(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Hayter
These days, instances of cricket’s television commentators complaining about the use of technology are about as rare as an umpire’s decision being allowed to pass without being challenged to trial by DRS.
So when one of the team who will be bringing the Ashes to your ungodly hours this winter says enough is enough about the dreaded stump mics, the words “refreshing” and “about time” compete for our approval.
Granted, Graeme Swann has not actually started his stint in the BT Sport commentary box yet, but on the morning of November 23, the first day of the upcoming series at the Gabba, the voice of England’s most successful off-spinner will be one of the first you will hear.
And if the opening exchanges of the first Test throw up the kind of on-field controversy that seemed to set such an antagonistic tone for what happened four years ago, expect to hear him rather a lot. Mitchell Johnson’s pace and aggression had already shattered the heart, mind and spirit of England’s batsmen, leaving Jonathan Trott so traumatised that he could not take another day of the experience.
Then, thanks to the magnifying effect of the onfield microphones, the end of Australia’s 381-run victory was overshadowed by the storm that followed an invitation from Michael Clarke to England’s Jimmy Anderson to “get ready for a broken fecken arm”.
For his trouble the Aussie skipper was fined 20 per cent of his match fee. Yet Swann insists the real villains of this piece were the stump mics themselves, and, to those responsible for allowing their use during play, he offers the following suggestion; take a hammer to them all.
“People think the Gabba Test got nasty last time because of what was picked up by the stump mic,” says Swann. “But that was nonsense.
“In fact, I can categorically state that of all the four Ashes series I played in, not one would feature in the top ten series for needle that I experienced, nowhere near actually. The person who had the least issue with what went on was Jimmy. Some observers were up in arms but Jimmy didn’t even realise it was an issue until he heard about it on the news.
“For him, it was water off a duck’s back. Personally, I can’t think of anyone less threatening than Michael Clarke but everyone who’s played with and against Jimmy knows he can be an absolute disgrace out there. I was in the room with Jimmy when someone asked him about what was said to him. He said, ‘I couldn’t give a monkeys’. And that is the problem. People who have no idea about what goes on get completely the wrong idea from the stump mics, they create a totally false impression and then things are blown out of proportion, which can create animosity where none exists. In my opinion they just shouldn’t be there.”
Not least because of what can happen to players when, inadvertently, they fall foul of its snoopery.
“When it comes to players being banned because of what stump mics pick up, that’s not right,” Swann insists.
“Last summer in England, Ben Stokes was docked demerit points for swearing at himself and Kagiso Rabada missed a Test match after a release of pent-up frustration when he got Stokes out. But no-one out there was bothered and, without the mics nothing would have happened. Of course, when things are picked up by mics and, as in those cases highlighted over and over again, it is a horrific example for kids. But you shouldn’t look for a bad example to then prove what a bad example it is. There are so many good examples and good role models and TV has a massive role to play in focusing on them.”
In that context, Swann is also critical of those he believes are guilty of trying to hype up the “pathetic” Ashes aggro for commercial purposes, a group in which, indirectly, he even includes both Cricket Australia and the ECB.
“The kind of stuff David Warner came up with recently, about wanting to hate England batsmen and go to war against them, is so manufactured,” says Swann.
“I think of all the hype leading up to the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. For the two months before the fight they were guilty of some of the most embarrassing human behaviour I’ve ever seen. They didn’t mean it but they know people lap it up, with 24-hour news channels and column inches which translate into millions of dollars, so they come up with even more. To say it’s pathetic and hot air is an understatement.
“Of course, Cricket Australia want someone to come back at Warner and the ECB will want someone to come back at them because eventually it means the next tv deal will have another nought at the end of it. I’m not trying to play down the Ashes. But it doesn’t need to be hyped up like that. People shouldn’t look for needle and hatred, because it’s simply not there.”
What will be, according to Swann, for England and Australian players alike, is one of the best and most thrilling challenges they can face.
“For me, the excitement of the whole thing is magnificent. It’s huge. No matter what anyone says, that every game is as important as any other, it’s not.
“The second one Ashes is finished, and you feel you are in with a shout of playing in the next one, it’s all you think about really because it is the culmination of everything. It’s like Christmas; you go through all of December. Open all those poxy little doors on the advent calendar and then eventually the day arrives and the door is twice as big.”
That final thought apart, there seems little evidence in any of the above that Swann will be content to stay “on message” in the months ahead, which might make your ungodly hours even more worth waiting up for.