July 5, 2014

Commentary boxes need succession plans too

Channel Nine should work to maintain the standards that its best broadcasters - Benaud and Chappell - have set, rather than encourage a frat-house environment

Commentators need to strike a balance between talking to the uninitiated and to the diehards, who think they have seen and heard it all © Getty Images

Like for a lot of Australians who follow cricket, Richie Benaud is my grandfather. Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry are my uncles, and the sadly departed Tony Greig was as well, by marriage, I guess. Every childhood summer since I was a toddler they babysat us, waffling away through entire sun-drenched days when it was too hot for us to go outside, or our legs were weary from backyard matches of our own.

As with any family member, you didn't agree with everything that they had to say and occasionally they'd show their age but the bond forged over all of those hours is resilient and it means something. That is the thing we often dismiss about the difficulty of cricket commentary; these people inevitably become a meaningful part of the lives of devout fans. You literally spend hour upon hour, week after week, summer after summer, year after year in their company. The odd petty grievance is inevitable.

With Greig now gone and Benaud reduced to light duties (if any), owing to that bracing jolt of mortality last summer - bracing to him just as much as it was to the rest of us I'm sure - I've started to wonder how worried we should be about the familial ties that younger generations will maintain with the replacements of these doyens of cricket broadcasting. Chappell is the only one who remains constant, and whatever your quibbles over his style and manner, his sagacity is only amplified by the vaudeville behaviour he has increasingly found himself surrounded by in the Channel Nine box. There's more that Chappelli would have forgotten about cricket than most would ever know.

This is a genuine issue for Australian cricket, there's no doubt. Commentators are the gateway through which the uninitiated are alerted to the intricacies and joys of cricket. They also need to balance that educational role against a need to provide accurate description of the action and engaging titbits for the diehards who think they have seen and heard it all. Increasingly, Nine is failing on both fronts and if its succession plan to replace Benaud and Chappell is KFC restaurants in the sky, constant cackling, clowning and James Brayshaw sliding into view dressed as a Toy Story character, Australian cricket might have a credibility problem on its hands.

Chappell is the only one who remains constant, and whatever your quibbles over his style and manner, his sagacity is only amplified by the vaudeville behaviour he has increasingly found himself surrounded by in the Channel Nine box

This isn't another "here are all of the things wrong with Australian commentary" whinge, because we all know there's enough of those, and like I said, no one says it's easy. This is a problem that confronts other sports too (I'll never forget the moment during the Socceroos' recent World Cup match against Holland when the commentary mics dropped out and an entire nation at once realised what an appealing alternative the minimalist sound of crowd noise is). The thing is though, there are viable ways in which Nine (if they are to keep the rights to the Australian summer on a long-term basis) can restore some gravitas and dignity to what last summer descended into a kind of puerile frat house in the absence of Grandpa Richie.

Ricky Ponting is one and he can't be far off their radar, given he fits the primary criteria for modern commentary gigs (national captain), but more importantly, was genuinely excellent in his first foray into broadcasting during last summer's Big Bash League on Network Ten. I'm sure I wasn't the only cricket fan excited by that development but it's also worth remembering that both Michael Slater and Ian Healy provided sharp and measured insights when they first started out in commentary, so the danger of being dumbed down in the surroundings of Nine always lurks. In a gradual and infuriating process since they started, Healy and Slater have both fallen victim to the undergraduate environment that Nine has fostered.

I heard Healy giving a radio interview last summer and listening to him in a setting removed from the buffoonery of Nine was instructive; he's got it in him to be a razor-sharp analyst. You don't crouch behind the stumps for 119 Tests and not learn anything. Slater might just be a lost cause at this point with his manic cackling, and when you see him sitting next to Brett Lee in a pink polo shirt, running the lunchtime show you can't help but feel that that's where both should focus all of their attention. Neither appears capable of grasping Richie's mantra that less is more. Leave them out in the nets with Piers and the other attention-seekers. How Brayshaw is allowed near the joint is anyone's guess. If it's colour they want, I'm sure Kerry O'Keeffe could be coaxed out of retirement.

In addition to Ponting, Tom Moody was a revelation on the Big Bash coverage (and also the Perth Test) last year as a measured and sensible source of special comments, better still than he'd been on ABC Radio. If IPL coaching commitments don't draw him away from Australia during the summer he'd be a welcome antidote to the pantomime hysterics that have become the norm on Nine. Moody's voice is also something close to that of a proper broadcaster and if we're not going to get any of them, we may as well at least have a few ex-players who sound like them.

Though she was only drafted in for the women's Ashes encounters, someone at Cricket Australia should be making enquiries as to whether Mel Jones might be given a permanent spot on the roster. CA was famously worried about the support base becoming "pale, male and stale" and no one would exemplify that push for a more diverse and representative viewpoint than Jones. Like all the others, she's a former international veteran with a keen eye for detail, and it really is time that the boys-club balloon was pricked once and for all.

So I guess that what I'm saying is that there's still hope. Every time I've thought about Richie's mortality since last summer it's given me an awkward stab of pain. But wouldn't it be the most fitting tribute to his standing in the game and amongst the public if Nine made some genuine moves to maintain the standards he set? I'll be watching.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dan on July 8, 2014, 15:00 GMT

    i have watched cricket my whole life

    and i have never heard richie benaud say anything i disagree with

    he is a true professional, he treats every player with respect, i have never heard him trying and be a selector from the commentary box

    i have never heard him sledge or insult players from the commentary box

    the most i have ritchie get up set is when the west indian leg spinner nagamotoo bowled with a action that went beyond the perpendicular

    i agree with 70% of what ian chappell says, but i dont like how he tries and be selector from the commentary box

    tony greig and bill lawry also stay out of team selection and insults & they both got carried away with the game which was serious and also made you laugh

    overall the channel 9 commentary team is good

  • david on July 7, 2014, 18:49 GMT

    i think the problem is that there are 3 blokes commenting, and they think they are on the radio, in which they need to talk all the time. ch 9 i am sorry to say are the worst followed closely by sky. i found it funny on the west indies v new zealand tests where Danny Morrison toned down his mundane style that he gives to the IPL and at times sounded like a proper commentator.

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2014, 10:14 GMT

    there should be alternatives. There is a group of comedians that love cricket and do a incredible job in NZ. You just find them on the radio and pause the action for 40 second on tv and your in pure cricket heaven. With digital tv it must be easy enough to have a few different styles of commentary. 1 for the experts one, for beginners etc.

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2014, 6:04 GMT

    I endorse the views of Prem Paul about Alan McGilvray and others mentioned. I cannot forget Alan's description on radio the last stages of India - Australia test at Sydney 1977-78 which India won by an innings and two runs. Alan's description of Peter Toohey's dismissal caught by substitute Madan Lal off Ghavri brough the entire scene before the eyes of the listener. That was Radio Commentary at its peak. I am yet to hear a description of that standard from anybody else. Coming to TV commentary, the thumb rule is less of talk and you are not supposed to describe the events as you used to on Radio. The essence is to convey to the viewers an add on to whatever they see.

  • Rizwan on July 6, 2014, 12:57 GMT

    In a recent interview Sangakkara was asked who is the best cricket Commentator and the great man answered , Nasser Hussein . This was evident in the recent Sri Lanka - England ODI and Test series where the only Commentator who was not jingoistic was Nasser - I was not too pleased with my own countryman Russel Arnold's performance but its early days ( There was too much talk about the English Premier league from Russ )


    I thought Ian always referred to his brother as Gregory

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2014, 12:51 GMT

    Superb article, sums up the situation perfectly.

  • Rizwan on July 6, 2014, 12:46 GMT

    Commentators should be aware that there are many visually impaired viewers and therefore make allowances for the BLIND.

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2014, 11:10 GMT

    With India touring Aus this summer, I hope they do not let either Ravi Sastri or Sunny Gavaskar any where near the commentary box. The only one worth listening seems to be Rahul Dravid. Insightful, talks less and knows when to talk. My only crib about him is that he is so damn politically correct. if he can open up there are few in India with his insight and fairly good voice. RS is an absolute pain with his cliche driven commentary. However as the writer says still miss the commentary of Richie. Time moves on... sadly

  • Luke on July 6, 2014, 8:52 GMT

    The great thing about Chappelli is that he offers a clear and unmistakable opinion. Whether you agree or not is irrelevant; at least he makes a point. Slater, Healy and Taylor never do this; whether it's because they're not removed enough from current players, want to be able to socialise with them, don't want to be seen as harsh - whatever, they cannot move away from analysing from an Aus perspective. The only criticism is directed at the opposition. I don't care if someone has played at international level or not - I want commentary that provides insight and makes calls on cricket issues; over-rates, field placings, tactics, technique, DRS etc. The best the current group can do is talk about how Aus can win any given game. I can do that myself.

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2014, 6:40 GMT

    whenever there will be talks about commentators of todays generation, one person whose name will always be taken with great distinction is harsha bhogle......a perfect combination of serious and fun...u atleast require someone to pop up with some sense of humour and in the final overs he is just uncomparable

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