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“Male, Pale, Stale” is Channel Nine’s Cricket Commentary Team

January 26, 2013

Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 25-26 January 2013

kerry-packerKERRY Packer famously said that there was nothing after death. He had been there; he knew. Yet in the last few years he has enjoyed a vibrant video afterlife, brought to the screen in the television series Paper Giants and Howzat, and to be seen later this year in Magazine Wars. His shade hovered over the Sydney Test in the obsequies for Tony Greig, while his image will be front and centre in the World Series Cricket exhibition opening in a couple of weeks at the Bradman Museum. Packer was always larger than life. Posthumously, he seems to be getting even bigger.But might there be more to it? This summer, of course, is the last covered by Cricket Australia’s existing television arrangements with the Nine Network, Packer’s former fiefdom. His heir having sold Nine into a leveraged buy-out that then collapsed last year, the network is a shadow of its former self. Yet its bluster has been vintage Packer, culminating in a breathtakingly arrogant attack on an Australian cricket captain by a Nine officer that was almost as extraordinary as the fact that Cricket Australia remained publicly mute throughout.

These are not the sounds of a healthy commercial arrangement; on the contrary, they suggest one that may have run its course, and that needs to change, if not end altogether. Brad McNamara’s comments about George Bailey – that Bailey needed to “understand where his money’s coming from” and would be “probably working in a coal mine or flipping burgers at McDonald’s” but for Nine’s largesse – actually almost brought cricket full circle.

In the mid-1970s, the old Australian Cricket Board had a notoriously peppery secretary, Alan Barnes, who could be relied upon for a pithy comment any time players grew restless. His most famous putdown drove cricketers to fury: “These are not professionals. They were all invited to play, and if they don’t like the conditions there are 500,000 other cricketers in Australia who would love to take their places.” In that splendid documentary series The Chappell Era, Ian Chappell recounted how mild-mannered Ian Redpath pinned Barnes “up against the wall by the bloody throat” to make his displeasure known.

Packer’s World Series Cricket was partly about consigning such feudal relations between the players and their administrators to the past. But now it is Nine, Chappell’s longtime employer, telling cricketers to be seen, not heard and be grateful for what they have – and Cricket Australia, presumably anxious not to upset the negotiating applecart, that has let it happen.

Actually, Nine is nowhere near as significant to CA and cricketers as a decade ago. ESPN and other overseas rights contribute just as much to their coffers as Nine. And a cricketer such as Bailey will earn up to a third of his income from non-CA sources: the Indian Premier League, county cricket and personal sponsors.

What’s really significant is that Nine, vanguard of cricket’s revolution, now sounds more reactionary than CA, whose citadel it stormed those many years ago.

CA at last talks about venturing into “new markets”: women, the young, non-English speakers. And that being so, one must question how Nine is helping with broadcasting so blokey, middle-aged and Anglo-Celtic?

Cricket has changed unrecognisably in the past five years, with the growing heft of India, the advent of supranational T20, the relentless spread of digital technologies, the growing hubbub of social media.

But while the game has marched on, Nine has marked time. Not in a technical sense: its production is as proficient as ever. But the voices and tone have hardly changed at all.

Individually, each caller has strengths and weaknesses; personally, I hold several in high esteem. Collectively, I fear, they have become an exhibit in the case that cricket in Australia is male, pale and stale.

Nine’s current roster features fewer commentators under 45 than over 75. Not one of them has played T20, the IPL, the Big Bash League, or any of the last three World Cups. With three of them on duty at once, they talk incessantly, oblivious to that sage advice of their elder statesman Richie Benaud: “Don’t say anything unless you can add to the picture.” The network’s idea of a fresh perspective is James Brayshaw. Mike Hussey has been temporarily retained. There has also been talk of Ricky Ponting being courted. He would be an excellent addition, but would not remedy all Nine’s limitations, and might compound others.

Time was when Nine made a token effort to reflect summer’s changing attractions with guest commentators from the countries of the touring teams. Now there are too many mouths to feed, too many bottoms and not enough chairs. The effect is that one summer sounds much the same as another, and the audience remains broadly similar. Perhaps it’s no wonder Nine is so publicly resentful of turnover of Australian players in the Commonwealth Bank Series; it counterpoints the inertia in their own ranks.And perhaps it’s no wonder that Nine drove so hard to wrest Howzat from the ABC, which fostered Paper Giants, as a reclamation of a foundation myth; they seem to be looking backwards rather than forwards, inwards rather than outwards.

Gen Xers can still recall the feeling of subversion and curiosity that attended changing the channel from the Test cricket on the ABC to World Series Cricket on Nine. It was a step perhaps more momentous for having to get up and cross the room to do so – there was certainly no remote control on our black and white Pye with rabbit ears. It was refreshing and reinvigorating for cricket generally, and the game does indeed have cause to be grateful.

But it can’t remain in a posture of supplication forever.

Televised cricket in Australia is overdue another such refreshment, and little about Nine at present suggests it is culturally equipped to provide it. What the network needs perhaps is more people thinking like Kerry Packer rather than simply trying to sound like him.

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