AR Hemant

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Somewhat of a contrarion.

Needed: An Indian Version of Test Match Sofa

There’s a growing community of Indian cricket fans that has become weary of its TV commentators. Game after game, we hear the same set of cricketing greats offer chewed-up clichés and banalities on air — so much so that you can predict what they will say next. Their opinions veer towards the safe and the obvious. Controversial topics are to be avoided, sponsors are to be appeased. We had argued earlier this is a lot like paid news: and that is tragic.

Luckily, another set of cricket fans have volunteered to remedy this. Their collective efforts go by the name of Test Match Sofa . The growing popularity of their live podcast out of London indicates you don’t need to have played a hundred Tests to be able to describe a game. Daniel Norcross, the site’s founder, sums up his case well when he says you don’t need a Bentley to know your way around town. As Harsha Bhogle once asked those who question his place in the commentary box, how many trucks has Ratan Tata driven?

Test Match Sofa (TMS) has slowly become popular for its fresh approach to cricket commentary. Swearing on air is fine, every player is welcomed to the crease with his own jingle, and the tone is irreverent. There are no holy cows, no rules. When the cricket being played is crap, they say so in as many words.

The Test Match Sofa commentators have the 'Laxman Sivaramakrishnan Horn', to be blown each time one of them uses a cliché or makes a gaffe on air.

The ambience they create is of cricket lovers and friends getting together, cracking jokes, sharing stories and experiences instead of focussing only on ball-by-ball inanities. Someone once said good commentary is like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation. That is exactly the TMS style. They also interact with their audience, reading emails and tweets on air. “Our biggest challenge,” says Norcross, “is to let people know we exist.”

Humble Beginning

TMS started in 2009 with the Ashes in England. Norcross, a spectacled 41-year-old with a receding hairline and Mark Nicholas-like voice was a freshly laid-off financial expert with two things going for him: he had over three decades of experience in club cricket, and his last employer’s severance package would meet the start-up expenses of his venture.

“We set it up for a small amount of money and lots of goodwill,” Norcross says. While going online with a £1,500 audio kit was the easier bit, he explains finding the right content mix was a challenge. “We had friends, cricketers, journalists who loved the game but would never get a chance to commentate. We wanted to blend these voices.”

His vision was to jazz up commentary: mixing ball-by-ball with music, jingles, comedians and opinions of cricket lovers across the board. Apart from the English voices, sub-continental ones also frequently appear on air. The team has steadily grown to 25 people. Two including Norcross commentate full-time, three do the website’s technical grunt work and the rest are men and women who juggle full-time jobs with part-time commentary. Among international cricketers, they have had Iain O’Brien and John Emburey.

Humour and Jingles

One of the delights of their medium is mixing music with cricket. During the India-New Zealand series, they welcomed Rahul Dravid to the crease with ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ — for obvious reasons. Daniel Vettori’s welcome tone is a loud speech by Hitler. Norcross explains: “It’s not that we think Vettori is a fascist. He’s known to be meticulous, hard-working and a careful planner. And if there’s anyone fit to be this New Zealand team’s supreme leader, it’s him.”

Sachin Tendulkar is welcomed with a Hallelujah chorus. “We like Sachin, but we don’t gush over him; hallelujah sums up what we want to say,” Norcross says. Virender Sehwag’s jingle is an audio clip of a boxing announcer welcoming a heavyweight champion to the ring. Gautam Gambhir is welcomed by Billy Idols’s ‘White Wedding’ — a reference to his taking leave from a Test match on account of his sister’s wedding — and Suresh Raina by ‘It’s Raining Men’.

Then, they have the Laxman Sivaramakrishnan Horn, to be blown each time a TMS commentator uses a cliché or makes a gaffe on air. You won’t get these on the official broadcast. Norcross says they don’t want to offend anyone. “But if you don’t want the piss taken out of your cricketers, listen to the state broadcast,” he says.

TMS founder Daniel Norcross says, "If you don’t want the piss taken out of your cricketers, listen to the state broadcast."

The Ambuja Cement Paradigm

TMS’s launch during the Ashes saw technical difficulties. Their decision to have a pay-wall backfired, and they have since become a free service. During the Mohali Test between India and Australia, a traffic spike crashed Cricinfo. Fans moved over to TMS, and their normal traffic of 8,000-11,000 shot up to 18,000 during the final day’s play. “We’ve managed to retain those visitors,” Norcorss says. Most of these are from US and India, he says.

This has also meant they’ve had problems keeping the site up themselves. They expect heavy traffic during the Ashes, and have acquired better servers to avoid frequent site crashes. While they cover a huge chunk of international cricket, Norcross says their priority would be England’s games.

So why should fans abandon traditional TV commentary and move to TMS? Norcross explains: “Take Ian Botham for example. Each time he’s on air during an ODI, he always makes it a point to mention how boring the middle over are. He was an excellent all-rounder but he’s making the same lacklustre point every single game.”

What tipped Norcross over was the commercialisation of commentary during the IPL. “I’m not sure the audience connects with the commentator’s bland enthusiasm for DLF Maximums and Karbonn Kamaal Catches,” he says. “People come to us to discuss cricket, not Ambuja Cement. We are an antidote to this commercialisation.”

TMS has acquired its own set of sponsors who are mentioned on air. But Norcross says these are well-selected products like cricket betting sites and cricket tour operators, which are relevant to the sport. Betting, of course, is legal in his country.

So here’s a business idea for cricket lovers. Why can’t some Indian fans get together to start their own TMS? The start-up costs are low, there’s a huge audience out there willing to hear fresh opinions from new voices. It’s an idea worth exploring in India, and let’s hope TMS’s pioneering efforts in alternative commentary inspire many others.

Follow Test Match Sofa on Twitter. You can also listen to their commentary on Cricfire and Cricket With Balls.

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