We’ve taken a fair bit of time to give Channel 9 an utter bashing on this site of late, and with good reason too: the quality of commentating typically found on their cricket coverage is abysmal. Any sort of insightful analysis is buried under mounds of patriotic back slapping, inane ‘banter’ and a complete disregard of their viewers when it comes to commercialism, to the extent that advertisements are now being incorporated into the commentary proper. Anyone else had an urge to buy a brand new Toyota recently?
The obvious solution is to turn off the sound on the TV and turn on the radio, where Jim Maxwell and co provide the sort of quality commentary on the ABC that cricket fans have come to take for granted. Unbiased (for the most part), insightful and free of the sort of chummy crap that Ian Healy and gang think we enjoy hearing. Well, for the most part. The thing is, there’s been one major change in the commentary the ABC provides over recent years, a change that is about as divisive amongst its audience as Nick Knight is to Sky viewers. Actually that’s a bad example. Nick Knight isn’t divisive, he’s just crap. Anyway, getting back to the topic, the issue that confronts ABC listeners can simply be defined as Kerry O’Keeffe.
As part of the recent celebration of 80 years of the ABC providing radio coverage of cricket in Australia, Jim Maxwell was asked what in his opinion had been the greatest change in coverage during his period at the helm. His answer was that it was now far more conversational, and that attribute is embodied by Kerry. For him, the cricket is a backdrop that occasionally intrudes into the commentary box, but not terribly often. Instead it’s more there to provide a setting to the endless anecdotes and jokes he casually reels off, often at the expense of whoever is sitting next to him at the time. We could try and explain his turn of humour, but an example probably does a better job.
Perhaps one of Kerry’s best attributes is that when he isn’t picking on the person next him, he is often the butt of his own jokes. Something of a journeyman cricketer, he plied his trade mixing lower order slogging with occasional leg spinners that didn’t do a hell of a lot. Perhaps he was the 1970’s answer to Steve Smith. Post-cricket he was part of the celebrity speaking circuit, particularly touring outback Australia, where a lot of his material was gathered and refined. He is at his best when sat next to a touring commentator, teasing Jonathan Agnew for not being particularly handsome, jibbing Harsha Bhogle about his lack of knowledge of 1950’s Australian television series or forcing Neil Manthorp to pronounce names of remote country towns. From anyone else it would appear mean, but from Kerry it’s just good fun, especially because when he can’t make fun of the man next to him, he’s happy to make fun of himself and his less than sterling record in the game. Which he does constantly.
Whether you love or hate Kerry depends if you happen to like his sense of humour or not, or if you can stand his laugh, which to be fair is something of a refined taste. It’s not that Kerry doesn’t know anything about cricket, far from it, his analysis of spin bowlers’ techniques in particular is revealing. It’s just that he often leaves the actual commentary to others in preference for talking about anything else. His performances during his ‘home’ Test at the SCG are always box office entertainment, where he seems to spend all his time when he isn’t required to commentate drinking in the stands with the crowd. His post lunch session is always particularly ‘colourful’.
Unfortunately for those who don’t find Kerry entertaining, his spots must be a cause of quite some pain. Whilst the praise of Kerry’s commentary is voluminous, there are probably quite a few who equally find it abhorrent, which when you’re depending on the ABC to provide a point of difference to the utter crap on Channel 9 must be just a little bit of a downer. Whilst we would like to tell his critics to lighten up, and realise there is life to be had away from their no doubt pristine Wisden collections, they might well have a point. At times Kerry goes a bit too far, at one point during the ODIs following the 2010/11 Ashes he appeared to have been forced into offering an apology to English listeners (who were listening through the BBC) for the unstinting abuse he had been giving to Michael Yardy all day. Whilst the abuse was undoubtedly funny (and deserved), it did somewhat cross the line of what you expect in commentary from the ABC.
This summer at least, Kerry seems to have chilled a little bit. His running battles with the ABC management, as he tried to see just how far over the line his commentary could get before he was reined back, seem to be a thing of the past. Which doesn’t mean he actually talks about the cricket a lot more, just that he doesn’t seem to be deliberately trying to offend half of the listening audience at any one time. Which is an improvement. Of sorts.
Oh, all right. One last example.