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.