This Australian summer has seen the already terrible coverage of cricket provided by Channel Nine descend into hitherto unknown depths of awfulness. Don’t like ads for VB, Qantas and KFC jammed in not only inbetween overs, but also in the middle of them as well? Too bad. Don’t want to have put up with sideline interviews with advertising executives from Toyota and Vodafone? Tough luck. Aside from the rampant commercialism and painfully forced jocularity, they’re as one-sided as always too. Can anyone argue they are even slightly impartial in their views? Ever?
But this isn’t about all that, it’s about something that has recently emerged in Nine’s attitude towards Australian cricket and those who are involved in both officiating and administrating it. Succinctly put, the attitude at Nine these days seems to be that the sport of cricket needs them more than they need cricket. It’s the only conclusion possible to explain the series of ill-conceived verbal tirades the station has been guilty of over the past few months.
First there was their annual dummy spit about players being rested from ODI cricket, where they revealed themselves to be utterly ignorant of the sorts of physical demands modern cricketers need to endure. Does anyone really not see the sense in resting players like Michael Clarke and David Warner? Then there was the George Bailey episode. Now the least popular man in Australian cricket might seem to be an easy target, but on this occasion Nine showed themselves as nothing but bullies. Bailey is, after all, still a national captain and so deserving of some respect and furthermore, as others have accurately pointed out, without Nine’s largesse Bailey would still be a rich man owing to his participation in the IPL and elsewhere. It seems Nine have trouble recognising any form of the game that doesn’t have their logo emblazoned all over it.
But the really interesting development has come only recently. In last week’s ODI in Sydney, and again at the second T20 in Melbourne, major rain delays have been experienced. On both occasions the Channel Nine commentators have done nothing to hide their fury at the game, their ‘product’, being held up by the hesitation of a group of umpires who they have no control over. It’s true the laws surrounding rain delays are in need of some clarification as to what constitutes ‘safe’ or ‘fair’ playing conditions, but in the end that decision is for the umpires to make, not Channel Nine.
In both Sydney and Melbourne, Nine wasted no time in criticising the umpires for not restarting play quickly enough, in the latter case even when rain was still falling. Ian Healy and James Brayshaw were not so much as sent out to interview the umpires as demand they explain themselves and threaten information from them. Paul Reiffel’s piffy response to Healy’s repeated demands of how long the break would last for – ‘how long is a piece of string?’ – was probably the highlight of the night. Elsewhere Mark Taylor and Healy looked to be on the verge of pulling the hessian covers off themselves at one stage. The Vodafone poll was, ‘should we already be playing?’, because of course the opinions of the umpires and groundstaff on a matter like this are irrelevant. And at one stage Mark Nicholas seemed to suggest that the Australian and Sri Lankan captains should take matters into their own hands and restart the game themselves, and damn the umpires.
There is nothing really surprising about this, taking the populist position during a rain interval is the easy choice and the fact that Nine’s ratings probably plummet during these periods no doubt influences their stance. They could perhaps try and explain the reasons for the continuing delay in an effort to explain the situation, but haranguing the umpires must be much more fun. But it also reveals a deeper malaise affecting Australian cricket in general, and suggests that the sport, despite all the reforms of the Argus Review, is still at war with itself.
Frictions between players and administrators is obviously a real issue at the moment, especially in regards to the role of ‘Informed Player Management’. Even people who sensibly ignore the utter crap Shane Warne tweets everyday can see that. Nine’s seemingly testy relationship with Cricket Australia, on the eve of the media rights being re-negotiated, can be seen as further evidence of the fact that it’s okay to view sports administrators with a fair degree of contempt these days. As if they are utterly unfit for the roles they hold. Of course everything would be better if all the old boys ran things, and Shane Warne played the role of king-maker behind the scenes. Far better…
But it’s changing attitudes towards umpires that is the real worry. Debates over the use and application of DRS have somewhat sidelined the role umpires play in the modern game, with some now viewing their position with askance compared to the less fallible results computer technology can provide. Sure, umpires haven’t helped their cause with some shocking decisions of late, two in particular in that contentious Sydney ODI, but at the end of the day they are still the ones in charge of things, and their position should still be respected.
It increasingly seems, however, that it is not. Channel Nine’s vitriol against the umpires delaying during rain intervals may well just be part of a larger problem. The fracas that greeted the end of the second T20 was the result of Glenn Maxwell taking exception at the time Sri Lanka took to bowl the final delivery. Aside from the fact that the final over of a game always takes an age if there is something riding on it (which just adds to the drama), it wasn’t Maxwell’s place to get involved anyway, it was the umpires. But since the umpires are seemingly unable to handle matters themselves, it’s up to the players to take control. The same can be said for Sri Lanka’s negative attitude after being forced to retake the field after the rain delay. They were obviously not happy with the decision, and went to great lengths to show their displeasure, including their coach, Graham Ford, engaging in a protracted and animated discussion with the umpires when their decision to renew the game became known.
Whilst it cannot be argued that all these issues stem from Channel Nine’s own attitude towards the men out in the middle, it surely does not help matters. While there is a debate to be had here, Nine are not interested in having one, just in getting their own way. By making the umpires a seemingly valid target for extended abuse, they are effectively undermining the authority of positions that have always been held sacrosanct. At the end of this slippery slope lies the rubbish that has plagued football in recent decades with on-field and off-field aggression being shown towards officials. We would hate to see cricket head in that same direction just because advertisers were not being kept happy.