‘You wouldn’t write the script’ – Channel 4 Cricket and me

Sunday will be a very special day, possibly one that will be unrepeated in my lifetime.  England will contest the World Cup Final.  At Lord’s.

What’s more, the match will be shown live on Channel 4.

As ridiculous as it sounds, in many ways this is a childhood dream come true.

Earliest Memories

I cannot remember a time when I did not love cricket, did not know the rules, did not know the players.  It has always been something that has just ‘been there’ for me.

My earliest memories include the England’s 1994 tour of the West Indies.  As I was only two-and-a-half when these matches took place, I can only conclude that I know every result, every wicket, every beat of that series through watching Jonathan Agnew’s marvellous Captain Calypso documentary from a VHS recording a huge number of times in the years following it.  (This clip on YouTube still stirs deep childhood memories, its music, commentary and interviews stirring something that exists deep within my subconscious.)

A happy haze of 1990s cricketing memories still swim around in my head: Nasser Hussain scoring runs in 1996, England beating Australia at Edgbaston in 1997, the joy of the Melbourne test in the winter Ashes of 1998/9 (where I distinctly remember the BBC were unable to show the highlights package of the victorious final day because somebody had forgotten to play it down the line from Australia), the ups and (mainly) downs of the 1999 World Cup campaign.

There was a common thread through all of this, of course: England usually lost.  When they won, it was a glorious exception.  The expectation was defeat, and this was usually borne out in the result.

The year is 1999: enter Nasser Hussain, enter Duncan Fletcher.  Enter Channel 4.

Cue the Revolution

The emotional connection that I still feel towards the Channel 4 cricket coverage is perhaps unsurprising.  Given the amount of time and attention I gave it between the ages of 8 and 14, it would be unusual if I did not feel the way I did.

All of a sudden, my beloved cricket felt more exciting, more vibrant.  There were diverse voices, immersive graphics, more approachable content.

Our aim was to bring the game to life for the viewer. We were modernists but realists too, eager to respect the game’s history and translate its archive… we advertised, marketed and promoted. It was a love affair with cricket and we stopped at nothing to make the lover special and everyone else appreciate her.

from A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas, published 2017

The Saturday morning Cricket Roadshow was a genuine highlight of my week, with Mark Nicholas and Sybil Ruscoe presenting an hour-long magazine show from a different cricket ground each week throughout the summer.

The live coverage was fun and informative, with Simon Hughes’ analysis pieces, Ian Smith’s infectious laughter, Mark Nicholas’ wonderful hyperbole and the dulcet tones of Richie Benaud underpinning it all.

This was all owing to the production company Sunset and Vine.  Over the course of four years they defined how cricket is televised.  Their template is the one that is now emulated the world over (much like how Sky Sports’ template for football coverage, honed in the early 1990s, has become the template for every football broadcast since).  A comparison between the 1998 BBC feed and the 2005 Sunset and Vine feed demonstrates this.  (Then compare your 2005 Ashes DVD to Sky’s coverage of today – there is practically no difference when it comes to the production of the feed.)

The use of technology was wonderful for this impressionable 8 year old.  They could finally tell if a batsman hit the ball by using a sound-graph!  They could blank out the pads and show where the ball was in relation to the stumps for LBW appeals!  Simon Hughes put a number on how damp the pitch was using his dampometer!  In 2001, the newly-launched Hawk-Eye actually predicted where the ball was going to go!  And, you could filter for the Hawk-Eye data for every ball in the 2001 Ashes series using a Java app on the Channel 4 website!

Speaking of the website, the Desktop Richie app gave you a cartoon Richie Benaud who wandered around your screen and announced the scores, ate sandwiches and put up his umbrella.

And that was not all – Channel 4 was committed to growing the game.  They developed a new scheme to integrate cricket with the curriculum, distributed to all schools in the country.  There were beach cricket events, where big screens would show the cricket before film screenings and concerts in the evenings.  Watching reports of these events on the Cricket Roadshow led to the realisation that the sport that (it seemed) only I had an interest in was becoming exciting and relevant.

Best of all, England started to win.  The 2000 victory against the West Indies was superb sporting theatre.  The winter victories against Pakistan and Sri Lanka scarcely believable.  The run of winning results did not last against Australian tourists in 2001, but the seeds were sown.  In 2002, an established Nasser Hussain led England into series against Sri Lanka and India.

Channel 4 was at the heart of it all, putting on events across the country, commissioning an Indian Summer companion season across the channel and providing in-depth coverage throughout the summer.  They even partnered with the Lord’s Taveners to open a new cricket ground in a deprived area of London, with Alex Tudor delivering the first ball during a live Cricket Roadshow broadcast.  As Channel 4 signed off from the Oval at the conclusion of the summer, there was nothing to make me think that this was the end of something special, but the 2003 summer was to bring with it a nasty surprise.

Diminishing Returns

Of course it couldn’t last.  Viewed through these adult eyes it seems obvious now.  The ratings for live cricket were only around the 1m mark on a good day (and, on most days, they were far below this).  Far more money was being pumped into the production and promotion than advertising revenue brought back in.  Worse still, a new, inflated, contract had been signed by Channel 4 in 2001 which committed them to increased rights costs in the summers of 2003, 4 and 5, just as new executives were questioning the financial and scheduling impacts of the summer sport.

As somebody who did not understand this economic background, it was a shock to tune into the first episode of the re-launched Cricket Show in May 2003.  Now pre-recorded, and working from a far reduced budget, it was a shadow of its predecessor.  Its timings were also a moveable feast, no longer anchored to the Saturday 10am slot.

I had naïvely expected an African Summer season, to echo the previous summer and to reflect the 2003 tourists (Zimbabwe and South Africa), but there was no such thing.  The start-times for test matches were shifted earlier and, the cardinal sin, play at the end of the day was cut-off so that Channel 4 could show Hollyoaks.  James Anderson’s first test wicket was, in fact, untelevised in this country as Channel 4 had already gone off air for the day.

This was all very dispiriting, although there were still signs of Channel 4 commitment: the Today at the Test highlights programme was yet to be shifted into a late-night slot and Channel 4 led Nasser Hussain’s resignation press conference at the end of the 2003 Edgbaston Test.  It was a funny, transitional summer for English cricket (Michael Vaughan captained Martin Bicknell.  Let that sink in for a minute.) and this was somehow reflected in the Channel 4 coverage.

When 2004 rolled around, it all seemed a bit more settled, albeit stripped back.  The start time was now 10.30am and new ICC regulations meant that play would never go beyond 6pm, a great benefit for Channel 4 and meant that they did not depart from the action early.  Today at the Test was relegated to a grave-yard slot, and whilst the Cricket Show saw a new lease of life under the dryly-humorous Adam Darke, it was still punted around the schedules.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall for the future television contract with the ECB.  It was clear to all that Channel 4 was no longer going to give cricket the priority that it had at the time of the previous rights renewal.  And whilst the production team still demonstrated the vision that Mark Nicholas outlined, any viewer could tell that the channel had ceased to feel the same way for at least two years.

As the ECB put the broadcast rights for the 2006-9 summers to tender in October 2004, there was much speculation in the press as to their destination.  Whilst The Times was briefing that the BBC was in with a chance of taking back live Test Match coverage, it was broadly accepted that the ECB would be highly tempted by a knockout Sky deal.

They bit.

Channel 4 had lost the lot.  Sky were to show every single ball of cricket delivered in England between 2006 and 2009 exclusively live, with Channel 5 showing highlights.

This 13 year old had to contemplate a blackout from his favourite sport, living in a non-Sky household (and despite much persuasion, that was how it remained).  I wonder how many others were in my position.  I wonder how many were lost to the game as a result.

But, coupled with the sadness of losing access to live cricket, I was absolutely devastated that Channel 4, the channel and production that had shed a light onto my favourite pastime, energising the sport beyond belief, was to be bowing out.

But, as we know, Channel 4 had one season left on their contract…

A final, golden, summer

Much has been written about 2005.  It was the perfect summer of cricket, the perfect series.  I can tell you precisely where I was for each test, each moment, each result.  It was something that I had thought unobtainable – England simply did not beat Australia.  Yet, under Michael Vaughan’s leadership, we had a team who beat Australia at their own game.  The result was gloriously tense, beautiful, dramatic cricket.

At the heart of it all was Channel 4.  They began the summer under their bad old tendencies, scheduling a month of Cricket Shows at 8am on Sunday mornings, coming off the air after the Lord’s test before the presentation ceremony took place and showing highlights at midnight.

But it did not take long for the public to fall in love with Michael Vaughan’s England and with test match cricket.  Channel 4 was commanding audiences of over 8 million people at the climaxes of the matches and, quickly, the highlights packages were returned to early evening slots.  Post-match coverage was extended.  A two-hour documentary reviewing the series was commissioned for the weekend following the conclusion of the series.

And people realised.  They realised what we would all be losing.  What the ECB had signed away.  But by then it was too late.  The Channel 4 cricket journey was over.

I’m standing here with Tony Greig, Michael Atherton, Simon Hughes and Michael Slater. Seven unforgettable years on the air, crystallised by the greatest series of them all.  80 people work on this production and if you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have, then we finish happy. Best of all, England have won the Ashes!

Mark Nicholas, 12th September 2005 , 6.57pm

12th September 2005.  A bittersweet day.  England won the Ashes.  Channel 4 went off air.  I still remember it vividly.

By this time, I was obsessively recording as much of the Channel 4 coverage as I could to form some sort of archive of what will always be my favourite sports production.  Much of that collection has made its way to YouTube and it still stirs memories and generates comments.

I had planned to edit a tribute video for Channel 4 cricket for many years, and finally got around to it in 2015, to mark a decade since the production came off the air.  Using my own archive footage and cut to Mambo No 5 (to the beat, no less!) it was a labour of love of which I am still very proud.

If you had told me then that, four years later, England would be taking part in a World Cup final and it would be shown live on Channel 4, I’m not sure which claim I would have disbelieved more.

The FTA debate

When England play New Zealand on Sunday, it will be the first time that the national team have played live on free-to-air television in fourteen years.  Let that sink in.

In my job, I work with children mostly aged between eight and thirteen.  Even the oldest children that I have worked with this academic year were not alive the last time that the England cricket team played live on FTA.

I have some sympathy for the ECB executives responsible for selling the broadcast rights in October 2004.  Channel 4 had demonstrated lessening commitment over the past two seasons and were offering a lower amount of money than their previous contract (albeit for less content – they would have paid the same amount per test match).  Similarly, Sky Sports, junior partner in the previous deal, were also offering less money for the joint partnership, but for more nefarious reasons as they were doing their best to tempt the ECB into exclusivity.

It was, however, a remarkable move, and as the ECB have made various decisions over the past fifteen years, one feels less and less sympathy for them with every fresh blow that they deliver.

I cannot think of another sport that has not had its national team perform once free to all in over a decade.  It has become accepted wisdom by otherwise rational cricket writers that FTA channels would not schedule cricket, would not pay the production costs, would treat it dreadfully and thank goodness that we have Sky because without them the game would not be shown at all, let alone financed.

Nonsense.

Whilst the Sky money has been a huge boon for the game, one does wonder how much of it has gone towards inflated country contracts, increased money for top executives, and coffers in the ECB’s mysterious ‘rainy day fund’.  For years the ECB failed to attempt a more radical approach to the rights, keeping most of the coverage with Sky, but finding a ‘showcase’ for FTA television, whether that be selected test match simulcasts, limited overs or domestic cricket.  Treating an FTA channel as a true partner may well have led to joint scheduling decisions that would have been for the betterment of the game in this country.  Whilst this would, of course, have led to less financial input from Sky, a measured approach with two television partners could have increased national exposure for cricket without the financial support from pay-TV being completely cut off.

Even if this was deemed completely impossible, then why has Sky not been mandated to run the sort of events that Channel 4 did in the early-00s, with beach parties and other outreach events dedicated to the game?

The image that the ECB portrays is that they are very happy for a white, rich, middle-class audience and they do not mind if others do not engage with their sport.  (An image embodied by the England team’s Waitrose sponsorship for some years.)

To be fair to the ECB, there have been signs of things marginally improving.  The BBC having online clip rights since 2016 has been a positive move, and the England team does return to FTA television on a regular basis from next season with two T20 internationals to be broadcast live on the BBC.  But these are slim pickings, and the somewhat underhand briefings that the BBC’s scheduling restrictions are responsible for the Hundred format being developed (which I do not believe for a second) undermine the initial wave of optimism when the deal was announced.

And we come back to that single fact.  For the first time in fourteen years the national team will be playing live on free to air television on Sunday.

My own circumstances are that, with the advent of Now TV passes, I have actually watched a lot of live cricket on Sky Sports in the last four years.  The sport is no longer blacked out to me.  I pay to watch the sport that I love, and I enjoy Sky’s coverage.

But that misses the broader point.  Channel 4 was able to bring non-cricket lovers together to make cricket into something special: a national talking point, a water cooler moment.  That simply will not happen again now that only the scraps are being shown free of charge in an approachable manner to the nation.

One day in paradise

But for one day, I am going to forget my disgruntlement with the ECB and their rights deals.  I am going to forget that this is likely to be a one-off.

England are in the World Cup final, and they will be shown live on Channel 4, forever my spiritual home of cricket.  The wonderful Sunset and Vine will be producing the main match feed (as the host broadcaster for the ICC).

The sun will be shining on Lord’s and, no matter the result, it will be one of my greatest days as a cricket fan.  It was over half my lifetime ago that Channel 4 was showing live England cricket, something that was seminal in my childhood.

Now it is back, and it will be something special – one day in which I can relive the greatest sporting coverage that I will ever see in my lifetime.

I cannot wait.

Notation Software: 5 years on

October 31st 2012 was a pivotal day in the world of notation software

The London office of Sibelius closed its doors for the final time, following Avid’s unpopular summer announcement that development was to be moved to the US and Ukraine.  Alongside the emotional goodbyes, there was a genuine fear amongst Sibelius users that this was the end of the road for productive notation software, such was the proficiency and imagination of the product management and development team that had been let go.

Things got a lot more interesting on 9th November 2012, when it was announced that the now former Sibelius development team were being kept together, now under the employ of Steinberg to develop a brand new notation software package.  This became Dorico, released in October 2016.

In the meantime, Sibelius has received more attention from Avid than some feared, but gained a very controversial new pricing structure in the process.

Five years on from the day that the Sibelius team left Avid seems as good a time as any to review what has gone on within the field in a turbulent five years.

Sibelius

Let’s begin with the product most directly affected by the London team’s departure, Sibelius itself.

It was announced in 2012 that Bobby Lombardi, longtime Product Manager of ProTools, would take over the management of Sibelius, from Avid’s HQ in Daly City.  Sam Butler remained as head of Sibelius support (based in the UK) and took on some of Daniel Spreadbury’s role as the ‘face’ of community interaction.  As revealed during the summer of 2012, a newly-hired development team began work from Ukraine.  In January 2013, an IdeaScale site was set up to crowdsource ideas for future releases, although promised regular blogs from the new development team were never forthcoming (and after just one introductory blog, David Tobin never took up his role as ‘official guest blogger’).

2013 was a very quiet year on the Sibelius front, and it was in January 2014 that we saw the first release from the new team, as documented on this blog at the time.  It was widely considered that Sibelius 7.5 contained code that had been developed by the former team prior to their departure and was, as such, a ‘grab bag’ of features.  Indeed, some of them were not implemented correctly, as ‘offline bounce’ support for audio export was lost as part of the introduction of Sibelius First’s sharing features.  In fairness, the 7.5.1 release ironed these issues out and was one of the most stable releases of Sibelius that there had been to date.

From January 2014, the Sibelius team was re-jigged, with Sam Butler taking on the role of Product Manager and Joe Pearson becoming Product Designer.  Bobbi Lombardi was shortly to leave Avid altogether.  A further development team was assembled in Montreal.  It was interesting to note the appearance that Avid had realised the need to have those familiar with the London Sibelius operation running the show, rather than integrate the product management into Avid’s audio stable at Daly City.

As I stated in my review of Sibelius 7.5, it was what was to come next that was the big challenge for the new team, as they developed featured of their own without relying on existing code.

The next release of Sibelius was therefore hugely disappointing.  My blog post about it received a number of hits (including within Avid) and most respondents agreed with me that the introduction of a new licensing scheme (aligned with practically zero new features) was a poor way to treat users who were already wary of Avid following the events of 2012.

However, since then the Sibelius team have rolled out a slow stream of small (yet useful) updates.  All the Sibelius 8 releases have brought together the following features:

  • Rest collision avoidance in multiple voices
  • Improvements to line alignment
  • The ability to ‘slide’ notes along their rhythmic position
  • A redesign of the Inspector panel
  • Custom staff sizes on a system-by-system basis
  • Magnetic glissandi
  • A new Cloud Sharing platform, replacing the legacy Scorch plugin
  • Various other small improvements and bug fixes

This is not the work of an Avid team that is merely ‘treading water’ as some feared would happen post-2012.  The development team is not merely keeping the application compatible with current operating systems and leaving aside all other development.  There is a product management and development team who are trying to improve Sibelius and acting with the best interests of the product at heart.

Unfortunately for them, the two factors which count against them are the slow release of features, in comparison to the old set-up which knocked out a major release every two years and none of the new features in Sibelius 8 could be compared with the ‘knock out’ features that we used to see in major versions, and the addition of (sometimes quite serious) bugs with the new code.

Nonetheless, one can look at the situation with Sibelius reasonably positively.  The worst case scenario (a full-on asset-stripping of the product by Avid) has not happened, although development over the last five years cannot have said to have gone by entirely flawlessly either.  It will be interesting to see what happens to the product over the next five years, as the new development team can only get more familiar with the codebase and the product.  The product team is being run by good people with the best of intentions.  However, they do now have some stiff competition…

Dorico

Unbeknownst to the general public, whilst the outcry against Avid’s decision to shut the Sibelius office was in full flow, the highly regarded team of developers, testers and product managers were quietly being signed up by Steinberg, makers of Cubase, Nuendo and many other audio technologies.

Daniel Spreadbury, former Product Manager of Sibelius and now Product Marketing Manager for Steinberg began regular blogs about the new software’s development in February 2013.  Gradually, prospective users saw mouthwatering details emerge – of notation details hitherto unexplored in computer engraving and the sheer beauty of Spreadbury’s new ‘Bravura’ font, alongside details of workflow and interface.  Occasional interviews fleshed out details, and it would be fair to say that expectations for this new software package were sky-high.

An announcement of the new software’s name (Dorico, after Valerio Dorico, a sixteenth-century engraver) and release date came in May 2016, and the first version was released in October 2016, after just fewer than four years of development.

Dorico’s key concepts of ‘flows’, ‘players’ and ‘layouts’ enable a far more flexible manner of devising layout than previously.  Additionally, the manner in which the application ‘thinks’ about music is lightyears ahead of Sibelius, with a strong algorithmic understanding of meter and rhythm.  The user interface is very quick, with text-driven ‘popovers’ allowing for quick entry of all musical symbols and notations.  And the final result is simply gorgeous, with minute details far beyond the capabilities of other programs, and with very few tweaks required before print-ready scores and parts.  Of particular note to me, as somebody who frequently has cause to typeset keyboard music, is the deft handling of multiple voices on a staff with deep support for ties and slurs across voices and staves.

Having said this, there were certain elements of the very first release that appeared unfinished – the selection tools were incredibly basic, there was no transpose dialogue, and there were certain operations which ran very slowly.

But there have now been five releases since ‘day one’ and each one has added functionality and stability.  The significant release was 1.1, which brought with it chord symbols, piano pedalling and a whole host of improved editing techniques for Write mode.

Version 1.2 is imminent, bringing with it support for unpitched percussion, cues and fingering, alongside other exciting smaller improvements.  It has been stated that following this release, the team will begin working on Dorico 2.0, which will be a paid update.

I would implore everybody to try out Dorico.  Whilst there are elements of relearning required from Sibelius, I have have found it very intuitive and powerful software, capable of absolutely brilliant results.  Whilst there are still features that Sibelius has and Dorico does not, that gap is narrowing with every release, and when the Dorico team approach a new feature, they knock it out of the park.

If we consider how much Dorico has come on within just one year post release, then it is not hard to imagine what can be achieved in the next few years.  It is very exciting indeed.

It will be interesting to see if Dorico can disrupt the share of the market that Sibelius holds.  It is pretty much ubiquitous in the UK, especially in the educational setting, and whilst Avid has not delivered great improvements over the last 5 years, Sibelius is still a very mature and competent product.  It will take a great effort to displace it as the scorewriter of choice, and I am fascinated to see how Steinberg succeed in taking their place in the market.  Let’s not beat about the bush – Dorico deserves to be front-and-centre and I very much hope they achieve it.

It will be very interesting to see what occurs over the next five years – will Avid stick with it for the long haul, and will we see an upward curve for Sibelius updates?  Or will Dorico take over number one in the UK market?  One thing is for certain – there is going to be more updates available to users available in the next five years than the previous five (as Sibelius regrouped with a new team and Dorico was built from scratch) – and I can’t wait!

 

Why and how we should take notice of the BBC’s ‘star’ pay

This is a very different blog post to the one that I thought I would write on the matter of the BBC’s payment to their ‘top talent’, revealed yesterday as part of their Annual Report. I am a staunch defender of the BBC, gladly pay my license fee, and consider their output in so many different spheres to be unparalleled.  I thought that I would be writing an article defending the ‘talent’ fees, saying that I was uncomfortable with their release and defending the BBC’s actions.

Whilst there’ll still be a bit of that in the article below, as I look for caveats and explanations for the cold numbers, the one aspect of the reveal that genuinely shocked me was the wide gender pay gap.  This is unacceptable in 2017 and it is my hope that the forced reveal of the BBC’s fees can lead to reform in the BBC and across the media industry (as, let’s face it, the BBC will not be alone with this terrible disparity of payment between men and women).  Whilst we will come onto this in due course, let’s begin by ‘zooming out’ and looking at the background to yesterday’s announcement.

Why the reveal?

It is widely considered by the industry as a whole that the forced ‘reveal’ of talent fees (as part of the new BBC Royal Charter) is unhelpful – it will lead to inflation across the board of what talent is paid.  There are two sides to this particular argument – on one level, you have to accept that the BBC (despite its status as a publicly-owned broadcaster) exists in a private marketplace alongside ITV, Sky and many others.  Therefore, it simply must operate on the same terms to these broadcasters when it comes to ‘commercial’ properties – sports rights, talent and other such things.  ITV are beholden to their shareholders only – if they feel it is right to pay And & Dec more than £12 million per year, and their shareholders agree that this is the correct course of action for the business, then that is what will happen.  Whilst the BBC’s funding model is different, it exists in the same market as ITV and thus it needs to play by the same rules.

The alternative argument is that if the BBC is using public money, that public money needs to be justified.  They have revealed executive payments for a number of years (ever since Mark Byford’s pay-out back in 2010 has executive pay been a burden for the BBC’s public image) and the Conservative government has now dictated ‘talent’ fees to also be revealed.  ‘The public needs to know to whom their money is going,’ the argument goes, and whilst there is an element of truth to this,  I think it is not controversial to say that this is a policy brought in to deliberately weaken the BBC against commercial rivals.  John Whittingdale (former Culture Secretary, responsible for this Charter Renewal negotiation) clearly believes that the BBC, as a public broadcaster, should be smaller, leaner and less competitive with commercial rivals.  That is his (and his party’s) ideological position and it is from this background that we saw yesterday’s announcement.

Whilst it is perfectly desirable that the BBC is given a greater degree of scrutiny, this scrutiny should not directly lead to a weakening of the BBC in the commercial marketplace in which they operate, and there is a very real chance of the ‘talent’ reveal doing this.

Why so much money?

Let me tell you a true story.

The year is 2006 and Chris Evans is returning to the public consciousness following his well-publicised fall from grace in the early-00s.  He currently hosts a weekly show on Radio 2, which is becoming well-received by the listeners.  All is going swimmingly, when he is called into a meeting by his agent.  As Evans documents in his 2010 book Memoirs of a Fruitcake, it is with an unnamed commercial radio manager:

In a nutshell, [the radio station manager] wanted me to take over the reins of something that was once great but was currently fading, in an attempt to make it great again. I thought about what he had said for all of a second before informing him that though I was honestly flattered, I was very happy working for the BBC and although I was only appearing on a weekly basis, I hoped it would lead to more. It wasn’t about the money so much as the platform. Unpeturbed, he then told us about the money. Suddenly it did matter. No wonder he had been cocksure, with that showstopper up his sleeve.

Now here is the thing. I loved my Radio 2 show. I’d received more-than-favourable reviews and I could feel the audience beginning to forgive me my mistakes of the past. I also felt a deep loyalty to Lesley for believing in me, not to mention a growing bond with Helen, who had given up the chance of working on much bigger shows to help me with mine. But the job the man was offering was one of the best in the land, and for a truckload of cash.

Evans, Chris. Memoirs of a Fruitcake (pp. 243-244). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

To cut a long story short, Chris Evans went to his Radio 2 bosses (the aforementioned Lesley Douglas and Helen Thomas) with news of his offer from commercial radio.  In return, they offered him the daily ‘Drivetime’ show with the opportunity to take over from Terry Wogan at breakfast if all went according to plan – and the rest is history.  There is no doubt that Evans was offered less money by the BBC, but he remained at the Beeb because he enjoyed the platform and loved the radio station.

(It is widely considered that this unnamed radio show was the Capital Breakfast Show, then the domain of Johnny Vaughan.  As it happened, Vaughan remained as host of the show for a number of years.)

It’s quite clear that had Evans taken the offer from commercial radio, he would have been paid more than he is even today by the BBC.  In order to remain competitive with star talent like Chris Evans, the BBC do need to pay fees that are ‘in step’, if lower, than commercial media.  The BBC have the platform and the reputation, but those alone are not enough for talent.  Talent do need to be paid a competitive rate, or they would all desert the BBC for commercial pastures.


This is where I thought my article would finish – as you can see, I don’t have any particular problem with the money paid to ‘talent’ by the BBC, given the way the media industry operates.  But I didn’t account for the astonishing pay gap between men and women.  I was shocked to see the figures, and was determined to do some further analysis behind these disquieting figures.


The Gender Pay Gap

The headline figures do not look good.  They do not look good at all.

  • Chris Evans (the highest paid male at the BBC) earns over £2,000,000
  • Claudia Winkleman (the highest paid female) earns below £500,000
  • Winkleman is joint eighth in the ‘rich list’
  • The top seven are all male

It’s worth spelling those facts out because there is no excusing them.  They are shocking and I hope the level of public outrage that has been seen over the last 24 hours will encourage things to be rectified across the media industry as this is simply not good enough.  End of.

But, for my sins, I am naturally inclined to think critically about these kind of emotional reactions (as I had when seeing the figures), and the first question that springs to mind is, ‘are there any reasonable justifications for this’?

The first obvious answer is that Chris Evans works very hard and does more hours than Claudia Winkleman.  He is contracted to Radio 2 for 35 weeks a year to do a three-hour breakfast show.  It is the most listened-to breakfast show in Europe and the highest profile programme on BBC Radio in the entertainment genre.

In addition, for the year that the report covers, he was responsible (as lead presenter and creative lead) for one of the BBC’s most important entertainment franchises, Top Gear.  Naturally, this role would have been well-paid.  The BBC needed Chris Evans to take over Top Gear more than Chris Evans needed the BBC to ask him.  Given all the utter nonsense that he had to put up with from the press with regards his private and professional life in the first half of 2016, you can see how this figure begins to be justified.  Evans was beginning work at 6am at Radio 2, finishing at Top Gear at 3.30pm, all whilst doing lots of high-profile filming abroad and the press reporting his every move in a negative light.

We now, of course, know that Top Gear with Evans did not work out and he is no longer responsible for the show.  It remains to be seen whether or not this will impact his earnings when next year’s report comes out.  Equally, we know that Matt LeBlanc was paid by BBC Worldwide for his part in Top Gear, as he does not feature in the list.  Therefore, it is possible that this figure for Chris Evans is only for his Radio 2 work and he was paid for Top Gear through BBC Worldwide.  I would consider this unlikely, but we will only know for certain when next year’s report is released.

In comparison, Claudia Winkleman hosts Strictly Come Dancing for three months a year, she is regular host of the Film programme and hosts a weekly Radio 2 arts programme.  I am sure that she has other commitments, which I don’t know of, but she is hardly as ubiquitous as Evans and nor is her work as high-profile, although Strictly is clearly a very important show for the BBC.  In a sense, this excuses the pay differential.

Except it doesn’t.

Why isn’t there a female across the BBC with the portfolio and profile of Chris Evans?  Or Gary Lineker?  Or Huw Edwards?

I am convinced that the problem isn’t really that women are paid less than men at the BBC to do the same job (although I have no doubt that this does go on and is inexcusable).  No, the problem is that men are still being given the ‘plum jobs’ and are being rewarded handsomely for it.

The second critical question to these figures that I asked myself was, ‘Is this an anomaly?’  ‘Has there previously been a female who has earned more than Winkleman does now?’

I can’t think of one (if you can, please comment below!) – whilst previous doyens of BBC light entertainment such as Jeremy Clarkson and Terry Wogan would have been on this list in years gone by, I can’t think of a female who would have been.

Therefore, I see the pay as a symptom of women not being given the same wide portfolio as men at the BBC.  And when they do, they must be paid equally.

Now, gender isn’t the only gap here.  Gary Lineker is clearly paid more than other BBC Sport presenters because he is a former England footballer, doesn’t ‘need’ to do the BBC job (he is not a journalist by trade) and he has become a very important BBC face.  Whilst Sue Barker is an excellent television presenter (technically superior to Lineker in many ways), she does not have the same profile and therefore it is unexpected that she would not quite receive the same pay packet.  This is a sad indictment of the profile of women’s tennis (the sport from which Barker is a former professional) versus men’s football.  But Barker should be high up on that list as a principal presenter for BBC Sport and she isn’t, which is deeply disquieting.

I am not pretending, incidentally, that gender is the only problem.  The lack of BAME personnel is also disturbing and the BBC needs to address this in the same manner as the gender gap.

Solutions?

It’s easy to say that the solution to the ‘talent list’ gender problem is simply to ‘pay women the same as men’.  Well, yes, of course.  I am not arguing against that.

But if the BBC paid their female talent the same as they pay their male talent on a pro-rata basis, then the list wouldn’t look hugely different.  The real problem is one of superiority of profile for men.  Chris Evans is paid the most because he is the most high-profile (on a pro-rata basis) BBC entertainment presenter.  Why isn’t there a woman with a similar portfolio to him who earns the same?

That is the question that needs to be answered.  We can’t see a solution overnight, but we have to hope that with each passing year of the BBC’s Annual Report being published, the disparities decrease.  And, moreover, we need to see more females in high-profile entertainment and news positions across the BBC – and we need to ensure that they are paid properly for it, too.

Eurovision woes

So I have an admission to make.  I really, really like the Eurovision Song Contest.  It appeals to the broadcasting geek in me, I enjoy the format and I like the variety of different songs from across Europe (and the opportunity to be sarcastic whilst watching it).  It’s become a little ritual for me to discuss the virtues (or otherwise!) of our entry each year with a very good friend (the man responsible for getting me interested in Eurovision, in fact).  This year we had a disagreement – I thought our song was our best entry in years and would finish at least in the top-half.  He didn’t.  Guess who was right.

To be fair, though, I felt my position shifting as soon as I saw the performance on the night.

 

Let’s hand it to Joe and Jake – they delivered an excellent live vocal and a passionate performance.  They couldn’t have given it any more.  But the staging and, more importantly, the television direction was straight from a contest 15 years ago.  As you saw the other acts, many of them used the floor projection very effectively.  Many used a front-projecting screen (aping the winning entry from last year, but Russia did go beyond beyond that and I’m not surprised that their innovative staging coupled to a not un-catchy song won the televote).  Others used very fast cutting and DVE effects that looked like an MTV concert edit from the late-90s.  But, still, they grabbed your attention.  They told a story.

Compare the edits and staging from other entries in this recap video to our entry above.  All of a sudden, the lack of engagement with the televote audience made sense (we did reasonably alright with the juries which backs up my argument that this was a decent pop song well performed).

The staging first up.  Whilst the fuzz back lights are snazzy, and look particularly good from the low angle, there is no development in the staging beyond this.  The pictures behind Joe and Jake are apparently selfies that the boys took during their promotional tour.  This isn’t obvious, and looks incredibly amateurish in comparison to how other countries were using the back-projected screen.  It reminds me of how countries were using the back screens when they were new on the scene a decade ago.  Whilst I don’t mind the concept of the two drummers being on the stage, there is again no progression in their part of the act.  The whole staging just boils down to the two boys singing the song, basically standing still in one place.  There’s no direction to the performance.

So, onto the shooting script.  The television direction needed to tell a story, it needed to engage the viewer with Joe and Jake.  Unfortunately, it did precisely the opposite.  The mix-through to the one-shot at the start isn’t bad, but when we get to the chorus, there are too many cuts from close-ups to mid-shots, seemingly at random.  What’s worse is that when we get to the ‘drop’ at the second chorus (1.43 on the YouTube video), we have a crash-zoom away from the performers, cutting to a wide shot and slow zoom in on the spider-cam.  Surely, this is precisely the opposite of what the direction should be doing.  There are too many flying wide-shots during this chorus and the same happens at the third chorus.  There should surely be a cut into a mid-shot as the pyros go off, then cuts alongside the pyro flashes at 2.45, rather than just tracking a mid-shot.  Then the embrace of the performers at the end into the close-up is just cringeworthy.

Compare this direction with the quick cuts of Cyprus or the use of the floor projection by France or Lithuania, to name but two.

It’s interesting to note that the same problem befell us in 2014.  We sent a strong song, one that was expected to do very well.  But the staging was very lacklustre and the shooting script suffering the same issues.  (Plus, I don’t think Molly delivered her best performance on the night).  This video discusses the issues with the 2014 shooting script.

Last year’s entry from the UK, whilst being a little quirky musically, had a more innovative approach to staging and shooting script.  Which is why I am disappointed that we appear to have gone back to square one this year, especially as we had advanced in other ways.  Sony were on board to assist with promotion, therefore one would have expected the song to have received decent radio airplay across the continent (vitally important to cementing the song in the ears of the audience before the night itself).  The song was A-playlisted on Radio 2 (in comparison to Electro Velvet, which only got C-listed last year), although it’s worth noting that it hasn’t charted yet – although that may change now the contest has taken place.  Keep an eye on the Top 100 on Friday, folks!

It’s also worth pointing out the old adage that we are on an island.  Our musical exports go across continental Europe 364 other days a year.  Whereas the Scandinavian countries will know of each other’s Eurovision entries, have got used to supporting each other’s songs.  It’s a shared culture that we in the UK are slightly apart from.  It’s not ‘political’ for the Eastern European counties to give each other televotes, nor the Scandinavian countries to do likewise.  Nor, indeed, for Ireland, Malta and Australia to give us points (the only three countries in the televote to do so this year).  It’s cultural similarity, and our culture doesn’t quite fit into the Eurovision culture as much as those other countries.

The only time in recent years when Britain has done well is 2009, when we sent Andrew Lloyd-Webber (we came 5th) and then 2011, when we sent Blue (we came 11th, but would have come 5th based on the televote – there are rumours that Blue performed poorly in the jury-marked rehearsal which affected the outcome somewhat).  When we have sent names that people know, we have done OK.  But sending a fresh artist clearly has not worked.

I would defend ‘You’re Not Alone’ musically.  It was a decent song (the kind of thing we should be sending), well performed.  I maintain that our (yet again) poor showing was a result of the poor staging and shooting script and the fact that our culture is cut-off from continental Europe in many ways.

Whatever happens, I am not one of those who advocates pulling out of the contest.  It’s a terrific night’s entertainment, discussing the post-mortems of yet another British embarrassment is part of the fun, and it would be nowhere near as engaging without British participation.

Onto 2017, I guess.  Your go, Ukraine…

Life is a Carnival – the story of the 1999 Cricket World Cup official song

When a cricket aficionado talks about England’s early exit from their home World Cup in 1999, it is a cliché to refer to the host nation being knocked out ‘the day before the official song came out’.  But the song itself has been rather hard to track down – whilst a recycled version of the song (more on that later) has been widely available on YouTube for years, only yesterday did I finally stumble across the original music video.

The song is infamous for selling dreadfully – it failed to chart (whereas the unofficial Barmy Army single ‘Come on England’ did at least reach number 45) and it became part of the unsuccessful tournament’s legacy when nostalgic fans talk about organisational difficulties.  Having said that, the music was used by Sky Sports as the theme tune for their tournament coverage (the BBC sticking with the traditional Soul Limbo) and Sky wheeled out the music again for World Cup campaigns in 2003 and 2007 and for the 2004 Champions Trophy (hosted in England).  Cricket writers at the time sneered at the song for failing to mention cricket or the world cup tournament at all.  In fairness, the song does echo the tournament’s stapline (the ‘Carnival of Cricket’) and it does have a catchy and rather jaunty feel to it (if you ignore the dreadful treatment of ‘Ode to Joy’ running underneath).

This article from the Independent’s Stephen Brenkley reveals the organisational naïvety of the ECB, allowing the song to launch after the tournament’s group stages and in failing to secure a live performance of the song as part of the opening ceremony.  (To be fair, given the appalling PA system at said ceremony, had they booked Dave Stewart to perform he would have been inaudible anyway.)

The press conference in which the music video was revealed is discussed in Marcus Trescothick’s autobiography (as Trescothick was not an England cricketer at the time, this was presumably an anecdote that ghostwriter Peter Hayter was very keen to include in the book!).  Apparently, the collected gathering of Her Majesty’s Press was stunned into silence by the utterly bizarre visuals that unfolded in front of them.  And, having finally found this unusual piece of English cricket history last night, I can see why.

I do not know what on earth the tournament organisers were thinking allowing this piece of film to be the official music video of the ‘Carnival of Cricket’.  Whilst it is supposed to be a parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the visuals are grotesque, horrible and (arguably) offensive.  Carnival of cricket, indeed – let’s celebrate the great game by showing a group of caricature ‘patients’ from a psychiatric hospital invading a cricket pitch, running away from doctors and nurses and finally seeing the lead singer being led away in handcuffs as police sirens scream.  I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting in which this music video was revealed to the ECB.  I wonder which hapless executive signed it off.  They are lucky that it was not more widely aired – I think it is an utterly disgraceful music video for such a tournament, and it was certainly misguided, to say the least.  (To think, Shaggy’s Game of Love and Unity release for the 2007 tournament was derided – at least it was innocent and naff!)

But that’s not the end of the story where this song is concerned.  Apart from its continued airings on Sky Sports whenever a global cricket tournament came along, the song was rewritten to be part of the soundtrack to the 2004 Disney film Around the World in 80 Days.

A more conventional music video this time.  And this is the version that has been available on YouTube for years.  No more mention of life being a carnival, but the ‘all over the world’ hook is, of course, suitable for the storyline of the film.  The film was a box-office flop and received very poor reviews from the critics, which seems somewhat fitting with the song’s origins at the 1999 Cricket World Cup.

Coincidentally, the theme music used by Sky (and the World Feed) for the 2011 World Cup sounds like it could be a development of this version of the song (although I am pretty sure it wasn’t a deliberate choice at all).

So, there you have it.  One of English cricket’s more bizarre pieces of memorabilia.  And the next time a cricket columnist discusses the 1999 World Cup song (I suspect it will come up once or twice in 2019, when the tournament returns to England), here is all the information you could ever wish to know about it.

Sibelius’ new pricing arrangement – my reaction

UPDATE: Following the publication of this article on Saturday night, Sam Butler (Sibelius product manager) has been good enough to comment regarding the issues raised.  His full comment is below this article, but I would like to draw your attention to this part of his reply, which confirms that part of the post below is actually incorrect:

You mention there’s a decision Sibelius users have to make at the end of this quarter. That isn’t quite right. Of course, they can upgrade to get the latest features for £70, which will include a year of upgrades and support, or they can wait for more features we release over the coming year. When they upgrade then, they will receive a year of upgrades and support from that point on. There’s no hard cut-off date coming at the end of this quarter.

With regard to the potential problem with changes to the file format, we are planning infrastructure that will mean this won’t be a problem and will be completely seamless to the user so anyone can open any version of Sibelius file (after v7.5 of course and we’ll keep in the ‘Export to Previous Version’ for those users).

For major changes to Sibelius to update the core technology we use and to introducing big new features, we are already fluid enough to split the development team so some will work on the next point release and others will work on the next release after that (or even further down the line). We’ve already tried and tested this with splitting the team across our two major projects, Sibelius Cloud Publishing and Sibelius itself.

Thank you to Sam for taking the time to reply to this, and I am grateful for the flexibility being shown here, which wasn’t initially evident from the page on Avid’s website where I took my information from.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

It has been announced tonight that a Sibelius update is being released this quarter, alongside a change to the licensing arrangements.  It is a massive change and, in my view, entirely for the negative.

Before I begin, let me state that I have an immense amount of respect for both Sam Butler or Joe Pearson (the main twosome behind Sibelius these days) and I don’t wish for this article to come across as an ad hominem to them.  They are both honourable men with the interests of the product and its community at heart and Sibelius users are fortunate to have them at the helm, following the events of 2012.  But I have no positive words to say about today’s announcement.

In short, Sibelius is moving in line with Avid’s policy (following similar propositions from other software vendors) of offering a subscription licensing option.  That is fine by me – the cost of £23 per month or £190 per year to use the software seems pretty fair (given the £550 price tag for a full license), and users these days welcome this flexibility.  Indeed, far be it from me to decry Avid to give users further licensing options. But the manner in which the ‘perpetual licence’ (i.e. a permanently licensed version of Sibelius, as Sibelius Software and now Avid have sold for the past 16 years) is being treated is, quite frankly, a disgrace. In short, those who own Sibelius will need to make a decision when this new pricing is launched later this quarter:

  • either you elect there and then to pay an annual support and maintenance fee of £70 per annum (which will entitle you to all updates)
  • or you choose not to and never have the right to an upgrade again, without either buying a new subscription outright or paying the full £550 again for a perpetual licence.

If the user ever chooses not to pay the annual fee then they never have that option again – they are either obliged to go down the subscription route (paying £190 per annum for use of the software and the right to use the software expires at the end of that year) or buy an entirely new licence outright. Frankly, this is incredible.  After the 2012 debacle, Avid have just about managed to keep users on-side, largely owing to the good natured manner of the Sibelius community.  Sibelius 7.5 has been a stable and successful release (bearing in mind the caveat that the majority of the features were developed by the old team before their dismissal, and were just polished up into a new release by the new team), with few bugs and a good level of support.  But, with this move, Avid are destroying users’ confidence again at a stroke.  They are saying to all users – many of whom have used Sibelius for many, many years – that they don’t care for how long they have held a licence, they don’t care how often they have upgraded to new versions and how much this has cost.  They don’t care – they just want their money.

The Update Paradigm problem

Much of this problem stems not from the introduction of the subscription pricing, but from a new paradigm of managing updates.  Instead of releasing a new, numbered version of Sibelius every other year, which has been the way in which the software has been managed since the release of Sibelius 2 in 2001, Avid now wish to release smaller updates more regularly.  The headline version numbers will become a thing of the past.  Quite aside from any debate about pricing, I am not a fan of this system.

I would far rather have a nice package appear every two years – it has always been the case that some new features within a new version would appeal to some users and others wouldn’t – but the user has known where they stand.  Every odd-numbered summer, Sibelius would release a new version, there would be an element of relearning the program required, and we could expect the world (just about) to move on with us.  Now it is going to be far more haphazard.

Take the file format with regard to version numbers.  If they go down the road of Chrome and Firefox, moving up a whole version for a tiny change, who will know when the file format will change with it?  At the moment it’s straight forward – the version number is part of the brand of the product, so everyone knows which Sibelius version they have.  “Are you on 7, yet?”  can be met with a knowing reply of “Nope, I’m still on 6” or “No, I’m lagging behind on 5”.  You could easily ask a colleague or collaborator, and – boom – one export later you were sorted out.  How will it work now?  “Ooh, I’ll just need to check my software package – where will it tell me, again?” Plus, the proposed steady drip of features suggests that game changing features, the type for which Sibelius was once known, will be few and far between.  Take Dynamic Parts – a key innovation that revolutionised scoring software – you can’t really imagine that just dribbling down in an update one day, can you?  Or Magnetic Layout?  Or a massive UI change and full rewrite, like Sibelius 7 was.  Although the reaction to 7 has been mixed, it was entirely necessary to rewrite the entire software package for the early 2010s.  Another rewrite like that will be necessary one day.  And it will be really hard to achieve if the objective is to push out small updates every few months.  Such a model works with a web browser or small app.  It (in my view) does not for serious productivity software. I would prefer the developers to work on a new ‘package’ and release it that way with a major version number.  Although perhaps I am just stuck in the noughties with my update preferences.

If today’s pricing announcement had come along with a killer update, then I might be more amenable to it.  Had twe seen something that could be reasonably called a major update, including widely-requested notation and workflow features (features such as better tuplet integration, tidying up of lines, more flexibility when it comes to staff sizes, smart dynamic parts) and released that alongside a new pricing structure then, you know, I might have jumped in feet first.  But what do we have.  Some cool touchscreen and tablet stuff, sure.  But I will never own a Surface, so all those features (although they do look flashy) are useless to me.  New updates from the Neurotron team – well, I’ve never used either of those products, so those are useless to me.  I’m on Mac, so the Windows DPI scaling feature doesn’t affect me. What will I be getting? Just multi-touch gestures and slightly redesigned UI elements (the keypad and transport panels, specifically) for my troubles.  We used to get more than this in a .1 update from the old team! I remember Sibelius 6.2 that brought in a whole host of features – none of them headline, all tweaks – but loads of things that were really useful.  And the only feature I am getting with a new pricing package is a new keypad view?!  It doesn’t bode well, does it?

The Pricing problem

It is this new approach to updating that has caused the licensing options to go awry.  For, if there is no longer going to be a major update that one would purchase outright (whether that be as a new licence, or as an upgrade), how do you monetise a series of smaller updates?  This is where the subscription package comes in.  Plus, if one were to cancel their annual updates fee (following the purchase of a perpetual licence) and only re-purchase once an update they wants comes along, this would hardly be fair to other users who pay the bill annually whatever. It needs to be said that the addition of the subscription model does not significantly change the perpetual license model that we have had for many years.  It would be perfectly possible to come up with a price point whereby the users who elected to pay a monthly or yearly subscription would be paying more overall than those who purchased a perpetual license and then purchased the upgrade licence for new versions. No, it is this new ‘accelerated update’ paradigm that is driving this pricing change.

What offends me is the two-fingers up to users who have used the software for many years.  If we elect not to pay £70 in June (or whenever this change will be made) then the only option to upgrade to a new Sibelius version is to either buy the product again from scratch or effectively do the same via the subscription model. I have already stated that I will be a day one purchaser of the new Steinberg application (being worked on by Daniel Spreadbury and the rest of the team that used to make Sibelius, before Avid let them go in 2012) and this has just made me more determined to do so.  Having said that, however little I want to, it is financially prudent for me to pay the £70 per annum fee, just in case Sibelius 7.5 is one day broken by a Mac OS update or similar.  Or to keep up with file format changes.  Or, you never know, there might be a killer feature turn up one day. But I am sorely tempted not to and to refuse to upgrade Sibelius again.  Frankly, I think that’s what Avid deserve from this.

It could be argued that Sibelius died in 2012.  It has been kept on life support since then.  Today might just be the day when the ventilator was turned off.

England at the Cricket World Cup

And I am actually fairly positive about the 2015 World Cup.  For once, England are not coming straight out of a tiring Ashes campaign and the Australian conditions should play to their strengths.  If England can keep this same band of players together, bringing in new talent and developing the youngsters (such as Jos Buttler) then they have a real chance of at least making the final, I would say.

Me, June 2013

Not my finest prediction. Whoops.

I set this blog up almost exactly four years ago to have a moan about England’s World Cup performances last time around.  And I wrote a post that discussed past performances and how England have attempted to move things on after each failed campaign.  So I won’t rehash that again.

But, I do want to examine where this four-year cycle has fallen apart.  England turned up to this World Cup with a captain who was appointed in December, who had no say over his squad and with (what can politely described as) a muddled selection policy.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Don’t forget, the Ashes cycle was disrupted in order to aid preparation for this tournament (so that England didn’t go from an away Ashes tour straight into a World Cup).

It is not a new phenomenon for a desire for rebuilding after a failed World Cup campaign – I detailed a number of them in my post four years ago.  Notably, Michael Vaughan deliberately selected a young team in the 2003 NatWest Series in order to put together the rump of a side that would challenge in 2007.  And then, after the unsuccessful 2007 campaign, a separate ODI captain (Paul Collingwood) was appointed to build towards the 2011 tournament.  Of course, neither plan really came to fruition.  Michael Vaughan’s injury problems meant that he came into the 2007 tournament without having built the team around him.  And then, Paul Collingwood’s resignation in 2008 meant that the test team came first once again, as a united captaincy was seen as the way forward for a fractured dressing room.

Alastair Cook’s appointment in 2011 was a blatant attempt maintain a connection the Test and ODI sides.  Cook was the heir-apparent to Strauss with the Test captaincy and the ODI team was seen as a way for him to gain some leadership experience.  Many people remarked at the time how it seemed wrong for a player who had not even been selected for the World Cup was now appointed captain of the team.  The alternative argument was that with Strauss’ retirement, Cook would fulfil the same role that Strauss had played at the top of the order.  It was fair enough to give Cook a chance, and the initial results were good, with series wins over Sri Lanka and India.  It, of course, was the case that in the mid-00s, England would periodically perform well in their own conditions, so this was nothing new, but at least the team was playing well.

England’s 5-0 series loss in India in late-2011 was a blow, and a sign that this was a team that were not quite world beaters.  But, the side was depleted (with players who played across formats being rested), and England at least righted wrongs against Pakistan (in the UAE) in 2012.  A series win against the West Indies, and a drawn series against South Africa at home in 2012 led England to the top of the ODI world rankings.

At this point, England’s ODI cricket appeared to be in decent shape.  A team was evolving, based around Cook and Trott anchoring the batting (with flair players batting around them), and bowling from Anderson, Finn, Dernbach and others.  Whilst they were playing a particular ‘brand’ of ODI cricket that didn’t always come off, they were at least being successful more often than not.  At this stage in a World Cup-cycle, England appeared to be in a good shape.  This was reinforced by their 2013 Champions Trophy showing, where they were runners up, and arguably should have won a close final against India.

But, I would suggest that this was where things began to go wrong, half-way through the four-year World Cup cycle.  Australia beating England in the ODI series at the end of the 2013 summer was a blow, but English cricket as a whole was blown away by the mauling by Australia in the 2013/14 Ashes.  Unfortunately, this had ramifications to the ODI team, as well as the test team.  Cook’s confidence was shattered as captain, and the whole England team were falling apart.  Destruction at the hands of Australia, was followed by a poor showing in the 2014 summer.  This is when England should have acted and replaced Cook as ODI captain at the start of the 2014 summer.  At this point, it was far enough away from the World Cup to be a viable move, and it would have regenerated the ODI team ahead of the World Cup build-up.

What has happened in the recent months has been well-documented.  However, it seemed that between 2011 and 2013 England were going in the right direction with their ODI cricket (as I argued in the quoted blog post from June 2013).  It has been the last year in which the damage has been done and, again, England will crash out of the World Cup, in all likelihood without beating a test playing nation.  Once again, the four year cycle has not ended the way it was intended to – England’s plans have gone awry.

So, what next?  I strongly feel that the ODI team should be run separately to the test team, with a different captain and not necessarily the same players.  Morgan should stay on as captain, at least for now, and mould the team around him.  Get an attacking brand of cricket going.  Then, at some point before 2019, if it looks like Morgan will not last the distance, replace him as captain with Root.  Players can come and go within the cycle, that’s fine, but get the brand of cricket established and don’t let the fortunes of the test team get in the way.

The 2019 World Cup will be the first held in England for 20 years and wouldn’t it be good if England could compete for the first time since 1992 on the biggest stage of all?  The foundations need to be laid now, and England shouldn’t be distracted from the course by the fortunes of the test match team.

End of 2014

Exactly five years ago, I was sat at this desk reading through a welter of Facebook posts celebrating the end of a decade.  Such milestones inevitably draw one’s thoughts towards the future, and I was acutely aware that not only was I unsure of where I would be in 10 years time, I also had no idea where I would be in just 12 months time.

Well, five years on, I can safely say that the last five years have been utterly fantastic.  From finishing off my A levels at Ipswich School, to an immensely fulfilling gap-year at Tewkesbury Abbey to student life in all its glories at Worcester College.  I could not have imagined that I would have had so many wonderful experiences in just a few short years.

This year was particularly special – my time at Oxford drew to a close with a madly busy six months for the Chapel Choirs of Worcester College – two recordings, a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and a concert at St John’s Smith Square were the special projects, alongside daily music making with treasured friends and colleagues.  A tour to Rome finished my time with the choirs, and it is somewhat surreal to consider that my final ‘gig’ with Worcester College was directing the Boys’ Choir at Mass in the Vatican!  And just as special are weekly pattern of evensongs, the regular socialising with many great people, the chance to study a subject that I love at this level.  Oxford was everything I hoped it would be, if not more so.

Over the last four months, I have enjoyed being part of one of the country’s leading cathedral music departments, at Wells.  To observe such fantastic musicianship at close quarters has been fantastic and I have learnt so much already from the superlative musicians who are present.  I am looking forward to my remaining six months at Wells a huge amount.

So this half of the decade ends the way it began – I have no idea where I will be in twelve months time, let alone a few years.  Time to hang on and enjoy the ride again – here we go, 2015!

Have a good one! x

Apologies for the navel-gazing post. There won’t be another one for at least another five years. Promise.

KP; ECB; WTF?

It is hard to know where to start discussing the shots that have been fired by Kevin Pietersen and the ECB over the past five days.  Accusations of a bullying dressing room, Andy Flower acting like a petulant school teacher, the board being, well, pretty hopeless (if not outwardly vindictive and lying) and of individuals within the team who lied to Pietersen and betrayed him by writing a parody Twitter account.  In fact, if you read the press generated by KP’s book, you would be forgiven for thinking that English cricket over the last five years has been nothing but disastrous.  Impassioned fans and bloggers have picked through the ECB’s leaked document and the KP evidence to demonstrate that their theories have largely been right.  Even Jonathan Agnew has left Twitter after Jessica from Liberty X (also Mrs Pietersen) accused him of lying.  Quite a week, then.

I like to think that I take quite a balanced view on this, and I would like to examine events from the last five years alongside the information that has now been released by Pietersen.  Undoubtedly, life in the England cricket team has been a little less rosy than we have been led to believe.  But, also, I would vehemently disagree with anybody who considers Andy Flower’s time as head coach to have been a bad thing for English cricket.

Eras, ended.

Whenever a regime ends, the ramifications are violent.  Frequently, what has been considered a weakness of a coach (or, more generally, the regime) grows larger and larger, seeming to overpower the strengths of the regime.  Let’s turn our thoughts back to 2007.  England were beaten 5-0 by Australia and went on to perform in a very disappointing manner at the World Cup.  Fletcher’s weaknesses: under-preparation in the tour games (he instigated 13-per-side tour warm-up matches), a favouritism to certain players who were guaranteed their places no matter what (Geriant Jones, Ashley Giles to name but two), a preference for a certain type of cricketer (express pace bowlers over all others, for example) and a distrust of selections from county cricket.  All legitimate concerns over Fletcher’s reign.  All became pressing issues in Australia in 2006-7, when the team started losing.  But, it wasn’t just that the team were losing – it seemed that the team were weakened by these flaws.  The consensus was clear – Fletcher had ‘lost it’ through being given too much power, and the time was right to move things on, appoint a new coach and take a new approach.

Now, of course, history shows a slightly less dogmatic view.  England were highly unlucky with injuries, with the loss of support staff and the loss of form from key players.  Plus, of course, this Australia team was one of the great teams.  England at their best would have struggled to win the series, though they would have challenged harder, no doubt.  Was it the right time for Fletcher to move on?  Maybe – he had done 8 years on the job, after all, but it is now widely agreed that a staggered hand-over to his successor would have been better.

My point in writing the above is that test cricket is perhaps a unique sport, especially when on a test match tour – when a dressing room implodes, it really implodes.  And English cricket’s implosions seem to coincide with tours to Australia: 1994-5, 2002-3, 2006-7, 2013-14.

In a month’s time, a year’s time, a decade’s time, when the emotions have cooled it will be far easier to place Flower’s era in context.  What has struck me is that the good times have been largely forgotten – rewind three or four years and Flower was being hailed as a genius and it was almost impossible to imagine the implosion that has occurred over the last twelve months.

The worst of times

We must begin this examination by looking back to 2009 – a key start-point for everybody examining this relationship, as it is thought that this is when Flower began his dislike for Pietersen after KP tried to remove him (alongside Peter Moores).  That may well be true.  This was another English cricket ‘crisis’ – a new captain who had only captained for three test matches was not able to click with a coach who, frankly, was not international class and acted in an inappropriate manner with the senior players.  Generally, 2008 was a terrible year for the ECB.  What with Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood both resigning because they could no longer work with Moores, the grubby Allan Stanford affair and the ECB’s fitness coach being jailed for child pornography offences.  Everywhere you looked, the ECB were generally getting things wrong and cocking things up.  Neither were events on the field any better.  The events of January 2009 was the apex of this period of English cricket – it might even be suggested that the batting collapse that occurred in Jamaica in February 2009 was the final scene within this act of history.  For it was that West Indies series in which the Flower/Strauss regime started to take hold.

“The team is not a hire car”

The main point that I want to bring out is that between 2009 and 2011 Flower and Strauss could do, it seemed, almost no wrong.  The team began to take shape, key man-management decisions were made effectively (such as the treatment of Ian Bell on that tour and the sensible discarding of Stephen Harmison after the 2009 Ashes) and the team ethic began to take hold.  Performances were not immediately outstanding (a lost series away to the West Indies, and a hardly convincing performance in the 2009 Ashes although the team most certainly had their moments as they went on to win the series), but the signs were promising.  More to the point, the narrative portrayed by the press in 2011 was that it was this team ethic that had been missing in a listless 18 months (during Peter Moores’ reign) and was now being fixed by Flower/Strauss.  “The team is not a hire car” and all that.

As test match series continued to unfold, the team grew more and more established – the ‘brand’ of cricket was secure, the key players knew their roles and results were pleasing.  We can look back to the South Africa tour of 2009/10 as a key time for the growth of this team, as we can the summer of 2010 when there were difficult political circumstances for Strauss to deal with following the News of the World match fixing sting.  The result was that when the 2010/11 Ashes came around, this was a well-drilled team and one that utterly deserved to win that series in the convincing manner that it did so.  The 2011 summer, in which England became the number 1 team in the world, saw this halcyon period continue.

It is interesting to look back at what was being written about the team environment (and the ECB) at this point in time.  There was a lot of credit given to the attritional brand of cricket being played – batsman scoring ‘daddy’ hundreds and bowlers grinding it out in the field, along with a no-nonsense approach to fielding, driven by Matt Prior, the ‘fielding captain’.  The ECB were credited with their use of back room staff, the use of statistics and video analysis, the fact that they had established a Lions set-up that in many ways bypassed the county system – Loughborough came into its own.

If this was an unhappy dressing room, then I would be incredibly surprised.  Bullying on the field?  Players failing to relate to one another?  Flower creating divisions?  If that was the case, then the players would not have achieved the outstanding success that they did in the twelve months between October 2010 and 2011, and they, frankly, looked like they were having a pretty enjoyable time, too.  Just watch Swanny’s Video Diaries for proof.  Yes, Pietersen was never quite integral to this team dynamic, but he was no outsider – he featured in the Video Diaries (being gently teased for his footballing allegiance by Paul Collingwood), he mucked in with the sprinkler dance at Melbourne and embraced all the other players once the series had been won.  He was a crucial performer within that period – and you felt that this was recognised and respected by the dressing room.  It should also be noted that in this period KP gave several interviews that were praising of Flower.  Doing what he had to as an ECB employee? Perhaps – but he has never been shy to give his opinion since, even when under contract.

So, it is the autumn of 2011 – England are number one in the world, and the players have a six-month break from cricket.  What could possibly go wrong?

Jumping the shark?

As it turned out, everything.

In my view, all the negative outpouring of the last few days can be traced back to this point.  Did the dressing room environment become too cocky, too certain of the ways of the team?  Were the negative traits of England’s brand of cricket magnified and the positives left behind?  Did England fail to evolve in an act of complacency?  Quite possibly all of these things.  This was certainly the time that KP felt estranged from the rest of the team.  Enough has been written about KP Genius and text-gate by many people over the last week.  But it was these actions of the 2012 dressing room that led to Pietersen’s eventual downfall – of that we all agree.

How much of that is attributable to Andy Flower?  Or the senior players; the clique, as they have become known?  Results on the pitch began to take a downward turn – the old problem of playing against spin brought 90s-style batting collapses in Dubai as England crumbled against Pakistan.  Whilst England did beat West Indies at home in the first half of the 2012 summer, the performances were not as convincing as they might have been – just ask Tino Best.  Then, when South Africa arrived for the series that had been billed as the play-off to the number one spot in test match cricket, England failed to show.  South Africa were superior in almost every sense, and they won the series with ease.

And this is where the dressing room also began to fall apart.  @KPGenius, text-gate, Strauss’ resignation.  Did this come about because of the poor on-pitch results, or did they trigger them.  The truth, probably, is that there was a bit of both.  England came to think that their way of playing cricket, of behaving as a team, was successful – but it evolved in completely the wrong manner.  In some ways, comparison with the team post-2005 Ashes would be accurate.  Although, in that case there were more mitigating circumstances, especially the injuries to key players.  This was more of the case that the team as a whole, the regime took an incorrect turning.  The England Cricket Team – Flower and Strauss’ cricket team – jumped the shark.

Just as well that the Olympics rather overshadowed a very disappointing international summer.

The question was whether England could turn this around, that the dressing room could evolve in a more successful manner and create a new brand of cricket, under captain Cook.

Re-integration (or just papering over the cracks?)

It all started so well.  Cook and Flower agreed to bring back KP, England took an impressive series win in India in late-2012 and the team spirit appeared to have returned in spades.  But winning can paper over cracks, and whilst England won all appeared rosy.  Yet, within months things were beginning to fall apart.  Shaky performances in New Zealand led to an ill-tempered start to the summer, when England were accused of playing in a negative manner in the second test match against New Zealand.  Flower reacted violently to questioning from both Mike Atherton and Jonathan Agnew in post-match interviews (for Sky Sports and the BBC respectively).  There was rumour that mention of the word “Ashes” was banned in the dressing-room.  England were still not playing particularly well (although, results were still – just! – going their way).  A better-than-deserved Champions Trophy showing and the fact that the Australia team were in even more disarray allayed this negativity for a number of months.  But, by August 2013, it was clear that all was not well in the England ship.  The, frankly, ludicrous and demeaning selections for the Oval test match showed that England had lost the plot.  The brand of cricket was getting more and more negative, England were becoming more and more unpopular for their on-field conduct and the results were starting to turn (remember the home Ashes series results of W-W-D-W-D).  It all seems obvious now, but when England flew to Australia, they had it coming.

But again, whose fault was this?  I would argue that each coaching regime has a peak before the results and culture inevitably falls around it.  The peak of this regime was undoubtedly 2010-11, and the fall took place from 2012 right through until the beginning of this year.  Only a honeymoon series for Alastair Cook and the fortune of home conditions and a poorly run Australian side disguised this.  And thus, when KP reflects upon the poor culture of the England team and his unhappiness in the dressing room, I would hope that he is referring mainly to 2012 onwards.  For me, the start of the Flower-Strauss axis brought a great time for English cricket, and I would be distraught for this to be tarnished.  Perhaps some of the dressing-room arrogance and inter-team politics began then and, again, winning papered over those cracks.  There are signs of English arrogance, such as Flower’s trip to the Indian dressing room during the tea interval during ‘Bell-gate’.  These features of the dressing room only worsened over time, with the positives diminishing.  And then, when England finally ran out of luck and the floodgates opened in Australia last winter the fallout began in earnest.

I am no fan of the ECB – I have a deep dislike of the manner in which Giles Clarke runs the game.  But I would support the 2009-11 England team regime to the hilt – after all, this was a side that gave me a lot of pleasure as a fan through the manner in which they played their cricket and the results that they gleaned.  One can only hope, looking back to 2007, that another successful era comes around just as quickly as Fletcher turned to Flower.  English cricket has been very fortunate in recent years – we must not forget that.  Will KP return?  In all likelihood, no.  Can England turn a corner and begin to play less ugly brand of cricket and become a better organisation again?  I certainly hope so.  And I hope that all this infighting ceases soon as it does nobody any good.

The Cricketer magazine: once again in transition

Three years ago I wrote about changes made to the Wisden Cricketer magazine following its acquisition by TestMatchExtra, just ahead of its change of name back to The Cricketer. What I didn’t realise when I wrote that article was that the magazine was to enter quite such a turbulent time. For one thing, I was not aware that the first magazine with the new name was also to be John Stern’s last as editor.  Stern had done a wonderful job as editor of TWC for nearly eight years and whilst I have no idea why he stood down at this particular point, it seems a bit coincidental that it took place at the same time as the name change.  It might well have been that he was looking to move on regardless and saw this new era for the magazine as the ideal time to do so.  Or it might have been something more sinister – I do not know (although it should be stated that Stern continued to write for the magazine for a further six months or so, so clearly the relationship was good enough for that to take place).

In any case, my positive thoughts about the new ownership (as outlined in the aforementioned post from three years ago) were altered substantially.  A magazine that brought the best of TestMatchExtra’s website (Jonathan Agnew, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Simon Hughes, Vic Marks, Mark Nicholas) and coupled this with the best of the TWC staff (John Stern as editor and the excellent staff writers) would have been brilliant.  I would have welcomed a subtle change of focus from the BSkyB perspective (by whom the magazine had been owned for the past four years) to a Test Match Special one, but Stern’s departure changed all that.

It meant that Andrew Bordiss, a longstanding journalist (but not specifically a cricket one) who had been brought in as Managing Director at the time of the TestMatchExtra acquisition, took over as “Editor in Chief” for the remainder of 2011.  The magazine instantly appeared a rather more staid affair than the TWC years.  Whilst there were still some excellent articles being produced, and the likes of Agnew, Hughes and Marks provided fine columns, the editorial direction of the title appeared to be wavering slightly.  There were slightly bizarre new longstanding features and the design appeared to be rather dated.  It seemed as though the TestMatchExtra vision was a return to The Cricketer magazine of old – rather more worthy than the TWC incarnation.  This, in itself, was not a problem, although this might ultimately have proven problematic for sales (should an older audience be targeted over a younger one?) and one could see that a specialist cricket journalist was no longer editing it, a situation that would have needed to be rectified.  However, should a specialist cricket journalist have been brought in as editor, one who could have slightly manoeuvred the editorial direction towards the younger audience once more, along with a design refresh, this direction for the magazine would not have been a bad one at all.  In fact, this was the direction that I expected it to take, as it seemed to take over TestMatchExtra.com’s portfolio perfectly.

What was to happen next was a tremendous surprise.

Andrew Miller’s appointment as editor was a very strong one.  A superlative writer, excellent journalist and fantastic visionary, there was no question that persuading him to move over from Cricinfo was quite a coup for the magazine.  Yet, one of his very first moves as editor was to prove very surprising and it instantly tore apart the work of the TestMatchExtra acquisition, as far as the magazine was concerned.

The purchase of TestMatchSofa gained a number of column inches – for the uninitiated, the ‘Sofa’ was an unendorsed commentary service provided via the web, run by amateur broadcasters and cricket enthusiasts who commentated off the television.  The service began in 2009 and rapidly gained popularity.  However, it was financially unsustainable and by January 2012 it needed investment.  Step forward The Cricketer, heavily prompted by the newly-appointed Miller.  Miller was one of the Sofa’s key champions when he was at Cricinfo, so it was unsurprising that he wished to go into partnership with it.  On paper, it sounded like a great combination – a way to bring the great old magazine into the twenty-first century and have more of a connection with younger fans.

However, the problems were two-fold.  First, and most immediately, was the fact that many of the TestMatchExtra personnel also worked for the BBC’s Test Match Special.  They were highly against the Sofa, as they saw their broadcast as undermining their rights with the ECB.  The highly-passionate Jonathan Agnew instantly resigned from the magazine’s board.  Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote very thinly-disguised criticism of the Sofa’s service and declined to appear any more in the magazine that he had had so much impact on in the 1980s (sadly, CMJ was soon to be taken very ill and passed away later that year).  Vic Marks stopped appearing at much the same time.

The issue for these BBC personnel was that whilst previously writing for (and investing in) The Cricketer was a perfectly acceptable by-line to their main jobs, now that the magazine owned a rival service (and a highly contentious one, at that) they could not participate.  Thus, the TestMatchExtra benefits that the magazine had enjoyed (for only six months or so) were destroyed at a stroke.

The second problem with the Sofa acquisition was the legal problems that the magazine would be entered into, legal problems that remain until this day.  Initially, the ECB had turned a blind eye to the Sofa, allowing it to broadcast off-tube, so long as this fact was acknowledged on-air.  (Indeed, there is a precedent of this, as tested in court, when TalkSport broadcast the European Football Championships in much the same vein in 2000.)  However, perhaps buoyed by the fact that this service was no longer run by enthusiastic amateurs and now bankrolled by one of the game’s major media sources, the ECB looked to stop the service from broadcasting.  Angry words were exchanged in the press between Andrew Miller and Jonathan Agnew in late 2012, ahead of England’s tour to India.  In 2013, Miller was warned by the ECB for tweeting about the Sofa from the Lord’s press box during the Ashes test (against the Board’s terms and conditions for press members), for which the Cricketer sued the ECB.  As of this season, the Sofa has not been broadcasting for legal reasons.  Whether this is related to the above case, or a separate case I am not sure.  Whichever it is, it could perhaps be argued that the Sofa purchase has been an expensive flop for the magazine – eating up legal fees, damaging its reputation and now reduced to tweeting score updates throughout each international match whilst its future is decided on in the court rooms.

It has shifted the magazine from an establishment figure (owned first by Wisden, then BSkyB, then by many who broadcast on Test Match Special) to one that is seen as a ‘black sheep’ by the ECB.  And, as for the magazine itself, with the departure of many high-profile columnists, it has returned to more of a Stern-style editorship.

Not that this is a bad thing – Miller has developed the Cricketer into a truly excellent magazine.  The most recent issue is a triumph – exactly what The Cricketer magazine should be in 2014.  It contains highly intelligent articles about the Great War and its relationship to cricket, timely reports about the England team, a detailed county section along with details of club cricket and cricket in schools.  This is the best of the old-school Cricketer, coupled with modern methods in writing and publishing. Miller’s editorship has been a triumph in this regard.

Which is why this morning’s news came as a great shock to me.  Miller, along with his two assistants, is to be made redundant.  The magazine will now operate with no in-house journalistic staff.  Instead, Simon Hughes will act as ‘Editor-at-Large’, with Alec Swann (Graeme’s brother) as ‘Head of Editorial Planning & Production’.  All the articles will now come via an ‘enhanced commissioning process’.

Clearly, the Cricketer are trying to cut costs.  I do not know why such a fantastic print journalist as Miller has been let go.  Perhaps the management are resentful of the Test Match Sofa purchase and hold that against him – that is just my speculation, I have no evidence for that at all.  As great as Simon Hughes is with regards his broadcast work and his analysis, he is not as talented a writer as Miller.  Nor, given his commitments on television, radio and for the Daily Telegraph, will he be treating this as a full-time job.

It is a shame that, after 12 months of instability (between 2011 and 2012), just when the magazine was really starting to find its feet, this happens to knock it back in an unknown direction.  I will give it a few months to let it find its way again, but I may well be cancelling my subscription if this does not work out – a subscription that dates back to the very first issue of TWC, released on my twelfth birthday in 2003.  More to the point, The Cricketer is a heritage brand within the game, and it appeared to be returning to its former glories.  I hope that this new direction does not ruin it forever.