Channel Nine’s Cricket Commentary: A Different Kind of Shit

Tony Greig has sadly passed; Richie Benaud isn’t coming back. Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry remain, but they’re peripheral figures now. It’s the end of an era, as we know it, and the shoes to fill are large. So why is Channel Nine intent on putting its greatest product in the hands of imbeciles? TPA chief editor Dave Edwards laments the low-brow approach to modern cricket commentary…

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The New Wave music movement of the late 70s and early 80s carried with it a “twitchy, agitated feel,” representing a distinctly modern departure from the smoother, traditional blues-infused rock of the early-mid 1970s.

It felt fresh, relevant, and invigorating. Choppy rhythm guitars, synths and energetic vocals were aimed at a young audience, with an emphasis on lyrical complexity and polished production. The genre was angular and sharp, like the very frontmen and women themselves. These young artists had recognised the times and moved with them, not against them.

Richie Benaud and his famous commentary line-up represented traditional rock and roll. Benaud himself was positively Dylan-esque. A poet speaking truths; the voice of a generation; a cream-clad doyen with a voice of velvet. Greig and Lawry, meanwhile, were the equivalent of Lennon-McCartney. Bickering creative partners, yet responsible for some of the greatest four-chord hits in history.

This New Wave of Channel Nine Cricket Commentary – which relies on puerility, boorishness, and sexual innuendo – is neither fresh, nor necessary.

Angular, sharp, relevant
Angular, sharp, relevant

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Essentially, the problem with the Channel Nine coverage (and modern sports commentary in general), is that there’s too much colour and not enough substance. Everyone’s a ‘hype’ man, with former greats willing to play the goat for a giggle. As a result, the coverage lacks credence and gravitas.

Despite his health scares, Richie Benaud is probably more than capable of coming back for a cameo. But who could blame him from steering well clear, given the level of buffoonery which exists within the once sacred commentary box today?

You could be excused for thinking you’d tuned into an episode of The Footy Show – given the conversation that takes place between commentators such as James Brayshaw, Michael Slater, Shane Warne, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Brett Lee, etc. This collegiate humour is fine in small doses – in fact, it has held down the 9:30pm Thursday winter night slot for 20 years – but when forced down your throat for five days, often at the cost of actual game analysis and insight, it wears very thin indeed.

The understated, dulcet tones of Benaud et al have been replaced by a bunch of baffoons performing cheap circus tricks: loud, outlandish gags, five minute segments on favoured pizza toppings, ‘lookalike’ skits, and all the rest of it.

It’s a fucking worry.

Iconic
Iconic

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Channel Nine has a lot to answer for, but in the tough world of channel ratings and sponsorship, it’s hard to knock their strategy.

Like all mainstream FTA channels – Channel Nine’s modus operandi is to capture the hearts and minds of mass-market middle Australia. Shows such as The Block, Big Brother and Underbelly reflect the nation’s appetite and attention span.

But cricket is a different product. It’s not a dispensable reality TV show; it’s a premium offering which must be treated with care and respect. On the Mad Men spectrum of key accounts, Cricket is Chevrolet – a luxurious high-value item that represents all things Americana Australia.

That said, cricket’s target audience has surely changed over the years, in line with the various developments within the sport itself.

Ever since One Day cricket beamed onto our TVs in the late 70s courtesy of Kerry Packer, Benaud and his team steered us to present day with barely a hiccup.

This era of blues-inflused rock is over. Test and one day cricket have a new cousin, known as T20 cricket. This young relative is a bit different – he probably suffers from Aspergers Disease or some other strain of autism – and, consequently, he soaks up all of our attention.

Without the disruptive influence of T20 cricket and the need to ‘entertain’ rather than simply ‘commentate (there’s a huge difference, let me tell you), the old team injected just the right amount of energy, humour and absurdity that televised cricket required.

Delicious impersonations of engaging, multi-layer characters
Delicious impersonations of engaging, multi-layer characters

T20 cricket changed pretty much everything. It gave way to ‘hype’ and fast money. Richie Benaud-style understatement was (naturally) eschewed for loud monosyllabic catch-cries, with any idiot now capable of calling a game.

Cricket changed, ergo commentary changed. It had to.

But somehow, this bold braggadocio has seeped into the test match arena. Shot selection is key in test cricket; not just on the field, but in the box, too. Instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, test cricket commentators should take a considered, thoughtful approach to their art.

As Robert Browning once said in his 1855 poem, ‘Andrea del Sarto’: less is more.

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The very nature of test cricket requires its scribes and commentators to exercise verve and wordplay; to fuse the sport with cultural references, to give it life and spirit, the way Peter Roebuck did; the way Gideon Haigh sometimes does. However, as TPA senior editor Sam Perry says:

“These blokey [Channel Nine] commentators actually make cricket more boring than it already is. They breathe zero life into it, reduce its meaning, and persuade audiences that it is the exclusive, inaccessible domain of the white bloke. It’s a closed culture. Cricket Australia should be running secret programs to identify commentators that can open up the beauty of cricket through commentary. Really, cricket should be fused with geopolitics, food, wine, Ancient Rome, and horticulture.”

– Perry, Sam (2015)

Cricket and horticulture: an obvious pairing
Cricket and horticulture: an obvious pairing

Ideally it would be incumbent on CA, as Perry suggests, to actively seek out this next generation of cricket commentators, rather than simply rely on ex-players retiring to the safe, comfortable confines of the commentary box – a closed, male-driven environment, not dissimilar in tone to any grade cricket change-room, in a bid to remain relevant.

With Mark Nicholas, Channel Nine has shown that they are willing to import “class”* given our inability to produce local talent. However, as long as Channel Nine has the rights, this blokey culture will continue to dominate. Cheap gags and surface-level observation will triumph over considered thought and irony.

In all honesty, the old Channel Nine team probably weren’t that good. But they were original – and that’s all that mattered.

Cricket is the soundtrack to summer, and cricket is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s not cricket’s fault that today’s soundtrack resembles a Pitbull track (featuring Ke$ha).

By Dave Edwards

Nicholas is ‘class’ in that he is English-born, and able to speak reasonably eloquently without resorting to glib bogan catch-phases. However, he will always suffer from the very-Australian criticism that “he didn’t play test cricket, so who cares what he has to say”. This is also a systemic issue within Australian sport: the idea that, as a commentator, your opinions do not matter unless you played the highest level of that particular sport. This prejudice does not exist in the U.S., for example, where sportscasting is a much more highly developed and respectable industry.

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