November 6, 2013

Ignorance is the worst crime in commentary

And you get plenty of it in women's cricket these days. Why must we listen to those who have little knowledge of the players and care less?

The standards of commentary on women's games were higher in the 1930s, when the likes of sports journalist Marjorie Pollard, who played hockey for England, were around © PA Photos

Cricket commentators get a lot of stick. In a recent post, a Cordon blogger described them as "cliche-spewing automatons" and argued that no-commentary broadcasts should be an option for all television viewers. It seems to me that some of these critiques are quite extreme, especially as they often come down to disliking the style of a particular commentator.

I am trying instead to imagine the uproar there would have been if, say, during Aaron Finch's record score of 156 off 63 balls in that England-Australia T20 over the summer, those in the commentary box had spent the entire innings discussing a completely different sport, or if, when an ex-international player had joined the regulars in the commentary box to provide additional insight, as occasionally happens, Nick Knight's first question had been: "So what are you interested in other than cricket?" I think pretty much any cricket fan would agree that this kind of apathy towards the spectacle taking place would have been pretty unacceptable.

Apparently, though, it is acceptable for it to happen in women's cricket, as those of us who tuned in to the final of the recent women's tri-series in the Caribbean between England and West Indies discovered. As the commentary unfolded, a little pocket of Twitter (it was the early hours of the morning in the UK, after all, and the live stream provided by the WICB hadn't exactly been well-publicised) fumed incredulously, and helplessly, at what we were hearing.

For all those who were fortunate enough not to witness it, I'll provide a summary. England had struggled their way to an under-par score of 115. The West Indies openers were at the crease. And Alan Isaac, ICC president, had entered the commentary box for an interview. The commentator sitting beside him, the man the WICB decided was an appropriate candidate to commentate on this series, was somebody called Barry Wilkinson.

The conversation lasted about 20 minutes. I guess it's fair enough that if you get the ICC president alongside you, it's a good opportunity to ask questions that don't necessarily pertain to the game in front of you. But given that both the ICC and the WICB claim they are committed to expanding women's cricket, you might think some of the questions asked might actually relate to the women's game. They did not.

Subjects for review included "the decline of men's Test cricket" (oh the irony to mention this during a women's international), "the new World Test Championship" and "when are we going to see some more cricket played in Pakistan?"

Had I got the ICC president in a commentary box, I know I could have filled far more than 20 minutes with questions about the women's game. (Actually, that sounds quite a fun idea. Can someone arrange it, please?) But apparently women's cricket as a subject for discussion is actually kind of dull. That's my PhD out the window, then.

Wilkinson's next companion in the commentary box was the New Zealander Nicola Browne. Since her debut in 2002, Browne has played in 45 T20Is and 122 ODIs, and she is currently fifth in the ICC rankings of top female one-day allrounders. She knows a hell of a lot about women's cricket, so you might have thought that the reason for her being up there in the box (for which presumably the WICB deserves some credit) was to utilise her expertise.

Unfortunately Wilkinson had other ideas. Within ten minutes he had posed the following questions: 1. "Are you wearing high heels?" 2. "What do you like apart from cricket?" 3. "Do women find it hard to leave their families behind when they go away on tour?" 4. "Do you see it as offensive to be called 'batsman'?"

Earlier in the series we had witnessed Deandra Dottin (who, before the series began, had played in 56 T20Is) being described as "the find of the tournament", Holly Colvin described as "the Sachin Tendulkar of women's cricket" (yep, Sachin's always been renowned for his spin bowling technique)

Browne was amazingly patient. (My own responses would have been as follows: 1. Does this have any bearing on anything whatsoever? 2. Yes, but is that actually even a tiny bit relevant? 3. Well duh, but would you ask Stuart Broad that? 4. No. Do you find it offensive to be called a rubbish commentator?). But I'm sure she must have found it agonising to sit through that type of ignorant, inane questioning, when what she presumably thought she'd be doing is commentating seriously on the game at hand.

Meanwhile, Stafanie Taylor was batting her way to a record 11th T20I half-century, and West Indies were racing along to a stonking eight-wicket victory over England. Both these things appeared largely incidental if you were listening the commentary.

You might think this is an extreme example, but unfortunately it is by no means an isolated incident. Earlier in the series we had witnessed Deandra Dottin (who, before the series began, had played in 56 T20Is) being described as "the find of the tournament", Holly Colvin described as "the Sachin Tendulkar of women's cricket" (yep, Sachin's always been renowned for his spin bowling technique), and the frankly bizarre statement, "I didn't know women called each other mate".

The day after the final I put out a call on Twitter for the worst women's cricket commentary that people could remember hearing. I had numerous responses; the following, overheard during the 2010 World Twenty20 tournament, was sadly rather typical: "Sthalekar is pretty good... for a woman."

I find that people often assume automatically that everything about women's cricket is getting better. Unfortunately this isn't necessarily the case. During the first women's Test match in England, in 1937, for example, the BBC broadcast commentary was by Marjorie Pollard, who was not only an excellent journalist but had helped found the Women's Cricket Association 11 years earlier, and undoubtedly knew what she was talking about. The next two Australian tours of England, in 1951 and 1963, featured Pollard and ex-England captain Molly Hide, alongside a young Brian Johnston. Though recordings do not always survive, accounts suggest that early male commentators on the BBC were both well-informed about the women's game and interested by what they were seeing. It appears that somewhere between then and now such attributes have become non-essential for those who are paid to commentate on women's cricket.

Some might shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh well, just watch it on mute." In this case, though, it's not just a case of inane commentary. It was all too evident that Wilkinson, who is apparently a well-established cricket commentator in the Caribbean, had done almost no research on women's cricket before the series began, and his fellow commentators were not much better. I don't expect everyone to be an automatic expert on women's cricket, but it is surely extremely disrespectful, not to mention unprofessional, not to work out what and who you might be talking about beforehand. I wouldn't dream of commentating on the Ashes without knowing who Kevin Pietersen was, so what's the difference? And even if you do know very little, perhaps you could at least appear interested in what is going on, and spare us the implication that women should not really be leaving husbands and children behind to go on international cricket tours.

I started the piece by wondering what would happen if this kind of scenario took place during a men's international. But here's the thing: it wouldn't happen. (Although, should I ever appear on TMS, I am rather tempted to ask Jonathan Agnew if he is wearing high heels.) The point is that ill-informed and frankly sexist commentary is just one more way of belittling women's cricket, undermining its value. And in an age when cricket boards like the WICB claim they are making the women's game a priority, it should not be acceptable.

Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here