Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 4, 2011

In praise of The Guardian’s “Over-by-Over”

Charters and Caldicott waiting for the OBO to be invented

Dexteresquely, the stars needed to be aligned and, in 2002, they were. Offices were broadbanded from wall to wall, managers had given up on trying to catch employees looking at news sites instead of spreadsheets (no “crackbook” nor twitter in those days) and, as Alfred Hitchcock knew, a cricket fan just has to know the Test score. Having used the format in football, the much missed guardianunlimited.co.uk sports desk decided to watch the cricket on the telly and type what they saw, publishing it on the website at the end of each over. What emerged from those early experiments was not too different to cricinfo’s ball-by-ball coverage, until Sean Ingle put the grit in the oyster shell by politely asking readers to e-mail him with comments and questions that he simply cut and pasted into the rolling report.

Soon, particularly in the hands of Rob Smyth and Lawrence Booth, a wholly new form of sports journalism was created, one that was rooted in immediacy, humour, digression and, most of all, the same sense of community one finds at cricket grounds, born of the game’s unique seven hours of play, its rich literary heritage and its statistical treasury. Not just in the UK, but worldwide, readers would log on as much for the banter as for the cricket, though Smyth, Booth and Andy Bull never forgot that their readers were cricket fans first and foremost and, almost miraculously, the writers balanced technical descriptions of the progress of a complex game with digressions into pop culture, high culture and the oeuvre of Ms Scarlett Johansson. Nobody has quite identified why the format works, but it does and, though other websites have tried it out, like Doug Walters’ batting, it’s never quite the same thing away from its natural home.

In building its community, the OBO has proved remarkably effective, with many friendships (and more than that) established both online and in that strange scary place called real life. More than just your current correspondent were amazed to find that people would read his or her smartarsery as inserted between Colly’s shovels to leg and another Kumble maiden and be moved (or outraged) enough to respond. Alongside the parallel development of the comments section of the Guardian’s Sportsblog, the confidence (some would say over-confidence) that such knowledge imbued genuinely, er…, changed my life, as did my new friends, the first outside work since parenting largely closed down an already somewhat moribund social calendar.

At the end of a World Cup that must have felt as long as Hanif Mohammad’s knock at Bridgetown in 1958, Smyth (assisted by Bull and one or two others, but in OBO terms, this was Smyth’s World Cup as much as it was Botham’s Ashes 30 years ago) kept hitting the boundaries and bowling the yorkers, conducting his orchestra of e-mailers without dropping a note, as match after match found its own symphony, its own movements, its own melodies. The reports are there to read now, a contemporaneous account of the ebbs and flows only cricket can provide; a complement to conventional ex post facto accounts of a match. Read them and weep with joy that the fragility of cricket’s absurd timeframe and online journalism’s absurd business model are still strong enough to allow it all to happen – we’ll miss it when it’s gone.

The Tooting Trumpet, whom you can often find at Testmatchsofa.com and on Twitter at @garynaylor999

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Responses

  1. Well put indeed. Long live the OBO!

  2. Beautiful tribute, Gary. Clearly it’s the OBO, rather than older sister MBM (Emily Deschanel to OBO’s Zooey?), which truly embodies those “humour, digression and, most of all, sense of community” – I follow it though the rules of this game are Greek to me. On a personal note: getting my weird missives published in the MBMs, seeing my name appear on the Guardian e-pages did wonders to my confidence as a writer in a non native language.

    Though the bittersweet ending makes perfect rhetorical and practical sense, I’m hopeful GU will stay online forever, preferably gratis. Gravity always wins, not quality, but I’ve never seen quality so friendly and open-ended.

    • Cheers Philip. Cricket just has more space available. I could never drink, eat nor speak at an Everton game and I can’t stop drinking, eating and talking at a cricket match – the OBOs and MBMs reflect those differences in mood I feel.

      It’s a kick seeing one’s name there in the same space as the pros isn’t it? Does wonders for the confidence and I’m glad you’ve felt that way too.

      • Ha! Just clicked and realised you’re that Philip! Always a pleasure to meet you Sir! Your link to the Guy Maddin short played a big part in opening my eyes and ears to classical music – I’m writing opera reviews these days!

  3. Great post. Got into cricket during this World Cup, and very glad I did, although I don’t see myself following the game again until, possibly, the next Twenty20. Question about your last statement – why do you think the OBO’s will be gone at some point?

    • Thank you Konstantin. Re OBOs, they might make us pay and that would kill it, I feel.

  4. It is indeed a kick. Although you, of all people, must be used to it by now!?

  5. Thanks for this Gary, much deserved praise for a much imitated & never bettered format. And thanks as well for the heads up in the last OBO for the Fire in Babylon film at the Riverside. Hope to see you there!

  6. l do very much enjoy it for following neutral games, as in not involving Aus. It is often, completely justifiably, caught up in a very English milieu so its easier if one can just relax and enjoy that.

    Most impressively on several occasions Rob Smyth wrote back to me about things that l had sent in to further discuss something we had agreed/disagreed on. l found that distinctly impressive in terms of the individual/community values that represented and indeed that a professional would bother to do so. l think it is important to recognise them as professionals, rather than punters made good/lucky.

    l am a moderate fan at best of of his light and repetitive “spirit of cricket’ book but that is another matter :)

    • Indeed Japal. Smyth is very professional in his work, but loves the game and those that love the game and respects it and them accordingly.

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  8. Great stuff, Gary. It has meant an awful to lot to many people, especially cut off ex-pats missing the banter of a group of friends in a pub. I always imagined there was a golden age of it because something this open and delightful could not go on without change rearing its head and bringing in a paywall to flatten everyone’s sense of the internet as a community. Kudos to you, sir.

    • Cheers! It’s not quite what it was (Vale Smyth) but it’s a joy all the same.

  9. […] of outsiders who had brokered smartarsery into membership of a clique of insiders, the MBM was a new form of journalism, sitting somewhere between a radio commentary and an “on the whistle” report. The […]


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