While Aggers, Blowers, Tuffers and the Test Match Special team entertain us from Edgbaston this week, a different sort of cricket commentary is being broadcast live from a sports bar in north London. Guerilla Cricket, son of the alternative Test Match Sofa, is everything TMS is not.
Expect music, drinking, occasional swearing, masses of interaction with fans and plenty of jingles. When Ian Bell trots out to bat, you’ll hear Anita Ward’s ‘You can ring my bell,’ for Joe Root it’s Odyssey’s ‘Going back to my roots’. You get the picture. Guests come and go and are an eclectic bunch, from David Papineau, professor of philosophy of science at King’s College London, to the novelist Nick Hogg, member of the Authors’ XI.
It’s safe to say that Alastair Cook or any other England player is unlikely to share the microphone anytime soon. ‘Oh God no,’ says Nigel Walker, co-founder of the channel. ‘The ECB wouldn’t let him speak to us.’
And that’s because unlike TMS, Guerilla Cricket is unofficial, an outsider, ‘not one of us’. The cricket establishment doesn’t like it because it hasn’t paid for rights – the holy grail for cricket administrators – and they can’t control it. In recent years, under the regime of Giles Clarke, the ECB’s bullish, boorish former chairman, now president, cricket journalists were threatened with the removal of their press accreditation if they stepped out of line. Retweeting Test Match Sofa was a capital offence. It was ‘a personal crusade’ for Clarke, says Lawrence Booth, the editor of Wisden who was publicly harangued by Clarke at Wisden’s annual dinner at Lord’s last April, and even TMS was ‘quite twitchy’. ‘Anybody who speaks out gets eliminated,’ says one journalist who asks to remain anonymous. ‘The Clarke regime was a strange hybrid of being quite sinister and laughably amateur at the same time.’
Andrew Miller, former editor of The Cricketer magazine and the incoming UK editor of Cricinfo, was banned from the press box during the 2013 Ashes series for ‘promoting’ Test Match Sofa on Twitter. When the Daily Mail carried the Test Match Sofa live stream on its website for the England-India series of 2012, it was quickly made clear to the paper’s cricket correspondents that unless the offending item was removed from the website, the press accreditations would be withdrawn. The Mail backed down.
For a sport apparently so benign, it’s extraordinary how terrified cricket writers are of the ECB. And it’s not just humble journalists. Watch Death of a Gentleman, the cricket documentary premiered in London last Monday. ‘The MCC won’t show our film to their members because they don’t want to upset the ECB for commercial reasons,’ says its director, Sam Collins. ‘They’re supposed to be the upholder of the “spirit of the game”.’
Death of a Gentleman is an unsettling film. The arch-villains are Clarke and Narayanaswami Srinivasan, chairman of the all-powerful International Cricket Council, a man for whom the term ‘conflict of interests’ was invented. As the Australian writer Gideon Haigh says in the film, cricket ‘exists mainly for the interests of broadcasters, corporate investors and entrepreneurial administrators and the fan is there to be monetised and exploited’. He is backed up by Tim May, former Australian Test player and outspoken critic of the ICC, who was ousted from its committee and replaced by a Srinavasan henchman. ‘This is just exactly how cricket runs,’ he says. ‘Threat and intimidation.’
Many sports would kill for enthusiasts and volunteers like Walker and Collins, who care so much for cricket they have been spurred to action. ‘We get emails from all over the world saying, Thank God you have saved me, I can’t get the Ashes on the BBC,’ Walker says. I know because I am one of them. Living in Mogadishu recently, it was mostly impossible to listen to TMS, which is geo-blocked for those outside the UK. Test Match Sofa was an uproarious lifeline.
The ICC is fast becoming another Fifa, a bloated bureaucracy propped up by the overweening trio of greedy national cricket boards from India, England and Australia who dominate the game. Rights revenues are all, and to hell with the fans. In 2012, Lord Woolf, former Lord Chief Justice, issued a stinging report on the ICC. It ignored his criticism that it was behaving ‘primarily as a members’ club’, with only a secondary interest in developing the game and batted away his recommendations for ‘global governance’.
You wouldn’t know about it from the general cricket coverage, but the game is in trouble. Around 467,000 watched the Cardiff Ashes Test on Sky on Saturday. In 2005, the average Ashes audience on Channel 4 was 2.5m, rising to 8.4m in the final Test. ‘The ECB should be held accountable by cricket journalists and by and large they haven’t,’ says Miller. ‘There are some guys in the media who are too cosy with the ECB.’ It’s not unlike the lamentable failure of the lobby to break the MP’s expenses scandal when the fetid truth was sitting underneath their noses.
If you care about any of this, watch Death of a Gentleman, log on to changecricket.com and sign the petition calling for independent governance of the game. And start listening to Guerilla Cricket. Cricket deserves better than this rotten bunch of administrators.