Calling in “The Undertaker” — Australian cricket commentary’s cultural cringe and why it matters
Richie Benaud's 8 rules of commentary
- Never ask a statement.
- Remember the value of the pause.
- There are no teams in the world called ‘we’ or ‘they’.
- Avoid cliches and banalities, such as ‘he’s hit that to the boundary’, ‘he won’t want to get out now’, ‘of course’, ‘as you can see on the screen’.
- The Titanic was a tragedy, the Ethiopian drought a disaster, and neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.
- Put your brain into gear before opening your mouth.
- Concentrate fiercely at all times.
- Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously, and have fun.
I was watching Australia play Sri Lanka at the Sydney Cricket Grond via a certain premium streaming platform when I had to stop.
The first sign of trouble was watching as Wanindu Hasaranga, the World Number 1 T20 bowler, was cleaning up the Australian top order with some superb deliveries, and one commentator took it upon himself to come up with a nickname for unusual round-arm delivery that drew a wicket out of Glenn Maxwell.
“Maybe the undertaker, the round-arm undertaker,” one commentator, who had rubbished the bowler a few overs earlier said (or ‘declared’ as the write up on the broadcaster’s website put its).
It was a somewhat amusing if inane stream of consciousness for a few deliveries, but the gag was well past its use-by date by the time the commentators dropped it a good half an hour later.
But the real red flag came when the three white Australian commentators began boasting that so far, they had got the pronunciations correct for all of the Sri Lankan Players.
First off, they weren’t and had at one point three variations going for Danushka Gunathilaka.
Second, jokes about Sri Lankan players having long names have been around since the early 90s Twelfth Man CDs and were last funny about that time too.
Third, getting the pronunciations right (and also giving the casual viewer insight and analysis about all the players on the field, not just the Australians) is nothing to boast about. It should be the bare minimum requirement of a commentator doing their job well.
It’s also just a mark of basic respect for the visiting team.
One noted that they had been practising for about an hour in the commentary box before they had gone on the air, which does show some effort had been made, but perhaps revealed that not a lot of research had been done in the lead up beforehand on the visitors (instead the mental energy might have been occupied by formulating more hot takes about the sacking of Justin Langer which, understandably, was the first talking point of the pre-match coverage).
With the cameras away from the action and now on the commentary team, they invoke the name of retired broadcaster Bill Lawry who they wished a happy birthday. One of the callers said they had rung him recently and asked for advice on how to approach the pronunciation of the Sri Lankan names.
“He said, don’t worry! Greigy (the late Tony Greig) used to just make it up as he went along!”
Chortles ensue. Something inside me dies.
“They’re just completely classless,” my flatmate remarks.
That joke would have been mildly funny if the current commentators were doing a better job than a player who had died around a decade ago and had spent most of his career working in the pre-internet days before access to any cricket match in the world is just a YouTube search away.
But they weren’t doing a better job.
Meanwhile, while this guffawing and (read in Justin Langer voice) banter was going on, there was a seriously good contest going on in the middle, which the token Sri Lankan commentator Russell Arnold would occasionally reference.
He, ostensibly invited onto the broadcast as the knowledgable expert on Sri Lankan Cricket, was not given a seat inside the air-conditioned SCG commentary box but was instead huddled under an umbrella on the boundary line, where the all Australian commentary team would occasionally throw to him every few overs when they felt the urge to get some insight into the exciting young touring team taking on the world champions.
By the innings break, I’ve exhausted my patience and I switch to ABC Grandstand.
It’s a good decision, as one of my mates who perseveres with the television coverage says the commentators have started going on about one of their favourite cricket related topics: Pizza.
He also notes his discomfort about how the callers refer to the visiting team as “The Sri Lankans” repeatedly.
During the Ashes, the visiting team was almost always referred to England or the English team.
You would never hear, during the Border-Gavaskar trophy, Australia’s opponents constantly referred to as “The Indians.”
But I tune back in, just in time to hear one commentator remark that it's sad the Sri Lankan fans have not brought their drums along tonight.
Thank god for the rain.
Look, I love Cricket and I would actually love to work in sports broadcasting one day and acknowledge that writing this particular blog post probably will get me blacklisted from doing that.
And look, complaints about Australian sports commentary are nothing new, it’s basically a national sport in itself at this point.
But, cricket is a repeat offender for the same issues.
You only have to do a quick google search to find the time a commentator, dismissive of an Indian cricketer’s achievement, joked that he made a triple century against a “Railway Canteen XI”, mocking India’s first class system.
“Who opened the bowling for them that day? The chef. First change? The kitchen hand. And they’ve got the spinner as well… the casual uni student that cleans the bottles? Some of those first-class games in India don’t stand up, do they. East Hyderabad delicatessen.”
Or the time another commentator decided that Indian batsman Cheteshwar Pujara’s name was “not the easiest name to pronounce” (is it actually?) and instead referred to him as “Steve”, the nickname given to him by teammates at Yorkshire Cricket Club, which was found by an independent report to have mishandled multiple racism allegations, prompting a ban on hosting international matches and more than a dozen sackings.
I don’t believe for a moment, that any of the individuals mentioned are racist.
But it’s actually quite saddening that despite being the Australian sport with the most global outlook and potential to give the viewer exposure to different cultures, the coverage dished up consistently falls short.
What is perhaps more puzzling is that this happening is a premium product behind a paywall that is being aggressively advertised and relied on to help fill the rapidly emptying coffers of both the broadcaster and Cricket Australia.
During the summer of test cricket, there was at least the alternative of watching the free to air coverage, which with a tenth of the budget did a great job of giving insightful and engaging commentary.
But the blokey incessant banter offered up here, ostensibly targeted at one part of the population, makes cricket not just less enjoyable for viewers outside that demographic, but also less accessible.
It’s a long-known issue that professional cricket in Australia (certainly among the male side of the sport) has issues with accurately reflecting the diversity of Australia and reaching non-anglo/Indian audiences, especially compared to the footy codes.
Things are not completely white bread — outside of the well-publicised examples of Usman Khawaja, we also have Marcus Stoinis of greek heritage and Mitchell Starc of Slovenian descent.
Indigenous representation has also improved significantly in recent years, and I have to commend Cricket Australia and the broadcasters for the efforts they are making now on this front.
Even in the 2000s, there was a strong baltic presence with Michael Kasprowicz, Simon Katich and Jason Krejza.
But they remain few and far between.
This is a problem, which has been recognised by Cricket Australia, because ultimately if you want to ensure the survival of the game, you’d like to reach as large an audience as possible.
And while recruitment and outreach are important, particularly in culturally and linguistically diverse areas, the truth is that most people and most migrants in Australia will be exposed to cricket first on television.
Those given the privilege (and it is a privilege) are not there just to have a laugh, they are ambassadors of the game, probably more so than a lot of the players.
It is their voice that is responsible for guiding the uninitiated in, for making them feel included in an intimidating sport that is weaved into the fabric of Australia’s cultural history.
That is something that Richie Benaud understood from day one — a cricketer who was actually trained in the art (yes, it is still an art for some) of broadcasting and who, as the face of the upstart World Series Cricket, which was not at all popular in its first season, knew how important it was to bring in new fans.
And he was bloody good at it, as was the rest of the team who he mentored — who operated mostly on the maxim of shutting up when there was nothing useful to say.
It seemed cricket was bigger and better when they were still working, and maybe it was not just because it was on free to air TV, but also because their coverage was able to reach and connect with a huge audience, including fans from outside the anglo/Indian sphere.
People, especially within cricket circles, don’t understand how alien this sport, with its unique structure, intricacies and obscure turn-of-phrase lexicon can be for new migrants, never mind people for whom English is not their first language.
God knows what a first-time viewer would have learnt about the game watching last night.
This piece reflects the author’s views, not that of his employer.