In an ideal world we’d all watch every single ball of English test cricket, live. But to stave off homelessness and starvation even the most dedicated of us are obliged to occasionally turn off the TV and turn up at work. And that means catching up with the day’s play via a highlights programme.
There are two options, and one is Sky Sports, who provide a daily two-hour evening package, hosted from the studio by Charles Colville. On the plus side, Colville’s a decent cove,and the duration gives you more cricket. On the downside, the personnel centres around the joyless Bob Willis, who renders his curmudgeonly and predictable analysis in the gratingly nasal tones we had to endure for so many years in the commentary box itself. Next to Willis sits a co-pundit straight from the casting pool of ex-England players of the 1990s who after failing to fulfil their potential at test level became professional dullards. Marks Ramprakash and Butcher feature prominently.
Colville aside, Sky’s highlights are a slightly bloated affair, riddled by the tendency to state the bleeding obvious. If you’re busy but want to get the gist of the day’s action, they’re also too long. And if you don’t have the budget for Sky Sports, you can’t watch them anyway. For all those reasons, and to my eye and ear at least, Channel 5’s free-to-air highlights show is by a margin the better option.
At least I think it’s called Channel 5. This week, it may be called Five, but everyone adds in the ‘channel’ bit anyway, whatever the branding insists, like how we adjoin an apostophe-‘s’ to Tesco. Whatever the network’s name, there sits Mark Nicholas and co, oddly positioned between Home And Away and Eddie Stobart Trucks And Trailers.
Five’s highlights coverage is the ideal length, concise, but still meaty. They accommodate just the right quantity of actuality – the cricket itself – alongside enough analysis to put the action into context without overdoing the waffle. They have the sense to include examples of good bowling, and balls missing the bat, to illustrate the ebb and flow of play, instead of falling into the ‘boundaries-only’ trap common to highlights packages. The programme is made by Sunset And Vine, who produced Channel 4’s live coverage, and the style, cast and techniques are essentially the same as we saw on Channel 4 during those glory years.
Mark Nicholas is the anchor – I said anchor – and although it’s easy to mock the former Hampshire captain for his Roger Moore-style ponciness and self-adoration, he has the authority and incisiveness you need to front up a cricket show and cut through the cliches. A slightly pompous show-off he may be at times, Nicholas is a nevertheless a good story-teller with a sense for drama who can deftly change gear with a neat summary or vocal nuance. And his cornier side – “a cream-cracker of an off-drive!” – seems less on show these days.
Simon Hughes is the other member of the commentary team who’s achieved far more renown from broadcasting than his playing career. Although he’s been on television for years now, Hughes has never attracted a high profile nor earned huge affection – but he does a very solid job. He has probably the best word-power of any commentator I can think of – verbally dextrous in a precise and illustratory way without sounding too clever. His knack for explaining technical elements of the game in an engaging way is well-honed, and above all he achieves what any sports broadcaster should: to see things from the viewer’s perspective – not an ex-player’s – and only say something which adds value to the pictures.
Next is Geoffrey Boycott, probably the best cricket commentator currently on either channel, with the possible exception of Mike Atherton. The mention of Boycs’ name brings many attributes to mind, but one of his most-underrated qualities is intelligence. He is a very smart and shrewd operator who takes his commentary work seriously and has given it extensive thought – unlike, say, Ian Botham. Boycott almost never uses cliches but rather finds fresh, personal, inclusive and vivid ways of describing the action. If you listen closely, he’s warmer and more generous than you often realise – his love of the game is obvious, and when it comes to explaining the art of batsmanship, he is peerless.
I am more ambivalent about Michael Vaughan. His virtues are several: energy, enthusiasm, a sharp cricket brain, and excellent knowledge. Vaughan is the most recently-retired cricketer in any English commentary box, and played with several members of the current test side – which gives him unique insights. Letting him down, though, is a clunky use of language. For a clever guy, his vocabulary is rather limited, and that’s not a snobbish observation – he’s being paid to talk. As well as committing the cardinal commentary sin of saying exactly what you can see for yourself on screen, Vaughan appears to only have a tiny handful of stock phrases to describe any event. Another minor irritation is his inability to distinguish adjectives from adverbs – “he played that through the covers lovely” – but more grating is an endemic verbal tic which is beginning to drive me to distraction. This manifests itself thus:
– “Classy from Bell”
– “Sloppy from Pietersen”
– “Elegant from David”
– “Messy from Bresnan”
Whatever’s just happened, Vaughan’s response is to say “x from y”. For a start, the preposition should be ‘by’, not ‘from’: the act is performed by the player; it is not sent from them. That might sound pedantic if he did it only occasionally, but when continuous, it’s fair comment. But the wider point is that he sounds so repetitious. Why can’t he just use a normal expression – “that was a nice shot”, instead of “nice from Trott”. As I said, Vaughan is no fool and has all the faculties required to commentate properly – he just needs a little more coaching. Someone at Channel 5 should make him listen back to his own commentary tapes and point out the obvious.
Overlooking Vaughan’s ham-fistedness, Channel 5’s show works because the producers keep it simple – letting the action speak for itself and using articulate presenters to support the story, not show off. And best of all, it’s free – one last bastion of cricketing egalitarianism standing firm against an empire of tyranny. How it must gall ECB chairman Giles Clarke to suffer the public openly sitting at home watching cricket without having to pay. It’s a wonder he doesn’t come knocking on our doors each night demanding a cheque.