Thursday, 7 May 2009

TMS, Sky and cricket commentary: whimsy versus whinge

It's become something of a cliche to say that it's preferable to listen to TMS on the radio while watching the TV footage with the sound turned down, but that's only because it's so prevalent.

This has been common for years, and the reasons behind it are clear when the TMS commentary is compared to TV commentary. For every Johnners, Fowler, Boycott, Aggers, CMJ, Selvey and Marks on TMS there's a Willis, Botham, Knight, Hussain, Greig or (worst of all) Mark Nicholas to endure on TV.

BBC commentary wasn't too bad, with the avuncular Lewis, Benaud, Peter West and token opposition commentator (Ian Smith, Colin Croft, Barry Richards among others).

Things took a turn for the worst with Channel 4's coverage, introducing the horrifying prospect of Mark Nicholas as anchor and frequent commentator. Recruiting Benaud, Boycott and Simon Hughes were good ideas. The pairing of Nicholas with Dermot Reeve was unbearable.

But C4 had nothing on Sky. Sky is where retired cricketers go to serve out their days, offering bitter and dour pot-shots generally devoid of insight or humour.

Whereas Aggers may pass lyrical comment on the state of the weather, Botham will whinge about it. CMJ may offer a vaguely dismayed comment on a poor umpiring decision, like a disappointed schoolmaster; Willis will slate the ump personally. Boycott ribs; Holding attacks. Blowers may spot a sedentary seagull; class clown David Lloyd makes a thinly-veiled reference to some bird's tits.

Elsewhere Atherton sounds like he wants to be somewhere else, albeit with the odd welcome wry remark; Hussain spends all of his time pleading with England to get 'real aggressive'; Nick Knight is blandness personified and Gower is like an ineffectual teacher, forever trying to prevent another tedious Botham rant about administrators.

Last summer Botham actually went as far as to suggest he hoped the day's cricket would be called off, so he could go and play golf. What an astonishing remark to broadcast to hundreds of thousands of fans forced to pay to watch cricket by the government's craven kow-towing to Rupert Murdoch and the idiots at the ECB.

Survive these multi-faceted attacks of miserableness, bile and personal agendas and – like an end-of-level boss – Bob Willis appears.

Presumably because he's too miserable and clearly barking for commentary, he's confined to the studio like a sporting Miss Haversham, only one whose trousers don't fit properly.

Willis never has a good word for anyone, and has made snide rants his stock-in-trade. He calls Pietersen the 'dumbslog millionaire', a funny pun that's undermined by its inherent spite.

There's an idea, clearly shared by Willis, that his depressing opinions somehow constitute a kind of refreshing straight-talk.

Anyone of that opinion has simply mistaken Willis' misery, and eagerness to complain about every possible facet of the game, for verity.

Meanwhile, clearly being lined up as a replacement to Charles 'handbag' Colville is Ian Ward, a kind of Colville/Nicholas Mini-Me.

The sheer ineptitude of Ward as a journalist, exacerbated by his furrowed-brow posing as if he were a latter-day David Frost deconstructing Nixon, was exposed in a confoundedly bad interview with Shane Warne, where the Aussie leg-spinner protected Ward like a batsman protecting a tail-ender, producing interesting answers from Ward's embarrassingly by-the-numbers questions.

The interview heralded Warne's imminent arrival on Sky as a commentator, where he may inject some life into the moribund proceedings, but once again Sky's habit of simply choosing the most high-profile cricketers to fill commentary positions is clear. Expect Michael Vaughan soon.

In short, Sky's commentary effort is truly awful. Common themes among the team are the need for attractive cricket on the pitch and off, but as a whole they have forsaken any effort at entertaining or informing in favour of a 'the-world's-gone-mad' brand of populism, occasionally offset by Lloyd's village idiot routine.

Sadly, there's a quite unwelcome, albeit so-far limited, Sky-ification of TMS going on, benchmarked by the sacking of Mike Selvey.

Last summer the new producer, who is apparently liked by no-one, unveiled an absolutely huge list of recently-retired or benefit-year county cricketers, most of whom have played for England.

Meanwhile, a slew of generic Five Live commentators have joined the ship, some of whom clearly are not sufficiently familiar with cricket to pass comment with any authority.

Whether there is some kind of new-boys network at play here, or a favour to a particular agent or simply a sledgehammer attempt to jazz up TMS – the equivalent of trying to sex up I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue – is unclear, but the parade of monotone voices stumbling through summarising stints was not encouraging.

Two new summarisers, Derek Pringle and Angus Frasier, are at the forefront of the ex-cricketer-turned-journalist movement of recent years, where they purvey their own brands of misery.

The news that both would be in the commentary box simultaneously last year elicited the response from the outgoing Selvey: "That'll be a laugh."

It's a depressing state of affairs that cricket journalists are being phased out. Phil Tufnell may supply some laughs, but the remorseless trudge of boring county cricketers and excitable genera-journalists from other parts of the BBC will kill off what makes TMS special as surely as a ban on fruitcake in the commentary box.

It's tempting to assume that any changes greeted with dismay from loyal followers is simply indicative of a mindset stuck in its ways and resistant to any change.

This is quite simply not the case with TMS, where the quality is clearly suffering. Hearing Blowers trying to cope with the influx of new voices last summer was oddly sad.

BBC radio has form with these kind of sweeping changes, seemingly in pursuit of an imaginary demographic and reeking of the Beeb's pointless attempt to compete with commercial stations.

With Radio 2 and 6 Music also hurtling towards the anodyne mainstream, the obvious conclusion is that the changes are an attempt to smooth off the corners of interesting radio stations and shows. In the case of TMS it could well kill it.

Humour, insight, irreverence, nostalgia, anecdotalism. These are the things that define the quality and popularity of TMS.

It's no coincidence that these are the things entirely lacking in Sky's clinical, downbeat fare. It's whimsy versus whinge.

Take them away and there's just another boring cricket report staffed by former cricketers with no understanding of broadcasting, or broadcasters with no understanding of cricket.

Sky, like Channel 4, is a write-off, but who will we listen to if TMS continues its descent into the same pits of prosaic and miserable fare?


  1. I concur. Moore Out

  2. Not Ian Ward, he's got the goods!

  3. I am able to follow TMS for the first time in Australia, as I recently started work as a hotel night porter; in fact it is really the first time that I have been able to listen to TMS at all!
    I have the programme on throughout the night, so can you explain to me why vital Australian nose-rubbing wickets (especially Ponting's) and memorable England milestones (such as KP's double century) occur whilst I am moving from one room to another, so that I am only aware of their hysterical aftermath?
    Another complaint involves the timing of dramatic success. Monday is one of my two nights off, so I set up the radio to listen to the last day's play, which was due to begin at 23.30, whilst lying comfortably in bed for a change, rather than running around a table setting up a Christmas party.
    Imagine my chagrin, then, when I woke up at 4 a.m. to hear instead a discussion about the probity of an imminent election in a minor African republic! Not only had the forecast rain NOT fallen - England had achieved a dramatic victory of humbling proportions, and I had missed all the excitement and Australian humble-pie swallowing.
    Having invested countless hours listening to the first 4.8 acts, I had missed the death of Macbeth!!
    This is not good enough, and I need to rethink my new enthusiasm.


Write something crickety: