Dropping the former Ashes-winning England Test captain from the BBC’s coverage in Australia was inevitable, but weeding out blokeish ex-players has been quietly happening for a while, says Ed Cumming, and their replacements are better at the job
As long as it was just Michael Vaughan’s word against Azeem Rafiq’s, Vaughan might just have clung on. Rafiq accused the former England cricket captain of making a racist comment before a Yorkshire match in 2009. He admitted in his Telegraph column that he was named in the report into the incident but denied having made the racist comments. He said the accusation “was like being struck over the head with a brick”. When two other players, Adil Rashid and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, corroborated it, he continued to deny it. Only by the weekend did he soften his stance, saying he was sorry for the hurt Rafiq had suffered while maintaining he hadn’t said anything racist.
Will this demi-apology be enough to save his broadcasting career? The BBC had already dropped Vaughan’s podcast with Phil Tufnell. On Wednesday, they confirmed they would be removing him from their Test Match Special (TMS) team for the Ashes tour to Australia.
“While he is involved in a significant story in cricket, for editorial reasons we do not believe that it would be appropriate for Michael Vaughan to have a role in our Ashes team or wider coverage of the sport at the moment,” the corporation said in a statement. “We require our contributors to talk about relevant topics and his involvement in the Yorkshire story represents a conflict of interest.” A deal to commentate on the Ashes for broadcast on BT Sport is under threat, too.
It is hard not to feel a bit sorry for Vaughan, whose broadcasting career hangs by a thread for words of which he is only accused, albeit convincingly. Had he come out with a convincing mea culpa, the situation could be different. David Lloyd, the coach and commentator, who was also caught up in the Rafiq storm, issued a sincere apology for offensive text messages. So far he has clung onto his jobs.
All the same, it might not have been enough for Vaughan. Lloyd, a 74-year-old Lancastrian whose heart generally seems to be in the right place, is granted more slack than Vaughan, 47, whose annus mirabilis as a player was 2005, hardly the distant past. In the modern media world, a plausible accusation is enough to make a position untenable. Presenters must be whiter than white, especially white men. One by one, cricket broadcasting is weeding out the blokeish old England lads, the chunterbanterers, who have dominated coverage in recent decades. First Gower and Botham from Sky, then Boycott, now Vaughan, all shuffled off to an eternal post-broadcast curry house. Tufnell will be soon, one would have thought. Probably Lloyd, despite his apparent stay of execution. Rob Key is an amiable enough presence, but would he be brought through in 2021? I’m not sure. This is the twilight of the laddy ex-pro. A mix of voices is all well and good, but I can’t be the only listener whose heart sinks when I hear Tufnell trundle in for another chat about what snacks he bought from the petrol station.
Whatever the merits of Vaughan’s case, the broader risk for the classic ex-pro pundits is that there is more competition for commentary places than ever. Although a brilliant batsman and captain, Vaughan has never been as good at talking about the game as he was at playing it. He has sometimes given the impression he’s there because it seems like the most obvious choice. Nobody can hold a bat to Sir Alastair Cook, but Test centuries are no guarantee behind the mic. They make for an interesting contrast with Mike Atherton, whose professional record falls far short of Vaughan’s but who is an incisive, thoughtful analyst, and not coincidentally an elegant writer.
Today there are hundreds of rivals yapping at their heels, and not just men. Women have been a revelation in commentary, especially Ebony Rainford-Brent and Isa Guha. Any notion they were hired as acts of tokenism was dismantled years ago. The opposite is true: they have to be twice as good. With so much cricket being broadcast around the world, there is no shortage of opportunities for new commentators to prove their worth.
On TV, where the pictures mean fewer feats of description are required, the job is entrusted to two ex-pros. Here, the middle-aged white men who continue to have a role tend to be those with an edge beyond being a former player. Shane Warne earns his keep with his reputation and intelligence. Kevin Pietersen is a kind of cricket Chris Sutton, divisive but able to produce a strongly held opinion on any aspect of the game at the drop of a hat. Nasser Hussain cuts a forlorn figure, but then I suppose he always did. Maybe that’s his USP. There will always be room for a safe pair of hands, but the current pros starting out in broadcast must do so in the knowledge that the days of sinecures for former captains are over. Carlos Brathwaite is a natural. Stuart Broad has been promisingly direct in his outings so far, and so has Steven Finn. You get the sense they know they have to sing for their supper a bit.
Cricket broadcasting has always been strong on diversity. A five-day test creates plenty of time to fill. The TMS structure, which included having a summariser from the opposition sides, meant we heard Indian, Australian, Sri Lankan, West Indian and Pakistani broadcasters, all knowledgeable and eloquent, years before football caught up. In Michael Holding, Sky had possibly the best voice not just in cricket, but in broadcasting. TMS, the programme that gave us John Arlott and Brian Johnston, has always had space for specialist broadcasters as well as the ex-pros. Unlike football, cricket is content with the possibility that you can be informed and eloquent about a sport without having played it to the highest level. Vaughan, Swann, Tufnell and chums, the lads, add aural variety, less polished vowels, a locker room vibe to go with all the statistics and well turned phrasing. But if that’s all they offer, perhaps it’s time for a change. If Vaughan exits, it will mean an entrance for someone else – no bad thing in a sport that tends towards inertia. All the best teams need competition for places.