Five ways to improve Channel Nine’s cricket coverage

Stephen Vagg Roar Guru

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    Channel Nine’s cricket coverage has been part of my life since I discovered the game.

    I have vague memories of watching some matches on the ABC (did they broadcast Tests in 1982-83? Do I remember that right?) but overwhelmingly the images of cricket came via Packervision accompanied by the sounds of Richie Benaud, the Chappells, Tony Greig, Bill Lawry, Max ‘Tangles’ Walker and all the gang.

    I really loved Nine’s coverage – the bright colours and tunes, the animated duck, the cuts to the crowd, the fact they inspired The Twelfth Man. To my young ears it was much better than the endless drone of Alan ‘he’s a doyen so better not say anything bad about him’ McGilvray on the radio.

    In recent years it’s become increasingly common to watch cricket on other networks – the Big Bash on Network Ten and overseas tours on cable. You would think this would inspire Channel Nine to lift their game – commentate better, pinch good ideas for their own use etc – but if anything, it’s inspired them to become worse.

    Maybe it’s my age, but I can barely watch a game on Channel Nine now. The commentating is so poor and the quality of coverage is so inferior to the way other networks do it.

    I think cricket at Nine has been particularly affected by the passing of two men: Kerry Packer and Richie Benaud. Packer had a proprietorial interest in the game, which not only earned him a lot of money but also gave him a fame his many other achievements did not. He kept everyone who worked on cricket on their toes, something that has clearly been missing over the past decade.

    Benaud not only brought immense respect as a player but he was also a fantastic broadcaster. He actually trained as a journalist – real training, as in he did police rounds and learned the ropes properly, not just in an “I actually write my own copy” way – and had extensive experience commentating in other countries. He was a skilled user of words and an immense professional. Who comes close out of the current lot? Mark Taylor? Ian Healy? Michael Slater? Mark Nicholas?

    Okay, maybe it’s unfair to expect a second Packer or Benaud, but there are some things the powers that be at Nine could do to lift their game.

    (AAP Image/ Nine Network)

    Have it hosted by a woman
    Nine have never found someone to replace Richie Benaud in the anchor role. They should give it to a woman. It could be a former player or just a journalist. The two main requirements are that they (a) be actually good at broadcasting and (b) know a bit about cricket. There should be a lot of potential applicants around.

    A female in the commentary team would change the dynamic for the better. It would make the commentary feel more inclusive and it would offer a different point of view. Men tend to behave better when women are around.

    Mel McLaughlin did a fantastic job for the Big Bash. She knew her stuff, she was enthusiastic and she could act as a surrogate for the audience. Someone similar should be drafted in by Nine.

    Women are 50 per cent of the population and a growing portion of the cricket market. They should be represented in the commentary box. None of the current inhabitants have made the anchor role their own; it makes sense that job be given to an outsider.

    Have a commentator who didn’t play at a high level but who really knows cricket (who isn’t Mark Nicholas)
    You don’t have to play the game at a high level to be able to commentate it. Look at Jim Maxwell, Dennis Cometti, Ray Warren and Tim Lane.

    Sure, it’s good to have some former players, but having only former players makes listening to them feel like an awful school reunion where the old cool kids are reliving their glory days and the people who weren’t quite as cool are trying to suck up.

    After spending a lifetime listening to Ian Chappell’s commentary, I’m pretty sure I know every single anecdote he’s got in his repertoire – except maybe his enthusiasm for playing against South Africa in the 1970s; he doesn’t tend to bring that up a lot these days.

    Non-playing commentators will work harder. They will be able to understand issues, like how the Duckworth Lewis system works. They will do things like actually follow domestic cricket so that when players like Joe Burns and Hilton Cartwright debut they’ll know who they are. The lack of knowledge the commentary team have about the present day Sheffield Shield is embarrassing. They will lift everyone’s game.

    Mark Nicholas isn’t the answer here. There isn’t enough knowledge on topics like Australian domestic cricket, T20 and women’s cricket – and, to be honest, because those things involve a lot of work and research, I can only see a non-former player journalist doing it.

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Bring back guest commentators from overseas
    This used to be a staple of Nine’s coverage. You’d have Tony Cozier when the West Indies were here, David Gower for a British tour and so on. Now it tends to be an all-Australian box, which means an increasing sameness in the views expressed.

    I know there’s a cost involved, but every touring team is accompanied by journos. Is it not possible to ask some over to the commentary box without having to pay for their flights and accommodation?

    Overseas commentators offer a different point of view, an insight into the touring squads and the potential for some interesting conflict.

    Adding a female, a non-player and an overseas guest would probably require room to be made among the commentary team. Everyone will have their own suggestions as to who should get the boot – personally, I don’t know what Michael Slater, Mark Nicholas and Mark Taylor are doing there; what do they provide that Ian Chappell, Shane Warne, Ian Healy and Michale Clarke couldn’t?

    Even if you like them and would prefer other heads to roll, everyone agrees there is fat that can be trimmed from the current lot.

    Produce the show better
    Someone – it may have been Jarrod Kimber – once pointed out that it’s often not so much that the Nine boys are bad at commentating, it’s that they are badly produced. They’re allowed to waffle on, indulge in antics and generally be crap – Shane Warne and Ian Healy, in particular, are commentators capable of greatness but who can go seriously off the boil. Michael Clarke can be good, but could he please do some vocal training to reduce the whine in his voice?

    Maybe it’s the producer. Maybe it’s the absence of Benaud. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes; I can only commentate as a viewer, but it does feel that no-one is telling the commentators to lift their game. Or if they are, they’re not being listened to.

    (AP Photo/Theron Kirkman, file)

    Don’t be afraid of drama
    I think the mantra at Nine for the past few years has been ‘fun’ – a bunch of mates talking about cricket and having good ole time. The result is cliquey and lazy – like watching some ‘legends’ get on the booze in the members’ bar and rehash the same old stories.

    I’ve watched enough cricket to know how boring it can be and that commentators can liven it up. Instead of reheating the same anecdotes, why don’t they challenge the commentators a bit? Remember how awesome it was when Ricky Ponting interviewed Kevin Pietersen during the Big Bash and he spilt dirt on his former teammates? Why not do more stuff like that?

    Have Steve Waugh guest commentate for a session alongside Shane Warne and Ian Chappell, or put Ian Botham or Kim Hughes next to Chappell. What about Steve Waugh next to Slater? Watto next to Clarke? Marlon Samuels next to Warne? Darren Sammy next to Mark Nicholas? The possibilities are endless.

    Nine could also film the game more imaginatively. When I saw the 2013-14 Ashes live at the Gabba I’d never seen a more bored or distracted fielder on a cricket oval than Kevin Pietersen – he was constantly looking at the crowd, barely noticing the game, and had to be pulled into line several times by Alastair Cook. You wouldn’t have known it from the cricket coverage.

    Channel Nine should out the drama on the field – broadcast the sledging, capture the dark looks that pass among feuding teammates, film the fielders who are bludging or flirting with the crowd.

    Will any of this happen? Probably not. And it’s a shame because at one stage Channel Nine led the world when it came to cricket coverage. Now, like their commentators, they’re living off old glories.

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