Guerillas in the midst of special Test match revolution

“They’re not as funny as they think they are,” sniffed Stephen Brenkley, the cricket correspondent of the now partially defunct Independent, in 2012, hoping perhaps, by damning with faint praise, to halt the Test Match Sofa bandwagon that was hurtling down the slope from the Pavilion End and threatening to deliver some unwelcome chin music to the cricket Establishment.

It was true, though, they weren’t as funny as they thought they were. Very few people are. But they were funny. And, worryingly for that Establishment, they were also knowledgeable, insightful, could generally ball-by-ball with the best of them and could turn their hands to a variety of subjects that you wouldn’t expect to hear on a cricket commentary.

And so it is with their successor, Guerilla Cricket – although is successor the term we are after? Progeny, then? Bastard son? Reincarnation? They are all these things – and yet – something more. An evolution, maybe.

A potted history: Test Match Sofa, an offbeat live cricket commentary that interacted with its audience through social media and revelled in playing jingles of varying degrees of sophistication for players, had been acquired by The Cricketer, at the time the world’s pre-eminent cricket magazine, in 2012. Its new editor, Andrew Miller, had been hired to try to rudder it into the 21st century amid the challenges the internet posed to print products. An aghast board member Jonathan Agnew, significantly front man of the BBC’s iconic live commentary Test Match Special, resigned in protest. Cricket people took sides. The mainstream press was largely welcoming, while relishing the controversy – the Sofa commentated straight from the television pictures to the world wide web and therefore paid no rights fees. But when the going got tough and The Cricketer found itself embroiled in awkward legal battles, the plug was pulled.

It helped the powers-that-be that Dan Norcross, the programme’s co-founder and anchor, had himself tired of those battles and was by then on the verge of being accepted into the bosom of the Beeb; many around the game had formed the opinion that this extraordinary talent, whose voluminous knowledge of the history of the game was allied to his skills as a ball-by-baller and expert mimic – his Richie Benaud and John Arlott were worth tuning in for all on their own – was the sole reason for its success. It seemed the perfect outcome for the authorities: they had often been told that luring Norcross away was the quickest way to neutralize the interlopers’ threat.

Those left behind were initially of the same mind. They could not envisage a show without Norcross. He had been its heart and soul even if, in the nicest possible way, that’s how he liked to portray it. But over time, a resistance movement began to find its voice. Just because Norcross had gone, it did not mean that the demand for an alternative approach to live cricket commentary had gone with him. And even if Norcross did intend to incorporate his entertaining flights of whimsy into the traditionally stuffy arena of Test Match Special, whether they be about an experience with an ex-girlfriend or an aunt’s home-made lemonade, he could not change the world on his own.

With the wider Twittersphere, those who helped to drive the show with their contributions from near and afar, bereft and rebelling, the Remainers – among them two Nigels, Walker and Henderson, two comedians, Aatif Nawaz and James Sherwood, an eloquent Scouse academic and theatre critic, Gary Naylor, and Katie Walker, a Classicist who founded the Words and Wickets cricket and literature festival, were inspired to carry on.

Nigel Henderson, an initially reluctant front man, stepped up to host the show while juggling his involvement with his day job as a freelance journalist on The Times’ sports desk. Nigel Walker, a former sound technician with BBC property show Homes Under the Hammer who had first got the Sofa on air in Norcross’s suburban front room in 2009, remained in charge of technology while being brought back in from the cold as a commentator – The Cricketer had vetoed his sarf London patois during its ownership. Sherwood, writer of arguably some of the wittiest comic songs since Victoria Wood, continued as jingle-composer-in-chief, although he has taken a back seat of late.

But there was a problem: what would the new programme be called? The Cricketer declined requests to allow the old name to be used. Brains were stormed and racked. Test Match Settee and variations thereon were mooted and rejected. Henderson, gripped by a revolutionary fervour, proposed Test Match Insurgency, Cricket Guerilla and Guerilla Cricket. A quorum was easily reached and with a rousing speech from the new leader as inspiration, Sherwood set to work on the show’s introductory tune. It included a memorable line: “They decapitated us, but we just grew another head,” perhaps a dig in the ribs to those who had talked up Norcross’s omnipotence

That was in the summer of 2014. Only the early-season series between England and Sri Lanka was missed while the new show was set in motion, breaking a line back to the Ashes five years earlier. Since then Guerilla Cricket has gone on to provide live commentary of all England international matches as well as other series featuring the likes of Pakistan, India, Australia and New Zealand, drawing new commentators from a deep and ever-growing pool of listeners and admirers as changing day-to-day circumstances of some original members have restricted their involvement.

But why is Guerilla Cricket needed? Why, indeed, was the Sofa needed?

Geoff Lemon, an Australian journalist who appeared on Guerilla Cricket when they were calling the 2015 Ashes from a sports bar in central London, summed it up nicely in a Guardian article. He had grown weary of the incestuousness that had invaded the Channel 9 box in his home country, where ex-cricketers such as Shane Warne, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy and Mark Slater had “subsided into a swamp of hokey backslapping”. It was an orgy of self-indulgence which sanctioned few, if any, outsiders. It was all about being “the matiest mates that ever mated,” he wrote.

In the UK, Test Match Special and Sky were also wedded to the notion that only ex-players could understand this most complex of sports and interpret it for the public. It was a patronising outlook – after all, the best players often do not make the best coaches so why should live commentary be any different – and Test Match Special in particular has taken steps to address that in recent years. But would they have done so without the emergence of the Sofa and Guerilla Cricket?

Henderson makes this point: “There are plenty of people out there steeped in cricket from an early age; they may have played to a high standard – if not professional level – or they may not, but they are able to describe the action compellingly, they have distinctive voices and they understand most of the intracacies and nuances – often better than some professionals whose talent has been such that they don’t delve too deep. And they know a bit about the world beyond cricket.”

And this is what a new breed of cricket ‘consumer’ seems to want. In fact, to use that term to refer to such listeners seems crude. “They are producers as well,” says Walker, pointing to the way in which the Guerilla Cricket show is often driven by its contributors on Twitter and popularized by those who come up with its jingles, of which there are now more than 200, all available in the show’s archive for £20 and helping, along with a patreon crowdfunding page and a merchandise store that includes a branded Guerilla Cricket bat, to finance the enterprise.

A handful of the most popular jingles in the Sofa days – among them those for Ravi Bopara, Dale Steyn and Luke Wright – were recorded by a listener in Munich, Stephen Pryke, who then added Jonny Bairstow to the mix; two other listeners have stepped up to the mark for Guerilla Cricket more recently: Alec Tucker, an Australian based in Melbourne – and lead singer for the intriguingly-named hardcore band Disinterested Handjob – and Jeff Perkins, another Australian exiled in the United States. A third occasional contributor to the programme, David Barrett, has had a highly successful career in music production and now fronts the band Men With Ven.

For many of the show’s fans though, Guerilla Cricket also provides a sense of community, more so than traditional commentaries that lack the required interactivity. Sean Treacy, one of the Sofa’s earliest listeners, and now a regular member of the team, was on what he terms “gardening leave” from his job in an investment bank in 2009 when he saw a Tweet by Stephen Fry about a new cricket commentary service. “The description of a bunch of drunks sitting in a south London flat swearing about cricket piqued my interest,” he says. “What greeted me was part what I expected – there was drinking and some swearing, but I very quickly realised that these people were experts on cricket and brilliant broadcasters. What I had stumbled upon was the very essence of the punk rock do-it-yourself ethic; I was hooked.

“Back then interaction with the show was via email, not the quickfire Twitter feed that is now such an important part of Guerilla Cricket. You had to wait a while back then to get a comment read out live on air and when it happened you really felt that you were part of this anarchic collective.”

If that sounds like Guerilla Cricket reaches the parts that other live commentary services cannot reach, you’d not be far wrong.

Most national broadcasters, such as Test Match Special, are bound by laws on geo-blocking – the technical term for coverage that is subject to rights restrictions. But independent internet broadcasters can circumnavigate this problem. Which is all to the benefit of people who listen primarily outside the UK such as American businesswoman Diane Palmquist, who remains a loyal Guerilla Cricket listener seven years after first becoming acquainted with its predecessor. The itinerant managing director of a technology company loves that she can pick up the programme wherever she is, whether that’s on a lake in her home state of Minnesota or seven miles high on a jumbo jet over southeast Asia.

“I remember in the summer of 2010 being out in my kayak early one morning listening to the cricket,” she says. “I would stop occasionally and tweet in some comments. The interaction with the team made me feel connected to the matches. Today I fly all over the world for work. Guerilla Cricket is always there. When I’m at 36,000 feet in the dark of night I can listen to the Guerilla team, follow the cricket and exchange tweets with other listeners from around the world.”

It is a godsend for expats and holidaymakers as well. Kate Holdsworth is from Yorkshire but now lives in the Netherlands and travels the world watching England play. During the Cape Town Test on England’s most recent tour to South Africa she helped introduce the stand she was in to the delights of Guerilla Cricket. She says: “It’s been a life-saver at times because of geo-blocking but I would still choose it over mainstream coverage now. It’s unlike anything you’ve heard before –yet still intelligent and focused on the cricket.”

While people talk about the “special connection” they have with Guerilla Cricket, one problem the new show has had is in getting the message out about their existence. When Test Match Sofa finished it had more than 27,000 Twitter followers. Despite painstaking attempts to contact them, Guerilla Cricket is still, almost day by day, welcoming back its prodigal sons (and daughters).

Paul Howarth, an advertising executive from London, is one of them. An avid listener to the Sofa, only in the past year has he discovered its rebirth as Guerilla Cricket – and then only after researching a blog for The Independent on sports commentary. “It made me very happy,” he says. “It was such a gem when I first discovered it: funny, irreverent and sometimes downright bizarre – but always entertaining. And your Tweets got read out. I was delighted it was back on the airwaves.”

So delighted in fact that, like Sean Treacy, he joined the team and quickly became a popular and regular member.

In the early Sofa days, journalists and others associated with the game were queueing up to be on the fledgeling broadcasts. Attracting such names has become more difficult with writers now wary of appearing too close to something that the ECB would quite happily shut down if it had the legal powers. At the height of the governing body’s disagreement with The Cricketer over the Sofa, journalists were threatened with losing their accreditation if they promoted the programme and that peril remains in place. It is a history outlined in detail by Justin Marozzi in a piece about live cricket commentary in The Spectator.

Henderson remains bemused by the controversy: “We are spreading the gospel about cricket at a time when it needs all the friends it can get and we are allowing more voices to be heard. I mean, Michael Vaughan flits between Test Match Special, Channel 5 and BT Sport, Graeme Swann does pretty much the same. It’s nice work if you can get it but as a cricket follower I sometimes want to hear an alternative view to theirs. It figures that I can’t be the only one – and our audience numbers bear that out.”

Guerilla Cricket has led a peripatetic existence, having broadcast from flats, studios and in public. At present, it is operating out of a property in south east London, but as Nigel Walker says: “It can be done anywhere with a TV and an internet connection.”

With that in mind, its creators are advancing ambitious plans to take the show on the road – to the Ashes in Australia later this year – where the objective is to commentate from a mixture of bars and listeners’ homes. A core team will be supplemented by local contacts and others flying in for shorter periods. Several venues have already been confirmed, along with major sponsorship.

“Doing the 2015 Ashes from a sports bar in central London proved to us that this is a goer,” says Nigel Henderson. “Most of our audience at the live shows was Aussie expats. They seem to love us over there. Maybe it’s because they have such a fine history of barracking. The banter could be terrific.”

A Pommie alternative cricket commentary giving it to the Australians in their own back yard, while England aim to do the same? Surely even Brenkley couldn’t sniff at that.

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST