(Reported by Jim Maxwell)
Channel 9 has been the most significant link between the game of cricket and the audience that we’ve ever had in television. For that reason, it’s a huge break for someone else to be coming in and doing it. But no dynasty lasts forever. Here Channel 7 are having a go, and Cricket Australia (CA) should be drinking champagne down at Jollimont because this is an unbelievable deal.
It might take a while for people though to get used to the fact that it’s no longer Channel 9. At the same time, there’ll be a lot of people saying well the Channel 9 commentary is tired and they needed to update it, so maybe this is a good thing. You’ll get a lot of opinion around the place. But the fact is, regardless of what anyone says, you can’t deny that Channel 9 have done cricket a very proud service for a long time with the quality of their production. No one has ownership of anything forever. I started in the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) when they had the rights to cricket before Kerry Packer came along. If you compared the production of the cricket then to what we see today it is miles apart. Maybe Channel 7 is going to bring something new to the table. They’ll certainly bring some new voices.
Being next door to them in the ABC studio was a challenge but it was enjoyable. At least the radio product had a continuity about it which Channel 9 could never match. They tried all sorts of gimmicks in those early years. They tried to introduce female commentary but that didn’t work. They knew that a lot of people were watching the TV and listening to the radio because commercial TV didn’t have that continuity.
I always used to stir up Tony Greig in a jocular way that they may be watching you Tony but they’re not listening. They’re listening to us. He would say, “That’s a lot of nonsense mate.” There was a bit light-hearted banter between the two of us.
In terms of the pictorial production, it was well ahead of its time and has been ever since. A lot of people were watching and listening to Channel 9 too. Tony Greig, Richie Benaud and Bill Lawry became household names. More so, when Billy Birmingham did his ‘The Twelfth Man’ mimicry. That kind of mimicry like they say is the greatest form of flattery. I think that put Channel 9’s commentators more on the map than the real thing.
I didn’t feel like we were next door to the “glamour boys” in the commentary box. Only time I did feel like that was when we got to the airport. They would be occupying seats 1a, 1b and 1c on the flight and we were at the back. They were treated like movie stars and we were just the plodders churning out the product. Richie understood the quality of silence. Very few commentators understand it at all. They talk too much. They don’t understand the power of the word. It only comes from timing and silence. Richie was a master of that. He was the papal figure of Australian cricket after Bradman in so many ways. He is revered to the point that even for the last few seasons, Channel 9’s link-in to the coverage is Richie’s voice.
Bill and Tony were like Abbott and Costello. They developed that kind of a rapport and a similar one with the audience. It added flavor and comedy. It was about the enthusiasm and energy that they brought to it all and their credibility because of who they were. These guys brought a lot of authority to what they did. They treated the game with respect and dignity. They probably realized that the most important thing is for people to be able to watch, listen and enjoy the game. For most of us, our fondest memory of Channel 9 will be just two words, Bill Lawry going, “Got himmm.”
The Nine commentary team then started getting compared to what’s happened with the Big Bash. I think the problem with Nine was that they didn’t freshen up their team enough in the last 10-15 years. It was as if they were beholden to those who were there from the beginning. It was like a long-service reward for being part of the show when World Series started. I think they’ve been slack in that regard and also in terms of not often enough having a voice from the visiting team. But that’s not the reason Channel 9 lost the rights though. They lost it because they didn’t trump up enough money. They admitted they lost 30 or 40 million on the Ashes last year. As for the commentary goes from next season, who knows what’s going to happen. It might be a new group of commentators that might toe the party line. So much of commentary, even in India these days, has become so sycophantic. Most of the commentary there is just trying to grease up the BCCI. What we want is more honest commentary.
I am more concerned that there could be less free to air TV, which after all is the responsibility of Cricket Australia as custodians of the game to make sure the game gets the people. You don’t want to risk disenfranchising people by having cricket mostly on Pay TV. But I understand what CA are doing long-term for cricket which is that this largesse goes back to the clubs, the grassroots of the game as it should. If that’s the benefit then it’s worthwhile.
All these sporting rights’ deals in Australia, which is small and has only 25 million people, whether it be cricket. AFL, Rugby League, these are all giant ponzi schemes. No one can afford to pay what they are paying. On the other side, no can afford to not be paying, otherwise someone else will take the rights. And I’ll be amazed if Channel 7 can make any money out of this deal.
To jump from Channel 9 to someone unknown is a big step to take in terms of the quality and credibility of the production of the game. It’s a big move. As Kerry Packer said “everyone man has his price”.
Author info: For four decades, Australian radio legend Jim Maxwell sat next door to the biggest revolution in cricket broadcasting the world has ever seen. Now as the Channel 9 era comes to an end, Maxwell gives his unique perspective on the Nine journey and what lies ahead for cricket coverage in Australia.
(As told to Bharat Sundaresan)