I’ve received some great rants from guest writers in recent weeks and this one’s a cracker. Gareth Fitzgerald, take a bow.
What is there left to say about Sky Sports and their end-of-day discussion show? Anything remotely positive, the churlish might offer.
As one who has steadfastly refused to suckle from Sky’s puffy teats for the duration of my adult cricketing fandom, it’s a somewhat mixed blessing that The Evil Empire, in their infinite wisdom, chose to make this (and the now mercifully extinct exercise in confirmation bias, Cricket Writers on TV) available in podcast form, leaving my morning bus commute to work a merry cavalcade of eye rolls, tongue clicks and blood pressure loop-the-loops.
For the uninitiated, The Debate (formerly known as The Verdict hence the choice of title) is a half-hour discussion show where Charles Colville lobs inane questions in the direction of Controversy’s Bob Willis and one other studio guest, chosen from a selection of former and current cricketers, usually of the ex-England persuasion. My hopes for Gavin Hamilton to rock up and explain the fine art of Test Match run-scoring and wicket-taking have sadly not yet been answered.
If Hamilton refuses to answer the phone, he may well be the only one, this season we’ve had (amongst others) Ravi Bopara, Luke Wright, Matt Prior, James Taylor, Rob Key, Dominic fucking Cork, Nick Compton, Angus Fraser and Mark Butcher. All the greats, I’m sure you would agree.
In the style of Team England following a good old-fashioned away series drubbing, let’s focus on the positives. Fittingly, in the style of a Keaton Jennings innings, this shouldn’t take too long.
Firstly, Charles Colville is actually a good host. This may cause certain eyebrows to head northwards in surprise, given his travails as a commentator in the mid-90s (“BOWLED ‘IM!!!”) but Colville seems to understand the pointlessness of the situation and knows when to lob a softball for the likes of the suitably moronic Cork, and when to allow Bob Willis to “come off his long run”. Colville keeps the discussion going (whether you think that’s a good thing is another matter, but it’s his job) and on occasion does manage to glean some actual insight out of his guests.
With the main positive out of the way let’s switch to the negatives and examine the exaggerated caricature of Bob Willis that is Bob Willis. Permanently scowling, towering over his podium (although I think they get to sit on IKEA stools nowadays) and genuinely mean-spirited and verging on spiteful in nature toward certain players (Woakes in 2016 went too far I thought, and he and Rashid are still subject to the odd cheap shot) and county cricket in general, Willis has a stock assortment of mealy-mouthed phrases he arranges in random order, pausing only to extol the brilliance of Anderson and Broad…before slaughtering them for bowling too short.
Willis has little time for the coaching staff, the players, Nasser Hussain for some reason, Colville, the guests and humanity as a species, and gives the impression of longing for the sweet release of death if only to tell the Grim Reaper that, frankly, he’s lucky to still be in a job, his scything action could barely crank it above 85mph, and he’ll be absolute fodder on Australian wickets.
If Willis is merely mean-spirited and presumably only there because of some Clough-era-style 40 year contract, the rest of the guests range from the articulate to the awful. Lacking both the time and the extended lunch break to go through *every* guest, I’ll stick to the ones I mentioned previously.
Easily the best guest, and also a very worthwhile listen on ESPN’s Switch Hit podcast where he can be found having some decent measured debate with the always-excellent George Dobell, is Mark Butcher. Never my cup of tea as a batsman, as a studio guest Butcher is that rarest of things – a pundit not afraid to ask “what the bloody hell are the ECB and the England cricket team trying to do?” Full marks as well for the genuine glee he seems to take in pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of some of the recent selection policies and line-ups. Butcher is somewhat forthright in his views, but usually has a thread of logic keeping his arguments coherent and on an episode of The Tuffers and Vaughan Cricket Show (just….no), managed to rile Jimmy Anderson so much that he texted him during the news break.
Elsewhere, both Luke Wright and Ravi Bopara, whilst hardly going to blister your television with hard-hitting views provide a genuine thoughtfulness and some insight into the mentality of the current cricketer, whilst Nick Compton provides 95% common sense and 5% saying something off the wall for the sake of being off the wall (Cook to three, persist with Jennings, Trump’s an alright bloke). I’ve noticed from his Twitter feed that Nick has a touch of the Ferdinand/Vaughan “I think X – what do you think, commenter I will never read?” about him, and these odd flights of fancy do actually detract from the fact that he does have some genuine insight into Bayliss and the current regime to offer, having been on the South African tour of 15-16. But he still gets a pass, albeit barely.
Moving on to the Rogues Gallery, both Angus Fraser and James Taylor are interesting cases, in that Fraser was on the show earlier in the summer as he was just finishing his selection duties, whereas Taylor popped on just before he was hired by Ed Smith, Genius At Cricket, to shine his shoes or something.
In May Fraser was on the defensive, despite the feebleness of the questions he received. Spluttering indignantly about the James Vince Ashes selection amongst other things and whining about a dearth of talent. His return in August was much better fare, as he got very irritated with Colville and came across as the dour, grumpy fast bowler we all remember, and freed from his role as ECB cheerleader, was actually able to point out that, yes, some of the players are a bit rubbish really.
If Fraser started poorly and then improved somewhat, Taylor plumbed the sort of depths usually reserved for Dominic Cork and Nick Knight and proceeded to get even worse. His uninspiring stint on TMS already had doubt creeping in, as he hailed the likes of “Broady, Cookie, Jimmy and Stokesy” as world-class lads, doing all the sort of world-class stuff the world-class lads do.
Taylor’s inability on TMS to refer to anyone by their name (and which team is ‘we’ James?) was like a silver feather draped lovingly across the peaceful brow of the sleeping Baby Jesus compared to the adventure in abhorrence that was his guest shot during the Pakistan tour. “The lads are world class, because they’ve proven it time and time again” he insisted in answer to every question. The world-class lads will be working hard to put things right was his mantra. One wonders, with eleven world-class lads in the team how things could ever go wrong, but presumably Taylor thought his new job as Ed Smith, Genius At Cricket’s, chimney sweep would just involve nodding sagely and saying “yep, world class” at Ed’s every query about whichever world-class player who kept getting out leaving straight ones was up for discussion, knowing full-well that the whole charade was all part of an ineffable master-plan in the six-dimensional game of chess played by the Gods, a game for which Ed Smith, Genius At Cricket had designed the rules, and completed on Boss Level.
Thankfully it wasn’t just Taylor’s solitary appearance that stunk up the joint like the cludgie at Ian Botham’s gaff after curry night. Rob Key was thoroughly bereft of insight or likability and Matt Prior, brought in to eulogise over “Jimmy and Cooky” managed to throw in heartfelt tributes to…well, himself and TMS resident boor Graeme Swann. The more you hear of The Big Cheese and Comedy Genius Graeme Swann, the more you feel a profound sympathy for all the quieter characters in that 2011-2013 team which, as you may have heard, were the Number One Test Team In The World, Thanks Primarily To Swanny and The Cheese.
And then, finally, there is Dominic Fucking Cork. Easily flustered, happy to contradict himself within about two minutes, Cork was very keen to remind you of a few things. First and foremost, those of us who remembered him as a very good bowler on his day and decent if unorthodox lower-order batsman were WRONG. Cork was an all-rounder, one of the best in the world, who would be worth above half a million in today’s IPL, according to the man himself.
Rather amusingly, Cork displayed a noted preference for saying “End. Of.” During discussions, primarily when poor old Colville had the temerity to question the output from Alastair Cook. “End. Of.” as we all know is short for “end of discussion” which – on an alleged discussion show – represents a poor understanding of the format from poor old Dominic. Dominic’s other main trick was to begin by saying “I agree totally with Bob” before going on to completely disagree with him, and display a complete lack of knowledge of the following subjects:- batting, bowling, fielding, county cricket, international cricket, grammar, hypocrisy and, of course, logic.
As anyone who has followed Sky over the years would be willing to confirm, by far the most embarrassing and irritating of their commentators, is Ian Botham. Why? Because he managed to perfectly blend the weaknesses of the other commentators, such as Lloyds irritating alleged hilarity, Gower’s lack of effort, Atherton’s arrogance, Warne’s desire for another 14 slips and some ‘funkiness’, Hussain’s myopia and Strauss’ sheer ineptitude, whilst adding the air of a blazer-sporting country club oaf and the charm of aggressive rectal cancer, all garnished with the fine cherry of a degree in “Ignorant Braggart”. Cork seems to have seen this heady recipe and thought “Beefy’s clearly too likeable here – I need to step up my game”.
Indeed, stepping up one’s game has been rather the focal point of much of The Debate this season. Jos Buttler, we are sagely informed, has Stepped Up. Dawid Malan, Having Stepped Up during The Ashes has taken the retrograde step of Stepping Back (not down, never down). Alas his Stepping Back resulted in him being Stood Down, see? It’s all frighteningly simple. Which is the show (and Cork, one might suspect) in a nutshell. If the preceding day’s play went well for England, they’re all great and world-class and cricket, thanks in no small measure to Sky apparently, is in rude health. If the day went badly, hanging is too good for the likes of Woakes and Rashid.
Therein, I suppose lies the problem. The world and his wife knows that this England Cricket team is not very good. We know the top four is crap, the next four are good (albeit mercurial) and the bowlers, given suitable conditions can win Test matches.
In theory – if The Debate is meant to sum up a bit of play for people coming home from work to catch up with what happened and maybe see if the highlights are worth checking out – then I can understand it’s continuing existence in the Sky schedules, and I’m sure there are many people (at the ECB) who get some kind of perverse thrill from listening to Bob Willis slaughter whichever players the ECB thought fit to brief against that day to their pet journos.
So to sum up – it’s usually mealy-mouthed, occasionally spiteful. It’s pretentious, with a sense of self-importance that on occasion beggars belief. It’s helmed by a succession of cricketing nonentities and has-beens, and considers itself to be beyond reproach. As a reflection of the current work of the ECB and Team England – it couldn’t be more perfect.
Bravo Sky, bravo indeed.