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

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