Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A discursive ramble through cricket and the media with reference to the sad passing of CMJ and the new kids on the media block at ESPNCricinfo and Test Match Sofa.


There is always a risk, when you are not in the first flush of youth, of falling into Victor Meldrew mode and exclaiming “I don't believe it” at every absurd manifestation of modern living. For those of us who love cricket the risk is exceptionally high because the game has its tradition and its history - inherent parts of its charm.

All sports have a past, of course, and all can be full of nostalgia about the triumphs and disasters of bygone years. But cricket is on its own not least because it is a sport which has arguably been better recorded and written and spoken about than any other. I am lucky enough to have on my shelves a complete run of Wisden's Cricketers’ Almanack stretching back to the first year of publication 1864. The first Wisden scorecard in that first edition (Page 27) records a match played on August 13th 1855 when the “2nd Royal Surrey Militia” was bowled out for 0. Top score 0. Dodgy wicket maybe? Anyway for the next 149 years such feats, and others more notable, have been faithfully recorded in volumes which though they have changed (much fatter) have retained the same overall look through it all. On 11th April the 150th in the run will be published and we cricket tragics will be in the queue to pick up our pristine copies.


This preamble is to suggest, as I have said, that there is something about cricket which lends it an enchantment worth preserving. And when it is threatened we are likely collectively to go into full Victor Meldrew mode turning vermilion in the process. This is not a modern phenomenon. Take this from a Wisden as an example:
“Some old-fashioned critics, every cricketer knows them well, will say on reading the heading of this article (“The Development of Cricket”) that cricket has developed only in the sense of becoming worse…Why are the old fogies … apt to become a little tiresome, or what ill-natured people would call bores? “
Why indeed! It behoves those of us who are critics (even of a certain age) to avoid old-fogie-ism and to avoid becoming bores – as that writer from 1892 warned us! That said when anything is threatened we Brits do eventually have a way of forming preservation societies and of trying to keep the vandals at the gates. But one man’s vandalism is another man’s progress and who in the end is to judge (apart from me of course)? This, circuitously and at last, brings me to the subject of change in cricket’s media. Let’s assume (please!) that the aforementioned Wisden will never be vulgarised. When in 2003 for the first time they put a photograph on the front cover of the book (Michael Vaughan in celebratory style) they still offered the old type of dust cover by special order for those for whom this was a step too far.

But Wisden aside what about the other print and broadcast media? The premature passing from the scene of Christopher Martin-Jenkins this month prompts the thought that he was a bridge between the old world of cricket reporting and writing in which he grew up and which he practiced for many years and the new world to which he was at least partially a convert by necessity (although at times with some reluctance). Where CMJ came from can be judged from how he finished one of his first books, “The Jubilee Tests”, in 1977:
“One does not have to be a blind reactionary to believe that much of the charm of cricket lies in its history and its tradition, and that nothing will ever replace true Test matches, in which controlled personal and national pride mean more than money”.

Aside from the defence of Test cricket this is notable for its assertion that money is not the only thing in cricket. And Christopher continued to apply that maxim to the press and to broadcasting as much as he did to the economics of the game itself. He was never a “blind reactionary” but he was a defender of fair play – and, it goes without saying, of quality journalism.

That free to air live television coverage of cricket in the UK disappeared after Sky Television swept the board in their bid for live transmission rights was a source of regret to CMJ. That Sky was also later to acquire the great magazine “The Cricketer” – of which he had been the distinguished Editor for ten years - was a concern to him as well. However he was the first to admit that the renamed “The Wisden Cricketer”, under the knowledgeable and sensitive editorship of John Stern, continued to do a fine job. However in December 2010 Sky decided to sell the magazine to a group, which already owned the “Test Match Extra” website and which included ex-Leicestershire chairman Neil Davidson, BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew, Tory politician Lord (Jonathan) Marland and TV cricket analyst Simon Hughes. CMJ, who was by then MCC president joined them - no doubt thinking that some of the values of “Test Match Special” could be expected from the similarly named “Test Match Extra”. He would also have been, I’m sure, thrilled that the magazine’s historic title “The Cricketer” would be restored.

Little did CMJ know, or Aggers for that matter, that Test Match Extra (TME) had a cunning plan more audacious than even Rupert Murdoch’s Sky would have considered. Within a few issues “The Cricketer” was changing beyond recognition and soon it bore little resemblance to the magazine which CMJ had once edited. As with Wisden I have been a reader of “The Cricketer" (and variants) clip_image002since the 1960s and have an almost complete run of the magazine stretching back to its earliest days. For most of its life it was essential reading for those of us who love the game. And as a resource for cricket writers it has been invaluable not just for its completeness as a journal of record but also as a compendium of the very best writing about our sport. The uneasiness about the direction that the magazine took under its “Test Match Extra” ownership built up gradually but it was the December 2012 edition that confirmed to many of us that it had irretrievably lost its way. The almost full page photograph of Michael Vaughan in 'Strictly" mode was to be expected I suppose - not cricket, just a celebrity puff. More of this again was the gruesome double page spread on the “Reality TV” experiences of eleven cricketers. But the front cover and nine page feature devoted to Shane Warne's gambling exploits - an article with only the most tenuous and forced connection to the world of cricket - was an insult to the intelligence of any cricket lover.

I do not know what CMJ’s reaction to this vulgarisation of The Cricketer was – but I can imagine. The obsession with celebrity and the decline in the quality of the content and the writing would have pained him I’m sure. Good writers do still appear – the iconoclastic Michael Henderson is a regular but I can’t help but wonder what Hendo would have said about the magazine had he not been employed by it! Test Match Extra is, of course, a commercial venture and it must be that they judge that the new positioning of The Cricketer will sell more copies and bring in more advertising revenues. And, no doubt, that this financial performance will enable them in due course to sell TME on to a larger Media concern as a profitable entity. This view is supported by the other and even more controversial venture of TME – Test Match Sofa.
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For those who have missed it the way Test Match Sofa works is that a group of “commentators” sit in a location in London and watch Sky’s television broadcast and commentate on it. This commentary is then broadcast via the internet as a live stream. It is also available to anyone with a Freeview television (most of us these days) as an audio stream on channel 227. They call themselves the “alternative cricket commentary” – alternative to both Sky’s own sound and to the BBC’s Test Match Special. It started in a small way as a bit of a lark and soon gained a cult listener base. It prided itself on its ‘edginess’; naughty lads, unhindered by the rules that apply to other broadcasters and working from a ‘secret location’ (to add to the somewhat mysterious “underground” character of the venture). The commentators’ language was similar to that you would expect if you were chatting to your mates over a pint or three in the pub - profanities and abuse not excluded. And there was never any attempt at balance – this was an unashamedly pro England venture with associated demonising and abuse of the opposition. It was all rather subversive and this to the young listeners they attracted was a key element in its appeal. These were the small beginnings - and then Test Match Extra saw the potential. TME understood well the reality that you don’t need, these days, to have conventional transmission equipment to set up a Radio station (or have a licence to broadcast for that matter). Anyone with a microphone and a broadband link can set up the technical requirements of creating a station of sorts in a matter of minutes. Then you tell people what the internet location (URL) is and you are in business.

And business is what TME is most certainly in with its acquisition and operation of Test Match Sofa. The business model is appealing. The set up and operating costs are negligible. You don't have to pay anyone anything in “Broadcasting Rights” fees because, technically anyway, these Rights apparently only cover conventional Television and Radio broadcasting and Test Match Sofa slips between the two creating a new category for itself – or so they believe. The BBC clearly sees that it has the moral high ground in that their Radio package included internet as well as all other radio rights. But it is complicated - in the UK it seems that that the law does currently allow what is defined as “off tube” broadcasting (with a precedent having been created a while ago by Talksport) but elsewhere (e.g. in Australia) these rules are different and “off tube” is not allowed. Clearly a measure of global cooperation is required otherwise even if Test Match Sofa is eventually outlawed here they could move anywhere it is legal and so long as they have a video stream they could operate!

With Test Match Sofa being domiciled in Britain it seems that they are free to carry on - and they are not covered by any broadcasting legislation either so they can have as much, or as little, sponsorship and advertising as they like. With Test Match Sofa becoming a proper commercial venture owned by a company it which a recent Government Minister is an active partner it has had to clean up its act somewhat - so a certain tempering of the language has occurred. So now, for the venture to succeed, all they need to do is attract more listeners – which is where TME’s cross promotions with The Cricketer and its website comes in. Increasingly The Cricketer will be the print arm of Test Match Sofa and vice versa. And technology changes are making all this look very smart indeed. You don't need to sit by a computer to listen to Test Match Sofa. In your home you can listen on Freeview - and when travelling a smartphone will do so long as you have a Wi-Fi or a good 3G link. And with the increasing take up of 4G over 2013 smartphone users will have reliable radio quality reception of internet radio on the go. Soon Test Match Sofa will be almost as accessible as Test Match Special – especially to the “young technologically savvy cricket fan demographic” that they admit to targeting.

Two months before he died Christopher Martin-Jenkins told us how he felt about the arrival of Test Match Sofa. In an article in The Times he said:
”…the thought of having to listen to the predators who purport to be producing commentaries from sofa or armchair without paying a penny to the England and Wales Cricket Board for the rights, is too ghastly to contemplate. The sooner they are nailed and swept offline, the better.”
And remember CMJ had been one of the original partners in the TME enterprise – as had Jonathan Agnew (both withdrew when they saw where it was going) who immediately openly sympathised with his friend and like CMJ got pilloried in the social media for the position he took. That story has been well told by Pam Nash here. It makes depressing reading. Andrew Miller (Editor of The Cricketer) response is here and the response of one of the Test Match Sofa team mentioned in Pam's Blog is here.

When I questioned what they were doing with Test Match Sofa the operators told me that they thought that it was analogous with what ESPNCricinfo (and many others) do in producing ball by ball text commentaries online. The analogy they make is that a journalist is watching the play on TV and typing his ball-by-ball record. They are watching the play on TV and talking about it. This is nonsense of course and that they thought that an old cricket hand like me, and one with a forty year business career behind me, would fall for it is laughable. It is quite clear that TME has seen somebody (the original founders of Test Match Sofa) find a loophole in the law and go for it. Then along comes the well-funded TME, owners of The Cricketer no less, which offers to exploit it commercially - which is what they are now doing and what CMJ, Aggers and others object to. And they are quite right too. Test Match Sofa is not a couple of blokes talking about cricket online during matches for a lark - what Gideon Haigh referred to enthusiastically back in 2010 when it began as “hyperamateurism”. Today Test Match Sofa is a carefully thought through business enterprise which because its costs are so low has the resources to attract from time to time genuine cricket expert guests like Peter Baxter, David Rayvern Allen and George Dobell among many others - including past and present international cricketers - to appear on the station. Its appeal, in theory anyway, remains iconoclastic as this good article by a South African observer shows. I doubt that many of its listeners realise how hard-nosed and cynical a business venture it is.

In a world where authority is increasingly challenged it is ironic, and I would argue cynically so, that an enterprise that challenges the establishment “Test Match Special” head on is backed by money from, among others, the wealthy Lord Marland who was briefly at the end of 2012 a Minister in the Coalition Government and is a former Conservative party Treasurer. A laddish brand, “Test Match Sofa” has a far from laddish financial underpinning!

CMJ in his Cowdrey “Spirit of Cricket” lecture at Lord’s in 2007 said
“Cricket would instantly become a better game if young cricketers in every country were to be taught from now onwards that walking is the right thing to do when they know they are genuinely out”.
What Christopher was upholding here was the premise that there is something about the “Spirit of Cricket” that means that it should go beyond what is allowed and sometimes do what is right. A batsman is allowed not to walk even if he knows he hit the ball. But the right thing to do is to walk. Period! With Test Match Sofa it would appear that a significant and well-funded business has, by default, the legal entitlement to broadcast commentary on major matches in England (and elsewhere) without, as CMJ put it, “…paying a penny to the England and Wales Cricket Board for the rights.” This is through a technicality by which technology has moved ahead of broadcasting rights agreements and the law. The ECB seems either to have accepted that there is nothing that they can do or, more likely, is acquiescing pro tem – perhaps judging that if Test Match Sofa really gets itself established then that will be the time to move and reclaim ownership of the “Internet broadcasting” rights and put them out to tender to all!

To object to Test Match Sofa and the vulgarisation of The Cricketer is not to be adverse to change. I am personally a big fan of ESPNCricinfo and follow their text ball-by-ball commentary avidly at times. And their excellent writer George Dobell is very good indeed showing that your deathless prose doesn't have to appear in print to be appreciated.

Test Match Special has no lien on the airwaves and indeed broadcasters like Talksport have trumped it from time to time in the past in fair competition – just as Sky trumped the BBC and Channel 4 in for TV rights. But Test Match Sofa is emphatically not fair competition and it is not just the Spirit of Cricket it offends. It reminds me of the days of Pirate Radio when I was a teenager in the 1960s! I listened to Radio Caroline and Radio London in the same way that if I was a teenager now I might listen to Test Match Sofa their modern day piratical equivalent. Legislation eventually swept the pirates from the airwaves and I’m with CMJ in believing that the sooner that Test Match Sofa is “…nailed and swept offline, the better.” CMJ won’t see it when it happens sadly (except, perhaps, from an Elysian viewpoint) – but I won’t be the only one raising a glass to his memory at that time I’m sure. And if The Cricketer returns to respectability at the same time so much the better!
Paddy Briggs
January 2013

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hilarious. Yes let's have integovernmental conference to shut these guys down. Who cares about climate change or poverty. This is what G20 should be doing.

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