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).

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The End of The Road – Preview and Possible Live Blog – 5th Day

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Day 5. In a new world this won’t exist, so I suppose we had better appreciate them while they are still here. This Day 5 comes to us with very little in the way of suspense. 56 runs to win, 10 wickets in hand, a bowling attack that never looked like taking a wicket, an off field controversy, and all around the England team are naysayers and doom-mongers wittering on about the wheels falling off. Welcome to the Ashes, welcome to the tumult that follows it around.

So, for another four year we can put away the tedious cliche that is Gabbatoir. This was a wicket England could certainly work with and for three days, give or take a session, they were well in the game, putting up a competitive, even at times, leading display. There were plaudits being thrown around for Joe Root’s captaincy, how innovative and proactive it had been. Today I heard Lovejoy effectively say he wasn’t cut out to be captain and should never have been given the job (and, I presume, the pay rise that comes with it).

There was a moment last night on commentary that Lovejoy said that there wasn’t anyone out there leading them in the field. There weren’t enough voices. Bairstow is in’t the most vocal of keepers; Moeen Ali is too laid back; Stoneman is an introvert; Vince is quite; and best of all “Alastair Cook wouldn’t say boo to a goose”. I don’t know, I read too much into things, but if you could put into microcosm what has gone wrong with English cricket since the final days of the Flower regime, this was it. It was his gang that no doubt made all newcomers feel welcome (and others, I know), and if you were particularly vocal in this your face didn’t fit and you were briefed against or sacked. Lordy, I would keep my gob shut in that atmosphere. When the time comes for you to be vocal, who is going to take any notice if you are new or been quiet for years. In the main, not always, England have won a test match since the last Ashes when in front from the start. If we fall behind, there have been a couple of fightbacks, but we fold. It was said about the last tour that this was a team at the end of its tether, with itself, and the individuals that composed it. This is a team which seems to be slightly fearful. They responded well to the early exchanges but as the game went on, they got worse. A lot worse. Not Karun Nair worse, but bad enough.

There will be a lot to chew over in the next few days, and you know we are very responsive to defeats, with plenty of constructive comment, and also poking fun and pointing out the inadequacies of fanboys/girls who somehow think that not cheering hard enough causes this, while the media reaction will be fascinating. Management and the players allowed low expectations to fester last winter as some sort of reason for failure being fine and dandy, but it doesn’t wash when most of the pundits think Australia has two batsmen and a load of filler. Chris Woakes, by acclaim, was the most improved cricketer of the last 18 months, but he’s now back in the spotlight after one anonymous game. Jake Ball was thrown in, more in hope than expectation and now there isn’t a pundit who thinks he will play in Adelaide.

So when David Warner and Cameron Bancroft come out to bat in a couple of hours time, it will be interesting to watch how England play. A display of fight, getting in their faces, trying to inflict a wound or two would signal intent. Just turning up, hoping it is all over in half an hour will be a disappointment.  Lovejoy believed the team never thought for one minute that they could bowl out Australia for fewer than 170, and it came across in their body language (what a load of old bollocks – if they nicked a couple of wickets early no-one would have mentioned how they came out on the field – confirmation bias at its worst) from the start.

I haven’t yet got the chance to see the highlights of yesterday. I’ll load them up onto my phone for the flight to Madrid on Tuesday (a day bloody trip to Madrid) and perhaps comment afterwards. So I’ve not seen the stumping or YJB’s shot. I’ve read enough about them. But between Brisbane and Adelaide we will recover some energy, comment on what we see and hear and importantly, get the second Ashes panel convened.

For those who filled it in, and want to participate the questions are as follows:

  1. So now the Brisbane result is in, what has it shown you about the relative strengths and weaknesses (and some perhaps not highlighted by the mainstream media)
  2. Adelaide at night? In favour of day-night in the Ashes, or are you a reactionary old fuddy duddy?
  3. Put that Steve Smith innings into context. Tell me an Ashes ton you thought was better.
  4. Lots mentioned that Alastair Cook’s form may be in decline. What are your thoughts on this Damascene conversion?
  5. I was quite underwhelmed by the Aussie pace attack for much of the test match, yet now they “blow teams away”. What were your thoughts?
  6. If you have BT Sport – what did you think of their coverage. Try not to focus on Lovejoy.

Please DO NOT answer the questions in the comments, but send them to dmitriold@hotmail.co.uk . If we get too many, I’ll pick the best of them. I don’t expect too many.

Now to the Live Blog. I’ve not spoken to Danny, who might run it tonight. I have to pack the border collie off to my brother very early tomorrow and had very little sleep last night, so I’m going to bed before the day’s play. If we run a blog it will be below. If not, please put your comments below. Our thanks for our friends, old and new, for making the Live Blog and Review such a success. We are glad we can provide such an outlet. Hope you enjoyed it too.

Pray for a miracle.

0004 Broad bowls the first over, Warner scores 3 and Australia only need 53 more.

0009 Anderson from the other end. Warner gets a single and Australia need 52.

0016 Another 2 overs gone, another 6 runs scored. 48 required.

0032 Woakes and Ball have taken over now, 37 needed.

0047 Slow going, 30 more runs needed.

0050 Bancroft edges a Jake Ball delivery through a vacant second slip. Another 4 runs on the board, and that’s 25 more required.

0102 Single figures needed now…

0109 And that’s it. Cameron Bancroft hits a looping drive straight over a short mid off to the boundary, and AUSTRALIA HAVE WON BY 10 WICKETS.

0131 Bayliss: England need to score hundreds. Stunning insight there.

0132 Overton next in line in the squad it seems, and he’ll be watching Mark Wood’s progress in the Lions.

0133 Bayliss says the Bairstow incident is blown out of all proportion but also that he needs “a stern talking to”. A bit muddled.

Hiatus month

October is a funny time for those based in England – the season is done, the winter tours are still seemingly distant, the football and rugby seasons are properly underway, and for the assorted scribblers that make up this place, it’s a busy time at work.  This is probably why the ICC pick this time of year to slip out proposed changes to the game, just to ensure maximum annoyance at BOC Towers.

Of course, we’ve been here before, the stillborn Test Championship being a case in point, and when our Glorious Overlords come up with their latest wheeze to create “context” for the game of cricket, there’s a temptation to sigh and reach for the brandy.  Or revolver.

The concept is simple enough, for Test cricket to work towards becoming a competition with a winner at the end of it, the proposal being for the top nine teams to play each other home and away over a two year period culminating in final to determine the winner.  So far so good.  Given the abandonment of the Future Tours Programme as being anything more than a suggestion, some kind of plan for how Test cricket should function should be welcomed.  But the proposal has very little meat on the bones, and the plan for it to start in 2019 puts rather a tight timetable on it being adopted.   There’s little information announced about what the next step would be thus far at least, and we’re already closing fast on 2018.

There’s also the element of announcement fatigue when it comes to ICC edicts.  We’ve been here so many times before.  But let’s be generous and assume it’s going to come off.  A proper competition could actually be rather fun, with all series having something riding on them, whether for the teams hoping to reach a final, or those further down who hope to still be involved next time around.  That in itself does create a problem, for the 10th placed team might find it somewhat difficult to arrange series to get themselves involved for the following competition.  There’s little indicating a pathway for Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland, which doesn’t in itself mean there won’t be one, just that it’s either not been thought about, or not been considered.  Sceptics about the ICC can make up their own minds.

Equally, when the round of matches comes to a conclusion, it will presumably be straight into the next one once the final has been played.  The leading sides would be fairly reluctant to organise a series against a team who might not be involved for the following summer, and the potential for the lower ranking sides to be left dangling has to be real.  In any case, having only to play 6 of the 8 sides could offer the possibility of gaming the system on the one hand, or simply ignoring the lesser lights on the other.  Quite how it could be made compulsory to ensure all nine teams actually get those 6 series in two years hasn’t been explained; Bangladesh only just managed to reach the required number over the last two years, while the fraught bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan is an obvious problem.

Nine is perhaps a specifically chosen number, for it would exclude Zimbabwe, a country who would find it problematic to arrange series against some countries, notably England.  The lack of requirement for everyone to play everyone else might be considered deliberate in that light.

The length of series too is merely confined to be a minimum of two and a maximum of five, suggesting a complete refusal to become involved in changing the tendency to play as little as possible against the smaller nations.  It’s probably not too surprising in itself, for the ICC is not a governing body in the normal sense, more an outlet for the collective musings of the bigger countries.   The points system too is unknown, and that could provide some grounds for decent argument, given how the Test championship table can give rise to some interesting aberrations from time to time.

Still being generous (which gets harder by the day), it could provide grounds for a Test series to matter more to spectators and participants alike.  Yet it’s tough to see this as any kind of radical change, more trying to fit a competition around what more or less exists at present.  In some respects, that might well be as much as is possible to do at this stage; the various vested interests have always managed to kill attempts to bring forward genuine change – unless money is involved of course, for then it’s a different matter.

Of perhaps more interest in terms of a significant change is the proposed ODI league due to start a year after its Test equivalent.  One day series have always been utterly disposable (without looking it up, can you remember the series results even from this summer?), to the point that the acronym JAMODI  – work it out yourself – gained some currency.  The proposal appears to be that the eight series to be played over that time will be over three matches, and unlike with the Test programme, that’s not put forward as a minimum, but an absolute.  If that is the case, then shorter ODI series would appear to be the way forward, which is intriguing in itself were it to happen.

The last major change being mooted is to trial four day Test matches, probably beginning with the Boxing Day Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe later this year.  There’s a rationale there, for a fixture such as that the likelihood of it going five days is questionable, and for Test cricket to have a future, then it does need to pay its way.  The problem with this is what it always has been – it’s messing with a format that works as a cricket one.  The ECB have been in favour for a while, because Tests in England are often finishing in four days.  But there is, and always has been, a fundamental difference between noting that trend (and it needs to be shouted long and loud that elsewhere this is not an issue) and removing the potential for the kind of fifth day we saw only this summer against the West Indies.  Accepting the need for Test cricket to pay its way is hardly an argument in the country that retains the greatest interest in the format.

Experiment by all means, but note that the players appear to be rather opposed.

It’s easy to be cynical about the ICC, but then they do keep giving those cynics reason to be so.  The announcements have been made, and all will wait to see if anything comes of them.  It could be good, but then few would be surprised if it all unravelled to leave nothing but the four day Tests behind.  Cynicism is so often a product of repeatedly being let down.

In other news, BT Sport have announced their commentary line up for the forthcoming Ashes series.  With the usual Sky commentators clearly unavailable, many of the names will come as little surprise, such as Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott.  Having Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist to represent the home team does at least offer the potential for some kind of insight, while Matt Smith will be the main presenter.  Graeme Swann has also been listed as being present, though there is some debate as to whether he will only be there until Perth before coming home if England are losing.