Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Why cricket coverage hits football coverage for six

During the England cricket team's seemingly never-ending winter tour, one thing has shone out - the high quality of the TV and radio coverage when set next to that of football, in fact it has become an increasingly regular refrain from fans and other pundits alike that football coverage - Match of the Day being the main target - is of very low quality.

The seeds for this poor output were sown in the mid-Sixties by the rabidly tabloid approach employed in the newly launched Sun newspaper which targeted the working class with a reactionary and anti-establishment stance later developed in consultation with senior members of the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative party, who themselves took campaign advice from Sun executives.

In the early-Eighties, then editor Kelvin McKenzie identified the average reader as "the bloke you see in the pub - a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he's afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and weirdoes and drug dealers."

A load of balls on Match of the Day (not for the first time)

Sport was of huge importance for this generalized reader and so the coverage of sport was of huge importance to the Sun and the other tabloids with which it was fighting a circulation war. Yet the reportage did not provide a technical analysis of the game instead it had two key elements.

Firstly there was a sensationalist interest in the off-the-pitch activities of star players and secondly, particularly where the England team was concerned, it took the tone of an imagined pub conversation with the reader, littered with patriotic invective ignoring and underestimating the quality of foreign opposition and attacking anyone deemed not to be doing their bit for the country.

Inevitably such tabloid discourse set the agenda for TV which eschewed analysis for 'up and at 'em' jingoism. During Italia '90, no one batted and eyelid when Jimmy Greaves blamed Scotland's defeat to Costa Rica on "Voodoo hoodoo" or suggested Cameroon needed a witch doctor to beat England.

Thankfully things have moved on a little since then, yet there is still a thinly-veiled racism in the criticism of Fabio Capello. Teams and footballers from other countries are ascribed certain stereotypes. Italians and Spaniards dive and cheat; the Germans are clinical but dour and  Africans teams provide joyous, plucky opponents which we can patronise.

Likewise, the debate over the dangers of tackling over the past few seasons has also framed in this jingoistic manner - the likes of 'Big' Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce are on one side defending the rugged Englishness of the Premier League and weak foreigners like Arsène Wenger and Rafa Benitez are on the other undermining our way of life.

And, if you're called Alan Shearer or Mark Lawrenson it's OK to say that back in the day you'd have punched a team mate for wearing a snood, yet the same pundits shake their heads in disgust at Mario Ballotelli a young, black lad from Italy with a violent temperament.

In Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue the game itself overtly clings to certain aspects of it working class roots. This leads to a wilful exclusion of the middle classes from the sport and an overt anti-intellectualism (such as a rejection of tactics and coaching qualifications) which in turn weakens the depth and quality of the talent pool available to the national team.

As it's from that limited pool of players that most pundits are drawn, it's little wonder that their analysis of the game is both limited and increasingly at odds with the sports' growing middle class audience, the anti-intellectualism manifesting itself in the studio, with the likes of Shearer happily admitting he knew nothing of Hatem Ben Arfa when the player joined Newcastle or unashamedly confusing David Villa and David Silva.

Conversely cricket has historically developed as a sport for the upper and middle classes, but significantly the division between 'gentlemen' (unpaid, upper-class participants) and 'players' (paid, working-class participants) began to blur in 1952 when Len Hutton became the first professional captain of England (a move broadly approved by the Press). The divisions broke down completely in the late-Seventies when Kerry Packer established World Series Cricket, in part because it was perceived players were not paid a living wage.

The impact can be seen in the Sky commentary box where university-educated Nasser Hussain (Durham) and Michael Atherton (Cambridge) sit comfortably alongside David Gower (who dropped out of University College after six months) and state-educated David Lloyd and Sir Ian Botham (who left school at 15).

After a night out with Beefy, the boys are ready for work

There is a further reason for this easy integration; cricket is a more multi-cultural and open-minded game than football. International cricketers spend months touring abroad and while this can take a heavy personal toll, it also opens their outlook to other cultures in a way English footballers rarely, if ever, experience which means in the main the game lacks the fear of 'the new' or 'the foreign' - cricket commetary is not weighed down by the racial stereotyping found in football coverage.

The game in this country also has a long history and little problem of utilising foreign-born players including, among others, Basil D'Oliveira in the Sixties to Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen today. In fact when England took to the field against New Zealand at Christchurch in January 1992 seven of the XI were born outside England.

It's a selection policy employed by many other countries in football but which causes huge concern within the FA and the tabloid Press. Perhaps, not for the first time, it is English football that needs to re-adjust its outlook.

It is also significant that cricket, at least at the highest level, requires a specialised set of skills and deep tactical understanding. On any given day the weather, state of the pitch or even the state of the ball can influence the outcome. This means ex-players are able to provide a level of informed, enlightening analysis which escapes their football counterparts.

The sad reality seems to be that if we want football punditry to change, then the game itself has to develop but for now we're all going to have to keep watching Match of the Day with the sound off.

1 comment:

Ash said...

Nice piece. I completely agree with the fact that punditry, especially in a lot of out newspapers, is uninterested in tactical analysis and cares more about what new car a player has bought. It's a crying shame as it would broaden the minds of many fans to think about why their club has just lost or won, instead of the star man's new haircut.

I don't agree though that we should allow foreign players to join the national team. If you're English you play for England, if you're Italian you play for Italy. The trouble is it's becoming increasingly difficult to determine someone's nationality as you could for example have German parents but be born in England. To me that makes you English, but it's one for debate.