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How Channel Seven is looking to change television commentary in Australia

Moving away from a roster full of former players, the new broadcasters of the game down under want to bring in a conversational style of coverage

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Ricky Ponting talks on air, Brisbane, November 23, 2017

Ricky Ponting will be Seven's star commentator for the summer, but they will also have professionals call the games alongside the experts  •  Getty Images

On Thursday morning, as the first ball of the series between Australia and India is about to be bowled, the much lauded broadcaster Tim Lane will settle behind the microphone to call it for Channel Seven. For Lane, it will be an experience unlike anything else in a broadcasting career that has lasted 45 years, for most of which Australian cricket was covered by a single network, Channel Nine, with a very particular style: that of former players turned commentators.
"It wasn't something I imagined would happen," Lane tells ESPNcricinfo. "As of many years ago, television cricket coverage was right off my radar and right off my aspiration list because I didn't see that any person without a playing pedigree would be required. It had become the conventional orthodoxy in Australia and I assumed it worked so well in Nine's early years that there was no need for it to be revised. But circumstances have changed."
In April, Cricket Australia parted company with Channel Nine for the first time in 40 years, ending an association with the network once owned by Kerry Packer that had endured through generations after they were brought together by the revolution of World Series Cricket. In their place as Australian cricket's free-to-air broadcaster is the Seven Network, known traditionally as the broadcaster of football in winter and golf and tennis in summer.
"It probably is, in a way, the biggest gig in Australian sports coverage," Lane says. "It's hard to measure these things, but cricket is so international and there is so much coverage from around the world we now see on our screens, and every nation and network's coverage is there to be compared with everyone else's.
"It all goes back to Kerry Packer's intervention in a way. The wheel, as primitive as it had been until that time, was reinvented so thoroughly that cricket's in a way become a barometer - the technology that's brought to it and also in the styles that people adopt in providing coverage of the game."
The move from Nine to Seven, with a lucrative pay television component managed by News Corp and its pay-television arm, Fox Sports, brought a financial windfall worth A$1.18 billion for Cricket Australia. It was also the biggest change in the way Australians watch cricket in more than two generations. What follows is a glimpse of how Seven, its commentators and behind-the-scenes staff have set about reshaping the coverage.
The vision
Melbourne Docklands, July

Inside Seven's Melbourne headquarters, on a wintry day in the middle of the year, the skies laden with clouds and a chill wind blowing, the network's head of cricket, Dave Barham, is thinking very much in terms of sunny skies, freshly cut grass, and how to refresh the story of cricket in Australia. A mastermind of many broadcasts, Barham was at the centre of Ten's successful Big Bash League coverage from 2013 to 2018, before being snapped up as head of cricket within days of the news that Seven had snared the rights to cricket alongside News Corp.
Barham has a clear view of what he wants to do differently - and it revolves primarily around commentary.
"I'm a big fan of callers, a big fan of commentary," Barham says. "I think it's the most underrated skill of the lot. I think we get carried away in a lot of sports about expert commentators. They make a massive impact, but the ability of a great caller to enhance a game by setting it up, keeping you involved, making each moment exciting, is critical. I'm not criticising Nine in any way, [but] I think they drifted away from callers. Maybe Richie [Benaud] was the last one.
"I really wanted to change the way Test cricket's commentary is done. I think that'll be a big, fundamental change. I want to make it much more conversational-style coverage. I want Tim Lane to do what he does, which is, he will call it, then Ricky Ponting will say, "He should've done that', Tim will ask why, when, did it happen before, and you'll get this interaction that you got for all those years on ABC Radio. Alison Mitchell does exactly the same thing, and James Brayshaw is a very good broadcaster as well and a smart commentator.
"The problem I found was that the game is not always exciting - Test cricket doesn't work like that. When it is exciting it is the best game to watch. An exciting Test match is unbeatable. But you can have slow ones, you can have draws that peter out, a game called off with an hour to go. So having different commentary and a more conversational style driven by journalist callers will make it interesting for longer, in my view."
While Brayshaw was already with Seven, and Lane's reputation preceded him, Barham identified Mitchell while sitting in the crowd at Adelaide Oval during the Ashes and listening to her commentate for BT Sport on the earpieces available to spectators.
"She was fantastic, just a really good, smart, intelligent, incredibly well-informed Test cricket commentator. So's Tim Lane. I'm trying to get the best people I can, put them in one spot, and get the best experts around them."
The production
Melbourne Southbank, November

Chris Jones, Seven's executive producer of cricket, stands up from his desk in his office south of the Yarra river and points to a massive, colour-coded chart. A schedule for the summer's six Test matches, plus the BBL and WBBL, makes for a complex crisscrossing of the country for commentators, production staff and equipment. It looks dizzying, but Jones says he and his team are prepared. The best way to sum up how Seven will cover the summer focuses on the activity of their biggest name - Ricky Ponting.
"Ricky sees himself as very much a T20 expert, coaching in the IPL and heavily involved in the Australian team set-up as well," Jones says. "We've got two Test matches to get us going, so we'll throw a lot of our team at that and then we'll move people around. There's 13 days where we go from Test cricket into prime-time BBL at night. It's a challenge, but Ricky will do the first two Tests, be involved in the Boxing Day Test, involved with Bruce [McAvaney, a long-time Channel Seven sports broadcaster] when he comes in to do a lunch break with him, then you'll see him peel off and do a lot of the BBL, which is a huge passion for him."
Jones' mind is still full of ideas from a rehearsal day in Melbourne with commentators and experts, including Ponting, Simon Katich, Damien Fleming and Jason Gillespie - coincidentally all members of Australia's last Ashes-winning squad to England, in 2001.
"We put our Test set in downstairs and just being able to roll some tape, get them into commentary together, listen to them gelling. The most fun bits were off-air in the green room, and you'd just hear them chatting. When they all started bantering, you went, 'This is going to be fun.' That's a huge impact Dave has had on this broadcast. He was the man who put this commentary team together, and you can tell they all want to spend time together. Hopefully that comes through in commentary.
"We've got three lead callers effectively, similar to the way radio has done it in the past. Alison Mitchell spent her summers growing up in Adelaide, knows the Australian game, and obviously has done a brilliant job calling overseas. Tim Lane, for me, was the voice of cricket growing up because my summers were spent in a caravan park. We'd listen to Test cricket for two hours, run to the rotunda with all the boys at the camping ground, play cricket during the lunch break, then run back. He is that really classy, brilliant broadcaster. Then James Brayshaw. And then we've been able to surround that with some awesome experts "
Features of the coverage will include a studio space in which Seven are hopeful of inviting Australian players and coaches for in-game interviews and insights when match situations and ICC regulations allow. They also plan to extensively use Australia and New South Wales seamer Trent Copeland as an in-studio analyst, and have crosses from Test venues to BBL cities, teams, and those commentary teams.
The network has interviewed more than 60 male and female players for features of varying kinds, while putting together pieces such as David Boon and Nathan Lyon reciting the team song, "Under the Southern Cross", together, and a monologue by the captain Tim Paine to air immediately before the first ball of the Adelaide Test.
A joint deal with Fox Sports, where Fox is host broadcaster for internationals and Seven as host broadcaster for the majority of BBL and WBBL games, has added a good deal of complication, but there's also information-sharing.
"We've spent a hell of a lot of time talking to each other," Jones says. "Both products will look great, we're not the same. They [Fox], I imagine, will be very analytical and we're, of course, more broad audience. Very similar to what you'd see on the AFL with the two. We're making sure both teams will get access to the pitch for a pitch report. We'll make sure when we're speaking to players in warm-ups, they have allotted time and we have allotted time, so we're not stumbling over each other. We'll do all the coin tosses for BBL and they'll do it for the Test matches.
"I hope we back up the cricketers, that they do an awesome job on the field and provide great entertainment. There's days where you've almost got to get out of the sport's way and just let them tell the story. That's the best television you create. We will have a whole heap of technology, a whole heap of brilliant commentators, fantastic behind-the-scenes team, but sometimes the best broadcasts are when the game does it all for you and you just point and shoot in many ways."
As a nod to Seven's own history, its trademark "Fanfare tor the Common Man" introductory theme has returned to introduce each broadcast. Jones and others are hopeful for television ratings spurred by Pavlovian responses. "That was the sound when I was growing up. I'd hear that and go 'sport's on the telly, the golf's on the telly, Greg Norman's about to walk out', that sort of stuff," he says.
The commentator
Melbourne, December

Tim Lane is reading from the email that informs him that he will be the first ball-by-ball caller for Seven in Adelaide. His last Test cricket broadcast on television was 30 years ago.
"It's genuinely, after 45 years in the business, a leap into the unknown," he says. "I've done very little TV cricket. The one Test I did was the Bicentenary Test in Sydney in January 1988, when the ABC was still doing coverage to the regionals. But this is something else again, because cricket on TV in Australia is such a big issue and obviously there'll be a lot of scrutiny with change happening.
"I'm excited but a little bit intimidated, but it is always nice when someone feels there is room for the old-fashioned professional broadcaster, whose pedigree is in broadcasting, not necessarily in the on-field business. It means we're still seen as being relevant in the industry."
Jones and others watched with interest as Lane carefully remodulated his style in rehearsals, from the sorts of detailed descriptions provided on radio to something more complementary of the pictures provided on TV.
"I've been watching and listening to what others do a little more closely, just to observe their techniques rather than listen to what they say," Lane says.
He knows speaking about technical excellence is not quite his job. "That's why ex-players are there. What I can do is try to bring occasion, history, tradition and those sorts of things, as well as just the basics, the facts as a ball-by-ball commentator will do it."
Perhaps surprisingly given his years in radio for the ABC, Lane believes much of his inspiration will come from the work of the original Nine team, from Benaud and Bill Lawry to Greig and Ian Chappell - still a colleague and commentator for Macquarie Radio.
"It was a one-in-a-lifetime collection because Packer was breaking new ground and he wasn't going to leave any stone unturned in gathering the best. You had, from the outset, a couple of generations of Australian greats, with Tony Greig and a couple of overseas commentators, and then it extended. The years went by and they covered almost four generations of Australian cricketers.
"As soon as you tuned in, you felt you were getting something of real moment. Part of the reason for that is the reverential way that they actually went about it.
The very first Seven commentary shift for Test cricket will comprise Lane, Ponting and Michael Slater. Lane, of course, will let the players dominate the analysis, with one possible exception. "If Kuldeep [Yadav] comes on and bowls his left-arm wristspin in the first 40 minutes of play, I might be able to give some analysis," he quips, "because I did bowl wristspin for Devonport seconds many years ago."
The team
Adelaide, December

Tim Paine has had plenty to say this year, not least in meetings, interviews and promos for cricket's new broadcasters. Not only are Seven seeking to tell a fresh story, Paine and his team are trying their best to put the Newlands scandal behind them and reconnect with the nation.
"We want to open up the team and the change room to the public, so they can get to know the players a bit better," he says. We want to show them a bit more of the inner sanctum of the team, how it works, what our days look like. It's a really good way for them to get to know us and support us.
"It's the way a lot of professional sport's going. Fans and TV networks pay a lot of money to come and watch, so I think you have to give them as much access as you possibly can. That's something we're going to try and do."
In doing this, Paine and broadcasters both are hopeful that talk of the "gilded bubble" discussed in the cultural reviews of the team and Cricket Australia will subside.
"Sometimes in the intensity of international cricket, people can start focusing a bit too much on themselves because you're just so desperate to perform and it's such a tough game that's critiqued really heavily as well. I think guys can become a little bit insular, so we've got to try as much as we can to give back and open up a bit more."
How open, and how successful, will start to be known from the moment Paine's monologue fades, and Lane looks down the pitch.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig