Saturday, November 03, 2012

Commentating off the telegram

The England cricket team are in India and the bulk of the press pack are also there getting ready for the first Test on November 15. Not Sky Sports, though, who plan to do their commentary "off the telly" from a studio in West London after deciding not to pay the Indian cricket board's late demand of £500,000 as an extra fee for using facilities.

Reporting from afar is nothing new. I was looking at the Times archive of England's first Test series in India in 1933-34 and noticed that below a match report of the drawn second Test in Calcutta, presumably sent by an agency, there was a piece from Our Cricket Correspondent that begins:
"The reflexion [sic] of anyone who was hitting a golf ball into the bumps and hollows of Mid-Surrey yesterday when he heard that the match in Calcutta was left drawn was that the English team to win the match might well have scored a little faster in their first innings."
The correspondent then gives his opinions on a match of which he had obviously not seen a single ball nor have heard much, if any, radio commentary. The BBC began live cricket broadcasting in 1927 but it was not until the summer of 1934 that Howard Marshall did the first ball-by-ball commentary on home Tests.

Perhaps the World Service, which began in 1932, might have carried a short report, but I suspect that the Times correspondent of 1934 wrote his piece "off the telegram".

If Sky are working from home, the BBC's Test Match Special, which has been on the air since 1957, has come to an agreement with India and will broadcast from there. It is unclear whether they paid the £50,000 that they were demanded for a commentary box, but the important thing is that they will be there in India, bringing all the sounds of the crowds, the interviews with players on the outfield and Geoffrey Boycott's anecdotes about arguing with Indian brigadiers that people love.

I am one of their fans, have been since childhood, which is why it was disappointing to get wrapped up in a Twitter argument with Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's cricket correspondent, yesterday over my support for a venture called Test Match Sofa, which is owned by The Cricketer magazine, and does commentary of cricket matches off the television.

With less of the decorum and respect for authority that the BBC has, the Sofa is either a fun, anarchic, fresh way of doing commentary or it is a disgraceful sign of the way the world is going. It is not to everyone's taste and the commentators acknowledge that. Their reading out of tweets and their jingles for players would not be heard of on TMS. They even have women commentators.

I like it, but I also like Agnew and the others on TMS. He is a fine broadcaster with a warm, inquisitive interview technique who should be used more often by the BBC on other sports and other occasions, as Brian Johnston was. His gentle joshing with Geoffrey Boycott is always great radio.

That the Sofa has been kind enough to have me on as a guest on a handful of occasions - not frequently, as Agnew claimed in an attempt to undermine my impartiality, but maybe just into double figures over three years - does not mean I favour them. I would happily go on TMS if invited, although I have been told by one moderately famous friend who was invited on the Sofa that it had been made clear to him by Agnew that if he did so he would never be allowed on TMS, which seems petty. He has since been on TMS, lucky him.

I do, however, support the Sofa's right to exist. Agnew argues that them doing ball-by-ball commentary contravenes the exclusive radio rights that the BBC has. The Cricketer argues that in the internet age the situation has changed, that they are doing no more than allowing fans watching a game to share their witty thoughts with others online and has challenged the ECB, English cricket's governing body, to make a legal case for why they should stop.

Although the ECB made several pleas to The Cricketer on moral grounds - won't someone please think of the money that you could be denying to the grassroots if the BBC pay less for their next bundle of rights and so on - they have stayed away from this for six months or so and no lawyer's letter has come. What the Sofa is doing is apparently not illegal.

I can see why Agnew is protective of the BBC's primacy but the difference in audience sizes is massive. The Sofa is not a threat to TMS but it offers something different to those who are turned off by the BBC, who can't access TMS overseas or perhaps just want a change occasionally (one person on Twitter said they listen to the Sofa when England are fielding and TMS when they are batting).

Agnew says it is a rights issue but if so it can only be a good one for the BBC. Next time they negotiate a contract with the ECB they can refuse to pay as much since they feel they have less exclusivity. The BBC's remit should not be about funding cricket, it should be about getting the best deal for their listeners (the BBC, incidentally, pays nothing for their TV rights to the Boat Race, which attracts 7 million viewers, but no one talks about the devastating effect that has on rowing at Oxbridge).

In addition, TMS, as well as the experience of former players, trained commentators and 55 years of built-up authority, has the significant advantage of being there. Their access to the game, their facility to transmit the atmosphere, to speak to players immediately after play and to have first shot when big stories break mid-match (while the Sofa team are oblivious because they reading tweets) is what gives the value of their rights and why the prospect of the Indian board shutting them out if they didn't pay a ransom was awful.

Anyway. This has been a festering grievance for a while, but it boiled over this week when Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the much-admired and loved TMS commentator and former Times correspondent, wrote a column in our paper in praise of TMS that began by calling the Sofa team "predators", "ghastly" and saying that the sooner they were "nailed" and "swept offline" the better.

For a man who is regarded as a very fair and broad-minded journalist, who is more encouraging of young triers than some of his peer group, it was expressed with surprising vehemence and many who like the Sofa voiced their anger on Twitter.

Beware giving legitimacy to a twitstorm, but Andrew Miller, the editor of The Cricketer, demanded a right of reply, which our paper gave him in the form of some quotes to me in a news piece.

I'm sure Miller knew that some of his quotes were provocative. If Agnew was piqued at the suggestion the BBC should have checked their rights contract with India to see if they could actually get into the ground for their rupees, he exploded at the claim at the end that Brian Johnston and John Arlott, the godfathers of TMS, would not have got on to the programme if they were young BBC men now and would have been on the Sofa instead. It was a charge Miller made again in a piece in the Mail.

Agnew quite fairly observes, by the way, that CMJ was giving his own opinion in his own newspaper and Miller should not have seen it as the voice of the BBC. However, those who were angered by the "predator" comments interpreted it as such, so closely linked is he with the programme. Agnew has had every chance to distance himself and TMS from that opinion but has not done so.

Reading his tweet that he "became extremely angry by some outrageous claims, not least that Johnners wouldn't work for TMS today", I replied to Agnew that what Miller wrote was not that he wouldn't but that he couldn't.

There is simply not the pathway into the best seat in broadcasting for an Old Etonian, Oxbridge japester these days. If the first two categories didn't bar him now, the fondness for practical jokes probably would. Nor would Arlott, a former policeman and poet, a friend of John Betjeman, who was suddenly given a chance to commentate on cricket when he was 32 and so a magnificent career was born. Their way in was granted by patronage and the good fortune of being in the right place after the war.

That does not happen these days, which is why a comedian like Andy Zaltzman, the nearest perhaps in humour and background to a Johnners among modern commentators, goes on the Sofa.

And so it began. A fair battering followed, Agnew suggesting that Johnston would go into local radio and then somehow be picked up by TMS, even though plenty of talented local commentators get no further than a stint on unfancied one-day games or reports on Five Live, plus the BBC keeps saying it is going to do away with county coverage.

That's fine, that is his opinion and I look forward to the day when Zaltzman is saying "Hello and welcome to Lord's" from the TMS prime chair.

I just find the whole row very saddening. Both TMS and the Sofa, in differing ways, are producing content as cricket-lovers, giving publicity to a sport that badly needs it. They should be, if not on the same side, then at least not on warring ones. I respect both of them and I wasted far too much of yesterday being upset at the bulldozing I got from someone who cannot accept there may be a differing point of view.

So I'll leave you with this comment, from the 1935 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, in the Notes by the then editor Sydney Southerton:
"The cricket season of 1934  [was] unpleasant... The whole atmosphere of cricket in England was utterly foreign to the great traditions of the game. I deplored the attitude of a certain section of the Press in what seemed to me an insane desire constantly to stir up strife... We constantly read during the Test matches, not so much how the game was going, but rather, tittle-tattle of a mischievous character, which in the long run prompted the inevitable question: are Test matches really worth while?"
Southerton was referring to the rise of a tabloid culture and maybe Agnew would lay his charges on the Sofa's carpet, but the same could be thrown back at him since his battling without conciliation on Twitter is fostering the same strife. We should all be better than this. We all love cricket. Why don't we just get back to reporting on it rather than squabbling with each other? Or are Test matches not worth while?

45 comments:

olde boots said...

Cricket is all about being a rent-seeking monopolist these days. The BCCI, extorting money from TMS, who in turn want to protect their patch by questioning everyone else's right to talk about cricket. Pretty much as bad as Lalit Modi.

Anonymous said...

The root cause fall this angst is the BCCI, so obsessed they have become with proving to all that (in the words of a Harry Enfield character), 'I am considerably richer than you!'

Adam Taylor said...

I hope u dont blather on in such a long windef verbose way when ure a guest on 'the sofa'...u have put me right off

Dutch Bird said...

Fantastic piece Patrick. Like you and many other Sofa listeners, I was saddened and angry at Aggers' Tweeting yesterday. At first I thought it so out of character but the fact is, Aggers cannot see the wood for the trees.

It amazes me that no one has really mentioned that Sky Sports were the first to do "commentary off the telly" Just look what they do every Saturday afternoon with the football. Nowadays, hundreds of media outlets provide live text commentary on various sports. What is the difference between writing these words than speaking them? Unfortunately Aggers thinks that anything vocal constitutes as "radio" but if he watches "Gillette Soccer Saturday", does watching Paul Merson oooohing and aaaahing at some footballer falling over really conflict with whoever actually has the rights to show those matches? (Yes, I know only non-UK broadcasters can show 3pm. Saturday football) Their program is a totally different kettle of fish also to the likes of Radio 5 or Talk Sport who are actually at the grounds.

I don't see how The Sofa is any different. If Aggers really thinks that Dan and his mates are undermining the BBC as the BBC have actually paid for the live rights (which is the gist of what I understood from his Twittering rants of yesterday) then every single media texter, blogger and commentator is also breaching the BBC's so-called rights.

We know that the Sofa are doing nothing illegal but if Aggers is really going to get all moralistic on us, then he will have to cast aspersions to a much wider field.

Finally, I have asked Aggers and CMJ to comment on the issue of Expats who do not have access to TMS or Sky for the away games. The Sofa has blissfully plugged a gap in the market for us cricket lovers who prefer not to live in Blighty. It wouldn't surprise me that the vast majority of listeners who "tune in" to The Sofa are from outside the UK. Because I am a mere cricket lover and a female, I obviously don't warrant a response from his holiness but I think my views are just as important as his.

Woy Woy Pom said...

Good Editorial.

I do wonder if CMJ is now regretting the words which he used. The language is strong and more akin to an organized crime boss determined to stop a rival gang moving in on his manor or a ruthless businessman wanting to stop the opposition. Aggers sounds like a second rate politician in an election campaign blaming all the ills of the country on his rival. They've both lost much respect through their rather spiteful outbursts. If the Sofa is so terrible, what does that that make their listeners? Many of whom are, or were, TMS listeners.

Lets get this straight, the legality of the Sofa has apparently been researched and validated. Their complaints maybe aimed at hoping for some sort of obscure law for 1838 being found and applied to take them off the air. The claim that they are taking money out of cricket is just preposterous. I'm a recent expat living in Australia and TMS is simply not available to me unless I try to find an illegal link. I'm lucky though, I can afford and get Fox Sports and get TV pictures, and I pay good money for that! My nephew is a student in Denmark and cannot get TV, and if it wasn't for the Sofa, would get no legal commentary either for all away games.

That said, I've always been a TV with the sound down listening to the radio commentary on since I was young. I want to be entertained, not just dry commentary on the cricket. TMS has lost a lot of its humour do not seem to paint the same picture of the game; the big personalities like Arlott and Johnners are not as prevalent. I want to laugh. Aggers offers this but a lot of his colleagues don't. The Sofa makes no apologies for focusing on giving entertaining verbal jousting with jingles, bad jokes, dubious political correctness and general rambling old-fartiness. Norcross's rants can be something to behold and usually totally over the top and quite obviously alcohol fuelled late in the day. They don't attempt to give the preciseness of skilled ball-by-ball commentators. They are a bunch of cricket fans allowing other fans to listen in and tweet a few comments in themselves and frequently goes off topic. They do allow expats as wel as UK-based listeners to keep in touch with the game. It isn't to everyone's taste. So here is the deal, don't listen if you don't like it, they are just giving an alternative to those of us who want to have some banter on the game.

The idea that they are predatory is just preposterous. Who are they praying on or stealing from? I have paid thousands over the years to Sky in the UK and now Foxtel in Ozz for sports and will continue to do so. I assume some of the goes on the cricket. If the game is kept entertaining to me then I'm more likely to go to a match. I'll be at the new year test at the SCG for a day as I usually am - Saffers against Australia; difficult, a choice between toothache and piles. I'll probably go to some Big Bash games too. In January I paid not an unsubstantial amount of money to go to the UAE and sit with the Barmy Army while England got thrashed by Pakistan. England were terrible but the atmosphere great. This interest is partly sustained by the Sofa who I listen into while often working. They put a human and entertaining edge on proceedings. Hence, I maintain that the Sofa are far from predatory and are just part of the cricket mix. The Barmy Army were subjected to much disdain at first, now just look at what they have done to popularize the game and get people interested and going to games. When England come to town local business picks up.....

Maybe CMJ and Aggers are worried that their pay cheque may go down if there are more options, I can't see what else they are worried about.

Paddy said...

Adam: My mother always said that if you can't say something nice, at least make sure you can spell. And don't say the same thing twice. Still, you are right that this was a bit too wordy. Lot of ground to cover and no time to edit myself. Sorry it proved too much for your limited attention span.

Dutch Bird: You make several excellent points, but especially the one about Sky's football programme. Yes, apart from the fact they are commentating on several matches at once, what they do on Gillette Soccer Saturday is pretty much what the Sofa does.

Woy Woy: You also make some very good points. Sofa's accessibility to overseas listeners is one of their big selling points, but they still need to produce a good programme to attract overseas listeners and I think that is what they do. Never saw this as one versus the other, just that both should have the right and freedom to exist. They were surprisingly vehement words by CMJ and quite out of character, although he is not in good health at the moment. Perhaps someone in the office should have taken a leaf out of Sergeant Wilson's book and asked: "Do you think that's wise?"

Yvonne Photo said...

A very well written piece Patrick and i think it sums up what many listeners think about this whole farrago. I wrote a small piece myself about the 'incident' but what I forgot to say was this: I have read CMJ's article several times and still fail to see why he even mentioned the 'predators' in the first place. Surely as an experienced man in the media world, he is well acquainted with the old adage of 'no such thing as bad publicity'. By referring to them in his opening gambit, he pointed many people that had never previously heard of the Sofa straight at them [ok, he didn't actually name them, but it wouldn't take a mammouth amount of processing in googles computers to find out what he meant].
I suppose there could be several reasons, perhaps he felt the need to lance the festering boil of a 'competitor' and this was an ideal opportunity, or as I understand at the moment he is unwell and just didn't think far enough ahead, or maybe he just thought that it might push the ECB into taking some action. I really don't know and no where yet have I seen him, or anyone else, justify the need for such vehemence in an article that otherwise puts into words exactly how most cricket fans feel [felt] about the prospect of a Test Series without TMS.
As for Aggers - if this is all about 'rights' and money, then as you rightly point out, he needs to cast his net much further than just the Sofa, every blogger, commentator, writer, etc, that makes publically available comment on the game [and lets ve honest here, a large percentage of those will be 'on-line'] without ever having had ground access and an accredited media pass is at fault.... or not. Like the sofa, they are all simply spreading the cricket word, and that is where the grass roots love and support of the game will grow and be fostered, regardless fo how much Aggers dislikes the idea.

Brian Carpenter said...

Good to have the 'Vole' back, Paddy.

I'm on shaky ground as I haven't read the article which started all this and nor have I ever listened to the Sofa. I've known about it for ages but am always listening to the 'original' TMS when it's on.

Mind you, I detest Blofeld so much that I often turn off when he comes on, so that would be an ideal opportunity to try out the Sofa. I'll make a point of paying a visit during the India series.

I was surprised by the vehemence of the language used by CMJ (someone who, as I mentioned when we met, I hold in very high regard) and also the obvious indignation of Agnew during your Twitter exchange. For all the talk about rights, I wonder if some of this isn't a symptom of resistance to (and lack of understanding of) change, a patronising attitude to the work of 'amateurs' and a degree of self-importance.

As you've said in respect of the relationship between the traditional print media and blogs, there's no need for anyone on TMS to feel remotely threatened by anything the Sofa do. They'll never have anything like the audience or received (and sometimes unjustified) credibility of TMS, any more than my blog does when compared to the Times.

However, with all the books, and articles, and laudatory comments from all kinds of people, I wonder if a few of the TMS regulars have started to think they're the only ones allowed to express an opinion?

I was never a fan of Johnners, but I don't doubt that you're right that he'd struggle to get anywhere near TMS today, as indeed would Arlott.

Johnners would be on the Sofa and Arlott might be a blogger and podcaster in his spare time, while continuing to be a policeman.

mickf1967 said...

I cannot understand what has driven CMJ and Aggers to committing such a monumental blunder in giving the Sofa the enormous plug that they have. The nature of the bile that has been vented would otherwise be reserved for Bill Lawry or Tony Greig talking about Billy Birmingham. If any of the TMS crew should take umbrage at the Sofa it should be Geoffrey Boycott because they do take the piss out of him regularly (but then again, who doesn't).

Anyway, on to my main point. Like most of the other respondents above I am also en expat, an Aussie living in a country where discussions about cricket never get past the inevitable and inane questions about tea. Like them, I also used to listen to ABC Grandstand and TMS. I was thrilled when TMS made a bold move in putting Tuffers in the box (seriously, how good would Tuffers be on the Sofa?). I even laughed at Kerry O'Keeffe's jokes. But then, one day a number of years ago this option disappeared. The ABC and BBC disenfranchised its overseas listeners at roughly the same time. My question is why? If Aggers and CMJ want to whinge about rights I suggest they start here instead by questioning whatever legislation was passed to limit their broadcasting scope to their own shores. If you Patrick or anybody knows why this came to be I would be genuinely interested in finding out. My guess would be the Sky TV deal but that wouldn't explain the ABC's move.

Lastly I would just point out that that I don't actually miss TMS or Grandstand that much. This stands the Sofa team in great stead because even though I do find they get bogged down in the Twittersphere a bit too often, when they turn themselves to the cricket they are seriously good. While I do greatly enjoy listening to Mike Atherton's analyses, I find Gary Naylor and some of the others just as compelling.

Pam Nash said...

If none of you recognised CMJ's piece as that of a terminally ill old man raging against the dying of the light -and Aggers'responses as those of a man stepping forward to take the bullets for his mate - it says rather more about you than it does about them.

Personally, I've never been one to take aim at sitting ducks - I prefer my targets to be more challenging.

mickf1967 said...

I am sorry to hear that, I suppose that's one of the negatives of being an expat. Being Australian I may not have read about it anyway. I seem to remember that either or both of them are completely technology dyslexic. When entering into such a debate, don't they have any friends or colleagues to steer them away from passing comment on subjects they obviously don't understand? The whole thing saddens me.

Pam Nash said...

@mickf1967

CMJ is a technophobe but he wrote the article for the Times - so guidance fell to the editorial team at that publication.That they didn't use it is another discussion.

My point is that watching people descending like a pack of baying hounds onto a previously well respected, terminally ill man - whose judgment is highly likely to have been affected by his illness - is an unedifying sight.

backwatersman said...

Miller does have a point about TMS - but perhaps he'd be better off looking a little closer to home and asking whether Arlott would have any of his writings - let alone his poems - published in his magazine these days. Or, for that matter, Alan Ross or Alan Gibson or Dudley Carew or even Cardus. I suspect not. Or you could take it a little further and ask whether Arlott (et al.) would even take an interest in cricket as it is now. But that way madness lies, no doubt.

WillD said...

I suddenly realised just why I don't listen very often to TMS. It is pretty well summed up by the words flowing from some of their stalwarts. For years I have tried to understand just why it has lost it's appeal to me, from the listen at every opportunity, turn sound off on the TV. to the once in a blue moon as now.

It's the certainty in the voice, the edge of arrogance in the comments, almost the hint of talking down to the masses. Gone is the gentle humour, the wit, the feeling of being there with friends soaking up the atmosphere, not as now the headmaster.

I am sorry that IMO CMJ seems in this instance, to now lack the perception and tolerance that needs to be displayed in this matter. There are many paths to a destination, but to impugn another without seemingly understanding its merits is sad indeed.



Bogie55 said...

@Pam Nash I have seen little of "people descending like a pack of baying hounds onto a previously well respected, terminally ill man", but I have seen his argument systematically taken to bits. I am sad to learn that he is ill of course, but if he is to argue a competitor's - or at least an innovative, very different upstart's - coverage out of the right to exist in rather vehement terms, he has to expect similar language from those who disagree in response. The fact that you are apologising for his opinion because he is ill speaks volumes.

But to characterise Agnew's contribution to the debate as purely coming to CMJ's defence is at best Romantic, and at worst rather silly and cowardly. As a long-time listener to TMSpecial I am truly disappointed by Agnew's views expressed on Twitter, especially to @patrick_kidd and @Eddiethefish, such as:

"if [Test Match Sofa] were savvy enough to stop ball by ball &develop the show into a cricket prog all the trouble would stop"

This sort of implicit threatening frankly makes Agnew look ridiculous, but it's also typical of his apparent current view that ex-Test players are the only ones to have opinions worthy of his attention (no room for Arlott and especially Johnners now, it seems). The Sofa seems keen to test each argument's merits from wherever it emanates, and regularly encourages robust debate - Agnew seems to think we should all take his side by virtue of his, and the BBC's, position. (His suggestion that the Sofa is being less "savvy" by doing ball-by-ball commentary is also clearly ridiculous, and a sign that there's only one party here that lacks savviness in the New Media age.)

I remain convinced that TMS is a good use of my licence fee, but the quality of the Sofa's coverage - its wide range of insight and humour - makes it well worth my annual donation.

Anonymous said...

I'm no great lover of test match sofa, I think they find themselves a little to funny (and have been blocked by a couple of them for pointing this out)
However I agree with virtually every word of this blog. Aggers made a prat of himself over this, I wonder if he will ever apologise

@njhag

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