It’s probably not the done thing for an Aussie to admit to enjoying listening to Test Match Special. It’s altogether far too wordy, too keen to delve into such arcane topics as technique and swing bowling, both foreign concepts to most Australians. The fact that it doesn’t stop every five minutes to try and sell you something also makes it highly suspect. But for many Australians TMS is something of a guilty pleasure. Or at least it has been.
To point out that TMS has been almost unlistenable these past few months would draw the obvious retort that it’s because Australia have been mostly rubbish over this same period. And whilst there is undoubtedly something to that, TMS was, from our memory anyway, no way near this bad back in 2013, when Australia were just about as awful as they have been this time. Apart from Boycott’s predictable gloating, we can’t remember its coverage being quite so one-sided during that series, and certainly not a myopic celebration of all things England.
At the head of this stands Jonathan Agnew, who seems to be a far different commentator then he was even a few years ago. Perhaps the intervening period saw one depressing tour of the antipodes too many, and – likely at some point during the World Cup – his resistance just broke entirely. Or maybe someone from the ECB had a word, and reminded him that it would be in everybody’s interests if the English players were fawned over like cult heroes from here on in. Oh, and that nasty Kevin Pietersen wasn’t to be allowed anywhere near the microphone again.
Certainly Agnew has been conspicuous in his almost universal praise for England this time round. Excuses are often found, ‘talking points’ promoted at the expense of actual analysis, and an all-round air of collective celebration favoured. To be fair, it’s the same sort of environment he was exposed to when commentating for the ABC during the 2013/14 Ashes, where whenever he came on air, Kerry O’Keefe was inevitably sat alongside him, laughing at him and his team all the while.
It’s not helped by the fact that so many of his co-commentators have simply become caricatures now. Here comes Henry Blofeld and oh, doesn’t he say the funniest things! And look, it’s Boycott, what will he be angry about today? It’s a sideshow of eccentrics wheeled out session after session despite the fact they’ve long since run out of new material. Boycott, in particular, is usually quite insightful when kept on a leash short enough to stop him running down ridiculous tangents. They don’t seem to bother now, probably because Boycott ranting about stuff is seen as box office material, and they are desperate for content to shove into their ‘pint sized Ashes’ show.
Some of their lesser lights are better, but tend to disappear into the woodwork a little. Simon Mann is fine, but it really depends on who is sat next to him. Ed Smith is pathetically in love with his own verbosity and is perhaps the most fawning admirer of the English team out of the lot. In this setting Jim Maxwell, Michael Vaughan and even Phil Tufnell provide welcome reprieves, in that they often focus more on the cricket in front of them, instead of whatever is going on around them. When Glenn McGrath comes across as by far your most even handed commentator you know the balance has been lost along the way.
All of this, though, would be bearable if not for one small detail, in that Graeme Swann is by far the worst commentator we have ever heard. Happy to talk endlessly if the conversation touches upon his favourite subject (that being Graeme Swann), he otherwise offers absolutely nothing of value. It’s typically an endless stream of anecdotes about himself, or what his ‘mates’ in the team are up too. He clearly still considers himself as one of the ‘lads’, attempting to sledge from the sidelines and generally seeing himself as the team’s most prominent cheerleader.
The sum result is that TMS is now almost stripped of any real value. Listening to Boycott, at length, tear strips from Stephen Peter Devereux Smith’s technique whilst he was in the midst of scoring the only century of the fifth Test was stunning in its lack of objectivity. Particularly when you consider that Devereux averages far more in English Ashes Tests than, oh, say, Alastair Cook. For just one. Australia’s collapse in the fourth Test was celebrated as the consequence of a world class bowling effort from Stuart Broad. England’s collapse in the fifth Test was instead decried as more an indictment of modern Test cricket. Some idiotic dismissals (particularly from Root) have been overlooked, as have poor spells of bowling.
All of this may be the result of what Atherton has described as period of ‘Glasnost’ from the English team, a more open approach towards the media in expectation of receiving a more positive press. For TMS a more upbeat approach likely has resulted in greater ratings, as it has for the ABC coverage, so this is probably very much us just feeling left behind. But the reason TMS has been so popular in the past, particularly in Australia, is because of its perceived inherent fairness. It offered a point of difference to typical (and in particular Australian) commentaries in that it seemed to revel in the contest above all, beyond who won or lost.
Hopefully this is just a small blip, another example of the seemingly all-encompassing nature of modern Ashes contests where niceties are put to one side and all that matters is who wins. Maybe it’s just another Aussie whinging about a series that went to shit in the space of two innings. But that TMS seemingly sees someone like Swann as the next generation of commentator suggests that the days of even handed analysis, even on the radio, may be a thing of the past.