Saturday, November 24, 2012

Watching Cricket with Test Match Sofa

I rarely listen to commentary when I watch cricket these days. I watch the game on mute, irrespective of who's playing (and hence, who's commentating). Occasionally, I listen if some new commentator is featured. I have found myself turning the volume up whenever I see Rahul Dravid's name on the box. When England play, I also find myself being strangely attracted to Test Match Sofa - the upstart commentary team based in London which streams audio commentary as they watch the game on TV. I listen to them for a few days of a game. I eventually get bored of them, and go back to watching on mute. But I haven't reached a stage with Test Match Sofa yet where I'm not inclined to listen in, at least for a while whenever England are playing. Sometimes, I also participate on twitter with the TMSofa commentary.

TestMatchSofa began in English summer of 2009, with the Ashes. After early teething troubles it became a popular alternative commentary site which is now part of The Cricketer magazine. As many observers have pointed out, the core brilliance of Test Match Sofa is the interactivity that their approach affords. They involve listeners in their commentary through twitter and occasionally email. Many of their regular listeners are probably also regular tweeters. To use the rather odious phrase that these self-styled new-media types enjoy so much - their killer-app is interactivity. The irreverent tone of their commentary, the conspicuously explicit anti-elitism of their troupe - the TMSofa commentary team works hard to live up to the just-one-of-the-guys gasbag caricature of stereotypical English fan (also, stray foreign fans) - is essential to their self-image. Daniel Norcross will hate this reference, but it reminds me of George W. Bush's much touted selling point - that he was a guy people would be comfortable having a beer with. Norcross would probably point out, with some merit, that when it comes to cricket commentary, being a convivial beer and cricket sharing companion is no bad thing.

But what strikes me every time I listen to TMSofa is not how different they are to your run-of-the-mill TV Commentary, but how similar they are. While they have the advantage of not being celebrities, and of being accessible, thanks to twitter, they have the same unevenness in their commentary team which plagues most TV commentary efforts. Their commentators are as likely to get their facts wrong as your average ex-cricketer, they are as likely stray from one-eyed partisanship into one-eyed-alternative-realities. In broad strokes, they appear to have no significant disagreements with the TV commentators approach to explaining the game to the viewer (apart from hating the cliche riddled presentation on TV). They seem to be similarly paralyzed when it comes to talking about LBWs since the advent of DRS, they get into the same exasperating back-and-forths about scoring rates and declarations, and they are similarly quick to denounce Umpires. They tell us the same story about the game.

They leave me on the edge about whether they know its an act, and are aware that they have a basic role in trying to explain the game to their listeners/viewers, or whether they genuinely inhabit all these caricatures. It is not yet clear to me whether they want their listeners to derive pleasure out of thinking about the action - a pleasure which can be greatly enhanced by thoughtful, lively, careful commentary - or if all they want is to is entertain, to produce something which can be consumed without much thought, a little like a soap opera or a sitcom - the sort of thing where abuse and partisanship become ends in themselves. I am unable to say with any degree of confidence whether they are in fact, fair minded lovers of cricket, or whether they are cynical partisan hacks peddling the tabloid English voice (to paraphrase a claim made by the BBC World Service about being the British voice, but trying not to see through a British lens) to audiences around the cricketing world.

Perhaps I am making too much of this. After all, it is merely cricket commentary - a bit of light hearted fun. But if there is anything that recent cricket history has taught us, it is that the commentator, as an entirely unaccountable figure in the cricketing ecosystem (as management/consulting hackery would have it) wields enormous soft power in the game. Umpires have been undermined in the game today by commentators to the point where the preferred system put in place by the ICC (which employs the Umpires) involves players being able to review an Umpire's decision simply because they think it may be wrong (or, as is more likely in practice, because they don't like it). It has led Simon Taufel to wonder whether it is "right that the match official has to make a decision before technology can be used?"

A case in point would be Test Match Sofa's treatment of this incident during the second day's play at the Wankhede stadium (and its general reaction to any Umpiring decision following a loud appeal). It was the 2nd over of the days play, the 92nd of India's innings. James Anderson bowled to Cheteshwar Pujara. Cricinfo recorded it as follows:
91.2 Anderson to Pujara, 1 run, huge shout, and it looked quite close. Length ball, pitches off, goes with the angle, Pujara plays across the line, is hit on the inside of the pad. There was a click as the ball passed the bat. Umpire Dar signals runs. Nick difficult to spot to replays, though. Pujara might have got away with one here
Daniel Norcross, without doubt the most talented and wonderful of the Sofa commentators made each of the following points about this dismissal throughout the day (others made them too, but I refer specifically to his points here):

1. The Umpire thought it was missing leg.
2. The decision was a terrible one.
3. That they (TMSofa) missed the fact that it was given as runs (after it was pointed out to by me and a few others on twitter)
4. That he didn't think there was an inside edge.
5. That there was no way to determine whether or not there was an inside edge, given the absence of the requisite technology (heat signature technology like "hotspot")
6. That it was still a terrible decision.

This went on throughout the days play, reinforced by other Sofa voices. If you already see the obvious logical problems with saying all of these things at the same time about the same decision, then I'm relieved. If not, here's what Norcross effectively said about the decision - "I thought the Umpire thought it was missing leg, but I missed the fact that it was given runs, even though I watch it on a massive TV, with various online scorecards to help, but even if it was given runs, I doubt there was an edge, even though I have no way of say for sure because there's no technology available, and so, despite everything, as I said at the start, it was a terrible decision".

Its something straight out of a Jon Stewart fake news sketch isn't it? And perhaps it is genuinely that. Perhaps Norcross does realize that the Umpires do a difficult job. Perhaps Norcross and Co. do realize that commentary is about explaining what is going on, and perhaps they do get that in Tests where DRS is not in use, it means trying, even if briefly, to try and think through why the Umpire may have made the decision he made, how he might have reached it, and what he might have missed. Perhaps they do possess the self-awareness that would preclude contradictions like the one above.

But if they do, then their constant, relentless badgering of the Umpires is, to this cricket fan's ears, grating. Every time a close decision was reached there was absolutely no effort to explain what happened - only a judgment as to whether the call was right or wrong (usually, if it went against England, it was thought to be wrong). The general reaction after an appeal would be to wait for the replay, if the replay showed anything even remotely close, the question would be along the lines of "Why didn't that idiot Umpire give that?" When Zaheer Khan was sawn off to a bat pad appeal off a Swann special that bounced appreciably, and caught both the flap of the pad and the thigh, there was general derision at the incompetence of Aleem Dar. There was no suggestion that Dar, being human, may have been foxed by the two noises. Instead, there was a lot of hand wringing about how Umpires are always eager to get rid of tailenders ("Its the sort of decision Monty Panesar gets"). That they were being obviously unfair to Dar, and incompetent at commentary - the art of describing events on the field, seemed to be beyond their grasp.

Any listener who happened upon their broadcast could be forgiven for thinking that the ICC finds the most pathetic fool they can find off the street and installs them as Umpires.

Not only is this type of commentary boorish and cruel, it is also, substantively wrong. It demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the way the game is adjudicated. When I put all this to the members of the Sofa, thanks to their wonderful twitter strategy, Norcross, to his credit, engaged with the point. What he effectively said was that he does not like the idea of the marginal decision - he prefers decisions to be either out, or not out. He suggested that talk of marginality in Umpiring decisions was merely a talking point - something (I paraphrase from here on, I hope, fairly) that amounted to a cop out. He then went on to claim both that he prefers DRS, and that he likes the idea of technology making decisions, and reaching definite conclusions about everything. In Norcross's words "If its shown to be clipping the stumps, it should be out" - a reference to ball tracking.

This betrays a basic misunderstanding of what DRS is. DRS is palpably not a system where technology determines decisions. It is, as the name suggests, a system of Review - technology is used to review decisions - certain types of decisions under specific circumstances in narrowly defined ways, and is asked to verify the Umpire's original decision. These are not talking points. They are facts. And yes, facts about DRS include multiple clauses, none of which are optional.

It is not logically possible to support both DRS (a system which requires an Umpire to make a decision before technology is occasionally used to review it) and the use of technology to make all decisions. Yet, this appears to be Norcross's position.

Be that as it may, the fact is, that DRS is not in use in its conventional form in the India v England series. A far more unconventional and interesting system of review is in use - at least in the case of Out decisions. The legality of the delivery is verified for every dismissal that requires a legal delivery to be bowled. Further, the Umpire Review is still in place for boundary decisions, bump balls and the like, and has been used on multiple occasions.

Given that it is not in use, would it not be reasonable to expect that a commentary team should take this into account, and try and explain what the Umpires are doing when they reach decisions? Would it really be so difficult to acknowledge that a decision was close, and could have reasonably gone either way (This is not a talking point, it is a fact, given the Laws of Cricket which require Umpires to make judgments about things which do not actually take place, in order to reach decisions)? Does every decision that you don't like have to be read as an umpiring mistake, no, an umpiring blunder? These imagined blunders, taken together, must naturally to the conclusion that the Umpires are blundering idiots. How can they not, if they get so many obviously easy, straightforward decisions wrong everyday?

If Norcross really believes that a system which involves appeals and judgments (which, as per the law, explicitly take preference over the letter of the law - a batsman cannot be given out LBW or caught or run out if the fielding side does not appeal, even if the evidence suggests he is out) can avoid marginal cases, especially given the fact that some judgments are about things which do not actually happen (LBW for example), and that marginal cases are efforts to weasel out of taking a stand, then I'm afraid he does not understand how decision making works in cricket. The thing is, on balance, Norcross's commentary suggests that he does understand cricket really well. Whats more, I agree with him that using technology to make decisions is a plausible way to go. But he is wrong to think that DRS is some kind of intermediate step (or, as he appears to think, that it amounts to technology making decisions).

I suspect that this heavy handed view has to do with the rhetorical demands of the Sofa.

Test Match Sofa is substantively just as partisan as conventional cricket commentary. Unlike the BBC's Test Match Special, not all of Test Match Sofa's commentators achieve a certain basic standard of accurate description. Unlike television commentary, they do not have the authority of Sunil Gavaskar or Rahul Dravid or David Gower.

But the point of this post is that I accept the basic premise of the Sofa - that being an ex-cricketer does not necessarily make one a good commentator. But neither does being boorishly cruel to the Umpires. It says something about TMSofa that they are most pleasant to listen to when they are not talking about cricket. For a Cricket commentary team, this should be troubling.

Yet, I am still more inclined to listen to TMSofa than the television commentary. Partly because of the interactivity, partly because of their non-celebrity, anti-stardom being and partly because they are genuinely funny and some of them (especially Daniel Norcross) are brilliant at describing the ball by ball action. All too often though, they begin to believe in their own partisan performance a little too much. Satire and irreverence works best when it teeters delicately on the edge of self-awareness, and when it is based on a basic foundation of solid competence and basic factual accuracy. This competence does not even have to be ever present. Great observers have convinced their audience that they are competent observers to the extent that when they do take liberties with the facts, their audience is willing to go along.

Perhaps I have been too forthright here. But it is dispiriting to me when the alternative, underground view from left field is also all too often laced with the conventional prejudices of the mainstream broadcast (even if these are admittedly presented far more interestingly). Given the all too clear damage that the mainstream broadcast (and the unaccountable celebrity ex-professional-cricketer-commentator) has done to the game, it is worth pointing this out.


  1. I am a regular Sofa listener, and I'd have to disagree with a lot of this article. One of the primary claims that they make is that they are partisan. You have to listen to it understanding that.

    It is possible that they made a mistake with that one delivery. However in general they have been critical of the performance of both Dar and Hill because they have been substandard. They are not going to pull their punches, because that is part of the beauty of unashamedly biased commentary.

    Just as you hear some of them taking a very pro-English stance, you will also hear Ant Sims and Aatif Nawaz cheering on any English mistake. You can also hear some of the best analysis of the game on the Sofa. Gary Naylor, Nigel Henderson and Dan Norcross are all great analysts of the game, in my opinion easily the contemporaries of Peter Roebuck, Gideon Haigh or David Trist.

    Their partisanship and bias may annoy you, but if you want the quality analysis, and the entertainment of their comments, then that is the price you have to pay. There is no perfect commentary, but I think that Test Match Sofa has the best balance.

  2. I'm surprised that you read it that way. I distinguish between being partisan, and believing in one's own performance of partisanship.

  3. Firstly, thanks for listening Kartikeya and thanks to mykuhl for the kind words.

    I can't address all your points (many of which are very good and will inform my work in the Third Test) but I will look at one.

    I was on ball-by-ball when Samit got a shocker in the First Test, a ball that hit him in front of leg stump having reversed past the inside edge. I said it was a bad decision at the time and on replay - because, the only real rule of TMSofa is to say what you see. Of course, I don't know for sure that it was missing, but I do know for sure that umpires make mistakes (I was on mic when VVS was given out for 91 vs Aus (I think) when he had middled it into his pad), so I'm not goign to treat the umpires as infallible.

    Unlike some of the ex-pros, we do know how hard umpiring is because almost all of us have done it. It's only club cricket, but I know that LBWs are diffcult, stumpings very difficult and run outs downright impossible. Daniel is very quick to praise umpires and we do (I think all) support the DRS, but there's no corporate line.

    As for me, I don't mind making the odd mistake - better to be wrong than boring - and will occasionally make "dubious points with hyperbolic conviction" because everyone knows the game is unpredictable so who wants to hear if, buts and maybes. Mistakes are (I venture) less important on TMSofa because correction comes quickly either from other commentators or tweets and on we go.

    We probably do say a lot of the same things as mainstream commentaries, but with well over 30 hours of a Test match to fill, there are only so many things one can say.

    It is great fun though and if a tenth of that comes across to the listeners, they'll enjoy it - I feel extraordinarily privileged to be part of it.