Monday, January 9, 2012

Give those men a microphone

T20 will never be the most beloved of cricket's formats for me, but it is cricket; if it's being televised, broadcast or played, chances are I'll be taking more than simply a passing interest. Like motorists who slow down to rubber neck at a nose-to-tail, curiosity outweighs logic, and I feel compelled to take an interest hoping for some flash of brilliance or the unearthing of a future superstar.

On the surface, Australia's T20 Big Bash League (BBL) appeared that it would be just another domestic T20 league, much the same as the hit and giggle slog fest that seems to take precedence in India, the Caribbean and New Zealand, among others, and whilst there has undoubtedly been a fair proportion of baseball with wickets, the BBL has given us something extra - commentary with context. From a television perspective, two players, not the experts in the commentary box, have been hugely influential in lifting the entertainment value and providing must-see viewing. Surprisingly, that influence hasn't grown through the hard hitting of Travis Birt, Herschelle Gibbs' swagger and bravado or the flowing mullet of crowd favourite Rana Naved. From our lounge rooms, it's debatable whether even Chris Gayle's belligerent six hitting has made the same impression on the viewing public as two forty-something, semi-retired Australian cricketing legends.

Australian cricketing royalty Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden have both been miked up throughout their matches for the Melbourne Stars and the Brisbane Heat respectively. There’s nothing new in that, a number of players with the gift of the gab do it in T20 all around the world; some even at international level, but not quite like these two giants of the game. Anyone with even a basic sporting knowledge knows who Warney and Haydos are, but most of us hear little of their personality or thought processes outside of run of the mill interviews; both on television and in print. This year’s BBL has changed all that and has, at least in part, been responsible for the huge television viewing audience that has settled on the couch with a beer in hand (insert XXXX, VB or Steinlager as you will) most nights for the last three weeks.

So, how are two cricketers who haven’t played at international level for at least three years (five in Warne’s case) making such a hit with the microphone? Easy – by taking the lead, providing insights into the nuances of a game most of us love but will never excel at, then backing it up with their talent, all the time mixing their thoughts with a little of the much-loved Aussie larrikin. When the pair signed on for the revamped, and extended, Big Bash League, the cynics amongst us wondered whether their signatures were for little more than marketing purposes. No-one had expectations of seeing a repeat of feats like the infamous Gatting delivery to start Warne’s first Ashes test in 1993 or Hayden imperiously walking at the world's most feared fast bowlers and depositing them back over their heads without a second thought. That didn’t concern me; I saw that at the highest level of the game for more than a decade. But, and I can’t emphasise this strongly enough, they are still captivating. Their commentary has been nothing short of sublime, not that their returns have been poor - on current form they’d both still waltz into the Australian T20I side.

Every time we settle in to see the Heat or the Stars do battle, we get to understand a little more of the genius of Warne and Hayden, in their own words. Sure, they’ve answered the odd question from Junior, AB, the Bowlologist or Roy, but for the larger part they get little more than a prompt from the commentary box and are left to freestyle, so to speak. Whether they’re waiting for the next delivery, fielding in the circle or preparing to deliver a biting leggy, the pair talk as freely as if the game meant nothing and they were simply going through the motions at training - but it does matter and these two don’t know how not to compete.

Hayden, one of the game’s premier sledgers, provides a very different commentary to that he provided to opposition players who showed any weakness during his international playing days - much of that would have led the Channel 9 team to consider turning down the stump microphone. Instead, during this year’s BBL, as he gets his head together between deliveries, Hayden has talked enthralled viewers through hitting zones, batting tactics and his predictions of what the bowler is trying to do. And with more than 15,000 international runs under his belt, you tend to sit up and listen. Explanations of why he walks at a bowler and slaps him straight down the ground or how he believes pre-meditation has little place in a batsman’s mind set, provide a small window into the psyche of one of the most intimidating batsmen the game has ever witnessed.

It’s Warne though who has taken player commentary to a whole new level. Widely regarded as the best cricketing mind never to captain his country, poker-loving Warne could almost give odds on how he’ll dismiss the man wielding the willow. In the most part he has talked the viewer through almost every delivery he’s bowled, but only after he’s enlightened us as to how the batsman plays, where his weakness is and where he’s going to try and hit the next delivery. The kicker though, is that more often than not he can make his predictions a reality. If you’re in any doubt, Google Warne bowls McCullum. After being given a bit of tap by David Warner in the Stars’ first match, Warne showed his true genius when he dismantled Brendon McCullum, one of the most explosive batsmen in the T20 game, in his next outing. After a quiet first over, Warne predicted McCullum would have a fair crack at him, and sure enough, two balls in McCullum advanced at him only for the miscued lofted drive to fall just out of reach of the cover fieldsman – we (the seasoned internationals in the commentary box included) were all hooked. Warne nodded knowingly, thinking about his next play, just as he would at a private table at the Crown Casino. When McCullum came back on strike, Warne confidently asserted he “might shape to sweep one after that first one, or maybe even go inside out again a bit harder. So, I might try to slide one in there – fast”. As if guided by a Nostradamus prophecy, McCullum moved across his stumps and shaped to sweep a quicker Warne delivery which pitched and turned to bowl him around his legs. Everyone who had listened and watched the magic unfold shook their head in disbelief at the genius they had just seen. And Warney’s response when quizzed about what we’d all just witnessed – “not bad”. All hail, King Warne! A one-off, you might suggest? No - Bravo, Gibbs and Mitchell Marsh, among others, have fallen as foretold by the leg spinning supremo, and we’ve heard every word. 

After the conclusion of this year’s Big Bash League, it’s unlikely we’ll ever have the opportunity to listen to the commentary genius of either Warne or Hayden again – while they’re playing at least. So, take the chance to witness some of the magic in their remaining matches, and Fox – sign up a couple more legends next year!

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