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Article by Gidoen Haigh about Test Match Sofa

by tom 26. June 2010 13:17

Gideon Haigh, eminent cricket writer and historian has kindly given us permission to post an article he has written about us for the July 2010 edition of "Serious Cricket Chronicles".

Here is it in full -

This month marks my twenty years writing cricket, which in the company of my Seriously Cricket Chronicles colleagues makes me rather a Johnny-come-lately, but I can promise feel like an eternity to me.  If you’ll pardon a personal reminiscence, it all started in the late, lamented Sportspages bookshop on Charing Cross Road, a section of which was then devoted to fanzines, then proliferating in soccer thanks to the example of When Saturday Comes.  It was browsing among them one day that I chanced on an early edition of a lone cricket zine, Johnny Miller 96 Not Out, published by a cheeky Bristolean, Billy Cotton, from his mum’s house.  As far as production values were concerned, it was slightly more sophisticated than a roneoed sheet.  But its cover did feature a photo of a meeting of the Ku Kux Klan, explaining that these were members of England’s rebel tourists trying on their uniforms.  Yep, this was my sort of publication.    My first contribution, an unsolicited guide to Yorkshire Rhyming Slang including such examples as 'There's Still the NatWest' (Lost All the Rest) and 'When Yorkshire's Strong, England's Strong' (Wrong), was published in July 1990.

I wrote for JM96* as long as it lasted; I even joined Billy selling it at Sunday League games and, memorably, outside that summer’s Oval Test, including to the miserable TCCB media manager who had banned us from the ground.  It was, I’m bound to say, pretty undergraduate.  Its chief influence was probably Private Eye, its chief running gag an obsessive fascination with ‘Dereck Pringle’: I was never quite sure if this originated in Billy’s fondness for puns or his improvised spelling.  But, somehow, JM96* staggered on for another five ragged-arse years, by the end of which I’d written some cricket books, and had begun my writing about the game in the way I would continue, a perennial outsider, by accident, design and general disposition.  All this is by way of explaining why I felt a pang of instant simpatico with the good people of Test Match Sofa, about to celebrate its first birthday.

The Sofa is named for its chief asset, a sofa in the front room of the Tooting Bec home of Daniel Norcross, an IT manager who became a casualty of the global financial crisis on the eve of last year’s Ashes series.  We’ve all had those moments where, usually with the aid of a few drinks, our pub conversation has seemed to make more sense than the nonsense being spun about the cricket on radio or television; Norcross decided to see how he and his mates stacked up directly against the mainstream media, doing what many of us have done for our own amusement: turning the television down, so as to pretend to be a commentator.  Except that Norcross and his fifteen-member rota put their ruminations to air, or at any rate to fibre, using the internet, which at JM96* we would have taken for some new-fangled cricket practice facility.  In describing the result, I can do no better than the Guardian’s Barney Ronay:

Before long James Anderson was bowling an over that was "absolute cack ... Diabolical. Rubbish". Stuart Broad was next up: "Floaty rubbish ... unbearable to watch." Michael Clarke was out lbw: "Australia are teetering! ... Clarke removes his helmet to reveal his horrible haircut." And suddenly any lingering yearnings for Aggers and Tuffers were being flushed away by a thoroughly cleansing draught of the kind of spiky, unaffected, deeply personal bile only the internet can offer.

Tearful Australian veneration of "the sodding baggy green" was roundly jeered. Aussie wickets were greeted by mocking laughter ("They've crumbled, the suckers!"). And just before lunch we were rocking along with "and it's BOWLED HIM!!! The bails flying off like the ears of a donkey that have been sliced by a Stanley knife".

It was funny. You had to be there. It's just the guys. And it's also something about what listening to blokes chatting on a sofa on the internet seems to do to you after a while. Before long there were comedy German accents ("HilfenHAAUUSSSZZ zcoringr runzz") and suddenly I was giggling in cretinous fashion, also sofa-bound, dribbling Pot Noodle and thinking, hey, this internet sofa cricket chat thing is kind of neat.

 

As the foregoing suggests, the Sofa is unashamedly partisan, although its in-house Australian, Cricket With Balls blogger Jarrod Kimber, gives as good as he gets.  It is also unstudied, and occasionally formless: with so many mouths and so few microphones, the cacophony of competing voices can be disorienting.  Likewise, every so often, the language, even if you can’t claim not to have been warned: ‘We try not to swear,’ explains the Sofa’s website, ‘but sometimes we do so if you are offended by strong language there's always the BBC.’

Frankly, though, you’d need a heart of stone not to enjoy the Sofa.  Not only is its heart obviously in the right place, but it is consistently, mordantly funny, and manages consistently to make limitations into virtues.  On the first occasion I was a Sofa guest by telephone, the team had had that morning to deal with the reprieve granted Graeme Smith by third umpire Daryl Harper in Johannesburg because the sound on his live feed was turned down; having the sound turned down in Tooting Bec, the Sofists were as hopelessly out of touch as Harper, and their confusion said a great deal more about the referral system than any of the game’s other allegedly learned counsels.  It’s the charm of the Sofa that there is no pretension of omniscience, or of monopoly on wisdom; there is instead an unaffected underlying care for and interest in the game’s welfare.  Dan began his interview with me not by soliciting my view on the state of the Test, or even world cricket, but by asking about Archie Jackson.   Come again?  Yeah, Archie Jackson: any good?  ‘Was ‘e one of ours our one of theirs?’ asked Phil Tufnell on Test Match Special last year when the subject of Victor Trumper came up; on Test Match Sofa, they know who Archie Jackson is, and want to have a yarn about him.  When I was guest last month, a delightfully anorakish conversation ensued about the efficacy of the heavy roller.

It’s as a critique of the mainstream media that I like the Sofa most.  The self indulgence and self congratulation of radio commentary on the ABC has steadily driven me away. Kerry O’Keefe’s tomfoolery has long since grown tiresome; Peter Roebuck and Geoff Lawson aside, the team is in bizarre thrall to SMS.  The cricket itself is treated like a distraction from O’Keeffe building his after-dinner speaking franchise and/or Bluey from Burrumbuttock’s view that they should pick Jason Krejza.  It is the sound of cosy sinecures and dopey management diktats about interactivity, of nice hotels, dinners on expenses and a general sense of entitlement, full of forced levity, but taking itself with huge and totally misplaced seriousness.

Test Match Sofa, by contrast, is still fresh and cheerful and completely unimpressed with itself.  The setting is undisguisedly domestic, with footsteps, creaking doors and squeezy toys; the laughter is genuine, hearty and contagious, with nothing to prevent the commentators dropping into cod Irish accents when Eoin Morgan is batting; batsmen come to the crease accompanied by a piano jingle, and nicknames abound, personal favourites including All Right Mr. Mackay (Clint Mackay), and Dougie Howser (Nathan Hauritz). The views are unleavened and unapologetic, with no compunction about calling a poor shot 'rubbish', and no need to describe every drive to the boundary of a half-volley as 'magnificent', although there is also that distinctive self-parodic English triumphalism, the sense that success is merely failure deferred.  'England's hero, Ireland's hero, Australia's nemesis,' said Daniel, introducing Morgan during the recent ODIs.  'It's surely time he failed.'  In Jarrod Kimber, meanwhile, the Sofa has a first-rate eye for cricket and ear for smut. 

Above all, to an era of hyperprofessionalism, Test Match Sofa introduces a king of hyperamateurism, turning work into play, play into work.  Who knows where it might lead?  Twenty years ago, I had no idea where my writing would take me, and in a sense it hasn't been all that far: here I am, still writing for nothing.  Test Match Sofa, I suspect, has a great deal more potential.

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Gideon | Haigh