The revolution will not be televised

Ostensibly an upstart commentary service, Guerilla Cricket might just be a handy barometer for the sport

Guerilla sofa“Shit!”

Something has poked The Bear. It’s the sound rig. The first toss of the Ashes happened 15 minutes ago. In Australia, chinos pass final judgement. In this small London room, blazered regulars look confused. A Sofa sits empty in front of a screen surrounded by microphones. Their wires lead to the rig.

Finally it clicks. The sound sparks on just in time to hear BT Sport’s besuited Michael Vaughan offer up his summary opinion to the viewers.

“Cook and Root need to score runs.”

The room sighs. It deserves better.

Three wise men take their seats on the sofa. The TV is muted and a languid calypso tune starts up. Before we know it an audibly excited voice bursts from the furniture, via the rig and through the speaker stack.

“Good morning, good evening, good dusk, good dawn! I’m Guerilla Hendo joined by Grubby78 and Not Fred Titmus – we are in the bosom… the womb… the cleavage of London’s Groucho Club!”

Welcome to the world of Guerilla Cricket.***

Take guard! Man the barricades! Patrol the cover boundary!
At last the time is come, this is a cricketing emergency
Hear this call to arms for every cricket revolutionary
Take up your bats and stumps for the Test Match Insurgency

The devil still plays the best tunes – a shiny set, bells-and-whistles graphics, apposite stats in earpieces – but does he have the best band?

With the Ashes now over, pundits and fans have reviewed the performance of not just the players, but the broadcasters too. Whatever your opinions on BT’s first foray into Test cricket coverage, Vaughan and Swann, or Channel 9’s use of a hat on one of its nine white male presenters to tick the diversity box, there is plenty to ponder.

Rights and coverage are high on the agenda. On the first night of the Ashes, the kraken was preparing to stir again; will Facebook or Amazon finally wrap their tentacles around the Premier League? And we are still chewing the cud on the ECB taking £1.1bn from the Sky and BBC coffers for live rights from 2020, including the new T20 roadshow.

On TV, sport is one of the last genres that is better viewed live rather than on catch-up. Sport may now compete with the likes of Netflix and Facebook in the entertainment space, but for a viewer who wants to watch the big match, there is nowhere else to go when a single broadcaster is the only show in town.

Once the deal is done, the exclusive rights holder faces no competitive pressure. The sports fan is more captive than captivated.

‘Challenger’ sports are meant to disrupt the status quo, yet here is cricket becoming more institutionalised in an attempt to achieve growth. The game withers behind the TV paywall as participation falls and the marquee matches are accessible to only those viewers with the deepest pockets.

We know that professional sport sold its soul long ago. We are all wrong. Sport has mortgaged its soul, and extends the loan on a regular basis. There’s your emergency.

But this is where Guerilla Cricket’s mission comes in: to put the soul back into cricket commentary. Here’s your revolution.

***

At first they tried to silence us, but we would not be silenced
They threatened us with lies so we threatened them with violence
Che Guevara, Sangakkara, Joseph Stalin, Douglas Jardine
Robespierre, Darrell Hair, Vladimir Lenin, O’Brien Kevin

Guerilla logoGuerilla’s name may speak to its current campaign against the established broadcast forces, but it also alludes to a much more real struggle from the past: the fight for its existence in the first place.

Test Match Sofa had been Guerilla’s previous incarnation founded in 2009 by Nigel Walker (aka The Bear) and Dan Norcross, with current co-commander Nigel Henderson joining a year later. Watching the live TV feed to broadcast live ball-by ball commentary online, geoblock-free. Available at low cost and catering for a modern digital audience the world over, you could say that Sofa was the Uber of commentary. Also like Uber, it ended up falling foul of the ‘authorities’.

In 2012, the newly-installed editor of The Cricketer Andrew Miller bought Test Match Sofa as a kite to fly as the digital winds of change finally began to blow across the cricketing landscape.

Spooked by the presence in the green room of an upstart such as an organ that had only recently dropped the Wisden branding from its title, objections were raised. Cricketer board member Jonathan Agnew, Test Match Special’s chief blazer, resigned in protest at the acquisition. Undeterred, they forged ahead.

Matters came to a head when there was an unseemly episode between Miller and the ECB. Tweeting his support for Guerilla at the start of the 2013 Trent Bridge Test, Miller found his accreditation withdrawn abruptly. A two-Test stand-off ended with compromise, but eventually The Cricketer took the subtle hint, and play was suspended. At the same time, Norcross was tempted over to the TMS stable.

“He’s an excellent commentator and more than deserved the opportunity” Henderson observes with a tinge of regret, “but I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel a bit let down”.

With Norcross owning 51% of the deal with The Cricketer, that should have meant the end of the adventure. But the rebels would not be deterred that easily. Despite the loss of a talent as large as Norcross, Henderson and Walker started over, and began to rebuild the audience from scratch.

They needed a name. “Most of the ideas we had” co-founder Nigel Henderson tells me, “made some kind of reference to Test Match Sofa, and we had all but settled on Test Match Insurgency, but when someone said Guerilla Cricket we knew that was it.”

Henderson is bullish; “it’s been tough building it back up from nothing”. Walker agrees; “many of the Sofa listeners still don’t know we exist, but we are getting there. If we are still here in 10-15 years we will have made it”.

The first battle may have been lost, but the war was back on.

***

It’s not about the winning, it’s about how many rules you break
Even in cricket commentary this is the best advice to take
Pick Guerilla Cricket, it’s the finest choice you’ll ever make
There’s so much more to cricket than rev counters and a slice of cake

If you open the putative broadcasting rulebook, it’s easy to find the many rules that the Guerillas are more than eager to break in going against the grain of more established cricket coverage outlets.

Where overly-slick TV commentators irritate viewers with forced banter, on the sofa we find genuine friends, or at the very least a collection of enthusiasts bonded by a deep-seated passion for the game.

Where radio commentary is fusty and overly-traditional, Guerilla Cricket is consciously profane and happy to veer off-script. The air turns blue on many an occasion, fuelled by obvious passion and undisguised booze consumption.

Despite this, the enthusiastic-yet-amateur Guerilla team are well drilled. There are three men in the trenches at any one time. The first narrates the action ball-by-ball, the second provides colour commentator. So far, so radio.

Crucially, however, the third mans the Twitter station, giving a constant feedback loop of questions, observations and other communiques from fans around the world. “They know the game as well as most” says fan Dave Wood “but don’t seek to talk down or dismiss the opinions of others. It feels like you are part of a small community.”

Then there’s the music, not just the theme that is guiding you here, but a stockpile of jingles unleashed on air at regular intervals, lending a vibrant call-and-response feel to proceedings.

It’s easy, and a whole lot of fun, to break these rules. But Guerilla Cricket is making a much more vital contribution to the commentary landscape. It’s the one major unwritten rule they break that really matters.

Whisper it; they are diverse.

Amidst the Channel 9 furore in the cricketing world, and the gender pay-gap in the wider media, Guerilla is the broadest church. It’s not just that female voices are a regular live feature; the ranks comprise those who are young and old, British and foreign, introvert and extrovert.

“There is a unique diversity: women and men, Jewish, atheist, Christian, Hindu, gender fluid, mentally ill” jokes regular Tweeter Liz Yates. “This isn’t just a group of white male ex-pros talking shop.”

“Diversity is very important to us” Henderson asserts. “It’s what put us off mainstream commentary in the first place. But we don’t deliver diversity consciously really – it’s achieved through irreverence.” Where Aggers may have seen the coarse nature of Test Match Sofa as an affront to cricket’s sensibilities, Guerilla’s approach is a powerful magnet for like-minded listeners of all colour and creed.

This is how Henderson’s polished radio smarts can happily exist in the same room as the gobby vim of the disgracefully-young Ed Benson, the dry humour of resident Aussie Simon O’Keefe, the searing insight of Gary Naylor, the intellectualism of Josh Robinson, and, tonight, the real-world experience of guest and Surrey batsman Arun Harinath.

“Guerilla’s strength is their lack of cookie-cutter commentators” long-time listener Jeff Perkins tells me. “Each is an opinionated individual and even those whose politics or, even worse, musical tastes don’t align with your own all have interesting contributions to make. There is very little artificial about their service other than the damn background crowd noise.”

It’s a remarkable trick, but Guerilla manages to pull it off. And not a cake or rev counter in sight.

***

At first they tried to sanitise us and clean up our act
But people like it filthy and we know that for a fact
Fidel Castro, Lennie Pascoe, Carlos the Jackal, Umar Akmal
Mahatma Gandhi, Grant and Andy, Brendan Behan, Austin Ian

Guerilla’s listener base actively embrace the risqué nature of the style and content. But this is merely the public face of the underlying attraction: the sense of honesty.

There are no feuds between gnarled ex-pro here, no gratuitous voicing of controversial opinions to promote a burgeoning media career. What’s more, the team don’t let their friendship get in the way of a good argument. They are also fiercely partisan in one direction or another, but man enough to admit it.

The only way in which they might not be honest is in their charade of occasionally seeming to be in disarray. There are gaffes – a Mark Stoneman jingle accidentally played twice here, a microphone bumped there, people talking over each other throughout – but they simply contribute to the charm.

As any indie band knows, it takes a lot of effort to appear charmingly shambolic, without actually being shambolic. This is more chaotic order than ordered chaos.

As things stand, however, it’s impossible to be fully in control anyway. During the fourth Ashes Test, Guerilla experiences a sharp reminder of the challenges it faces. As well as broadcasting via TuneIn Radio, the service is available as a live feed on Facebook. The camera is trained on the sofa; no live footage is seen. Despite this, the Facebook feed cuts out mid broadcast. There has been a copyright infringement claim from Sony, and Facebook prefers a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach.

As well as fighting The Man, there is a whole host of other barriers to success in Guerilla’s way. The most immediate of these, naturally, is the question of funding. Other than using personal funds, the only source of income is via its fan base on Patreon, the creative payment platform. There are regular, if slightly sheepish, donation requests woven into the commentary fabric.

The team did launch an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to broadcast part of the Ashes from Australia, but it never really got off the ground. However several listeners told me that they thought this was no bad thing; the money could have been better invested elsewhere, for example in upgrading equipment or investing in a greater online offering to fill the space between series.

After the Ashes Tests have drawn to a close, the Guerilla website fills further with written articles, building on the buzz from the series. This is their biggest challenge – retaining the audience series-to-series, broadcast-to-broadcast, session-to-session. It seems as though they are up to it; their stated ambition is to cover a greater range of matches, especially those not involving England.

Money aside, the main barrier is time; while Guerilla would dearly love to pay commentators, even just enough to cover expenses, they are painfully aware of the sacrifices they ask of their brothers and sisters-in-arms.

They are also conscious that their model represents a low barrier to entry and that it only takes one well-funded rival to pitch the concept correctly to the target audience and the equation changes significantly.

But, in the context of a fickle and competitive broadcasting world, these are good problems to have. Whilst growth remains slow, but organic, it is easier for the service to retain its credibility. In the future Guerilla may face a tipping point, when their popularity forces them to evolve the features that will have made them successful in the first place, or when it is forced to subscribe to the rules that it takes such pleasure in breaking now.

Having gone through this experience once, this is still comfortably over the horizon. For now though, they can continue to do what they do best; take the populist position and disrupt enemy supply lines.

A truce may also be on the horizon. Henderson is keen to build bridges if possible. “Ideally we’d like to forge relationships with English and overseas cricket authorities. After all, Guerilla Cricket has done tremendous work promoting the game around the globe and for once we’d like to be inside the tent pissing out.”

With the current state of cricket politics, the question remains ‘who owns the tent’?

***

Stick with us, cos you know we’re not the kind of thing that you see on
The TV and the radio, so Vive La Revolution
At first they tried to buy us, but we would not be bought
OK, we were, but then we ran away and we will not be caught
We would not give up the ghost when they left us all for dead
They decapitated us but we just grew another head

In the short term though, there are other missions for the raiding party. In a bold move, former Channel 4 marketing supremo David Brook has joined the board as Guerilla steps up its expansion plans.

Brook is a veteran of previous cricketing skirmishes on the broadcasting frontline. After masterminding the acquisition of live Test cricket in 1999 from the BBC, he accused the public service broadcaster of having kept cricket in a “metaphorical clubhouse for the blazerati” saying the game needed to be repositioned for a younger, multicultural audience.

T20’s rise to pre-eminence may have succeeded in this regard, but it could be argued that the Test game has not moved on. Indeed, with the playing base and local game contracting alarmingly, Brook’s words may be more appropriate than ever.

Looking at the team Guerilla have assembled, you see the types of people that cricket needs in order to survive; those selflessly putting in the hours for scant reward, other than a sense of altruism, and acting as torchbearers for the rapidly-changing game.

Much more than an alternative commentary service, Guerilla Cricket is the canary down the coalmine. When they are no longer singing we know we are in trouble.

***

Leaving the Groucho club at the end of play, the sun starting to come up, the road sweepers clearing the London decks for another busy day, the calypso still rings in my ears.

England will go on to lose the Ashes 4-0, but Guerilla keeps the fight up throughout, recording encouraging listening figures.

The doorman asks what I have been doing all night. I tell him I have been watching cricket. His initially blank expression gives way to a glimmer of recognition. He thinks he has seen it on the TV. I doubt it somehow.

Have strength, comrades! It’s going to be a long campaign.

Chairman Mao, Jamie How, Ho Chi Minh, Asif Din
Vaclav Havel, Graham Saville, No Surrender, Percy Fender
Guerilla Cricket

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s