Thursday 1 November 2012

Proudly unprofessional

It was fitting that the latest TMS/TMS row began with an article in the Times before being fuelled by Twitter. At its base, much of the Test Match Special team's hostility to the Sofa upstarts comes from a misunderstanding of new media and the opportunities it provides.

As this and the many other blogs and podcasts are testament to, technology has merely provided a wider space than the pub for non-professionals to air their views. Often they're inane, often they're unoriginal and often they're brilliant. Always, though, they're driven by nothing beyond a love for the game and maybe a taste for the weekend-cricketer type spotlight.

It is a trite point that can't be made strong enough. Thankfully, Gideon Haigh's recent Bradman Oration was a timely manifesto for the value of amateur cricket. Amateurs are the 99% who love playing, watching, writing and talking about the game but don't get handsomely paid to do so.

Haigh's focus was on club cricketers but he could easily have extended it to media. On Twitter and on the blogs there are people discussing, enraging, engaging and informing; spreading their love of cricket because they simply can't stop themselves. The idea that they have either the desire, or capacity, to be “predators” is odd. Moreover it speaks of a strange logic where promoting the sport is a zero-sum game.

Clearly, as cricket's highest level, pushed by walls of cash hungry for returns, gets ever more commercially glamourised, it is dragging establishment media with it. One result is a trend to homogenise the voice of sport. Generally male, generally well-known and generally sanitised. For every Ian Ward or Nasser Hussain there are many more ex-pros like Danny Morrison* and Brad Hogg, hammering out clichés and hyperbole as freely as limited-over sixes.

Another is that broadcast media especially can lose its reflective instinct. Mark Taylor is both a Channel Nine commentator and employed by the ACB, while the BCCI employ Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri who uncritically peddle endless outrage and hot air. In England there was a clear rupture in how media insiders and outsiders treated the Kevin Pietersen affair, with the more nuanced and balanced accounts coming overwhelmingly from outsiders.

Yet what matters most about the professional fetish is that it distances the game from its roots among the many. Which brings us to Test Match Sofa. Beyond a core group of participants scraping a living from the Sofa's Cricketer ownership, it runs on devotion. Dark rooms, early starts, and no Tweetpics of the pressbox spread, theirs are the voices of the amateurs.

The flourishes, digressions and dependency on listener contribution (via Twitter) often makes the Sofa's commentators seem more human than the in-joking TMS team. And the plurality of ages, genders and ethnicities makes a welcome change from the standardised sound of the pros.

Yet equally there are times when the Sofa's one-speed irreverence misses the hum of Test-match tension that TMS captures so well.

There is no way that the Sofa could replace the older TMS, which makes Agnew and CMJ's outrage all the more puzzling. For a game that jostles at the margins for attention of Britain's sports-mad public, the greater coverage and variety that the Sofa provides can only enhance the ECB's product, not dilute it.

Professionals, with their insider experience and at-the-ground insight will always be a necessary part of the media landscape. It's just that now, helping and prodding them along, the rest of us can join in.

This was changed from Simon Doull after Avi Singh reminded me I'd mixed up my retired NZ quicks