Earlier this year, a searing story on The Guardian delivered the most brutal appraisal of Channel’s Nine’s ultra-blokey and super cliquey TV cricket commentary. It was the ultimate up-yours, yet not in a bitchy way. This was more than criticism. It was a lament for everything that cricket commentary once was, and for what it could be and should be.
The author of the article was Geoff Lemon, and ABC Grandstand liked his article so much that they hired him to write for their website. The ABC won’t say it, but it’s a clear sign they have declared war on Nine.
There are other signs too.
This year’s new blood tells you all you need to know at a glance. After last summer, assorted ABC generalists and journeymen were ushered out of the Test match commentary box for good. In their place are fresh, smart talent.
Former players Chris Rogers, Dirk Nannes and Simon Katich have each been a revelation in their own way. And what needs saying about Geard Whateley except that he’s Gerard Whateley? Whateley is an enthusiast’s enthusiast and an aficionado’s aficionado without being all nerdy and McAvaneyish about it.
“This is the biggest upheaval in our commentary box since I started broadcasting,” venerable ABC commentator Jim Maxwell told Huffington Post Australia. “We’ve got three new experts, a new producer and two guys doing stuff for social media and the website.”
Maxwell has been in this game 39 years. He's far too smart and diplomatic to fire a direct shot at Channel Nine. But you can tell he’s excited about the public feedback to the ABC’s coverage of the four Tests so far this summer.
“This all came about because of last year’s cricket which was a bit of a mess,” Maxwell said of the commentary box shake up.
“We just didn’t have any continuity. [Departing ABC boss] Mark Scott was the mover and shaker in getting a panel for the whole six matches. It was all about continuity, expert talent, getting it authoritative and getting it right.
Tick, tick, tick and tick.
But the biggest tick for the ABC coverage this year is something that will show up on no manager’s monthly reports. It’s tone. It’s the vibe of the coverage, which if you’ll excuse the cricket pun, has been pitch perfect.
There have been some really interesting moments this summer when Chris Rogers has said what he really thinks about players' strengths and flaws. Criticism from the Nine box is almost always directed at the opposition. But in one memorable 15 minutes of radio in late November, Rogers completely shredded Australian all-rounder Mitchell’s Marsh flawed batting technique.
It was something to do with his bat striking the ball when his head was not over the ball. The exact details are not important. But what was utterly remarkable is that Rogers had played his last Test in August, just three months earlier, and that Mitchell Marsh was in that team.
Think about it. The idea of Ian Healy or Mark Taylor bagging one of their contemporaries is unthinkable. As Geoff Lemon put it, they are “company men”.
But the new ABC crew has the smell of independence. Dirk Nannes earned good coin for several seasons in the Indian Premier League and runs a ski lodge in Japan. He’s his own sort of man. Ditto Simon Katich, who as no cricket fan needs reminding, once throttled an Australian skipper whom quite a few people would have liked to throttle.
Throw those three in together with Whateley and Maxwell -- who apart from all their knowledge have beautiful radio voices -- and you’ve got quite the line-up. And that’s not to forget visiting Caribbean broadcaster Fazeer Mohammed, who has provided invaluable insight into the turmoil underpinning West Indies cricket this summer. Nine no longer has overseas broadcasters most series. Because Oi! Oi! Oi!
But the ABC does. “I think every network should have someone from the visiting country, Maxwell said.
This thing is not perfect yet. “It took me a game to get my head around it all,” Maxwell admitted. “I worked with Kerry O’Keeffe for 13 years and Peter Roebuck damn near 20. It’s been challenging but I actually think what we’re doing is as good as it ever been.
“The all-round coverage of the game in terms of talking about it and the peripheral stuff as well, I think it’s bloody good."
We’re with Jim. ABC is on a winner this year. TV volume down, radio volume up, anyone?
MAXWELL’S MATES. JIM ON...
“He brings some humour which is important. His knowledge of the players he played with is great. He knows their game and their character too.”
“He brings a slightly left field perspective because he’s not a person who has been immersed in the game for life because of his skiing history [Nannes was a junior skier for Australia before he took up cricket seriously]. But he still knows these guys well enough, and he’s great on bowling. In the Hobart Test, he noted how James Pattinson changed his normal action in the first innings and lost oomph. Then he ran in and bowled like he used to in the second innings and took five wickets.”
“Katich just brings a pretty straight refreshing honesty to it all I reckon. It took him a game or two but he seems to be playing his shots now.”