While many people have raised questions about the quality of refereeing at the ongoing Rugby World Cup, nobody, surprisingly has questioned the quality of commentary that is available. If one were to compare the two, the commentators would lose by a mile.
There is a strange kind of logic that has prevailed in management circles for quite a while now, namely that a person who is good in one sector of an industry would also be equally good in another. It is this kind of logic (?) that leads managers to appoint rank and file employees to positions of leadership. It flies in the face of logic to argue that someone who is good at following orders would be equally good as a leader, but that’s the conventional wisdom that has prevailed and will never go away.
Some years ago, there was a class of person known as a professional commentator. Now this class of person was not one who had necessarily played the game on which he/she was commentating; the two are not connected. No, the commentator had a tremendous understand of the sport in question, an incredibly good vocabulary and a turn of phrase guaranteed to keep even the most of fidgety of individuals glued to their seats. John Arlott and Brian Johnston are two good examples of this class of person; neither had played Test cricket but find me someone who was better at the art of commentating on the game.
Alas, nowadays, there is no vetting of commentators and all seem to be appointed in you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch yours deals. Some ex-players write well, a few, a very select few, have sufficient vocal skills to be good commentators. But the majority are mundane, idiots of the first order, with limited vocabularies, malaprops and generally prone to think that screaming out loud and displaying the behaviour of a baby in a basinet is the best way to commentate.
As a result, good players often earn the ire of the public and lose whatever goodwill they accumulated during their playing days. Take the case of Joel Stransky, fly-half in the victorious South African team of 1995. Before he became a commentator, Stransky was known as the man who won the Springboks their first Webb Ellis Trophy through a drop-goal in extra-time. But now he is known as an incompetent, biased commentator, who has an incredibly poor knowledge of English, is unable to speak three sentences without tripping over his tongue, and one who is close to the head of the queue vying for the title of Mr Malaprop.
Stransky also seems unaware that the job of an expert commentator is to provide something extra, something over and above what the commentator says, some analysis of what is going on on the field. He merely parrots what the commentator says and often leaves his sentences incomplete.
But it is not only the ex-players who lack any competence in the art of commentary. There is one Sean Maloney who is part of the commentary team for the ongoing Rugby World Cup who often does not know the names of players on teams in a match where he is the commentator. The other day, he said, “the ball goes to the number 15 from Tonga…” completely forgetting that this gentleman has a name. Remembering names and faces is one of the basics for commentators so how Malone got a gig is puzzling.
The television and radio networks that appoint incompetents to this job benefit too. For one, the people who are appointed are aware that they have received a favour and thus avoid criticising the network or the organisers. Ex-players try to promote their own favourites. A commentator is meant to function as a journalist, but the current crop act as toadies.
They may have learned to do from the case of Murray Mexted. The former All Black, who was an expert commentator on Fox Sports some years ago, was suddenly thrown out. All it took for Mexted to be punted was some mild criticism of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, the organisation that runs the game in that country. NZRFU complained to Fox, and Mexted was shown the door. But Mexted was good at his job and what he did was the right thing; someone who is in a position that demands he/she function as a journalist should have no fear about criticising something that deserves to be criticised.
There are a few Australians, too, who have no business being on the commentary panel. Phil Kearns, Drew Mitchell and George Gregan were all good players in their time. But they are totally out of their depth when it comes to providing something incisive. They haul out all the old cliches and repeat them ad infinitum.
And this is supposed be the World Cup! When will Fox Sports ensure that professional commentators take over and do a decent job? Grant Nisbett, one of the better commentators and a man who has some 300 Tests under his belt, is nowhere to be seen. But then perhaps that’s because he’s a pro who does what a commentator should.