Without any sense of irony, the Sky commentary team were pretty vociferous for most of the summer in describing the England batting order a 'cosy club'. Odd really, because nothing epitomises the settled life more than the current commentary team.
To an extent, much of the problem is self-inflicted. By going for the star names - 'ex England captain or coach' seems to be the main qualification, Sky have painted themselves into a corner and made it very difficult to move someone out of the box without putting noses out of joint. This means that what we're being served up with is becoming tired, stale and - for the most part, entirely predictable. To be fair, the producers have done the best with what they've got by mixing up the pairs and increasing the frequency of 'third man' features but lately that feature, copied from Channel 4, has simply become the vehicle for a 'lets pan round the ground and have a look at some of the fancy dress costumes', with the gratuitous shots of some female cleavage mixed in for good measure.
They increasingly rely on the visiting commentator to add some colour and variety - with mixed results. Jeremy Coney was a big positive. He had people writing him up as the heir to Richie Benaud with his erudite comments and insight into the game. There's also an attractive element of eccentricity in Coney's commentary which makes him come across like Bumble with a Doctorate. But for the second half of the summer they took the predictable route and went for the star name, rather than the guy with more ability, hello Shaun Pollock. A fine opening bowler, yes, but someone with all the charisma of a bus shelter. I'll admit he's improved as time has passed, but that generous perception comes from him setting his personal bar so very low in the first couple of tests.
'What about the quota system Shaun?'
'Er, well it has its opponents and supporters'
'What do you think of KP?'
'He's a fine batsmen'
'What's it like to play in a side captained by Graeme Smith?'
'He's an excellent captain'
Let's quickly go down the rest of the order -
Starting with the positives - Athers and Hussain are very much worth their place in the side, and provide an interesting contrast in styles and outlook. Atherton is suitably detached from the game now - and has gone on record as saying, remarkably, that he doesn't look back on his career with any fondness. Nasser lives every ball, and you can tell that he'd love to be out there in the thick of it.
I have to confess that I've grown to appreciate Bumble over the past couple of years. Originally I saw him as an 'idiot savant' with rather too much emphasis on the 'idiot', but now I can appreciate his total and utter devotion to the game and the way he manages to bring that out in everything he says. He's also a massive Fall fan, a huge plus in my book, and never misses a chance to mention them.
Then there's 'Sir Ian' Botham. I know a couple of people in the media who've told me that titled folk appearing on TV or radio are routinely asked how they want to be addressed, and how their name should appear on the credits at the end of the show. The default position is to use the title, but they are given the option. Bearing that in mind then, you have to assume that Botham actually insists on everyone referring to him 'Sir Ian' on each occasion. Every hand over, every pitch inspection and occasionally every question during the post game summary. Now this isn't an anti-honours system rant (we'll save that for another time) and it in no way suggests that Botham doesn't deserve recognition, but for a self-painted anti-establishment figure (he's still wonderfully scathing about MCC members) it's a little odd, to say the least.
What's helped 'Botham the commentator' is having Atherton and Nasser alongside him - he works well with both of them, and there's been a noticable drop off in the Truemanesque 'I don't know what's going on out there' moments, and the playing to the gallery.
On the negative side, I think 'Mikey' Holding is now past his sell by date. In all honesty he actually seems bored with the whole thing and, at times, simply seems to be going through the motions for the sake of it. The same goes for David Gower. Here you get the impression that he thinks he can do the whole thing in his sleep - almost seeing it as effortless, like his batting! This means he often comes across as being boring and laboured - like Holding, just going through the motions.
Then there's the studio duo of Colville and Willis. To be fair to the bouffanted one, he's actually improved a lot and doesn't appear to be as out of his depth as he was in the commentary box. He's stopped trying to be a personality or the 'voice of the fan', and just gets on with the job at hand - call it 'playing to your strengths'. I've worked out what it is about Bob Willis that is just so off-putting and irritating. In simple terms, he talks pure tabloid-speak. Listen to it, and you'll see what I mean. Everything is a shocking headline, or an ill-informed rant. Mix that with the 'great aunt Agatha' mad staring expression and, oddly, it's hyponotically entertaining.
Unfortunately for Sky, there's not much in the reserves. Paul Allott should be re-christened 'Paul Alittle' in terms of what he brings to the party, Ian Ward defines the word 'banal' and Nick Knight is too eager to come out with something edgy or contraversial rather than talk about what's going on out in the middle - where he's actually pretty insightful. In their occasional appearances Robert Croft and Mark Butcher have done a good job - Butcher especially seems a natural... and he did skipper England in one test too, so he's a sure fire cert for the main test team assuming he wants the job.
So what's to be done? Well, to my mind they need some new blood to freshen things up - to give a slightly different perspective on things and a different voice for us to listen to. For starters, how about Phil Tufnell? I admit I turned on TMS with a certain amount of trepidation when I heard he was doing the summarising there, but he's proved to be an absolute revelation. Still plays the 'artful dodger' on occasions, but mixes it with some clever comment and analysis and a fine line of self-deprecation. He's even done some ball by ball, which is normally only left to the BBC experts - and Jonathan Agnew.
If Tuffers isn't to everyones taste, then how about Alec Stewart? Ticks the 'ex-skipper' box, and is opinionated enough to make things a bit 'sparky' in the box - which means he'll stand up to Botham at every opportunity.
Then they should give Gower a year off to tend his vinyard and put Atherton up front as host.
One final thought - the Aussies are here next summer, so what price Shane Warne being signed up by Sky? Odds-on, I'd say. They might even clinch the deal by offering to cover his mobile phone expenses.