Mr Telephone Man, There’s Something Wrong With My Line

The clock is winding down towards Christmas, and the Boxing Day Test at the now decided Ashes. While there are remarkable similarities in the way both this and the last series has progressed, there is, of course, for UK viewers one very key change – the broadcaster is now BT Sport and not, as it has been since 1990, Sky Sports for an overseas test tour.

As someone who has Virgin Media (because trees prevent a satellite dish) this has meant I can watch the play (albeit about 5 seconds behind on HD) fine and dandy and with no worries about the service being interrupted through snowstorms and high winds. I am also the kind of sad person who records most of the cricket put out there, mainly in highlight form, but for some reason decided to emulate 2010/11 and 2013 by recording the Ashes in its entirety. This means I get to see the whole of BT Sport’s production at varying times.

My first impression is on technical skills, following the play, not missing a ball because you are late back from adverts (a cardinal sin that one), BT have not done a bad job. They haven’t sought to introduce stupid innovations or jazz coverage up to the max. They have concentrated on putting out a decent product that does what it needs to do. As a viewer youngish at heart but oldish of hue, I don’t mind that one bit.

BT also sought not to be too innovative in their commentary team either. All of those selected to present cricket to you have been in the broadcasting game for a while, either on TMS, Channel Ten’s coverage of BBL, or BT Sport before. It is a little bit of  a shame that a newbie wasn’t given a shout, but that’s a minor quibble. Three regular Australians – and I’m not sure who replaces them in Melbourne as I think they might all be off to the Big Bash – might be one too many but when two of them are the brilliant Ricky Ponting, and the “he’d be brilliant but he has to compare to Ponting” Adam Gilchrist that is nothing to moan about. As I’ve said, if I’m starting a TV station, and I have the pick of all world cricket commentators to choose from, I’d pay Punter what he wants and the rest can do it for free.

Much was made last year of the recruitment of Radio 1’s Greg James as the host of BT Sport cricket. He was about as vanilla as they come except for those awful checked shirts. He didn’t pull up any trees, but then again he didn’t exactly convince me. James then pulled out of doing the anchor role for the Ashes and it was handed to Matt Smith. I always quite liked Matt Smith, but it has to be said that it was a bit of a journeyman choice, having been one of those guys who seemed to turn his hand to anything.

The presentation is fine. The highlights are slightly longer than Sky’s and they don’t feel the need to bother with a version of The Verdict, which was only really the Colvile and Willis Show when boiled down to its constituent parts. I’m all in favour of that, there’s too much “analysis” which in the end is really only a load of ex-cricketers riding their favourite hobby horse. Sky’s cricket highlights were around 48 minutes long after adverts are removed, BT’s are around 1 hour, up to 1 hour 10. I think BT actually do this better.

The one thing that has struck me, and judging by the comments attached to the “Leave Out All The Rest” post it has some of you, is the incessant tide over after over of betting adverts. Now I’m not a gambler, and never will be. It gets a bit much after a while. Kwiff, Paddy Power, Bet 365, Betfair, Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill, and I’m sure there are more. It hits you that the only thing sport seems to exist for is to allow us to lose our money in many varied ways. BT are not the only ones to do this, I know, but it just seems more egregious. The first 20-25 minutes are ad free, and then they come at you. Wave after wave. More free bets and boosted odds. More ways to tie gullible people in.

The presentation before the start of play is relatively standard, loads of people standing around a table talking a lot, and me not remembering a lot of what they said. This happens at the end, but I delete it before watching it most days. Which leads me on to the assessment, and grades, of the various presenters.

RICKY PONTING – A+. The best in the business because he is there for two reasons – he is a great ex-player, certainly the best on the TV rotation I would contend, and I’m pretty sure he’s not a regular journalist. He informs you without patronising, is enthusiastic without it coming out as being forced, and is engaging in his delivery and his knowledge. He can be humorous without labouring jokes, he can be deadly serious when he needs to be. He clearly absolutely adores the game, making this sound like a calling, not a job. I do not enthuse about many media folk, but I do Ponting. Which is funny, because I hated him as a player. In my view he knocks Atherton for six, and does the Nasser job a darn sight better than Hussain does.

ALISON MITCHELL – A- – Now let me confess my sins. I thought this move was one to tick boxes but in many ways I was so wrong. Mitchell is a professional broadcaster and it shows. She is brilliant at her job. I do not want to enter the debate that poisoned the water here, but when you put experienced, professional, engaging, capable individuals in a position when they can shine, it is all power to the female commentator elbow. The best tribute you can pay to Alison is that when she comes on to her spell you go “oh good, she’s going to describe to me what is happening, and she is good at it”. Has great rapport with nearly all the commentators – keep Lovejoy away from her – and if you’ve got Geoffrey’s respect, you’ve earned it. A terrific, pleasant surprise from someone who doesn’t listen to TMS a lot to know how good she really is.

ADAM GILCHRIST – B+ – Gilchrist again has that knowledge but tries a little too hard for me. It does sound a little forced. He should not, for example, be allowed to talk about Premier League football at all, just as a cross-promotion. But what Gilchrist does well is much more important than what he does badly. As time went on I found he seemed to flow off the Ponting approach. He might try to over-reach a bit, which is why he’s not up there in Punter’s stratosphere. He’ll say something a little too pants on fire enthusiasm, or make a bit more of a hyperbolic statement. But he’s been an outstanding choice as Australian commentator for BT Sport, and I for one, would love to hear more of him. When you are the legend he is, and you clearly love the sport like he does, then more power to you, and you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt in my eyes.

GEOFF BOYCOTT – B – You would think Sir Geoffrey would be like marmite, you either loathe him or hate him, but I’m actually quite ambivalent towards him. There’s a ton of good with Geoffrey. He clearly, again, absolutely loves the game still and cares for it to his core. This is conveyed in every stint on the mic. He also speaks his mind, and in some ways doesn’t care who he upsets. Sometimes I suspected he did this for effect, but whereas I thought he did that in the past, I’ve not got that here. He’s shown his soft side over Malan, for instance, who you can hear him urging on. He dovetails well with most commentators (not all), and while his manner does upset some, he has been absolutely worth it for me.

DAMIEN FLEMING – B- – Mr Fleming has a little bit of a problem. He does not carry the legend status of the two other Aussies on the team so he has to show out a bit more. This leads to some of his Aussie nomenclature coming over to a BT audience that could not give a stuff if he’s the Bowlologist or not. When commentating on the game he is absolutely fine. He’s not pulling up trees, but he’s not making me scratch my eyes out. No team is going to be perfect, but again, he clearly sees this as more than a job, and conveys that. I know this view is not shared by all my fellow writers!

MICHAEL VAUGHAN – D- – Do you notice what I’ve said about the five commentators / pundits above? They clearly love the game, they see it as more than a job. What strikes me between the eyes with Vaughan is this is his job. I’m not convinced he loves doing this at all. The whole aim of this Ashes tour appears to have been the self-promotion of one MP Vaughan. He’s on BT Sport, he’s on ESPN Cricinfo, he’s on any media outlet that will have him. And what we get is reactive talking points. He’s not explaining anything, he’s concentrating on which reaction will get the most play. For a former captain of some repute, he seems very reticent in bringing his experience in the role to bear in his commentary. You’d thought he’d be dying to. He’s not all bad, but his first commentary stint in Brisbane was very nervous – he would not shut up. He has improved on that score, but there’s too much baggage, too much exposure, too much working out how he’s going to insert himself into the story and not let the story speak for itself.

GRAEME SWANN – Z- – I have no words. Really. But let me say this. If this man could just talk about cricket, and not try to be funny, witty, the smartest guy in the room, the court jester, the ra-ra we can do it type we might have something to work with. No. I’m not giving him credit for the times he talks about spin bowling. There should be more to commentating than besmirching your one specialist topic with a tide of self-loving. Just truly dreadful. I’d seriously reconsider, BT.

So, what do you think, if you care? Have I been too harsh, too generous. I actually have quite enjoyed something different, even if it means swallowing some pretty awful medicine here or there. It’s not as polished as Sky, but in many ways, it’s not as jaded or cynical. Replace a Swann with a Nasser, who I still like despite everything, a Vaughan with an Atherton, and Matt Smith, who did well, with Ian Ward, who can do it better, and you’ll be very well served.

We may have other posts before Christmas, but they may not be mine! We’ll see. If not, let me wish all of you a happy Christmas and see you on Christmas Night for a live blog of Melbourne if any of you can be bothered (for the first session at least).