There really are few better things in sport than watching a game that lasts for five days, is played by men in long white pants and collared shirts, and is halted to enjoy lunch and tea breaks.
I am of course talking about Test cricket, the perfect occasion to get out into the sun and drink draught beer, shout and cheer and perhaps (when Paul Harris is bowling) even nod off for a bit of a nap in the afternoon. Yes indeed, Test Cricket is very much the bollocks of the dog, and when you can’t get to the ground for the action – then you can just as easily become one with your couch and enjoy it from there.
Only problem is though, watching cricket at home means having to listen to the insufferable drivel which is shoveled into our lounges by a bunch of ex-players that may know what cricket is, but they sure as stumps know bugger all about what entertainment is.
We have it particularly bad here in South Africa with some one dimensional characters literally telling us that cricket is a game played with a bat and a ball, and Kepler Wessels describing field placements in a tone so depressing you would think that someone just set fire to his cat.
I bet you and your mates have commented on this dire state of audio affairs before, or after a couple of beers even thought that if you mic’ed up your lounge you could do a better job. Well the good news is that some fine chaps from the UK have done just that and have developed an alternative voice which is fast becoming an authority on the world wide web. I introduce you to the Test Match Sofa and the man behind the dream, Daniel Norcross.
TheBounce: Your first broadcast was in 2009 for the Ashes Test in Cardiff. Did you have a plan for this first broadcast or was it a case of turn the mic on and just see what happens?
Test Match Sofa: Day one was chaos. We had only managed to test the technology once and the broadcast stream was still not reliable. None of us had any experience in live broadcasting and the disciplines of “microphone management” (i.e. not turning away from the mic to address your fellow commentators or dropping the lip mic down your trousers by accident – Manny). And to compound matters my mother had suddenly and inconveniently snuffed it 7 days previously.
In a way this helped as we had little time to worry about our performance. And when the first ball was bowled I let Manny do ball by ball as he had to leave early to collect his dog from the vet (does Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special have such problems to deal with do you suppose?).
As luck would have it, Manny was extraordinary. He hit the right tone straight away and was clearly born to commentate. I imagine he emerged from his mother’s womb already complaining about the damp conditions under foot and berating the midwife for failing to catch him cleanly.
In truth, whilst we didn’t have a plan for how we would call the play, we had all spent thousands of hours listening to commentary, so the first day was a magnificent eye opener for us all as we discovered just what elements of commentary inspired us individually and how that translated to our own performance. We all sounded like commentators immediately but each individual fixated on different aspects. Kato was precise and meticulous. Nigel was laissez-faire and abusive, and I simply wanted to find out what ball by ball commentary sounded like in the rough accents of Idi Amin, Dutch Richie Benaud, Mitchell Johnson’s mother and so forth.
It was probably not fit for broadcast, but by the end of the second test at Lord’s we had all pretty much identified what worked and what didn’t in terms of purely ball by ball. But it wasn’t until the tour of South Africa in the winter that we added the jingles to introduce players and break up the commentary, as well as get fully engaged in Twitter. That was the massive breakthrough and gave the programme its distinctive flavour. Now, when new commentators come on, they pick up the tone from the jingles and tweets. This helps them slip straight into the language of Test Match Sofa.
TheBounce: The vibe on ‘the Sofa’ seems to be based around a rather healthy dislike for the Aussies, something that us South Africans can certainly relate to. This past Ashes series must have made for some happy times on the Sofa, what were some of your best moments?
Test Match Sofa: Actually we love Aussies on the Sofa. They are so obliging, seldom inconveniencing us by actually winning. And I hate to say it but they do take all the ribbing and continual abject failure with a really good grace.
Of course being British, half my family were transported to Australia for various trumped up crimes in the 19th century and the other half were responsible for sending them there. This certainly helps make our goading that much more sophisticated and complex than it would be with, say, Kiwis (with whom we don’t get much beyond “Fush and Chups” to be honest). We’ve gone three hours arguing with a listener before on the exact composition of the allied forces at Gallipoli and the grey areas between what constitutes British crimes in Australia and Australian crimes against humanity.
But the most fun comes from belittling their infantile veneration of the “baggy green”. What with it being so roundly despoiled three times this winter there is much pleasure to be had dusting off your best Bill Lawry impersonation and crying your way through his imagined requiem for a sodding woven cap.
Whenever Mitchell Johnson sprays the ball miles down one side of the wicket leaving a sprawling Brad Haddin face down in the dust brings enormous glee, but perhaps the finest sight for England fans was Ricky Ponting losing it with Aleem Dar after KP had suggested he may want to refer that caught behind. You see, on the Sofa we love it when our opposition lose their composure. It is more traditional for commentators to harrumph about cricket’s timeless values and what a shocking spectacle this is. But for us, cricket is a fabulous entertainment and when Ricky lost it that day at the MCG he was publicly declaring that England had not just beaten him, but melted his brain, destroyed his faculties and truly incinerated what last remaining vestiges of respect and fear the rest of the world felt for Australian cricket.
Oh, and of course the sight of the rain pelting down in Adelaide 90 minutes after we’d beaten them on the 5th morning. That was very sweet.
TheBounce: You utilize twitter in a big way when it comes to interacting with your listeners. What have been some of the best conversation topics that have arisen from your followers?
Test Match Sofa: Twitter is an enormous part of Test Match Sofa. To set ourselves apart from mainstream commentary we need to offer something extra; a frivolous, comic or simply surreal experience and without our listeners we’d have to do all the work ourselves.
We have the usual conversations inspired by, for example, David Warner such as “What is your best Ugly XI?” This can be adapted to Fat XIs, Charisma-Free XIs, Alcoholic XIs and so forth. We tried an STD XI but couldn’t get verifiably further than Shoaib Akhtar and Wally Hammond, but I’ve always had suspicions about Jacques Rudolph’s nose in that regard.
Sometimes the best are simply the most surreal, like discovering that listener @goldenstrawb was doing a thesis on medieval monks. We asked him to tell us his favourite monk and he shot back with Roger The Bugger, a torturer of predictable methods.
But the thread that springs most to mind was when we asked listeners to complete the sentence “When Ricky Ponting Gets Out….” which produced a deluge of replies including “kittens swarm the earth in a tsunami of cuteness”, “every Englishman gets one year younger”, “North and South Korea move one step closer to peace” and my favourite, “10 million people have a little sex wee”.
TheBounce: As ‘default’ captain of the Sofa, how do you select the commentary team per match. Is there a ‘form’ pecking order or is it more just a general rotation based on availability?
Test Match Sofa: For any full day’s play I’m looking for an optimum team of 6 people with three or four on mic at any one time. Of these I need three people to be reliable ball by ballers. There is definitely a different set of skills required for calling the play from doing the production of the show and reading the tweets and emails. The latter role is crucial and requires whoever it is to interact with our audience. The ball by ballers need to be focused on the match, how the game is shifting one way or the other and of course in getting the minute details of the play described accurately.
And it’s a real test of stamina, especially when you cover matches through the night like the Ashes, so I need to be able to give people breaks.
Most days I can rely on getting about 7-8 people and when I’m over subscribed I simply stand down the person who has been on most frequently.
But it’s much like selecting amateur cricket teams. Some weeks you have too many, some weeks you have too few but you virtually never have the right amount.
There are obviously a hard core of regulars (me, Manny, Hendo, Jarrod, Gary, Nigel, Sophia, Aatif), but many of our commentators have jobs (Sophia, Ralph, Lizzie, Ben, Zoob for example) so I try to get them on at weekends.
Also, all planning goes out of the window when you get a celebrity on the Sofa. We’ve had Iain O’ Brien (Kiwi quickie and most romantic cricketer on earth) and John Emburey on frequently and also a host of UK comics like Mark Steel, Miles Jupp, Andy Zaltzmann and Dominic Frisby. The comics are not always the best commentators but they inject a marvelous energy to proceedings. When they become available it necessarily reduces on air time for the regular team.
TheBounce: As a devoted cricket fan spanning a fair few years, which moment from a past match would you have loved to have called?
Test Match Sofa: That’s easy. The moment Bert Oldfield top edged a ball into his face at Adelaide during the Bodyline series of 32/3. More even than Woodfull being hit over the heart, this was the flashpoint that lit the blue touch paper on a combustible series (as the worst soccer commentator might say). It was an error, freely admitted by the batsman but the result was a load of unbelievable nonsense about “only one side playing cricket” and all sorts of posturing self-pity from the Aussies which, had I been there, would have been firmly put back in its place.
I confidently believe that I alone would have been able to bring perspective to the incident, told the Aussies to pull their socks up and get on with the game and thereby save Bodyline from ultimately being banned and ensuring that Bradman wouldn’t have ended up with that disgracefully inflated average which he achieved solely by whining to the authorities that he wasn’t getting enough half volleys any more.
England’s eventual climb down in the teeth of the mass Aussie toddler tantrum set the tone for English cricket from then on. We used to be aggressive bastards and whilst it is certainly out of place in international political affairs, it is most definitely welcome on the cricket pitch. If I’d been there in 32/3 we would never have lost another series for want of aggression and self belief. Skill, maybe.
TheBounce: I first warmed to the idea of alternative cricket commentary after hearing the 12th man tapes back in the 90’s. I’m sure you would be honoured to have Richie Benaud on the Sofa with you, but seeing as he is 148 years old, who would you most want to call a game with from current or past players?
Test Match Sofa: Well actually Iain O’Brien is a magnificent commentator; very good on the technical details, dispeller of myths but all done with a striking lack of pomposity which is hard to find in ex-internationals.
I’d get a kick out of telling Shastri and Sivaramakrishnan that they were talking banal nonsense, but I guess that doesn’t count.
I’ll have to make it a short list because I can’t choose between the top candidates.
Mike Brearley would be marvelous for answering the question “what’s going through his mind at the moment?” as well as being the best reader of a cricket match alive or dead. But Mike is notoriously shy of publicity so I’d need to have spiked his herbal tea with Ecstasy to get him on the Sofa at all.
Shane Warne has what it takes to make the transition from state broadcasting bore to Sofa legend but the fall out from his inevitable liaisons with the women on our team would take months to unravel.
Graeme Swann seems perfect for the role but may object to his jingle which is somewhat disrespectful.
Navjot Singh Siddhu ticks every box. His florid similes and surreal malice would have me in stitches. And you sense that he wouldn’t actually need anyone to commentate with him which would lessen the burden on the rest of us.
But at a pinch, and because I suffer a certain and unique (albeit necrophiliac) man love for him, I would plump for Douglas Jardine. His deconstruction of all things Australian combined with his genius for the game and the certainty that he would come bearing a case of champagne makes him my number one. But only just ahead of Siddhu.
TheBounce: Getting back to the healthy dislike of the Aussies, are there any particular players that get any special treatment from the boys (and girls) on the Sofa?
Test Match Sofa: If by particular you mean 15-20 of them, yes. But in something like reverse order the top three dislikeable Aussies would have to be:
Mitchell Johnson: it’s not just his sinister relationship with his mother that borders on the Hitchcockian. Consider the furrowed brow. The feeble attempts at sledging. The pursed mouth when he finally lands the ball on the cut strip. Those diabolical tattoos and childishly spiked hair. He is a package of all round gittishness.
Shane Watson: nicknamed Twatto by all who know him best. He takes the Johnson pursed lip thing and applies it to all facets of his game. He is wronged whenever his limp powder puff dobbers fail to take a wicket. He is in disbelief at the fall of his wicket, searching sulkily for meaning when there is just the one: you’re out pal, now sod off to the pavilion. And to make his beach-blond-surfer-dude-all-Australian-hero-doofusness even more unbearable, he actually comes across really well in interviews. He’s charming, believable and even humble. To reflect the Sofa’s confusion he is the only player to have four different jingles, three supplied by equally confused listeners.
Ricky Ponting: for being Ricky Ponting. Basically we’re jealous of him and his ability. But he has piss holes in the snow for eyes, resembles George W. Bush, and whines incessantly on the field. He’s also the Australian captain and, as he hasn’t tired of telling us in the past and at greatly tedious length, you should always target the captain. But he’s not long for the cricketing world so I reckon we’ll have one last crack at him in the World Cup to finally slay the legend of the admittedly Great One.
TheBounce: Let’s talk the C word, yes what all broadcast commentary teams are full of – clichés. Do you think these ex-players turned commentators today rely on clichés because they just run out of things to say or that they just aren’t cut out for live commentary?
Test Match Sofa: Both is the answer, I’m afraid. The problem for the ex-international commentators is that they don’t know whether they’re supposed to entertain, inform or simply relay a series of marketing messages from the broadcaster and local advertisers.
There is undoubtedly a place for expert commentary supplied by people who know the game best. But frequently a player doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. Take Botham; a great player but one incapable of understanding why everyone else couldn’t do what he could. His commentary reflects this. We don’t care what Botham thinks as a result since it’s so far removed from the experiences of both the audience and the players.
Cliches are a different matter. It’s quite hard when you supply ball by ball audio commentary not to slip into certain phrases simply because you see the same ball and shot numerous times a day. But on TV it’s unforgivable. The commentators should only be there to add to what the viewer can’t see for him/herself. Hearing Shaun Pollock explain that 127 mph is faster than 116 mph is enough to make you reach for your gun and end it there and then.
Benaud was and still is the master of saying very little. Why these newcomers don’t simply study his methods beggars belief.
But we are in a different sphere altogether. On the Sofa we believe that commentary can be the entertainment. Of course you’re listening because you care about cricket, but why should the commentators talk only of cricket. A day lasts the best part of 8 hours. Once you’ve explained your infuriation with the lack of slips to Tremlett, there is no need to bang on about it for 4 hours like Alan Donald. As CLR James said “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
TheBounce: When England toured down here to SA in 2009/2010, there was a standing joke as to whether half the team were going to stay at a hotel, or at home. If you were to actually hand pick some Saffas from the current crop to represent England, who would you choose?
Test Match Sofa: I’m a big fan of England’s inclusionist selection policy if for no other reason than that it antagonizes the rest of the world, and it is true that you Saffers are harbouring some potentially excellent English talent.
No one would refuse Kallis in their side as long as they could guarantee he was given a separate table at lunch and tea. And he could come straight in for Collingwood.
Dale Steyn not only fits the bill as a cricketer, he’s also very obviously English. Like a latter day Harold Larwood he’d replace Tim Bresnan in my starting XI.
And if you guys would consider an exchange programme, we’re ready to give you back Pietersen if you hand over Amla. I think that’s fair. I mean he can even read and write now which is more than can be said for the feral beast you lumbered us with back in 2005. And Amla has taken being a South Afrcian as far as he can. It’s time he took the next step, got himself a monocle and hung out in gentlemen’s clubs in Mayfair.
TheBounce: So, it’s the World Cup this month on the dusty tracks of the sub-continent. Who have you got your money on?
Test Match Sofa: The following attempt at predictive punditry comes with the caveat that I’m always wrong. But here goes anyway.
India will mess up, probably in the quarter finals. They have been underperforming in major tournaments ever since they were told they were the best. Playing at home they will hear nothing but adoration and will complacently fail as a result.
Australia are simply not good enough at any department of the game but most lacking is planning and game intelligence. They may make the semis but frankly that would be almost a travesty.
Pakistan will play 2 out of 5 games like winners and the rest will be abject failure. They may time their good games luckily. They may not. Don’t risk it.
England are in a state of post coital smugness after their Ashes win and don’t really care. They may even lose in the group stages to Bangladesh and Ireland. They won’t mind. They’re lazy and curiously want to spend time with their wives.
New Zealand are terrible and will go out in the quarters.
Bangladesh will surprise only the people too stupid to notice that they’re a good one day side. Could make the semis.
West Indies look in disarray but have a good group. They’ll make the quarters and may have a good day. Won’t make the final which will be between…
South Africa who will win every game up til then by 5 wickets or between 15 and 21 runs but will throw away the game needing 40 to win from 8 overs with 6 wickets in hand to…
Sri Lanka who no one fancies but possess in Jayawardene, Sangakarra, Dilshan, Matthews, Murali and Malinga the greatest concentration of match winners in the tournament. They are also the best fielders in the world and know the conditions inside out. Put all your worldly goods on them (but re-read the caveat above).
TheBounce: And finally, outside of Jacques Kallis’ new rug, what is the most exciting thing in Test cricket at the moment?
Test Match Sofa: The most exciting thing is also what threatens to undermine it. At the moment there are four teams in the world of roughly equal ability; India, South Africa, England and Sri Lanka (though Sri Lanka could be on the verge of dropping down the pile).
When England played in SA last year they held their own in a thrilling 1-1 drawn series. Since then they’ve played consistently great cricket but against Bangladesh, Pakistan and this Australia it’s hard to know how good that makes them.
India have been rated top for some time now but have hardly played outside the subcontinent. The series in SA produced another draw but highlighted India’s lack of bowling depth. It was only the Saffers’ legendary cluelessness against spin that kept India in it.
And as for South Africa they have the makings of a great side spearheaded by the only proper opening bowling partnership in the world (now that Amir and Asif have been suspended). But the middle order is fragile and Paul Harris is an abomination. Perhaps stealing that Pakistani leg spinner is South Africa’s best hope for cracking the number one spot. (All the best English ideas get nicked in the end.)
None of the current crop of teams has anything approaching the aura of the 80s Windies or 90s and 00’s Aussies. The danger therefore is that people don’t value these current tests as highly as they should.
But in truth, the competition for top spot is thrilling with India visiting England this summer attracting far more interest from Brits than the 50 over World Cup.
Encouragingly test cricket is surviving the latest attack on its supremacy, this time from T20. Crowds in Australia and England are big and the 2nd test at Bangalore between India and Australia brought huge attendances. But there is a worrying decline in the West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Test cricket is by some margin the most extraordinary, challenging, beautiful, and remarkable sport. Because of its unique oddness it is always under pressure from modernity to justify its continued existence and it is our duty as keepers of the sacred flame to protect it with the very last breaths of our bodies.
Currently I’m pleased to say it’s holding its own. But only just.
Thanks very much for your time Daniel, it is always such a treat to find real men of sport especially when they are putting the alternative voice out there for all to enjoy.
Ease in to the ever inviting Sofa by visiting www.testmatchsofa.com
You can also register on the site and become a Friend of the Sofa allowing you access to a whole bunch of cool stuff that will provide even more laughs than Herschelle Gibbs’ off field antics.
And finally follow Daniel on Twitter (@sofa_dan) and of course (@TestMatchSofa) where you can be part of the discussion during their live broadcasts.