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Cricket and media slip into loveless marriage

Jonathan Howcroft

Jonathan Howcroft

Written on Wednesday, 09 January 2013 13:26

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As this forgettable, awkward summer of cricket trudges on regardless, the dislocation between the game and its opinion makers grows wider.

Scarcely has a day passed this season without journalists filling newspapers with objections to the domestic calendar, or television commentators bemoaning the rotation policy, or voices on radio questioning why the claims of various New South Welshmen have been tragically overlooked.

This relentless barrage of whingeing has built to a crescendo during the Big Bash League – the Australian game's antichrist, if you believe everything you read and hear.

Rarely are any of these narratives challenged onscreen, on air or in print and rarely are they balanced in any media by alternative viewpoints. Yet so unanimous and forthright are these opinions, they must be right. Or must they?

The broader media approach to the Big Bash League provides the best illustration. Despite being remorselessly assaulted on most fronts, over 46,000 people attended a single match in Melbourne recently. More Tasmanian cricket fans were willing to pay to see the Hobart Hurricanes play 40 overs in a single evening than were prepared to pay to watch Australia and Sri Lanka compete for over 400 overs across five days.

This extraordinary and rapid success is not celebrated, far from it. The competition is instead chastised – and by extension its patrons are chastised too. Each column inch devoted to bashing the Big Bash is a column inch questioning the decision making of its audience.

But there has been no backlash to what is often excruciatingly condescending coverage. It is difficult to find dissent or even a temperate counterpoint within cricket commentary at present because each of the major formats is suffering from damaging sameness, similarity and intransigence.

A quick straw poll: who are the outliers in the Australian cricket media landscape, the individuals who you may disagree with more often than not, but challenge the way you think about the game? The lack of any obvious answers to that question, across three formats, is worrying.

Peter Roebuck and Tony Greig are sorely missed. Their foreign accents, their outsider approaches to Australianness and their challenging takes on cricket, shaped by influences alien to most of their audience and colleagues, added a valuable dimension to cricket coverage in this country.

Who today has either the mandate or distance to call for the sacking of the Australian captain, as Roebuck did in 2008 to such polarising effect? He might have been wrong, he might have been the only individual in Australia at the time with that opinion, but he made a bold and vital contribution all the same.

Without Greig this summer's telecast has contained almost entirely Australian accents, anchor Mark Nicholas the notable exception. The majority of these are teammates from the recent golden era of the game in this country, with an increasing proportion drawn from a single state side of that vintage.

Great players all, but does the audience actually benefit from such similarity? As this summer has shown, half a dozen 40-something ex-professional Sydneysiders tend to share near identical opinions on most matters (if they reveal any opinion at all). How does such groupthink benefit the viewer?

The outcome is beautifully polished cheerleading with the whiff of listening in on a continual in-joke.

The ABC has missed Roebuck's erudite interludes but it at least has the foresight to employ touring commentators and recruit locals from each state venue to punctuate its coverage. The dénouement of Sri Lanka's second innings in Sydney for example was presided over by an all-Sri Lankan panel, and as such, the frustration of visiting supporters was keenly felt, as was the context of the future of their national side.

In Melbourne, three days of lopsided action was improved by the sound of the thoughtful Bryce McGain and the surprisingly sonorous Andrew McDonald. Their novelty brought fresh perspectives to listeners and stimulated original discussion and creative thought. For a while it wasn't all about which New South Welshman was tearing it up in grade cricket.

The outcome of this multi-platformed rut is that we are short-changed as an audience.

A select few influential figures don't like the Big Bash, therefore the competition is illegitimate to readers of major newspapers, despite what the gate or Pay TV figures indicate. The throng of ex-players near microphones don't agree with rotation, so as viewers we are led to conclude the practice is fundamentally wrong, despite its widespread implementation in most sports and in most other successful cricketing countries. All the while these assumptions are percolating into public consciousness all-but unchallenged.

Cricket writing and broadcasting has been a gold standard within Australian media for decades, adapting to its changing environment with a mixture of charm and challenge. It now feels like a disgruntled partner in a loveless marriage that no longer relates to its spouse with the same affection it once did. Attentiveness has succumbed to tedium and the quirks of personality that emerge in any relationship over time now irritate, not enthral.

Cricket is fast losing its status as the national pastime. If interested media parties had any desire to arrest this decline, now would be a good time to shake things up a bit.

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