Concert hall cricket

Bridgewater HallI went to a Halle Orchestra concert last week. The opening piece was Brahms’ Nanie. The Halle Choir sung with such power they briefly made the string section sound puny. After the interval, the orchestra played all four movements of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The first three movements were jarring and often discordant. The contrast created by the last section was extreme: smooth, languid strings, bringing the evening to a beautiful conclusion.

My musical knowledge is slight. As a performer, my pinnacle was reached 15 years ago at the end of term concert for the Singing for the Tone Deaf class that I attended in London. As an audience-member at a classical concert, I lack the background knowledge and familiarity with the performers and even to some extent with the action that I can draw upon when spectating at a cricket match.

I enjoyed the Brahms piece. It was entertaining and an arresting spectacle with choir and orchestra in combination, but almost competing. It was classical music’s equivalent of a rousing late order rally. The bat thrown, boundaries hit, chances taken and missed. The scoreboard ticked over before the innings perished, with the inevitability of death in Brahms’ funeral song.

The fourth movement of Mahler’s symphony was also very pleasurable. It finds its equivalent in a calmly constructed partnership between two batsmen stroking boundaries with ease, but not aggression. Cover drives and leg glances amid correct defensive play.

But the early sections of that symphony were a drag. The music was dissonant, the changes of tempo confusing and I couldn’t comprehend the pattern or direction of the piece. Here were batsmen grafting against bowlers operating in favourable conditions and their own lack of form: playing and missing, grinding out a few runs with nudges and deflections, but nothing that imprinted on the memory. A few chances went begging but the bowling, without being particularly penetrating, remained on top.

A more informed concert-goer may have appreciated the technical competence of the musicians, or detected themes that gave a deep structure to the movements that to me had sounded bitty and lacking in cohesion.

Recently, I read the reminiscence of a cricket fan’s first day of live cricket. This fan missed every wicket that fell that day, mostly through following where the batsman was aiming the shot, not the actual trajectory of the ball which was into stumps or the slip cordon. Similarly, last week I found myself scanning the orchestra from my viewpoint in the side-circle, trying often unsuccessfully to locate the source of a particular note or chord that caught my ear.

On international match days in England, grounds are fairly heavily peopled by spectators whose knowledge of the game is at a level similar to my appreciation of classical music. It’s only the concert hall’s custom of complete silence during a performance that stops me betraying to the people around me my limited understanding of the music. There’s no convention at cricket of silence during play and so the occasional visitors are probably more conspicuous.

If you look at who follows cricket at one step removed from the in person experience – that is, through live TV or radio – the mix of informed and occasional followers is diluted again. Harsha Bhogle, in his most recent ride on The Cricket Couch, made this explicit when justifying the type of commentary offered on major matches

We represent a relatively small segment of the total watchers. I know you and a lot of your friends who are on the net together and who have very strong and very acerbic comments about the way things are done. I think that is a small subset. It is not even a significant subset. It is a small subset that I discovered during the IPL. When I am at the IPL, I discovered that this very involved number driven, nuance driven, strategy driven, good old Chennai Tambrahm cricket viewer – to be profiled in a sentence. He is a very small minority. Television audiences cannot cater to that minority.

The research also shows that when you say “if the long leg moved just a little finer”, they said they don’t know what that means. A very large percentage of people watching the match on TV have not been to a cricket ground. For them, cricket is what they see on the television. If you say “it is just moving mid-wicket squarer”, they say “What does that mean?”. That is the overwhelmingly large segment that the television has to cater.

Those of us, in Bhogle’s words, ‘on the net together’ – cricket bloggers, forum lurkers and tweeters – are very proprietary towards the sport. It forms a large part of our identity and so we have strong views about how it is covered in the broadcast media. Crudely, Richie Benaud and Mike Atherton – GOOD; Nick Knight and Danny Morrison – BAD. The commentators we would place in that first camp are outnumbered by those condemned to the second.

Bhogle’s words and my own naive enjoyment of classical music have encouraged me to rethink my position. Cricket, while not commanding anything like the reach of football, is a sport with mainstream appeal. That mass appeal fills grounds in England for around 30 days of international cricket each year. It draws thousands to one day and T20 cricket in Asia and Australia. In South Africa, a cricket nation whose economy doesn’t match its playing prowess, the appeal saw almost 4 million viewers tune in to TV coverage of each Test match this year. In the battle for talent with other sports, its appeal must play some part in AB de Villiers, Dave Warner, Corey Anderson and other headline acts opting for cricket.

Mass appeal means money, which provides facilities, vibrancy, international competitions and trade in players, media coverage and innovation – as well as corruption, short-term decisions trumping long term sustainability. Mass appeal has funded the sport we cherish. Nick Knight’s strongly emphasised platitudes are a small price to pay for those of us who identify so strongly with, and tend to be precious about, the game.

I have found another reason to be less critical of cricket’s mass audience seeking broadcasters. Again, it’s classical music. My father-in-law is a talented pianist, amateur music director, aficionado and stickler with prominent shades of pedantry. He listens to Classic FM all day, just as I would listen to Test Match Special and with the same intolerance of uninformed broadcasters. His current complaint is that the hosts announce, with Nick Knight-like solemnity, that a piece was written by Johannes Brahms or Gustav Mahler. Who, my father-in-law demands, do we think wrote it: Ronald Brahms? Basil Mahler? His complaint is that the use of the forename is unnecessary and shows the host’s ignorance.

How petty! How like the criticisms of cricket commentators. How I don’t want to be perceived like that.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

7 responses to “Concert hall cricket”

  1. Rajiv says :

    Ah yes. But IPL is definitely more enjoyable with the sound turned off…

  2. Russ says :

    I don’t agree with Harsha here. If commentators are serving a purpose it is to add value to the images. They do this very poorly, often, because they don’t discuss changes to the field, and how that will change the bowler’s line and batsman’s tactics. Particularly in T20, where this is changing constantly.

    The other aspect is that they have a duty (to themselves as well) to teach these concepts. Channel Nine used to do it very well – and Packer’s media empire used to facilitate it by printing guides in his magazines. There is a wonderful program on ABC Classic in Australia you should look for called Keys to Music. It breaks down classical music by highlighting what you should be listening to, or the history or background of the piece, or of basic concepts. It has added greatly to my understanding of what I am listening to, and it does so by talking intelligently, but plainly, about what is happening.

    If cricket listeners don’t know where fine leg is then that is a failure of cricket commentary to explain it. And given the visual aids available to them, there is no excuse not to enable the viewer to see anything they want to explain. Other sports are doing this, and with the occasional exception of Sky, cricket commentators seems to drift further into a never-ending imbecilic joshing of each other.

    And don’t even get me started on associate cricket, and their lack of preparation…

    • chrisps says :

      Russ, as a viewer/listener I am completely in agreement with you. However, I interpret Bhogle as saying that there is a large class of viewers who aren’t tuning in for anything other than light entertainment. Discussion of ‘technicalities’ of the game is presumably a ‘turn-off’; convivial chat and joshing between a pair of commentators is soothing. Much as I would prefer a more analytical and informed commentary, I did find Bhogle’s interview a very frank reminder that this game has a broad audience, whose needs vary and the majority do not coincide with mine.

      The Keys to Music programme sounds interesting. Irregular listening to classical music over many years doesn’t seem to have added to my understanding of the genre. I wonder if my lack of musical ability and experience will place a limit to how deep an understanding I can develop?

  3. Brian Carpenter says :

    I realize that I’m going out on a limb here and I will probably be blacklisted by Twitter and kicked out of the Blogosphere (if, indeed, I still inhabit it) but I seem to be alone in thinking that Nick Knight isn’t that bad. Bland, yes, and rarely if ever very incisive, but no worse than Gower or Botham, to name just two.

    I feel that bracketing him with Danny Morrison is very unfair. Morrison’s probably the worst cricket commentator of all time in any medium.

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, I have a theory about Nick Knight, which is that, as you say, he’s bland and rarely incisive, but has the children’s TV presenter-style habit of emphasising strongly his most banal utterances.

      There was some comment on twitter that Morrison had been a very decent Test match commentator and it was for the IPL that he reserved his worst. That would make him the AB de Villiers of commentators, able to adapt perfectly to his environment.

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