Over the last few summers there has been an obvious changing of the guard in the Channel Nine commentary team. This shift from the over 70 brigade of Benaud, Lawry, Grieg and Chappell to the new over 40 team of Taylor, Slater, Healy, Warne, Nicholas and Brayshaw has seen the commentary evolve from banal to unbearably banal. But this transition shouldn’t be surprising given that the team is exclusively made up of white middle aged men, with similar views, similar experiences, talking for 7 hours a day about the same thing….cricket (or in Mark Taylor’s case the size of modern cricket bats).
Alternatively when listening to ABC Grandstand during the recent test series what struck me was the diversity of voices. Aspiring players like Trent Copeland and Ed Cowan showed genuine admiration for everyone who had achieved the goal of playing test cricket but also a healthy disregard for the narrative and hyperbole that can often detract from what is actually happening. Another currentish* player in Lisa Sthalekar also demonstrated this respect, as well as a sharp understanding of the modern game and the modern player. You had an overseas perspective early in the series from Harsha Bhogle, and while Bhogle isn’t a player he is an amazing personality who can speak with authority on Indian cricket while also eagerly absorbing all that goes on around him.
Of course you’ve got the tried and true voices of Australian journalists like Maxwell and Morphett calling the game and getting swept up in the twists and turns and the romance of the game. And while it’s important to have Geoff Lawson there to tick the box that says “middle aged white male that played for Australia”, the dilution of this perspective increases its potency. Grandstand also succeeds in getting guest ex-players to commentate at their home ground where they played most of their cricket like Andy Bichel did at the Gabba, putting a premium on the insight this brings.
As my wife often reminds me cricket can go for a long time and this diversity in voices isn’t just essential for engaging the audience but also for engaging the commentators.
For whatever reason television networks seem reluctant to change this formula, notably impatient or confused by commentators that don’t fit the ‘mould’. For example, Meg Lanning’s time on Channel 9 – captured beautifully by Cat Jones here – was notoriously hamstrung by her often being placed as the fourth voice in an already crowded commentary box, spending her time being awkwardly interviewed by her colleagues.
As we approach the Cricket World Cup every cricket commentator and cricket lover in the world will be here. While the meeting of many great cricketing personalities and minds will be a wonderful thing I can’t help but think that most viewers around the world will be stuck watching television team’s pedal out the same people with the same clichés and partisan hackery that has become the norm.
Whether it’s Atherton, Hussein and Botham for England, Ganguly, Dravid and Shastri for India, or Healy, Taylor and Slater for Australia, the over 40 male ex-player continues to be a protected species in cricket commentary no matter how boring or unbearable they are.
* Sthalekar has retired from international cricket.