October 9, 2011

Whose sides are the commentators on?

Several commentators on the international circuit today represent players and boards outside of their duties in the box. Even if they can somehow manage to be unbiased, can we trust them?

"The pâté was fantastic," exclaimed Tony Greig.

Mr Greig was talking about a restaurant he had been to the night before. He didn't say whether he had paid for his meal or not. I'm not really into pâté, but if it was a legitimately good meal, and not a freebie for a TV plug, I might visit the place. Then Greig told me about how the roads are in Sri Lanka right now. They're really good, tourists would be surprised how good they are. There was also more than one mention of Little Lankans. When he says this I assume he isn't referring to Arjuna Ranatunga or Dilhara Fernando. And he finished with something that sounded like "Australia will be looking for runs here; conversely Sri Lanka are hoping for wickets." That may be the most genius description of cricket ever, or he was assuming no one was listening. They were the sort of cricket commentating moments that give people Greigrage, which is not a limited-edition print (framed or unframed) you can get through Channel Nine.

There was a time when these antics from Greig would have meant I'd throw something at the TV, but it was another commentator who bothered me during this series: Roshan Abeysinghe, talking about a player he managed, without ever referring to the fact that he managed him. I'd only just found out during Sri Lanka's tour of England that Abeysinghe was Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thilina Kandamby's manager. Actually, had he not told me so at a charity cricket match, I wouldn't know he was an agent. To me he was just another voice on the global cricket commentary circuit. Now I was listening to Abeysinghe commentate on Dilshan, and it had a whole new meaning. It felt wrong. Perhaps most fans know Abeysinghe has a vested interest in Dilshan, but I seriously doubt it. When he told me about his other career, he assured me he is 100% unbiased when it comes to talk of his players. I have no doubt he thinks he is, and he may even be, but if people don't know he has a vested interest, is that fair?

If commentators have financial interests that may influence their opinions, shouldn't we be told of those allegiances to players, or boards, when they are discussing them?

It's not easy to do. Alec Stewart does it as well as any person in cricket I've seen. Stewart used to be Matt Prior's agent. At a press day back in 2009 he was asked whether Prior was the right man for England, and he said that as his agent it was hard to answer. He then took off his Matt Prior hat (his words, not mine) and went on to discuss why he believed, as a neutral observer and former England wicketkeeper, that Prior was the best option. Stewart clearly wasn't wrong - Prior is now as good as any keeper-batsman in Test cricket. And Stewart, when discussing Prior, especially his limited-overs omission, was at pains to state that he was Prior's agent. He can't, however, do it in every sentence.

Mark Taylor is another who regularly mentions his role on Cricket Australia's board of directors whilst speaking on Channel Nine, although mostly it is mentioned as a punchline by the other commentators.

Others don't seem to try anywhere near as much. Throughout the whole summer of listening to Ian Botham talk about Kevin Pietersen, I can't remember a single time when he mentioned he's the chairman of the agency that represents Pietersen. Like in the Abeysinghe or Greig situations, he may have mentioned it, but either way I didn't hear it. In Botham's case I'm not sure I have ever heard him talk about it. I'm sure he has, but it's not exactly that prevalent. You'd have to believe that the average English cricket fan probably has no idea. Michael Vaughan is also involved in a sports agency with many young English hopefuls on its list, some of whom debuted this summer. Yet again, I just can't recall a time when it was mentioned while he was commentating this summer.

The problem is that if we don't know who is getting paid by whom, how can we make an educated decision on whom to trust? Did the batsman miss that brilliant unplayable ball as described by the commentator, or was it, in fact, a career-defining terrible shot?

The most famous recent case has to be that of Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, constrained by their BCCI contracts to follow the board's love train on key issues (I mean, it isn't as if we can just switch to another BCCI, or vote them out, so why do they even need spin doctors?). And if Shastri and Gavaskar are receiving funds for kind words, how do we know other commentators haven't been given the same? Sky and the ECB are very close, and Channel Nine and Cricket Australia are inseparable. Shastri, Gavaskar, Botham, Abeysinghe and Vaughan would claim to be unbiased people who still give their opinions no matter who pays them. That's a touching sentiment, and I hope it's true, but money changes opinions every day. If these are the ones you can find with a bit of internet research, how do we know there aren't more deals under the table that may affect the commentary?

It's an inevitable situation, because cricket is a small, incestuous industry. Almost everyone has several deals, multiple jobs, and works in almost every part of cricket. Allan Border was a commentator and selector, Merv Hughes was a selector and tour operator, Alistair Campbell commentated whilst selecting, Ashley Giles is a county coach and a selector, and Daniel Vettori was a coach, selector, bowler, batsman, captain and bus driver. People in cricket never seem to have just the one job; it's like occasionally high-paid seasonal work.

There is also bias with no financial gain involved, in print, TV and radio. When Shane Warne tells you just how brilliant a young Rajasthan/Hampshire/Victoria player is, he is usually biased. Few people in history have had a higher opinion of their team-mates than Warne. How else would you explain his inclusion of Darren Berry and Jamie Siddons in his list of the greatest 50 cricketers he'd played with or against? Cricket reporting, no matter the medium, is never going to be completely unbiased. If a young legspinner takes three wickets on the same day a young offspinner does, you can bet my bias will be pretty damn clear towards the legspinner. And if that legspinner is from Victoria, I may end up reporting his three wickets like they were the greatest ever taken.

For whatever reason, it's the financial rather than parochial bias that cuts the deepest, perhaps because it's the easiest to hide. The problem is that if we don't know who is getting paid by whom, how can we make an educated decision on whom to trust? Did the batsman miss that brilliant unplayable ball as described by the commentator, or was it, in fact, a career-defining terrible shot? If we know the background, we can at least have a chance of seeing through the subtext, but without that we are just being treated like fools by the very people who have made their money from our subscription fees.

Television and radio commentators are our frontline. If you don't like ESPNcricinfo because of Walt Disney, or you find the Guardian's cricket coverage too bleeding-heart liberal, there is always another cricket website or newspaper for you to go to. With commentary we are stuck with what we have. At best we can choose between two options - radio or TV - or, in dire situations, the mute button. This makes TV by far the most powerful tool in cricket. It stands erect and massive over all other forms of cricket media, like a magnificent golem that was made to bring cricket to the people. Like a golem, it's not perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't ask for better. The voices of these matches are given an extraordinary power and often an exalted position within the game. Some of them truly deserve this, but it may just be that some of them can't be trusted whether talking about players, politics or pâté.

This article was corrected on 11 October 2011 to state that Alec Stewart is no longer Matt Prior's agent

Jarrod Kimber is the editor of Spin magazine, and the mind responsible for cricketwithballs.com

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