Time for commentators to put their mouths where the money is

It’s difficult to believe anyone listens to television commentary.

Times SELECT

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

SO, what’s it like to be a sportswriter? There are as many answers to the question as, you would think, there are sportswriters.

Here’s this sportswriter’s standard response, which he has had many more occasions than he could count to trot out in the past 26 years — it’s much better than a real job.

After those 26 years, which were preceded by several all too real jobs and interrupted by a sorry segue into the degrading unreality that is television, easily the worst job he’s ever had, it remains true.

At least it does for this sportswriter. As long, that is, as we’re not talking about making money, of which there is ever less in an industry eager to publish bloggy crap in lieu of journalism as long as it’s offered for free.

But there’s another answer to the question that’s right up there with the original — as a sportswriter, you don’t have to hear the television commentators.

Mind the difference between hear — which is often beyond our control, as in hearing traffic — and listen — a choice we make to lend someone our something our ears.

Put up in the pressbox, where televisions are either muted or at the lowest volume, or snug with the sideline, where the surround sound commentary would be too blue for television, sportswriters are embalmed against this irritating irrelevance.

So much so that it’s difficult to believe anyone listens to commentary. They might have to hear it, not least because watching a game on a mute television evokes the weirdness of sensory deprivation. And, yes, this sportswriter has tried that; more than once.

But listen to it? Why? The only possible reason is if the commentator is going to tell you something you can’t see for yourself.

In this sportswriter’s experience, which stretches back thousands of television hours and more than 40 years, that happy state has been achieved in a meaningful sense only once.

The broadcast of a Currie Cup match at Ellis Park was graced by the presence in the commentary box of James Small, who solved the mystery of an especially odd bounce of the ball by explaining that that spot of turf dipped below the level of the rest of the field, who told of which shards of wind blew through which gaps in the stands and did what to the airborne ball, who made it all wonderfully real for the viewer.

He spoke in words of high definition picture quality, using language that helped you smell the Deep Heat in the dressingroom itself.

Alas, Small’s commentary career, if it was ever that, was never cleared for take-off. It wouldn’t be a struggle to believe he was doomed by his own excellence, which put the mediocrities ranged around him in a poor light.

There have been other, less striking but more enduring examples of the holy grail Small found with little apparent effort.

Bill McLaren would come up with gems like, “And the father of four from Pontypool goes crashing into the loose scrum …”

But by the time he ventured into a commentary box McLaren had fought a war — he never shook the memory of happening on a heap of 1 500 corpses in Italy — and been denied his own international career by tuberculosis, which almost killed him.

He added richly to the experience of watching a rugby match because he knew the game itself mattered little, that it was something to be celebrated and not a lot else, that he was part of a grand carnival. He knew, and appreciated, that he didn’t have a real job.

Richie Benaud was dispassionate reason itself. So much so that he was what every other television type tries, and fails, to be: a journalist.

Thing is, Benaud was indeed a journalist — a police reporter and sport columnist — before he retired as a player. He was the real thing amid fakery, and that helped him tell his stories arrow straight. When Benaud spoke, you believed.

For McLaren and Benaud life beyond the boundary was more important than what happened within it, just like it is to the rest of us. James small, too, had his run-ins with reality.

Michael Holding merits an honourable exception. Regardless of whether you agreed with his assessment of the Wanderers surface for the third test against India as a “shit pitch”, you knew what the man thought.

But Holding went from a stellar career as a fast bowler, which ended at international level in 1987, to owning a petrol station in downtown Kingston, Jamaica until 1996.

The station was pointed out by a taxi driver to this sportswriter as we rattled past it in 1992, when it was abundantly obvious that it took a strong person to own anything in downtown Kingston.

But what is life to a generation of commentators who have gone from elite schools to illustrious playing careers to television studios? How do they relate their reality to that of their audiences’?

They don’t. Instead they prattle on anodynely, making sure not to say anything that would endanger their bosses’ status as rightsholders.

Controversy is not allowed. And controversy is what the suits say it is.

HD Ackerman and Danny Morrison were sacked as Indian Premier League commentators for daring to describe Virat Kohli as “a captain in waiting” during MS Dhoni’s tenure at India’s helm.

Daryll Cullinan was fired for saying South Africa had delivered “the worst fielding performance I’ve ever seen”.

Remember, gentle reader and viewer, that sport in the television age is bought and paid for like any other consumer product in deals that stretch beyond the limits of the field of play. There are no honest brokers in commentary boxes.

High time, isn’t it, that how much broadcasters pay for rights is revealed in the same way that we know how much a football club pays for its stars? Then we’ll know how much it’s worth to their commentators to toe the line.

Let’s hear them put their mouths where their money is.

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CSA officials, staff on collision course over T20 plans

“The council wanted other proposals; they’re not happy with the one that’s been put forward by management.”

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

LIKE trains entering the same tunnel from opposite ends, cricket’s amateur and professional administrators seem to be on a collision course.

That tunnel is the future shape of South Africa’s premier T20 competition.

CSA’s professional arm, formed of employees tasked with running the game as a business, and the organisation’s members council, its highest authority and comprised of elected officials, differ on fundamental aspects of the tournament.

The professional arm is headed by acting chief executive Thabang Moroe and chief financial officer Naasei Appiah, who have formed a close alliance.

The members council is made up of the presidents of the 12 provincial affiliates as well as CSA’s president and vice-president.

It can only be a complicating factor that Moroe is also CSA’s vice-president, even though he and CSA president Chris Nenzani don’t vote on members council matters.

The council met in Durban last weekend to consider a proposal for a T20 tournament that was prepared by the professional arm.

The document, which Times Media Digital has examined, calls for eight franchises that would be owned by CSA, be subject to transformation rules — five black players in the XI, two of them black Africans — and limited to three foreign players per roster and two per team.

The tournament would, the plan says, cost R180-million for three years and then make money.

The Durban deal features significant departures from the original blueprint for the event that was meant to catapult CSA into the international T20 circus last year — the failure of which has led to much of the above.

The T20 Global League (T20GL), in which the franchises are privately owned, not beholden to transformation and strewn with foreign players, stalled weeks before its scheduled launch in November.

CSA pulled the plug saying the venture would lose US$25-million in its first year, not least because a broadcaster and sponsors had not been secured.

Officially the T20GL was postponed for a year. Unofficially it is an open secret that it will never see the floodlights of day/night.

According to a CSA release on February 3 a task team has been assembled — it includes Moroe and Appiah — and a workshop organised to “interrogate the concept”.

Two senior administrators denied the new plan had been rejected, saying that it would form part of wider discussion on the issue.

Another high-ranking official said: “The council wanted other proposals; they’re not happy with the one that’s been put forward by management.”

We’ll find out on or around March 31 which path CSA choose to follow to T20 riches, or whether they will abandon the idea.

The proposed plan is more modest than the T20GL scheme, but it hasn’t met with the approval of heavyweight administrators who see external ownership of franchises as key to the financial health of the game.

“We may end up shooting ourselves in the foot if we go that route,” one said about CSA retaining ownership. “Private owners bring in resources that we will be unable to bring in.”

More contrasts in approach between the professionals and the amateurs are likely to be exposed before the annual meeting on September 8, when board members will be elected.

“The AGM is coming and some people’s term of office is coming to an end, and there will be jockeying for position,” an official said.

That could make the Durban proposal worth supporting for those with their eye on positions and power, because, as a stalwart administrator said, “To sell a bad plan you need to lobby.”

The members council might use the ensuing months to remind the professional arm who is in charge, and they have the ammunition to do so in the shape of the professionals not giving them enough information on arrangements for the T20GL.

That was held up by Nenzani and Moroe as a major reason to call a halt to the T20GL, which cost Haroon Lorgat his job as chief executive and led to Moroe being installed in an acting capacity.

“The office needs to be transparent with the presidents and not dictate to them,” a council member said. “It should be the other way round.”

Another took a more pragmatic view: “The members council is the highest authority in CSA.

“Whether that’s the case in reality is another matter.”

Spinners earn rare turn at the top in SA

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

YOU read it here first: Nicky Boje, who turns 45 next month, is considering a comeback.

Boje played the last of his 216 first-class matches as a flinty left-arm spinner and handy batsman in January 2011.

But, given how the franchise first-class season is unfolding, he doesn’t want to die wondering about his chances of burnishing his legacy.

“Ja, well I’ve always thought about it,” Boje, now the Knights coach, said on Tuesday about fetching his whites from the mothballs after he learnt that five of the leading six wicket-takers are spinners.

He was, of course, not being entirely serious. But he could have made a decent argument for having another go.

With each team having played six matches Titans leg spinner Shaun von Berg tops the list with 20 wickets, followed by Knights medium pace Malusi Siboto, Warriors off-spinner Simon Harmer and his left-arm teammate, Jon-Jon Smuts, Dolphins left-armer Senuran Muthusamy, and Cobras off-spinner Dane Piedt.

Asked why slow poison was working better this summer than in others, Boje, who grew up and played in the South Africa of Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers, and a host of other quality quicks, was like eight of the 100 batsmen he dismissed in tests: stumped.

“I’ve got no idea why that’s happening,” he said. But he had a go at explaining the phenomenon, anyway: “In the first round the pitches were flat and that made it difficult for seamers.

“Also, most of those guys have been around the block, so they’ve learnt their skills and got better as bowlers.”

And he wasn’t surprised by which bowler was on top: “I’ve always rated Shaun von Berg as a quality spin bowler, so he would probably always be there and there abouts [among the wicket-takers].”

There can be no argument that pitches have been docile, what with 16 of the 18 matches played so far being drawn.

The two games that were won and lost had more of a South African look about them: 48 wickets fell to fast bowlers, 23 to spinners.

But slow bowlers will want to believe their stocks are on the up in a country where so many factors about the way they pursue their craft — from the way they are captained to the nature of the pitches — have been ranged against them.

If we see Boje marking out a run-up one of these days we’ll know times have truly changed.

Players, suits still talking about change of relationship status

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

THE relationship between the lifeblood of professional cricket in South Africa, the players, and their paymasters, the administrators, could move forward in the coming days. Or not.

Asked on Monday what headway had been made towards the negotiation of a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Cricket South Africa (CSA) and the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA), Tony Irish, SACA’s chief executive, said he “should have some indication of progress or not on Wednesday”.

Irish spoke after meeting with the national team in Port Elizabeth, where they will play India in the fourth one-day international on Tuesday.

Next Tuesday Irish will sit down with SACA’s executive committee, which comprises the president, JP Duminy, and Omphile Ramela, Farhaan Behardien, Mignon du Preez and Stephen Cook.

There may be several more such meetings before the current MOU expires at the end of April.

And what will happen then remains undecided.

The process is being watched more closely than in the past in the wake of the aggressive stance taken by Thabang Moroe, CSA’s deputy president and acting chief executive, at a press briefing in December.

“Ultimately the people that make money for cricket is CSA, it’s not a union,” Moroe said.

A key issue is the revenue sharing agreement in place between CSA and SACA.

“That is for the board and its members to debate,” Moroe said of the existing deal. “I just have a view on how a company should be run from the management point of view and how a company needs to engage with a trade union.

“ … ultimately CSA needs to run cricket and the trade union needs to protect their players’ rights.

“If CSA is trampling on peoples’ rights the union must step in. If CSA decides to take a different direction in growing cricket there is no room for a union there because we are not trampling on peoples’ rights — we are protecting the sport that we have been put in charge to administer.”

The good news for the players is that, Times Live has learnt, Moroe hasn’t been part of CSA’s delegation in their negotiations with SACA.

A member of CSA’s team, president Chris Nenzani, didn’t respond to requests on Monday for comment on how the talks were progressing.

One of South Africa’s most senior professional players offered a more conciliatory view than Moroe.

“It needs to be a symbiotic relationship — all the stakeholders need to play their part for the good of the game,” the player said.

“The better the players play, the more you can get for television rights and the more things administrators can do.

“And the better the game is administered and the better the funding is, the better the players will be.

“Ultimately we all want the best for the game.

“The relationship between the players and CSA has been good.

“It should continue in a fair and equitable manner and balance all interests.”

SACA and CSA have been on good terms for the past 12 years, but for how much longer?

India testing SA’s depth of ideas

“If you don’t know how to read wrist spin you can’t afford to run down the wicket.” – Denys Hobson, former leg spinner

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

DENYS Hobson’s long and close relationship with wrist spin kept him away from Newlands last week.

“I didn’t bother going because I knew what was going to happen,” he said on Thursday.

The previous evening Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav took 8/69 between them to help India rout South Africa by 124 runs.

That brought the number of wickets Chahal and Yadav, wrist spinners both, took in the first three matches of the one-day series to 21. Or 77.78% of the 27 scalps claimed by bowlers.

Impressed? Not everyone was.

“They’re ordinary, man,” Abdurahman, or “Lefty”, Adams said.

Hobson took 374 wickets at 27.52 bowling leg spin in 105 first-class matches, 94 of them for the white Western Province team.

Adams earned 27 first-class caps for the non-racial Western Province side, taking 122 wickets at 15.47.

He bowled slow left-arm orthodox, which might account for his opinion of Chahal and Yadav, and he would likely take issue with Hobson referring to other types of trundlers as “non-wrist spinners”.

The two might also disagree on how to disarm the threat posed by India’s slow poisoners.

“The problem is they’re not reading them,” Hobson said. “The first ball [Aiden] Markram faced from Kuldeep [at Newlands] he ran down the wicket.”

And was easily stumped.

“First of all that was stupid,” Hobson said. “Second of all it was the googly. So if you don’t know how to read it you can’t afford to run down the wicket.”

Hobson would no doubt enjoy the joke contemporaries make about about how they picked his deliveries by the sound the seam of the ball made as it ripped revolutions through the air: “The leg break went ‘vrrr’, the googly went ‘rrrv’.”

For Adams no such sleuthing should be required.

“Once a spinner settles on a length, and you as the batsman stays stagnant in the crease, he’s going to knock you over,” he said.

“Batsmen don’t use their feet because the wicketkeeper is standing up, but that’s not the point. If you have the measure of the bowler in the flight use your feet and get behind the ball.

“Then the bowler will shorten his length and you will have all the time in the world to play him.”

The wrist spinner South Africa faced before India’s tour offered a different idea.

“I think it’s about them not being exposed to more wrist spin,” Graeme Cremer, the leg spinner who captained Zimbabwe in the Boxing Day test at St George’s Park, said.

“South Africa don’t seem to produce many wrist spinners, partly cause of the pitches they play on.

“Wrist spin is a fine art, and if you are bowling at your peak it is really hard as a batsman, especially when the ball is drifting and spinning. Also wrist spinners have a wider range of variations.”

There are other reasons, beyond Chahal and Yadav, why India have South Africa in a spin.

Injuries to Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock took 432 ODI caps out of South Africa’s collective experience at Newlands.

Khaya Zondo, David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen, South Africa’s middle order in Cape Town, had played 106 ODIs before Saturday’s match at the Wanderers. And 103 of those caps belonged to Miller.

Then there’s South Africa’s inconsistent approach.

In the first ODI at Kingsmead last Thursday, Du Plessis said, “We never play two spinners in ODIs in South Africa.

“I understand that’s maybe a tactic that India will use. We don’t do that here.”

Three days later in Centurion Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi were in the same South Africa XI.

At Newlands, the team batting first had won 23 of the previous 29 day/night ODIs but South Africa failed to exercise the option after winning the toss.

Might that be because India chased superbly to win at Kingsmead and in Centurion?

Here’s a starker question: have South Africa run out of their own ideas?

Leading Edge: Reward offered for return of De Kock’s genius 

De Kock has become a target caught in the headlights, a shell of the player he is, was and will be again.

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

“TALENT hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see.” Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher who said that, didn’t pay heed to frivolities like cricket.

But it’s a pity he’s no longer around: Quinton de Kock could use that kind of thinking, especially in the apparent absence of anything constructive being done to haul him out of the depths of the deepest slump he has known since being capped at international level more than six years ago.

Good thing this is a column, because that opinion isn’t supported by the facts.

De Kock has gone 17 completed innings, whatever the format and level of cricket, without scoring 50 and 20 without making a century.

Nine of those trips to the crease without breaking 50 and a dozen without a hundred have been for South Africa.

Sounds serious, but it took him 13 innings at the start of his international career to celebrate a half-century, and he has had other 50-less slumps of nine and 10 innings each.

He has known stretches of 16, 18, 22 and 25 completed innings for South Africa without scoring a century, although during the latter he was thrice in the 90s.

So, by the numbers, there is nothing especially alarming about De Kock’s dawdle into the doldrums.

The numbers be damned. De Kock hasn’t hit the unhittable for months, much less seen the unseen. He has become a target caught in the headlights, a shell of the player he is, was and will be again, a shadow of his genius.

And let no-one doubt that we are dealing with genius. Not only is the way the on-form De Kock hits a cricket ball inexplicable by the likes of us, it’s a mystery to the man himself.

He sees it. He hits it. It stays hit. He shrugs.

Problem is, no-one can do what geniuses do. And no-one can re-align them when something about that thing they do goes squiff.

That that has happened to De Kock is plain from his wonky balance, faulty shot selection, and movements that are as stiff as a railway sleeper. And that’s just what’s obvious from the distance of the pressbox, where genius doesn’t dwell.

Confirmation of De Kock’s current frailty came at Kingsmead last Thursday, when he was adjudged leg-before to Yuzvendra Chahal, India’s wonderfully plucky leg spinner, to a delivery that clearly was going to miss the left-hander’s leg stump.

Immediately he was struck, De Kock spun on his heel and began a sad shamble back to the dressingroom. He didn’t wait for the umpire to reveal his decision. He didn’t review. He didn’t even look up.

It was the action of a player who has lost his awareness of self, which is more critical than knowing where your off stump is. Right now, on the evidence of Kingsmead, De Kock doesn’t even know where his leg stump is.

No joy is taken in writing these words, because players like De Kock — who do great things without falling victim to their egos — are hard to find and thus cherished by us in the scribbling classes.

Get well soon, Quinton. You will see the unseeable again.

AB a maybe for Wanderers

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

IT’S a comment on South Africa’s uncertainties in their one-day series against India that the return of AB de Villiers to the fold isn’t unqualified good news.

De Villiers, who missed the first three games of the rubber with a finger injury, is the only addition to the squad for the remaining three matches.

And how his team need him considering they have lost all three games by ever more convincing margins.

The less good news is that his presence in the fourth game at the Wanderers on Saturday isn’t assured.

“He is going to be assessed [on Friday] when he joins up with the squad,” team management said on Thursday.

“The decision will be made then.”

South Africa, who are also without Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock through injury, have yet to reach 300 in the series and have twice been dismissed for fewer than 200.

A player of De Villiers’ calibre could change that narrative singlehandedly, particularly on a pitch as predisposed to delivering big ODI totals as the Wanderers.

And De Villiers has tended to deliver at the Wanderers, where he has scored three centuries and three half-centuries in his 10 innings there.

In January 2015 he set the Bullring alight by reaching three figures off 31 balls, a world record, in scoring 149 against West Indies.

Something like that could turn South Africa’s fortunes around in their bid to level the series.

But first De Villiers will have to get back on the park.

South Africa ODI squad: Aiden Markram (captain), Hashim Amla, Farhaan Behardien, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Heinrich Klaasen, Imran Tahir, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Lungi Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Khaya Zondo.

  • De Villiers has since been declared fit.