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The slow demise of Channel 9 commentary team

16th April, 2018
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Shane Warne has a laugh. Can he coach? (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
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16th April, 2018
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Who knows what goes on behind closed doors but you do get the sense that Channel 9 management are not necessarily mourning the loss of the cricket TV rights.

With the surprising news that they had nabbed tennis off Channel 7 combined with the fact they had been losing money on cricket, it would only be fair to question their true commitment to the sport.

Then cue stairwell ranting and ball tampering, the call for cultural change and it must have been clear to all that Channel 9 were goners.

Cricket Australia knew Channel 9 was part of the culture, whether in a good or bad way and this was an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and use the TV rights as an agent for cultural change.

And some will say Channel 9 only have the themselves to blame, providing they care that is?

In hindsight that is questionable.

Many will say the demise started with the death of Richie Benaud, perhaps even earlier when Tony Greig died in 2012.

Both are sadly missed but the real game changer was the summer of 2013 when Channel 10 get hold of the Big Bash and took it on a journey that raised questions around the dynamism of Channel 9.

Channel 9 all of a sudden became like the tired old uncle, taking a nap in the corner after a long Sunday lunch on a winters afternoon. In comparative media terms similar to the BBC in 1999 when the cricket in the UK was moved to Channel 4 after 61 years.

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There was a feeling for new things, new commentators, new gimmicks and gizmos. More shebang.

It was clear the channel needed to step up to the plate but they simply chose not to do so.

Once the innovator and leader of cricket coverage in the world they sat on their comfy couch. They re-jigged and re-badged a few things here and there but by and large the overall product remained the same.

Mark Taylor and Michael Slater

(WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as something as simple as not wearing ties at ODIs and T20s didn’t sit quite right.

Instead they all looked like the naughty schoolboys who turned up to school without their ties but we all knew they had them in their back pockets.

They were drifting and then comes an article by Geoff Lemon in The Guardian in early 2015 that names the issue.

It was an elephant in the room moment and all of a sudden it was open slather to criticise Channel 9 and in particular the commentary team. The end result James Brayshaw, Mike Hussey and Brett Lee being cut loose and a commitment there would be an increased focus on the cricket rather than stories of what Warnie ate when on tour.

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But they missed the point, nobody really minded that chat. People like to have a laugh and like to hear the odd story of yesteryear but that needed to be combined with a new feel.

The reason to move on three of the team, given its burgeoning size, was probably a good one but it was the investment in the newest members of the commentary team that was problematic.

There was no sensible rationale to move on the established members of the team. Mark Nicholas is the consummate front man, Bill Lawry the most loved voice in cricket, Ian Chappell a respected elder and leader of the game, Shane Warne an Australian legend, Mark Taylor a former Australian of the Year, Ian Healy generally viewed as Australia’s best wicketkeeper and Michael Slater a likeable lad from Wagga Wagga respected for his attacking skills with the bat.

They had also been employed for Channel 9 for a long time, Lawry and Chappell since day one of their cricket coverage and if any of them had gone the same way of Brayshaw, Hussey and Lee there would have been an equal measure of outcry.

The problem was they hung their hat on the likes of Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen.

It was soon discovered that Clarke’s standing in the commentary team is no different to the way the Australian public viewed him as their captain. That is one of indifference.

Of course, he has insight and knowledge but he doesn’t get the adoration of others and if he was the Channel’s investment in the future it clearly backfired. Ricky Ponting in the commentary box he ain’t.

Michael Clarke

(Photo by Nicky Sims/Getty Images)

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The investment in Kevin Pietersen was also miscalculated. He talks in riddles, laughs at things that aren’t funny, says things just for saying something and after a while it was easy to see why he ended up outsider in the English dressing room.

This obviously makes neither Clarke or Pietersen bad people but they were simply bad choices for Channel 9 in the summer of 2016.

But that could have been put right for the summer of 2017/18 in their last year of contract and with an Ashes series ahead of them

But what do they do?

In November 2017 the commentary team for the summer is announced and it is another miss hit.

No changes to the team and a meltdown on Twitter about middle aged white men in suits, calls for renewal and the need for both gender and ethnic diversity.

It was the clincher and the start of the end for Channel 9, especially given their reaction.

A steadfast straight bat that the commentary team would only include those that have played at the highest level. Code speak that you had to be a male and have played Test cricket (other than Mark Nicholas as we need a good front man).

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It was blatantly poorly conceived and not of its time, with Channel 10, Triple M and ABC Radio all seeing the need to diversify, not least on the gender front.

And this is the clearest indication that there was never going to be any meaningful investment in their product for future years.

They were losing money, Tennis was a less expensive option they could make some money on and they knew their cricket coverage had been on the nose.

When Mark Nicholas signed off on the last international of the domestic season, saying we all hope to see you again next year, he said it with a voice of resigned hope rather than confidence.

Perhaps he already knew his hierarchy had thrown the towel in.