(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
No one thought to hand over a cap to BT Sport’s Matt Smith in a moving ceremony prior to the start of the 2017-18 Ashes on Wednesday night (Thursday morning in Australia) at the Gabba.
But, that embarrassing oversight apart, and, when later asking James Vince’s to review his run out for 83, asking the Hampshire batsman if there was anything he would have done differently, cricket’s newest TV broadcasters had a Test debut to remember for many good reasons.
They are on to a winner with the brilliant Sunset + Vine production team that brought us Channel Four’s cricket coverage, including the unforgettable 2005 Ashes, because these guys know how to do this stuff.
But for those of us nutters who managed to stay up all night, breakfast before the toss, lunch at 2am, cucumber sandwiches at a time I admit I lost track of and breakfast again at 8am after play was extended due to rain, the performances of the teams in front and behind the cameras turned a sleepless night into something close to a pleasure.
And if they hadn’t performed as though they were being paid by the word it would have been better than that.
It used to be said by some armchair enthusiasts not overly enamoured with Sky TV’s team of ex-cricketers-turned-game-readers, that their ideal arrangement would be to watch cricket on TV with their sound turned down and the sound of the BBC Test Match Special team turned up.
With the four English members of their commentary squad, Geoffrey Boycott, Graeme Swann, Michael Vaughan and The Cricket Paper’s Alison Mitchell veterans of ball-by-ball radio commentary, what BT Sport offered came close enough to that happy medium to suggest that they may crack it eventually.
Early signs were not encouraging.
After Smith, whose previous commission, as host of BT Sport’s Non-League footy coverage, came to viewers from Ebbsfleet United, had shown us to Joe Root’s peg in the visitors’ dressing room, even he seemed slightly uneasy about telling us: “Tiny urn… towering rivalry… down the years…. there… is… no… love…. lost.”
And, as Alan Bennett once nearly wrote: Brown suede loafers are anathema, even in Brisbane.
The next borderline groan-inducing experience came in the shape of talking heads like Steve Smith, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Mitchell Starc, Aussie coach Darren Lehmann, their commentators Ricky Ponting, Damien Fleming, Adam Gilchrist and the aforementioned Poms staring the camera flush in the lens and saying words like “history”, “battle”, “conflict”, “hard”, “pride”, “humour”, “passion”, “intensity”, “rivalry”, “greatness”, “risk”, “tradition”, “magical”, “special”, “Skippy the bush kangaroo”, “enthralling” and culminating in England captain Joe Root’s plea to “Bring. Them. Home.”
For those who have witnessed the failure of so many Ashes hopefuls to do so, most recently those hammered 5-0 in two of the last three series Down Under, that shiver down the spine was an unintentional reminder of how many times the last two words of that sequence have been preceded with the word: “Send.”
And, all right, I made up the bit about Skippy.
But the desperation to underline just how IMPORTANT was the event that we were “privileged” to witness seemed to faze the normally unfazeable Vaughan so severely that he nearly talked himself to smithereens as early as the second over.
When Starc opened the “eagerly-awaited” contest with four wide non-swinging slow looseners which Alastair Cook allowed to pass harmlessly, Vaughan told us: “This is good from Cook,” and we thought: “That’s what I’m paying my subscription for.”
When Josh Hazlewood then sent down four wide non-swinging looseners which Mark Stoneman allowed to pass harmlessly, Vaughan told us: “This is good from Stoneman,” and we thought: “The hits just keep on coming.”
When, after ten balls, the director decided the most interesting thing on view was the sight of fat blokes in budgie smugglers stood in a swimming pool on the boundary edge, we thought: “This could be a very long night.”
And then, mercifully, the wicket of Cook allowed the commentators and the rest of us to relax and concentrate on the actual cricket.
As England batsmen battled to gain a foothold in the match, there were rather too many reminders that this was proper Test cricket and that this was what Test cricket is all about, notably from Boycs who kept using words like “graft” and “tussle” and even felt obliged to bring out the old “you can’t score runs in the pavilion” because the message contained within those prompts seemed to be “we apologise to those used to watching T20 cricket that nothing much seems to be happening out there.”
Attempting to try to liven things up for the casual onlooker, one of the team who shall remain nameless (Fleming) even appeared intent on distracting viewers from the “absorbing” nature of the cricket by trying to invent his own catchphrase.
For Boycott’s legendary “corridor of uncertainty” the former Aussie swing bowler gave us “hallway of hesitation”, to which surely the only appropriate response is: “Shut up!”
Quite why Gilchrist decided to rename lunch as the luncheon adjournment is anyone’s guess.
But the rest, with Swann just managing to avoid using the gig as a platform for a seven-hour stand-up routine and the others easing themselves into the right balance between information and entertainment, was eminently listenable (Is that a word? It is now).
Indeed, the worst that can be said is that there seemed to be a general reluctance to trust in the adage that less is more. For what did grow tiresome was not what the commentators said, but just how much.
To illustrate the point, aside from Boycott declaring “that’s missing” to the ball from Pat Cummins which, on review, was smashing into Joe Root’s leg and middle stumps, the most memorable piece of commentary was the simplest and the shortest.
When Vince pushed a ball from Hazlewood into the hands of Nathan Lyon at cover and set off on a suicidal single, Vaughan’s plaintive “oh no, no, no”, was all that needed to be said, and far more impactful than the running gag aimed at Ponting thereafter about how an Ashes series can hinge on a No.3 batsman getting run out while well set.
It was a moment reminiscent of another member of Sunset + Vine’ Channel Four team, the silver-haired master of the right word, in the right way at the right time.
Richie Benaud knew a thing or two about letting the pictures speak for themselves and, following a promising debut, BT Sport’s debutants could do worse than remind themselves that, used properly, silence can be golden.
*This article originally featured in Issue 249 of The Cricket Paper.