Friday, 2 November 2012

Two Fading Stags v the Young Bucks

I love the internet. It has revolutionised my life. Without it, I wouldn't have a wife and family, I wouldn't have a sort-of second career and I wouldn't have an outlet like this for my loves and frustrations. I also wouldn't have such an insight into how different some people's behaviour is to their public persona.

A few months ago I wrote here about the acquisition of the Test Match Sofa website by The Cricketer magazine and how much it concerned me. You can find that post quite easily, as it is the one before this one. I never expected to need to use the site again.

The reaction to that post surprised me. I expected it to lose me a lot of contacts. Instead, I was almost overwhelmed by magnanimity. Andy Afford, the Cricketer's publication director, emailed me to assure me that, whilst he disagreed with what I said, he had not problem at all with me saying it. The magazine's editor, Andrew Miller, also got in touch. Not only was his message similar, he later invited me to play for the magazine's cricket team (although they were so short-handed, they were forced to pick Jarrod Kimber, so don't read too much into that). Even the founder of Test Match Sofa, Dan Norcross, reacted with nothing but kindness. It was the maturest of responses.

In fact, this grace and decency has been in stark contrast to the hostility that the very same people have this week experienced from the BBC's Test Match Special team. It seems that two of the more elderly members of the team, Christopher 'CMJ' Martin-Jenkins and Jonathan 'Aggers' Agnew, take exception to the fact that the Beeb pays for the coverage it provides of international cricket whilst the Sofa team just sit in front of a television without paying a penny to anyone.

Of the two, it is Agnew's reaction that has been the most inexcusable. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion and he has done very well to build a public persona as an avuncular front man around one fairly rubbish joke – so successful, in fact, that most people have forgotten the humourless professional cricketer who once reacted to a practical joke by losing his temper and throwing a team-mate's kit off a balcony.

Martin-Jenkins' complaints might have had some credence if they had not been so bitterly expressed, but Agnew's purported defence of them as 'CMJ writing from the perspective of a listener' was just risible. No-one is forcing Martin-Jenkins to listen to Test Match Sofa, so if he was just writing as 'an interested listener' there would be no force to his argument. He could ignore the service much in the same way as I now ignore the BBC's hamfisted attempts to present cricket highlights. The only way he can give any weight to his argument is from the perspective of someone in competition with the Sofa. Agnew always claims that his pronouncements on Twitter are in a personal capacity and not representative of the BBC and, interestingly, he sought to put a different spin on the issue, arguing that cricket boards should seek to charge the likes of Test Match Sofa for what they do, to avoid loss of revenue.

Now, the argument that not paying for rights takes money out of cricket has, at face value, some force. But suppose that the different approach that Test Match Sofa takes to presenting cricket actually either attracts more people to the game or at worst stops people leaving it? Getting people to go to games is hardly going to be detrimental to the sport, now is it?

This is, in essence, no different to the arguments that were put forward against Kerry Packer, or against Channel 4 taking over televised coverage from the BBC at the end of the 1990s. And the reaction of the BBC to both events is exactly the same, that they foreshadow the death of cricket. It is as if the BBC commentators' manual has a mandatory clause stating that for every action there must be an equal and opposite over-reaction.

Interestingly, though, if you accept that both Aggers and CMJ were speaking in their personal capacities, then they have probably both broken their contracts with the BBC. I have seen a few of those contracts in my time and they usually contain clauses about not making statements in public which are detrimental to Auntie. It is hard to see how embroiling the Corporation in an unseemly row over cricket coverage and using some very intemperate language into the bargain isn't detrimental to them. Moreover, criticising something likely to drive down the cost of broadcasting rights just has to be bad for an organisation which has to justify spending public funds on everything that it does.

What is so desperately sad about all of this is that the panicking words of one veteran broadcaster have set in place a chain reaction which has demeaned both him and one of his colleagues in the eyes of anyone who has read what they had to say. Despite the sentiments expressed earlier in this piece I still have far more axes to grind with Test Match Sofa than I do with TMS (an infinite number, in fact). I'd like to think that the two of them could co-exist, yet the futile rage of Martin-Jenkins and Agnew just reminds me of two elderly stags who fear their time is drawing short and that the new bucks might soon be taking over.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Sofa, so bad - Or...

...why the merger between The Cricketer and Test Match Sofa is wonderful news for them and terrible news for many more

We are barely two months into the new year and already cricket has thrown up enough talking points to last us the whole year. There's been the resurgence of Pakistan, the ongoing decline of India, the increasing likelihood of Sachin Tendulkar ending his career on 99 international hundreds and so many more, yet the most controversial story of all seems to have taken place off of the pitch and indeed nowhere near a stadium or administrators office at all.

I speak, of course, of the purchase of alternative commentary broadcaster Test Match Sofa by fusty old Cricketer magazine. A surprising move, yes, but one which has stirred up a furore that none of those involved could have envisaged.

I should probably declare several interests at this point. Back in September 2008 a well known cricket writer and I conceived the idea for something very similar to Test Match Sofa. Unfortunately this coincided with me starting a new job and him landing a book deal, and nothing came of it. I therefore have nothing but admiration for the people who had the inspiration, time, energy and resources to set up Test Match Sofa and make it work so well.

In addition, I know a number of those involved in the deal. I have played cricket alongside some of the Sofa lot. Andrew Miller, editor of the Cricketer, is someone I have met on several occasions, 100% of which have involved alcohol. The magazine's publication director Andy Afford gave me my first writing job for a cricket magazine (even if he did keep forgetting to credit me). I have no axe to grind with any of them and I am certainly not going to join the chorus of people crying 'kissy kissy sell out' at the parties.

All of which is why I feel so bad that I can only see this merger as a bad thing. I know that it was necessary if the Sofa was to continue and I applaud the Cricketer for reaching out to a younger audience. I know that the Sofa is breaking no laws by what it does (I've done the research, remember) and that the ECB and BBC are making themselves look even more foolish than usual with their bleating about it. And yet to me this deal echoes of nothing but the sound of doors closing.

One of the great pleasures of the past few years has been watching bloggers slowly insinuate themselves into the mainstream media, and this is perhaps more prevalent in sport than in any other sphere of journalism. It has been my delight to see Jarrod Kimber progress from his scabrous, scatological Cricket With Balls site to the pages of Cricinfo and on to the point where the man is now making a film about the decline of Test cricket.

The internet has also presented a wonderful opportunity for women to show that they, too, have a deep knowledge and understanding of sports. In South Africa Ant Sims became one of the nation's leading sports bloggers before most people even realised that she had two x chromosomes and can now be found gracing the pages of no less an institution than Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, in the UK, Lizzy Ammon – herself a Sofa alumnus - has gone from being a reluctant blogger unsure if she had anything new to say to providing online commentary for The Mirror newspaper. There really is a whole new world of opportunities out there.

Or is there? The problem is that for every blogger who makes these steps, dozens don't. Even after you weed out the ones who lack dedication and/or talent, there are still a substantial number for whom the door is never opened. And with each successful blogger, there is a door shutting behind them to so many others.

Which is why the Cricketer-Sofa deal is a bad thing. Suddenly, a part of the cricket establishment has control over the one opening there is for wannabe cricket broadcasters. At the same time, the magazine has a ready supply of new, enthusiastic freelance writers at its beck and call. Quite where this leaves those who currently commentate but who are already tied to other publications is anyone's guess, but the future for them doesn't look rosy at all.

There will be those who blanche at that last statement, but you don't even have to be as cynical as I am to realise that however much Miller et al might deny it, there is going to come a point where it happens. Some suit with a calculator and a balance sheet is going to become involved. They are going to wonder why the broadcast medium that they paid a six figure sum for isn't sourcing its talent from the people they are already paying. Instead of two breeding grounds for new talent, you get the same old faces revolving in and out, much like the England team of the 1990s.

As a result, the door into cricket broadcasting is shut because it has a new, establishment, doorman and a number of doors into cricket writing are blocked off because someone has put a Sofa across them. However much you love what each organisation does, you can't pretend that this is a good thing.

For possibly the first time ever, I've written something in the hope that I will be proved wrong.