October 11, 2010

A different kind of commentary

Tired of the clichés you get on television? Test Match Sofa offers an entertaining alternative

Irreverence is an underrated asset in punditry, and it's an increasingly under-represented trait in the mainstream sporting media. The growing influence of the "former pro" on TV, radio and in the newspapers has hastened the demise of the professional commentator - the type of person whose opinion was valued not because he was any good at playing the game, but because his love of his chosen subject had armed him with enough fingertip facts and anecdotes to while away the most interminable of rain breaks.

It was partly as a reaction to being fed a diet of clichés during their regular hours of cricket-watching - but more realistically as a consequence of being made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis - that Daniel Norcross and Tom Clark, two entrepreneurial types from South London, set about creating themselves a niche in the cricket market that is fast becoming a phenomenon. Their brainchild was Test Match Sofa, the "alternative cricket commentary" to quote its self-styled tagline, which began life (quite literally) on a sofa in Tooting, but is now (metaphorically speaking) brushing off the crisp crumbs and contemplating a brisk jog around the block.

"We were just sick and tired of the cliché-driven commentary already out there," said Clark. "I appreciate if you've played 80 times for England you're very qualified to talk about cricket, but why does that make you the best cricket commentator? When you're young and outrageously talented, you're likely to spend all your time honing your own skills and trying to hit the ball perfectly. You're unlikely to waste your youth in the way I did - by either watching or reading or talking in abstract about cricket."

And thus the seeds of a business plan were formed. It helped that the two men had worked together before - some years earlier, they had produced a film called Point of View, "a catastrophic venture" in Clark's opinion, which had left them both hideously in debt, not least - ironically - because they had neglected to spend enough money on decent sound equipment and so none of the dialogue could be heard properly. But the experience had at least taught them how to drum up a crew on the cheap, and for a project quite as tantalising as watching cricket for a living, that aspect was as easy as whistling up the stairwell of their block of flats.

"Luckily the bloke upstairs was a web designer called Nathan, and so he did all that part," said Clark. "Dan worked with a guy called Dev, who did the research and worked out the logistics of streaming it over the internet, and he also played cricket with a left-arm spinner called Nigel, who did the sound for us. We actually put the whole thing together for a few hundred pounds. We got our equipment off eBay, and a sound desk for next to nothing, then shoved it all under the bed in Tooting and plugged it in on a broadcast day."

The sofa first went on air during the opening day of the 2009 Ashes in Cardiff, and it was even gifted 5000 early listeners when Stephen Fry magnanimously tweeted about the venture. However, all but a handful of those fled as soon as they encountered an ill-advised pay-wall (even £1 was too much to ask of the skinflints in cyberspace) while the remainder encountered a plethora of technical problems that meant the site kept crashing throughout a problematic first day.

"At first it was disastrous," Clark conceded. "Technically we were very poor, and the structure of the show was rubbish, but in terms of the actual commentary, we were encouraged by how easily the words had come. Beforehand we'd all been worried about it, but all of us had spent years listening to TMS on long-wave under the duvet, and we found there are so many phrases that are just ingrained on the brain. As soon as we accessed them, we found it was as easy as breathing."

The technical issues were gradually sorted out by improved web-hosting and better equipment, but it wasn't until England's tour of South Africa in November 2009 that the show found its structural niche through the medium of Twitter, which enabled real-time feedback, which in some cases drove the agenda of the show. "Rather than conventional broadcasting, with a number of experts lecturing their audience, what we are creating is a bunch of people talking to each other," says Clark. "On radio you'll get your post-match phone-ins once it's all over, but this was a chance for us to become performing monkeys for our listeners."

Test Match Sofa is not designed to be all things to all listeners. It is partial in the extreme (and takes a particular delight in mocking all things Australian), and can be jarringly unstructured on occasions, not least at the fall of a wicket when a prolonged yelp of triumph or dismay tends to take over from considered analysis. And then there's the fruity language. "We try not to swear, but sometimes we do," says a prominent disclaimer on their website homepage, "so if you are offended by strong language there's always the BBC."

Whenever a new batsman comes out to the middle, they are accompanied by a comedy "jingle", which is less than respectful, to put it mildly. Jonathan Trott is treated to a South African reworking of the Dad's Army theme tune - "Who do you think you are kidding Mr Zuma, if you think I'll play for you..."

"It's fairly obvious that some of our commentators swear for shock effect, whereas with others it just slips in occasionally," says Clark. "But really, our main aim is to recreate that feeling of sitting around with a bunch of mates in the pub, or in the stands or on the sofa, and let's face it, people do swear in those situations. We're trying to remain a collective, with no one person making the rules, but at the moment, the only word we never use is the c-word."

For anyone of even a remotely liberal persuasion, however, it's unquestionably amusing to hear a well-placed curse thrown into an otherwise sanguine slab of commentary - somewhat akin to hearing a live version of Billy Birmingham's Twelfth Man tapes (minus the Richie Benaud impersonations, of course) - and at times it can be refreshingly to-the-point. Take the potentially decisive dismissal of the great Sachin Tendulkar on the final morning of the thrilling Mohali Test last week for instance:

"A terrible shot from Tendulkar! The great man has failed. That one was short and at the body, and he's cut it straight to Hussey. It was too close to cut, really, he had enough time just to drop his wrists and let it go, but it has unnecessarily brought Australia back into the game... and that's what really pisses me off -whenever Australia win. Someone always makes a f***ing stupid mistake and lets them back into the game."

"We don't have to interview these players at the end of the day, so we don't have to respect them in the same way," explains Clark. That's especially apparent in the cruel treatment of Shane "Watto" Watson, whose nickname, according to the sofa, has acquired an extra "t". What is more, whenever a new batsman comes out to the middle, they are accompanied by a comedy "jingle", which is less than respectful, to put it mildly. Tim Bresnan emerges from the pavilion to the strains of "food glorious food", for instance, while Jonathan Trott is treated to a South African reworking of the Dad's Army theme tune - "Who do you think you are kidding Mr Zuma, if you think I'll play for you..."

From an audience of 70 or 80 for the first handful of broadcasts, Test Match Sofa topped 10,000 daily listeners during the summer series against Pakistan, and achieved a further spike of interest thanks to Australia's exploits in India. "We're not trying to make millions out of this," says Clark. "We just want enough money to pay the mortgage." Given the limitless reach of the internet, he might just get lucky in that regard.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.

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