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.

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2 thoughts on “The Cricketer magazine: once again in transition

  1. While some of your points are fair, you have a somewhat limited understanding as to why the Sofa is not broadcasting this summer. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with legalities. Trust me. If it were, they wouldn’t have set up Guerilla cricket.

    • Thanks for the comment. I must confess, I had not come across Guerrilla Cricket – very interesting and raises some points that I did not cover in the article. Apologies for any inaccuracies – if you would like a correction published, please do drop me a line at contact [at] njfreestone [dot] co [dot] uk.

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