The Ashes: Media management and biting the hand that feeds you

WHEN Joe Root takes a wicket, he wheels around like a giddy schoolboy who has just scored the winning goal in a playground recreation of the FA Cup final. When Ian Bell reaches a century he removes his helmet and leaps into the air, throwing a wild punch in a violent release of nervous energy. There is such a lot at stake for these players and their teammates, who have dedicated their entire lives to succeeding at the highest level. It’s no wonder they get a bit excited.

Yet when they come off the field and line up to fulfil their ever-growing list of media requirements – TV, radio, print, even a soundbite for the ECB’s YouTube channel – they sound like they’re rehearsing for their village am dram performance of the dullest show on earth.
The old cliches roll off the tongue in defeat – ‘Take the positives’, ‘Move on’, ‘Keep working hard’ and the much-hated ‘We’re a young side and we’ll learn from this’. Nobody expects a defeated captain to call his team an absolute shower or break down in tears a la Kim Hughes. But you would hope for a bit more when basking in the glory of another thumping victory.

Root’s interview demeanour could not be more at odds with his on-field antics. Chirpy and hyper one side of the whitewash, he seems to stare off into space when confronted with a microphone, delivering the same old rehearsed lines. His breathtaking debut Ashes century, converted into a matchwinning 180, was “nice”. It was “good to contribute” to the win. He paused slightly when asked about how the team would enjoy the victory, at which point a speeded-up montage of pedalos, dentist’s chairs and dwarf-throwing parties may have scrolled across his vision. But showing the maker’s name, he straight-batted the spitting cobra down the track. “I’m sure we will enjoy it.”
Root’s doe-eyed innocence is endearing, and he will have to grow more comfortable in the limelight if, as many are predicting, he is to occupy the top of the order for many years to come. He may even be next in line as captain. But let’s hope he has a bit more charisma than his current boss.
Alastair Cook is clearly a very driven, determined cricketer. His powers of concentration are remarkable, and he has already shown a quiet authority and ruthless streak as skipper. But like Root, his post-match briefings leave a lot to be desired. He ends every monotone sentence with pursed lips and a cocked head, as if to say “Next question, let’s get this over with”.

If all this is seen as a criticism of the players, it is not meant that way. They are professional sportsmen, paid to do a job on the field and doing it pretty well right now. They are not necessarily natural speakers. But over the last 20 years or so, since the advent of Sky TV and the growth of media power in sport, the public want to hear what their heroes have to say. And left to their own devices, they are liable to say something that might get them, or their colleagues, in trouble. Ian Botham was rarely off the back pages in the 1980s as he boasted of his sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. The late Tony Greig is probably best remembered for threatening to make the West Indies “grovel” before his England side succumbed to a 5-0 drubbing. And more recently Kevin “It’s not easy being me” Pietersen became a high-profile liability who threatened to destabilise the entire English setup.

The ECB has become much more professional since the turn of the century, and this approach – along with consistency of selection and central contracts – has transformed the national side. But like all good risk managers, they take a cautious approach towards anything that can be seen as a potential banana skin.

Players at the highest level these days are media trained to within an inch of their lives. They are coached in what to say and how to say it, how to deal with journalists and how to survive in the public eye. This often means that all their character, passion and personality is left at the crease, and we end up watching and listening to a bunch of corporate suits dressed in cricketing whites. Occasionally a player will resist the training – or maybe he will be encouraged to “be himself” to appease the press pack. Graeme Swann is a case in point. Reporters breathe a sigh of relief when Swanny is wheeled out for a press conference. He is funny, witty, self-deprecating and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Just as the players’ dead-eyed responses are a result of media training, they are also a sign of their distrust of the fourth estate. Not too long ago pro cricketers in England would be on friendly terms with all the regular journalists on the circuit, and would think nothing of a quick interview for tomorrow’s paper or a soundbite for Test Match Special. Not so nowadays, it would appear. Last week the Sun’s John Etheridge said: “It is almost impossible to speak to anybody in the England team away from press conferences without paying money or plugging a sponsor.” This is partly due to the fact that the game is increasingly controlled by cash. But it could also be because the tabloid media – and sometimes the broadcasters too – don’t help themselves.

When Stuart Broad edged a ball to slip in the first Test and was given not out, he didn’t walk. This ‘incident’, of which there are dozens every day in every form of the game, from international to village, was blown out of all proportion. The headline on the back page of the following day’s Daily Mirror was ‘BAN STU’, a reference to comments made by Sky’s Michael Holding. The wheel comes full circle. The media appears to be undermining the interests of the national side in the pursuit of a sexy story, quoting itself. The players see the headline and retreat further into themselves and their group. And the next time that reporter approaches a player for a quote? “Very pleasing. Put them under pressure. One game at a time.”

The whole ludicrous situation was neatly demonstrated by Broad himself this week. After James Anderson was sent out to bat at number eight on day one, apparently protecting the more competent Broad and Swann, the vultures began to ask questions. Responding to Simon Hughes on Twitter, Broad quipped: “Wasn’t a nightwatchman. Swanny and I banged heads while making a brew and were dazed so Jimmy took it on”.

Hyped up on Ashes fever, many journos fell for it hook, line and sinker. An amusing and telling moral victory for the embattled all-rounder. No doubt he will take the positives and move on.

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One thought on “The Ashes: Media management and biting the hand that feeds you

  1. […] backing up his words with a belligerent century. I’m all for players breaking the trend for bland, media managed press conferences. But perhaps he should concentrate on his own game, and leave the “poor” […]

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