As Test Match Sofa, a ball-by-ball internet cricket commentary service, enters its fourth year, its founder, Daniel Norcross, talks to Gary Naylor, a member of its commentating collective.
I was convinced that anyone can be a commentator if they have sufficient passion, desire and love for cricket, but the gigantic prevalence of ex-cricketers in broadcasting has squeezed out the voices of the amateur who had devoted an enormous amount of time to the game. When I started listening to cricket, it was men like John Arlott, Brian Johnston and EW Swanton – guys who hadn’t played cricket at the highest level – whose voices I most readily remember. Now all we get is a players’ viewpoint. I thought I could do it better, so I put together a commentary team that could challenge Test Match Special (TMS) for being informative and knowing about the game.
Test Match Sofa’s challenge to the establishment has come through its very distinctive voice – one that’s more free. less awkward. On the BBC, the culture and regulatory environment means that TMS commentators have to be a little bit careful – on The Sofa, as long as you’re not boring, you can talk about anything you like. When we started, we were completely loose, but we got the ball-by-ball right from the first over. I knew that my dream – that those of us who had heard cricket commentary inside our heads for years could actually do it – had been proved true. That’s a tribute to the power of TMS burrowing into our brains for years.
But it was the introduction of the piss-taking jingles (after getting sick of the banality of the Twenty20 music in 2009) and then the arrival of the outside world, especially tweets from listeners, that really made Test Match Sofa distinctive. It’s not for everyone – and quite right too; plenty of cricket fans don’t want to hear KP arriving at the crease to a chorus of disrespectful comments and bad music.
We’re not scared of disagreement amongst ourselves or of broadcasting the audience’s displeasure with a commentator. Neither are we too grand to admit our errors. The Sofa is independent of the players and the establishment – we’re not in the media centres, so we can’t be banned from them! That said, we do try to retain journalistic rigour and, even if we’re quick to criticise and express frustration, there’s too much knowledge on The Sofa for us not to balance the brickbats with analysis, perspective and fairness.
We’re not at the ground, we don’t often have recognisable voices (though comedians like Andy Zaltzman, Mark Steel, Miles Jupp and James Sherwood have really made the programme sing) and we don’t have a marketing machine behind us: on the other hand, we don’t need to patronise our audience by constantly telling them how great “the show” is. We assume everyone listening loves cricket – one bloke on an oil rig in Mexico claimed that we saved his life, because ours was the only commentary available. We relish the intelligence of our audience and they provide much of our content through tweets. Twitter’s 140 characters is perfect for snappy points and witty asides. I hadn’t realised that audience participation would become so important and I never knew that so many people would derive so much pleasure from listening and contributing.
I did have hopes that, by this stage in its development, The Sofa would have secured its future but, despite all its success, it hasn’t. We have a decent (English) Test crowd of listeners who come back regularly, and often more than that. I’d always imagined that the audience might pay £10 per year each – if they did, we could run the whole thing with no advertising and no sponsorship. The gigantic differential between Test Match Sofa and TMS must be worth £10 per year! Soon the internet will be on everywhere all the time and on every mobile phone, so, with people already paying for apps, why not pay for the Test Match Sofa app at less than a pound per month? Others may try to mimic what we do, but we’re so far advanced of any new entrants that I think we’ll be okay. And I had been uniquely lucky in things coming together to create the website, source and maintain the necessary technical gizmos and to have found the commentators.
Now The Sofa is looking for a strategic partner – we’re quite well known and we’re not going away, but we need money to make the next step. There’s no business model for what we’re doing, because it’s never been done before. We need the kind of partner who can get to well known cricket fanatics and get them on to The Sofa. We’ve had plenty of writers but it would be good to have lots more guests. I’d love to interview Hugh Cornwell, because when he was on TMS, Jonathan Agnew didn’t know who The Stranglers were, and they’re my favourite band!
In the future, The Sofa can produce audio content that covers cricket comprehensively and then take it further by trying out new formulas like cricket-based game shows. “The Sofa Channel” will be the place to go for all things cricket – and there will be no limits on what we will turn into cricket-related programming!
In the mean time, Test Match Sofa is ball-by-ball for the Second Test between England and Pakistan on Wednesday January 25 and will cover the rest of England’s winter tours and summer series. You can listen for yourself by clicking here.