The Channel 9 commentary team perhaps represents the greatest mates club since the Allied Heads of State gathered at Yalta to raid Stalin’s vodka cabinet in 1945. There seem to be two preresquites for admission: having an existing member vouch for you and a commitment to not saying anything that might be deemed in any way controversial. Actually being any good at this commentary gig is a non-issue. Hence the reason that Mark Taylor and Ian Healy have been given free rein to pollute the air waves for years now, and the recent announcement that Ricky Ponting has a spot reserved for him in the team the moment he retires.
Given Channel Nine’s precipitous financial state, they’re desperate not to do anything that might upset the bigwigs at Cricket Australia and tempt them into thinking that the game might be better placed on some other channel. Hence actual criticism of Australia or Australia’s performances is kept to an absolute minimum. If you want to keep your cruisy spot on the team, you do not bite the hand that feeds you. Which is one reason why Ian Chappell’s appearances over the years have become gradually more infrequent. Criticism is Chappell’s middle name, and you get the impression that he’s not happy unless he’s giving someone both barrels, whether it be George Bailey, Shahid Afridi or the suits at Cricket Australia. Which is the main reason we like him so much.
Chappell has always been blunt. It’s one of his most admired qualities. He was a fine batsman for Australia, although never as elegant as his brother Greg. He was, in many ways, a mirror image of Steve Waugh, in that results tended to justify the means, and he never seemed bothered about who he upset along the way. Which goes so far as to include (alleged) bust ups with upstart poms in the car park after a game. He was also often drawn into standoffs with the game’s administrators on behalf of his teammates in order to obtain better pay and conditions. In an age when the game was still an amateur affair, Chappell didn’t accept half measures from anyone, and his leadership is one of the reasons why Australian cricket was successful throughout most of the 70’s, both on and off the pitch.
It’s an attitude Chappell has carried with him into the commentary box, where he doesn’t care who it is he’s having a go at it. Hilariously this sometimes extends as far as the commentator sitting beside him. If Chappell was just consistently spouting rubbish, Boycott style, he would quickly become tiresome, but he is usually pretty much on the ball. We can excuse him the occasional lapse, like the time he pronounced Indian U19 spinner Harmeet Singh to be the second best spin bowler in the world, since they are typically few and far between.
Some of Chappell’s criticism is so bang on the mark it just shows up the commentators around him as the pathetic pack of sycophants that they typically are. We all know that Shahid Afridi is rubbish and has been living off past glories for far too long, but Chappell is usually the only man in the commentary box with the backbone to say so. Same for Australia’s selection of George Bailey in their T20 squad, a selection so emblematic of backwards thinking it beggars belief.
It’s not as if Chappell deliberately sets out to rail against the chummy world that cricket commentators inhabit; it just seems that he really, really, likes picking fights and isn’t terribly concerned about who it is he is taking on. Considering that he’s been around as a commentator in one form or another ever since his retirement in 1980, his continued employment suggests that he is very good at winning most of the fights he starts, or at least the important ones, and, as we pointed out earlier, his opinion tends to be the correct one in most cases.
It’s easy to spend your time behind the microphone whining about anything and everything. Just look at Mark Lawrenson. But it’s a damn sight harder to make that criticism both actually pertinent and entertaining. Again, look at Mark Lawrenson. Chappell succeeds in both aspects, and in doing so proves the lie that all Australian commentators are naturally biased towards their fellow countrymen. Nationality and position matter very little to a man who once famously ripped into the Australian Test captain, who just so happened to be his brother, Greg, in his column in a major Australian newspaper.
It’s that sort of entertainment we wish more commentators could provide, but since that seems a forlorn hope, we will just stick to worshipping every word Ian utters. Even when he is wrong. Especially when he is wrong.