On Former Players Turning Pundits

This piece is one that had been brewing for a while.  Recent events compelled its completion.

More and more it seems that a career in professional sport is seen as a springboard into the media covering that sport.  Broadcasters and journalists are being replaced by former players, some of whom are little more than mouthpieces, puppets or poor jester impersonations.

Not every sportsman has the in front of camera presence and calmness of a Mark Nicholas, the incisiveness of a Richie Benaud or the delightful tones of Michael Holding.  Just because someone played the game at a professional level does not guarantee that they have the encyclopaedic knowledge of a Tony Cozier or a Dave Lanning or the Cambridge education of Sid Waddell or Michael Atherton.

Radio commentary provides a different set of challenges.  Television doesn’t always require painting a picture with words, so there is more opportunity for relevant silence.  Radio commentary does.  Too much silence isn’t a good thing on radio.  John Arlotts and CMJs are few and far between.

Writing is a different skill too.  What is written here for a hobby might well be deemed unsuitable for a more august publication. How much former players’ stuff gets ghosted and then subedited to make it more palatable for the target audience?

Yet certain former players are now ending up in print, on websites, television and radio.  Their method is the same regardless of the medium.  Quality commentary and summarising are being lost amongst the dross of promotional garbage (self or of other players), acting up to some kind of character or staleness.

Regulars will know that Chez Yates we are not fans of Michael Vaughan.  Vaughan’s use of his all-pervading media presence to promote players managed by the same company he is managed by disqualifies him from any degree of impartiality.  Were James Vince (for example) managed by another company would Vaughan speak so highly of him?  Questioning Vaughan’s impartiality or vested interests gets you blocked without any response.

If, as George Dobell suggests, a loss in the Perth Test match could leave jobs and careers on the line, attention will focus on the recall of Vince on the back of an average season and those who recalled him.  How much of an influence on the selectors was Vaughan?

Vaughan is not a broadcaster or a commentator.  At best he is a rentagob, at worst he is a lobbyist.  Any appearance or article from him should come with a big fat disclaimer pointing out his involvement with a certain sports management company.  Any coach or selector should be subject to clear guidance on meeting such lobbyists.

Some of Vaughan’s recent comments about Ben Stokes left Yates a little bit twitchy (same management company, you know).  Were I in Ben Stokes’ position I would be pushing for Vaughan to be removed from all and any involvement with my portfolio.

This isn’t just about Vaughan, though he is by far the worst manifestation of the problem.  Graeme Swann is another offender.  Not as bad as Vested Interest Vaughan (we have a less polite nickname for him elsewhere) but when opining about anything other than spin bowling he has very little light to shed or value to add.  Most of Channel 9’s commentary team is the same since the passing of Richie Benaud – too much bluster and precious little light.

Clare Connor’s ill considered (and now deleted) tweet about Geoffrey Boycott’s commentary may be an expression of frustration but as an ECB employee she should be aware that when a board interferes in selection of commentators you end up with something like the BCCI Puppet Show.   If you’ve seen Death Of A Gentleman you’ll know the kind of people we’re talking about.  It’s the kind of commentary that Josef Goebbels would approve – nothing critical about the administration.

Mentioning Sir Geoffrey brings me to this piece by Matthew Engel.  Hardly worthy of printing in a national newspaper, it would have been more at home on an attack blog.  For a former editor of Wisden, someone one would expect to love the game, to pick on one person when the real issue is more widespread comes across as bitter.

Mr Engel would be better employed using his position to write a piece about the damage Michael Vaughan is doing to English cricket or examining why there is so much staleness or sameness in cricket commentary.  People like Jonathan Agnew and Simon Hughes (for example) have long since passed their sell by dates.

Alternative commentaries like Guerilla Cricket (declaration of interest: both Liz and I are contributors to GC) are becoming increasingly popular because of new voices, new vocabulary, love for the game and a refusal to tow the party line.  Cobwebs and staleness are being blown away, vested interests being called out.

Former players are there to give insight into technique, psychology, tactics, why things went wrong.  Often they can use examples from their career to illustrate the issues.  Life as a professional sportsman is not always easy.  Sharing and communicating those experiences is not always easy either.

Let’s look at another sport beloved Chez Yates – darts.  There’s some top quality commentary out there.

Rod Harrington is fantastic on finishing combinations, psychology and the business of the sport.  PDC should do a series where Rod talks about the business of professional darts.  The PDC European tour comms team is always a good listen. Dan Dawson, Paul Nicholson, Chris Murphy and Rob Mullarkey do a cracking job.

At the Players Championship finals Mark Webster was brilliant with Dan Dawson, providing technical insight along with experiences of and with players; the sort of stuff that adds to the viewing experience and learning about the game.  At the end of each session we really felt that we’d learned more about the players.

Wayne Mardle can be fantastic talking about and assessing technique.  He was also critical of the dartboards used recently when they were causing repeated bounce outs. You wouldn’t get BCCI commentators criticising the pitch in an Indian hosted match. Not if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Wayne gets a raised glass from us here.

Sport is not like “sports entertainment” – there’s no place for Jesse “The Body” Ventura wannabes or pairings like Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon or Michael Cole and JBL.  Sports commentary isn’t about living up to a created character image or being a puppet for the hosting organisation – it’s about painting pictures with words, adding insight to what is happening.

Reithian principles say “Inform, educate and entertain”.  You can do all three without flushing quality down the pan.

One thought on “On Former Players Turning Pundits”

  1. Don’t completely agree, but am well on board with the sentiment. All power to your pen*.

    Bearded Tit


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