Fox edges Seven as Test cricket on Australian TV enters brave new era
Blokey banter was minimal and one can only assume there has been word from on high
And so begins another summer of cricket and the nation can indulge in one of our favourite pastimes – bagging the TV commentary. Who you can’t stand, who you can, and whose voice grates like dry parmesan is a staple of back bar catch-ups, Twitter feeds and encrypted WhatsApp chat. This year, though, it’s a bit confusing. Because after 40-odd years of Channel Nine as Petri dish for Billy Birmingham’s best-selling spoofs, Test cricket is now covered by two new players: pay-TV channel Fox Sports and Nine’s great commercial rival Seven. And it’s all so fresh we don’t know who to hate. Yet.
Before the first Test at Adelaide Oval began on Thursday, it was duelling montages. Seven gave us the voice of AFL, Olympics and horse racing, Bruce McAvaney, to explain how special cricket is to Australians because “our” national team brings us together. Fox had Spidercam zoom into Adam Gilchrist. And both were pretty good in that modern, finely-edited, slow-mo way.
Both camps’ pre-match panels seemed to trot out all of their people to say hello. And there were lots. If you had played for Australia or even England from 1990-2010, you had a chance of a stool.
Outside Fox’s Kerry O’Keefe and Seven’s Tim Lane – a short man bookended by tall ones Glenn McGrath and James Brayshaw – both camps sported relatively “young”, under-50s talent. Mark Taylor and Ian Healy – much less Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry – weren’t enticed across from Nine. Nor was Michael Clarke, though he was selling fish oil on the ads.
O’Keefe, 69, is an anomaly; he crosses demographics. His cricket nous is best practice while there’s few who can get away with in-gags and goofy laughs. O’Keefe is a true cricket eccentric. The game has a singular ability to throw up these people and Fox has a hot one in O’Keefe, a reason to watch, a point of difference. McGrath was a little wooden and doesn’t pronounce the “l”s in “brilliant”. There are people who don’t like Brayshaw but he’s a Seven man and there it is.
Because for all their knowledge and experience and Test caps, the men on Nine had begun to grate. Familiarity had bred contempt. As Geoff Lemon wrote in a searing piece in this very journal: “Grown men call each other Tubby and Binga and Slats, not as nicknames but a full-time mode of address. The guffaw is king. It’s all about being the matiest mates who ever mated.” Nine types hated it, yet it rang true for many.
Blokey banter was minimal on Fox and Seven. Perhaps in part because of all the women. Mel McLaughlin, Alison Mitchell and Isa Guha provided fine, complementary, slightly understated comms. Neroli Meadows’ piece on Phil Hughes hit the spot. Abbey Gelmi’s pre-match colour piece with the Indian fans ran 20 seconds too long but that more the director’s fault.
Not to say that “banter” doesn’t have a place in cricket comms. But not all the time. And you also have to be good at it. O’Keefe can get away with it. Shane Warne, not so much. That’s a good thing – when Warne’s talking cricket you could listen all day. Ricky Ponting’s the same. McGrath and Slater may have rehashed the tale of Slater’s tattoo but largely the Test match was the focus. One assumes there has been word from on high: talk cricket not shit.
After several replays of Aaron Finch’s hot catch off Josh Hazlewood and analysis, there was vision of KL Rahul walking disconsolately off. As we disappeared down the race Fox kept talking about cricket while Seven threw to an ad. And the 70% of Australian households without Foxtel’s set top box had to let the advertisement wash over them, or mute it, or wish they had a set top box.
Fox showed vision of the play-by-play commentators in their habitat, three abreast. They took the idea – and most of the people, it seems – from Channel Ten’s Big Bash coverage. Seven’s microphones made the crowd sound louder, the background hubbub more bubbly, atmospheric. Wickets were replayed with Another One Bites the Dust. Gilchrist was less hyperbolic than Brayshaw. Fleming hosted a “tea party” Q&A at lunch ripped off from New Zealand.
Seven threw to Trent Copeland for some finger work on the touch screen. It was clunky. The statistics came from Cricinfo, the take-away effectively: Virat Kohli is very good. “Goodonya, Trent. Making the touch screen talk like the Kookaburra,” said Lane, not meaning it.
Seven felt less familiar than Fox. Lane was calling it, for one. Like Brayshaw, he is a man well known to southern state AFL fans. Rugby people of NSW and Queensland, not so much. Commentators can be cursed and blessed with familiarity.
The winner? Fox, for mine. Seven’s coverage is very good. There are a few little things you’d change but overall it’s slick and it’s Test cricket, and when it’s on you’ll watch. It’s just that when you watch cricket on Seven, the very nature of commercial television means they’ll try to sell you something. And in so many cases they’re selling you Seven.
So much on Seven is idiotic, “popular” television – with advertisements to boot. I will never watch a single second of The Great Food Truck Race but given the ads for it I’ll feel like I have. And that makes me want to watch something else. Fox wins.