The Roar: Fans deserve better than cricket’s conflicted commentary teams

Sport, by its very nature, is a partisan affair.

Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, required reading for any sports fan, reassures us that the transformation from upstanding member of society into fanatic irrational mob is a common occurrence – that we are not alone.

Even those that watch sport simply for its aesthetic pleasure are hard pressed not to find themselves at some point cheering inertly, and often overtly, for one side or another.

The Big Bash League, only in its sixth season, is still in its infancy. Yet the passion of its fans, and the devotion to their chosen team, is remarkable.

The Furnace, aka the WACA, is a daunting cauldron of hostility to any travelling team. The army of supporters is so vocal and bright that you leave believing that the future can’t be anything but orange.

Even those cities housing two teams, with nothing outwardly distinctive to separate them aside from tenuous geographical links, have developed surprisingly large and partisan followings; confuse a Melbourne Renegade for a Star at your peril.

jhye-richardson-perth-scorchers-big-bash-league-cricket-2017

Such an enthusiastic audience is integral to the growth of any sport, and it only follows that its coverage, through commentary and the written press, should reflect that. All journalists, after all, are keen followers of the game, and it would be artificial to suggest that they cannot support one side over another.

Support, however, comes in varying degrees, and partisanship can easily escalate towards vested interests.

It’s difficult now to find a cricket commentator without another job, or role, in another organisation within the game – be it on the governing body’s board of directors, as a national selector, player agent, on the books of the same sports agency, coach, mentor etc. etc. The list is a long one.

This is in part due to the nature of the beast – variable pay rates dominated by short-term seasonal contracts, jumping from continent to continent with different institutions and media outlets. Most pundits in today’s volatile job market simply get what they can – I know I do.

The best operators are in high demand – these Renaissance men and women are often past pros and leaders on the field of play, which increases their appeal.

Not only will famous names draw an audience in themselves, but their unique knowledge and insight of the game convey an angle unseen by most – by no means a recipe for assured success, but an attractive asset nevertheless. Overlap is inevitable as quality of deliverance is sought by all. And this works, to an extent.

We may now simply be so accustomed to conflicted interests we no longer consider them a cause for concern – the plight of the modern day Mithridates, perhaps. There is however, as with all things, a line – and recent form suggests that we have crossed it.

Graeme Swann’s description of Channel Nine as “the Australian propaganda machine”, uttered during BT Sport’s coverage of the Australia versus Pakistan Test series, ruffled no feathers, as it was a truth simply stated.

That a self-proclaimed independent news outlet consistently fails to publish anything which might shed a bad light on its funding source is now also widely accepted. We are used to Marks Taylor and Waugh commentating on teams in which they have a managing stake, as a Cricket Australia director and Sydney Thunder Governor, respectively.

Players, who may be participating in the very game being covered, are now a regular occurrence in the commentary box for their expert opinions, but their presence is usually fleeting, often accompanied by an opposing player, coach or administrator for balance.

For that’s what media coverage is – a fine balancing act in order to convey an informed, yet interesting, picture.

Andrew Symonds calling an entire Brisbane Heat game unapologetically wearing the team’s cap pushed the bar a little further.

Kevin Pietersen at least refrains from wearing any Stars attire while commentating, and his role as a wandering, and refreshingly frank, mercenary with little allegiance to anyone or anything may give him further leeway still.

Melbourne Stars Kevin Pietersen

It’s not only Australia either, of course – English coverage has had its own share of sticky situations (remember Andrew Strauss’ colourful description of Pietersen not so long ago?), and India and the BCCI’s influence is a snake pit perhaps left untouched.

The turning point arguably comes, however, when the atmosphere gets uncomfortable and professional duties visibly muddied.

This it did with the introduction of the current Australian coach, Darren Lehmann, into the BBL commentary box. The persistent, and unwittingly ironic, description of both he and Waugh as the “brains trust” aside, Lehmann soon found himself speaking live on air about and to players he had recently dropped, often on controversial premises.

Geoff Lemon, The Guardian and Roar journalist with past form when it comes to perceptive commentary critique, opined that Lehmann commentating on a partnership of Peter Nevill and Callum Ferguson, recently dropped from the Australian side, was “not awkward at all”. We writhed in our seats.

A few days later, a Network Ten commentator, while live on air, passed on tactical information into the on-field earpiece of Adelaide Strikers captain Brad Hodge.

Hodge did what any sensible captain would do, and used it to his advantage. While the mistake may have been an innocent one, the power of the backer was clearly visible – the covering network wanted great entertainment, and the commentators, albeit opportunistically, were a means to achieve it.

It’s difficult for the individuals involved as opportunities are few and far between, and it takes a strong individual to turn down offers on a point of principal – certainly a better person than me. Instead, it is the place for administrators, networks and regulators to create a better framework, with guidelines, even rules, for those it employs.

To continue as we are now is to rob the viewer, the listener, the ‘consumer’ of the full picture of what unfolds on the field below, not a skewed version either funded by another or so clouded we are left wondering whether two sides are competing at all.

• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 25 January 2017. To access the original, please click here.

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