Cricket coverage needs more voices, not less
My grandpa's massive old wooden radio was handed down to me in 1989. It seemed bigger than I was. It only worked on AM stations. And it sometimes changed the station on its own. The year I received it was perfectly timed, as during that Australian winter I listened the Ashes. In 1989 I was allowed to watch the first hour before being sent to bed. In 1993, I was allowed up until lunch. My parents probably thought that I'd fall asleep listening to the radio. I rarely did, but on the odd occasions I did, any wicket or cracking shot would wake me up.
It wasn't just the cricket I liked; it was that it was different to ABC Grandstand. Different voices and outlooks than I was used to. It seemed more like an English play than a cricket commentary to my nine-year-old ears. The morning after I'd quote Christopher Martin-Jenkins to my dad. Something about CMJ just spoke to me, and for years he was my favourite commentator. CMJ was alien to me, but in the very best kind of way. At nine, I was already searching for new people and voices.
By 2007 I was so dismayed with all forms of cricket commentary I started writing about cricket. By then I'd been what the boards refer to as a "cricket consumer" for over 20 years and I was frustrated by the lack of new voices. Too much of cricket media was either propaganda or reactionary. Both angered me. Ex-players with great insight were outweighed by ex-players with little of anything. Quotes pieces had taken over cricket news. Too often it was the same people saying the same things over and over again. Few new faces, few new voices, almost no dissenting opinion.
I wasn't the first to blog about cricket; Will Luke, Ric Eyre, Samir Chopra, Homer, Graeme Beasley, Soulberry, Alex Bowden and many others had done much the same. Some to watch the watchers. Some to make fun. And others to make points about cricket that they thought should be made. Learning about these cricket blogs, and the thousands that came before or after them, completely changed the way I followed cricket. When Twitter followed after that, it opened up cricket writing even further.
It's not that non-cricketers commenting on cricket was new. Tim Lane worked in a factory, Harsha Bhogle an engineering student and John Arlott was a cop. Samir Chopra is a university professor, Homer a software developer and Alex Bowden works in IT. You don't have to play a stunning cover drive or bowl a wrong'un to have a valid opinion or make a point.
Most of the stuff written on cricket blogs (much of it written by me) is absolute garbage. Some (often written by Jon Hotten) is absolute gold. Almost all of it is written by amateurs who love the game, who want to be involved in any way they can, who want their thoughts heard and who just want to spread the love of their sport.
People started with blogging, moved to podcasting, jumped on Twitter, the next logical place to land was always going to be live audio streaming. Cricket did not invent this. Other sports like rugby had got in first, but few sports in the world suit radio better than cricket. I knew that when I was nine, and it still holds true.
So Test Match Sofa, and then later Pitch Invasion, started commentating straight from their TVs. Giving the bloggers a living, breathing voice. They were the same sort of amateurs who took to blogging, but they now did it with microphones. And doing so without paying any cricket board for any rights. Series from Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, the UAE and England have been commentated on via this new method. Three ICC tournaments and a few IPLs have as well.
The loophole is that cricket boards can sell rights to TV and radio, but they can't sell the rights to people watching the cricket from TV and commentating via the internet. They also can't stop people from doing it. It's not actually illegal as current laws stand. ESPNcricinfo does its ball-by-ball commentary by watching a TV, as does the Guardian with their over-by-over commentary. Neither is allowed to do it from most international matches.
The problem is that the BBC have paid for the rights to broadcast via radio, and feel slighted that Test Match Sofa pays nothing to do roughly the same thing.
Some will claim that it is immoral, that by its very existence the pirate cricket commentary services will eventually - if they haven't already - change the exclusive rights deals of radio broadcasters. Now, while this might be true, it is a long way from happening, and in the four years the Sofa has been around, I haven't heard of any massive drops in radio broadcast deals.
Either way, while the BBC was in conflict with the BCCI (now sorted), it was also in conflict with Test Match Sofa. It was literally taking on David and Goliath at the same time, the biggest board in cricket and the most amateur broadcaster in cricket. Both of these clashes brought cricket rights to the forefront.
The BBC were desperate for Test Match Special to commentate in India (unlike Sky, who were also in dispute with the BCCI), as an insider quoted to the Daily Mail: "'Even though we would have every right to broadcast the Indian series from the moon because we've paid for the rights, doing so from the UK in this instance might make the public feel, to all intents and purposes, that we are no different from the Test Match Sofa website, whose commentators are based in south London."
The insider is right. What unofficial broadcasters do is not hard. If you have a voice, a laptop and an internet connection, you could be commentating cricket from your lounge room if you so desired. This fact will change the rights in the future. Why spend heaps of money on hauling your gear and people around just for crowd noise and boring end-of-day player interviews? The BBC still think it's worth it, but smaller broadcasters might not.
Maybe this is the time to change the exclusive rights deals of radio broadcasters. In the UK, and practically every country outside the subcontinent, cricket is not the biggest sport. Football codes regular beat cricket to headlines. It needs to fight for coverage every single day. So in these markets, we need to do what we can to get cricket to as many people as possible.
One way cricket can do that is by giving non-exclusive radio rights. Perhaps even on a tiered system. Tier one would be inside the ground and with player and official interviews, and would pay a higher fee. Tier two would be from a TV but be able to be broadcast on any radio network that pays for it. It could mean that at a Test match there would be Test Match Special and talkSPORT commentating, and Test Match Sofa or another broadcaster sitting in their studio commentating from TV - perhaps even to smaller radio stations who are willing to pay for it.
Opening up the radio rights would give cricket fans four commentary services to choose from, spread the game further to sport fans who only follow it casually, and give Test Match Special more money (by paying less for non-exclusive rights) to produce their show. There would be more voices talking about cricket in a competitive environment and it would give the ECB a chance to make up any money they might lose from opening up radio rights whilst getting more promotion.
They could even just open the gates. Radio rights are worth a fraction of TV rights, so why not give them away to any radio stations that want to use them. Rather than think of it as losing money, they could think of it as money being spent on promoting cricket.
In my time, I've commentated on Test Match Sofa, been interviewed a few times for talkSPORT and been on Test Match Special. In 2009, I commentated on the second series that the Sofa covered (and many since), and in one of the Daily Mail articles about the rift between the Special and the Sofa you can even see me in the picture. Had Test Match Special invited me to be a commentator in 2009, or talkSport to do a radio show, I would have taken the opportunity. But like many people in the media who aren't former players, I had to accept whatever opportunity I was given, and that was Test Match Sofa. When people ask me to talk about cricket, whether it's Radio 4 or the Cricket Couch, I do it.
I don't receive payment for appearing on any of these broadcasts. I do it for the same reason I wrote about cricket in the first place. I wasn't the first, and won't be the last. Blogs, Twitter, podcasting and live streaming aren't going away.
The world is changing, and, as usual, cricket is behind the times. The BCCI does not allow websites media accreditation. The ECB does not allow bloggers accreditation, although that remains under discussion. And at the World T20 the ICC handed out a piece of paper that in no uncertain terms suggested that paper writers were more important than online writers.
This online media gives us Twitter commentators, ball-by-ballers, over-by-overers, bloggers, podcasters, vodcasters and streamers, all while adding to what we already have from radio, TV and print. I like being able to choose. Some days I listen to Sky because I want to hear Mike Atherton's view on leg-side field placings, some days I listen to Test Match Special to hear Vic Marks talk about cufflinks or spin and some days I listen to Test Match Sofa to hear Daniel Norcross explain how Andrew Strauss' Tory views have restricted his bowling changes at the Vauxhall End.
This new world meant that in 2010 I was able, from my office, to start up a fanzine called the cricket sadist monthly. I wanted a magazine that took the spirit of cricket writers from out of the mainstream and to talk about global cricket. I liked All Out Cricket, Spin Cricket and the Cricketer, but I thought cricket readers needed something else, something different, something aimed at the people who read cricket blogs and listened to Test Match Sofa. I sent out a press release to over 500 people in cricket. Only one replied. "It sounds both enterprising and interesting. Good luck!" emailed Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
Two years on and this same man has written a piece calling a legal rival cricket broadcaster a predator that should be "nailed" and "swept offline".
The reason I owned that old radio that I first heard CMJ on was because my grandpa had bought a shiny new mobile radio. Even in his 70s he was a man who was looking to try new things. Had he been offered the option of listening to an alternative commentary service, he would have. Especially given the amount of times he would complain about cricket commentary. But he probably would have ended up back at ABC or Channel 9.
My grandpa's old radio has been replaced with tablets, phones and computers. If that sounds less romantic than an old radio, then you aren't using them right. Everyday is a chance to find a new voice talking about cricket. Different now happens far more than once every four years.