Thursday, August 24, 2006

Athers raises Sky's Limits

One overlooked highlight of the summer has been the arrival in the Sky commentary box of Mike Atherton. There was an interesting passge of play in the recent 40 over game between Essex and Sussex which encapsulates the effect Atherton has had on Sky coverage.

Darren Gough and Andy Bichel were bowling for Essex. Up in the box with Michael Holding, Atherton made the point that Gough and Bichel were very similar in terms of age, experience and the fact that they were both relatively short for fast bowlers and had, Atherton pondered, presumably had to adapt their attitude to bowling as they got older.

To begin with, Holding's automatic response to Atherton's query was to make a joke about 'aging fast bowlers' and start to move his attention back to the game going on in the middle. Had Botham been in the box they'd no doubt have made reference to Gough concentrating on his ballroom dancing and moved on, but Atherton pressed the issue and started to expand on the theme - and Holding sounded ever so slightly irritated, and then rather taken aback.

The trigger for Holding was that Atherton called him 'Michael' rather than the usual 'Mikey' that the rest of the Sky commentary team use. The subtext seemed to be "I want to have a proper cricket conversation with you now, not the jocular (ever so slightly fawning) banter that Botham and Co. subject you to."

Once Holding twigged what Athers was up to there followed an absolutely fascinating period of commentary as we listened to two Sky commentators having a discussion that was actually illuminating and informative - with the live cricket on the screen illustrating what they were talking about. In short - perfect television. They talked about how quick bowlers adjusted their approach as they got older, and how shorter fast bowlers might find this more difficult. Atherton then mentioned Malcolm Marshall as glorious exception to the rule, and you could almost hear Holding getting misty eyed.

Atherton is exactly what the Sky team has needed for years. Someone with slightly more 'gravitas' and a sense of how cricket can be intelligent as well as entertaining - moving away from the hyperbolic zoo that viewers have been used to over the past decade or so. At one stage I'd guess that David Lloyd might have been earmarked for this role, but over the past couple of years 'Bumble' has almost become a study in self-parody to the extent now that it's almost impossible to listen to the commentary when he's on air and he has joined Paul Allott in the 'brings absolutely nothing to the party' category. As for Bob Willis, Atherton has more gravitas in the dirt under his toenails than Willis will ever possess - for heaven's sake, Willis even makes Charles Colville sound enlightened - some feat!

To my mind, Willis reached 'ground zero' during a One Day International a few years ago. England were chasing something like 190 to win so obviously not in any sort of hurry early on where the priority was to avoid losing early wickets. To Willis's mind, however, every dot ball was a drama to be escalated into a crisis to the extend that he was at hysterical pitch by the sixth over when England were a comfortable 15 for no wicket, stating that they were 'very much behind the clock and need to start putting their foot on the gas pedal now'.

Atherton was fortunate to spend his first couple of years of his commentary career in the box for Channel 4 alongside the acknowledged master, Richie Benaud, and you can hear Benaud's influence every time Atherton is behind the mike. You can also tell that he's picked a lot up off of Mark ('10 years media training did it for me') Nicholas.

It would be nice to think that Sky are starting to take their responsibility as sole live cricket provider in the UK seriously and start to move away from the tabloid style of presentation that has been prevelant up until now. Their coverage of events at the Oval on Sunday was apparently pretty good - making good use of the ability to switch between booth and studio to enable the two teams of presenters to collect their thoughts and avoid banal repetition.

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