoming hand to representatives of his Alma Mater.
Which brings me to Lords and the Second Test.
It was Crommo who orchestrated the Sydney Uni tour group’s ‘Access All Areas’ pass. The bacon and egg tie brigade – at least those young enough to remain conscious during a rain break – didn’t seem to mind us politely tottering about the Lords’ Members Pavilion, admiring the artwork, absorbing the ambience, all of us in total awe of the history that decorated the place. The Long Room? You bet. We trod the same spike-beveled floorboards as the Don himself, the very same that Mark Taylor led his men through when the rain stopped tumbling. Near enough to smell the damp on rain-sodden baggy greens and the tobacco that had permeated Warnie’s whites. As the players made their way out to the impeccably manicured turf with its wacky slope we stood behind a havoc-wreaking Glenn McGrath. We were so close it was as if we could have reached out and given him a little push to get him started. He took eight-for. England crumbled for 77. It was heaven.
‘You want to see the dressing rooms?’ asked Crommo during another rain break later.
Now most of us were aware of the great sacred decree about the sanctity of the Australian sheds. In fact I vividly recall sharing a ‘this-ain’t-quite-right’ look with Brendo Hill, one of the more thoughtful members of our touring party. But despite our wariness we soldiered upstairs. I mean if Crommo said it was okay… And the Australian players were elsewhere doing some kind of warm up. And we’d travelled a long way. And the dollar wasn’t buying us much back then. You took what you could when it was there.
All I really remember is mess. Gear strewn like the guts of a lawn-mown cane toad. Michael Slater’s acoustic guitar – yes, really – propped precariously against a chair sporting most his kit. The stench of sneaker sweat and wet lawn. White light through those quaint balconies. The emerald turf below
But then a ruckus. Pretty much as soon as we were in we were briskly urged out, not unlike fire evacuees.
You see, the Australian captain had slipped back to the rooms to change his shoes. He took most unkindly to our underserving presence in such rarefied quarters. I didn’t hear what he actually said about us being there, but I certainly saw his disapproving scowl. He looked totally fucking livid truth be told. Later we’d learn Ian Healy, among others, went similarly ballistic at our encroachment on the Australian squad’s realm. This, after all, was the sanctuary of a team otherwise doused in the spotlight. This is where together under the Southern Cross they’d stand, sprigs of wattle in their hand. It was special. Moreover, it was earned.
The moral of this tale? We shouldn’t have been there. Seeing it added nothing. Stupid, stupid idea.
And so to Channel 9’s commentary team and its abominable post-match cross to the players in the WACA change rooms. It’s one thing to luxuriate in a tremendous success. It is another altogether to coat it in crap and call it Lindt. As ABC Grandstand broadcaster Zane Bojack tweeted:
Have decided that watching Tubby Taylor in the Aussie dressing rooms was more awkward than walking in on my mum & dad…
When did getting sploshed by celebratory piss become something for commentators to revel in too? Why are they force-feeding us triumphalism? Why are we gorging on cheap pornography when the curve of Marilyn Monroe’s bare shoulder was always more than enough? Why are we even there? Tubby! For chrissakes, man! Has the memory of your righteous 1997 dressing shed snarl simply become lost in a funk of pre-commentary makeup and Fujitsu ad scripts? Tubs, old son… When did you change so?
But before we lament the post match twaddle that Channel 9 impressed upon us on Tuesday evening, let’s take a quiet step to the side.
We assume it’s an easy task filling the voids that exist between pivotal moments in a sluggish game. It’s not. It’s a craft. Still it’s one at which the ABC continues to excel. Around stalwarts Jim Maxwell and Drew Morphett, good ol’ Aunty has assembled a colourful and authoritative bunch of describers. Quentin Hull has been an entirely admirable and justified inclusion: the volatility that comes with his inner football caller brings a genuine in-the-moment excitement. Kerry O’Keefe has his detractors, but his rascal charm is as undeniable, his ‘been there’ knowledge gifts him proper insight, and like most rapscallions, he’s wily and bright. Everyone loves Aggers’ self-deprecating wit, of course, especially when his mob’s being trounced. ‘Henry’ Lawson’s often bluntly delivered black-and-white world finds its place. That’s just a few of the crew, but you get the picture. All add something by being little more than themselves. Day in, day out, it works.
On the other hand, Channel 9 is officially out of control.
Michael Slater is charming and quick but instead of calling as he batted – with instinct – he’s forced to play some sort of quiz show wag. Shazzam, anyone? Mark Taylor betrays his reputation as an astute cricket thinker by allowing someone to puppet-string him as Tubs the Dancing Clown. Mark Nicholas undermines his undoubted and articulate nous by glistening in a younger man’s suit, winking at the wives of Australia and salivating over interview subjects just as Alan Jones might Christopher Pyne. Shane Warne, a commentator I’ve admired during spells in England, now gibbers on about hostile Koala Loompers and slips in Root jokes that were already tired before a ball had been bowled in anger in the last Ashes series. And James Brayshaw? You know what I was saying before about Quentin Hull? Well Brayshaw (far from a dill, it must be said: one need only look the rising star of the AFL club whose affairs he oversees) is cast as an oafish, boorish antithesis. Meanwhile Ian Healy tries to tie it all together as some kind of brainstrust, but he’s herding oily cats fuelled by trucker speed. Imported duo Bumble Lloyd and Michael Vaughan valiantly try to play along. They’re fooling no one.
Cricket is a game that affords us the time to think hypercritically and that in itself makes it easy to pick on commentators. But this mob is sticking its collective neck out. Billy Birmingham has made a living out of lampooning personal peccadilloes. How would he go with this current lot? Probably a whole lot harder taking the mickey out of a bunch who already present as caricatures.
The cricket’s with us all summer. So then is Channel 9. Skip the bored housewife/inattentive husband/well endowed pool boy plotline. Let Marilyn’s glorious pout return.
It’s all us cricket types ever needed, really.