Thursday, 31 January 2013

Shane Warne – When the Medium Eats the Message

The well-worn cliché goes that you shouldn't meet your heroes, lest they fail to live up to your lofty expectations. In the 21st century it is perhaps now worth adding, “and don’t follow them on twitter, whatever you do.”

If your hero happened to be, say, Shane Warne, I’m sure you’d be nodding like a lunatic right now. Warne is currently something of a case study in how to completely to erode a lifetime supply of fan goodwill in the space of a few years of tweeting. And yes, he’s acted like a wanker in other forums too, I know. Having previously been shielded from scorn by his esteemed standing as a player and the rich folklore of his own larrikinism (that others tended to lay out on his behalf), his own glaring intellectual limitations are now laid bare for all to see, one LOL and OMG after the other. Sometimes it really is better to say nothing and be thought a fool than set yourself up a twitter account and remove all doubt.

Once, biographers and media figures enshrined Warne, coating him with a thick, impenetrable veneer of celebrity. No news was bad news, and it was very lucrative business just being Shane Warne. As a player, Warne drew breathless platitudes from even the most hardened cynics in the press pack. As a man, his misadventures stocked the tabloids and gossip mags for years, no scandal seemingly able to dent his star power. A few years ago I spoke to a prominent player manager who was amazed that Warne remained hugely popular with women of many and varied demographics throughout even the most heavily-publicized of his marital indiscretions. To maintain such a strong standing within the game despite both the ‘John the Bookie’ scandal and his failed drugs test was no mean feat, either.

Having spent the previous fifteen years as a walking headline, upon Warne’s international retirement he nevertheless stood at the precipice of a long and fruitful second act in life as a statesman of the game, a well-paid hoarding for advertisers and a reliable quote for the press. But somewhere along the line he began making choices that turned him from a soap opera with high production qualities into a cheap and nasty reality TV show that’s really gone on a few seasons too long.    

For many fans of a certain age, even in early retirement, there remained a strong image of Warne the baked-bean-eating Bogan from Brighton. If there was not something of him in us, we certainly recognized traits of someone we all knew, and liked, even if that person was also a bit of a dickhead. He was a sporting genius nonpareil and enjoyed the spoils of fame with gusto. As is not always the case with such a character, he also remained pleasingly tolerant of the way the media handled his stumbles. ‘Yeah, I stuffed up, what an idiot I am’ gives you much more leeway in the court of public opinion than ‘They’re all out to get me.’ Sure he’d slimmed down and gotten into the fake tan, but then there was a lengthy pattern of vanity in the Warne story, so it seemed almost par for the course.

In discussing Warne’s position in the popular consciousness, it is worth noting that in the pre-social media age, the avenues through which we achieved any real or imagined personal connection with sports stars were much more prosaic, innocent even. The fan might arrive to a game early and wait in the hope of spotting the star on the way in. The fan might stand in line at a book signing on the promise of a quick scribble and a few words. Beyond that, stars were transported into our lives via the TV screen, the newspaper page, and often facile, self-aggrandizing biographies. So, outside of the way that their playing performances resonated with the fan on a personal level, the waxing or waning of the sports-person’s legacy owed much to the way it was sculpted by other people; writers, TV producers and the people that surrounded them. The stars themselves were never truly left to construct or spin their own public image and these gate-keepers often served them well.

In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, record store owner Rob laments that having dreamt of a day where he’d be surrounded by exotic women’s underwear, now he knew that “they just save their best pairs for the nights they know they're going to sleep with somebody.” For years, with the help of the press, we’ve collectively constructed a rock star image of Warne, and now, ironically, it is Warne himself who is destroying any mystery and excitement that Warne-land once held, one tweet at a time. TV news footage of Shane Warne blowing past a pack of reporters in a Bentley is fun. Warne descending into vapid, illegible accounts of where he took Liz Hurley for dinner is most definitely not. It’s Warnie and Liz catching a movie, it’s Warnie and Liz rubbing each other’s feet. And none of it is a good look. Rather than adding to his fame or piquing our interest in his life, it has the opposite effect, infantilizing him. It is a pitiful sight; less the innocence of a schoolboy self-consciously walking through the playground holding hands with his first girlfriend, and more the ham-fisted boasting of an attention-seeking prat.

It’s this jarring sense of reality from Warne’s musings that serves not to add to his fame and cultural cachet, but diminish it by small, nauseating increments. That is not to say this is a fate befalling Warne alone. Ricky Gervais initially derided Twitter (or “Twatter” as he put it. Yes Ricky, we remember that.) users before caving in to his own impulses and turning into Twitter’s resident Atheist enforcer. Gervais’s downturn in fortunes lately can perhaps be traced to the fairly shoddy work he’s started to do, but I wonder how much the tide of negative public opinion about him is down to his relentless, dogmatic vandalization of their twitter feed. How Warne expects to have his concern’s for the state of cricket taken seriously whilst tweeting away like a 12-year-old One Direction groupie is anyone’s guess. It is naïve at a minimum, but more like an act of grand delusion. The ruthless disregard for anything other than his own instincts served Warne well during his playing career, but it’s proving a huge stumbling block in his public life these days.

How else do you explain the embarrassing folly of Part I of the Warnifesto? His twitter ramblings and gauche behavior during this year’s Big Bash gave a fair hint of what we could expect, but it was no less cringeworthy for that warning. It spoke volumes of Warne’s own limitations as a big-picture thinker, but also the image Warne has of himself as an anti-establishment rebel and truth-speaking maverick. He seems to think that friends like Ian Chappell and James Packer are of the same ilk as himself, and in that he is right, but not in the way he thinks. They are all as much a part of the establishment furniture as the leather benches of the MCC Long Room. If Warne realizes this and faces up to the responsibility it entails, he can be of value to the game. If he doesn’t, he can’t complain about the gradual erosion of the esteem in which he was once held by lovers of the game.

Much was made of the Marlon Samuels incident as the main pointer to the fact that Warne had lost all perspective and was treading a credibility tightrope. That is fair enough. A certain amount of the media coverage of this incident focused on the very valid accusation that Cricket Australia were complicit in his embarrassing display. Whilst not wanting to condone Warne’s behavior, there is no doubt that they gleefully accepted the attention and the headlines it brought them. In the end, they gave Warne the proverbial slap on the wrist via a farcical judicial process. A more depressing and realistic reading of the situation is that Warne was possibly not drumming up interest in the BBL on behalf of CA, but interest in himself. There was something synthetic and depressing about the whole affair, Warne seeking more to feed his own considerable ego than damage that of Samuels. It was Warne staying relevant. He didn’t look like an outlaw, he looked like a desperate ex-boyfriend outside a girl’s bedroom, boom-box on the shoulder, butchering a power ballad. Actually, if we’re talking matters of the heart, dare we say it was Warne trying to show off to his missus a little bit, too? It’s heart-breaking that the vision of him tugging at Samuels shirt, screaming abuse like an overgrown toddler will sit alongside ‘the ball of the century’ and his hat-trick ball in video montages for the rest of the time.

For all his bloated acts of hubris lately, Warne has a great knowledge of the machinations of playing the game and it remains possible that he can put this to considerable use. Whether this happens or not will depend on the trust and forgiveness of a cricket establishment whose tents he seems intent on drowning in self-serving piss. From here on, Warne can choose his own legacy, I just hope it’s not a blow by blow account of what he ate for lunch.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Memories of Big Bash 2 - Mike and the McKennas

                                                           Digitally-altered image. By a rank amateur. 

Laying into this bloke turned into a sport unto itself over the course of the last two months, though you almost have to feel sorry for Mike and the McKennas. I said “almost”, alright? The bloke didn't invent Twenty20 cricket, but when we start to take these things too seriously, we need a fall guy, and that was a role that McKenna performed with aplomb over the course of #BBL02 (kudos on that hashtag though Mike; nothing worse than some long-winded bollocks like #BBLSHOW2012CMONBOYS).

I need to flag this with a fairly large disclaimer: this year I didn't attend any Big Bash games in the flesh, so my impressions of Mike’s work this season are based purely on the televised games I watched. On a shallow level, you could say that this proves a point itself.

Additionally, it is worth noting something about McKenna and his ilk. Twenty years ago it would have been hard to imagine administrators of the game, CEO’s aside, being the subject of such probing analysis by the press and the average punter as they are in the present day. The causes of this are obviously many and varied; cable TV, Internet, Blogs, Social Media and sub-species of all four being the most easy to identify.

Also, and this is perhaps more glaringly the case with the current AFL administration, there are now far more media seagulls fighting for chips, so it is natural that the resultant breadth of coverage will tend to focus on administrators, sometimes to an undue degree. Jay Caspian Kang theorized on Grantland last year that sports fans should care not for the boardroom moves or money squandered off-field by administrators and team owners, but purely about the quality of play on display. That is a rational argument for the aesthete in us all, but who amongst sports fans doesn’t think they could run their team or league better than those at the wheel? It’s also worth noting that Kang’s boss, Bill Simmons, is among a class of contemporary sports writers (including Deadspin’s Will Leitch) who purports to actually write from a fan perspective, which for the large part has involved continuously pillorying team owners and league officials.   

When McKenna was first appointed as BBL Emperor, I imagine a meeting in which Stakeholders Sutherland implored him to “take ownership” of the Big Bash. All stakeholders would need to be happy, emerging markets penetrated (I’m sure that part would be worded differently, given the target market seems to be the kiddies and all) and everyone would have to end up being bowled over by the magnificent synergies. The guy’s been on a hiding to nothing from the start because he’ll be left carrying the can if things go tits up, but I bet we’ll see the boss fronting the press conference when the new media rights deal is announced. Whatever happens, we’ll hear all about it. Anyway, to give some perspective, you no longer have to be batting at number three in the Test team to be the subject of character assassination in the broadsheets and around the water coolers of ‘straya. With that in mind McKenna has probably done well to hold it together and not publicly issue a fatwa on Gideon Haigh and three-quarters of BBL tweeters.

Now, onto some character assassination…

With the burst balloon of the AFL season past still loudly whistling away in the background, CA kicked things off this season by sanctioning anyone involved who dared to say anything  controversial (read: “interesting”), or stirred up any press that Mike and his band-mates couldn't directly control, re-formulate, and communicate as bite-sized pieces of PR shod. Thus Marlon Samuels was most definitely not a dirty chucker, and the spirit and integrity of the game was upheld. Well, until Warnie showed up with his microphone and some sub-district level sledging, anyway.

                                                      I’m a parody of a Celebrity, Get me Outta Here.

Initially, there was fudging of crowd figures, there were frankly embarrassing displays of glee when “derbies” attracted crowds that would not have ranked in the top 100 annual AFL attendances, and the kind of selective presentation of facts that would have impressed John McTernan. All in all, many of the most impressive spin performances in this installment of the BBL were not on the field, but carried out by McKenna and co. Through it all, there he was, grinning awkwardly at press conferences, correcting the Oafish Warne on matters of player-eligibility and generally looking like a bloke who knew he’d be dangling from a Sutherland wedgie should there not be a be a huge pot of gold at the end of the Big Bash rainbow.

                                                            "Put some blankets on the seats for the others."

This year, McKenna had some big wins as far as I’m concerned. The flashing stumps were chief among these. “They were terribly naff!” you’re saying. And you’re right. But this is exactly the kind of bonkers nonsense that should be encouraged in Twenty20. Remember that moment of madness in the mid 90’s when Victoria wore shorts in Mercantile Mutual Cup games? It was pointless, it was ugly, there is no way anyone wanted to see Merv Hughes’ legs, but it was also completely brilliant at the same time. If Twenty20 cricket is going to resort to gimmicks to entice new fans to the games, I’m all for them staying in the realm of the shortest format. This kind of stuff doesn’t alter the rules of the game or the mindset of players. They’re ‘innovations’ that will die out and we’ll remember them with a chuckle rather than a grimace. The crazier they get the better.

                                                     "Should I just walk straight over to Nando's in my pads?"

Having said that, there’s some ‘razzmatazz’ that is decidedly less successful. Forty years ago the concept of the sideline interview was rightly confined to the cricketing scrap-heap by WSC producers. In those halcyon days before media training, keeping the bleeper at the ready for a mouthy player tirade proved too difficult. Now, the problem is at the other end of the spectrum. Sarah Jones seems like a competent enough sports reporter, but the day she elicits an insightful or interesting response from a recently dismissed batsman is the day that I walk into JB Hifi and buy the entire Good Charlotte back-catalogue. Enough, guys. Enough.
Secondly, at the risk of infuriating Andy Lee’s agent, can someone please explain to me exactly what his role is as the Melbourne Stars mascot? I didn’t even understand the first year, during which he engaged in cringe-worthy japes with Hamish Blake on the sidelines. I understood it even less this year as he sat mute on the bench next to an equally perplexed Viv Richards. Is Andy miked-up and available via the red button? Nope. Is he razzing up the crowd? Nope. Is he advising Alex Keath on how to bowl at the death? Hang on...  If the BBL marketing dollars include a slush-fund for mute benchwarmers, I’d actually like Mike McKenna to get in contact with me. Or do I have it wrong? Are the kiddies seeing Andy’s glum, lost face amongst the players and saying, “hey, maybe this cricket lark isn’t just the punishment we receive for relinquishing the remote control to Dad”?

                                                            "Where's the funny one tonight?"
What happened on field? Well, there were undoubtedly some brilliant individual performances. Finch and Pomersbasch hit sixes, Malinga bowled yorkers, slow-bouncers and Marlon-Samuels-maimers. We even realized that Michael Beer possibly isn’t the next spinner in line behind Nathan Lyon. On the flipside, there was also some nauseating crud and unwatchable white-washes. In between all of this, Mike and the McKennas asked us to observe the growing standard in sports spectating; short term memory syndrome. Thus we were all apparently transfixed by the magnificence of the Renegades and appalled by the dismal efforts of the two Sydney teams. Never mind that last season’s Renegades were one of the most embarrassingly inept cricket teams assembled since mid-2000’s Zimbabwe, they were robbed of that Champions League place you hear me? Robbed. There was a lot of media stink that “the best teams didn’t make it to the final”, but I actually enjoyed that. The final provided as good a metaphor for the often farcical nature of T20 as any, when Nathan Hauritz was awarded man of the match on the back of his…… 3 catches?

Then there was Warne vs Samuels: The Rumble in the Half-Empty Jungle. Actually, now that I mention it, this story has entered ‘the Armstrong realm’ for me; once the Sunrise team is discussing it, it’s time to move on and spend our time on issues that Wayne from Warrandyte isn’t calling in to 3AW to discuss.


Mark Waugh not seeming to want a bar of the BBL, despite being a commentator on the rights holding Pay-TV network. Whilst I have never been one to hang on the utterances of the lesser Waugh, there was something refreshing in Mark Waugh’s attitude towards the Big Bash this year. He hated its stinking guts at times. Other times, he forced a grin and pretended the game counted for something. To be fair, when you’re sitting in a small glass box with BJ and Blewy, forced-grinning is probably something of a pre-requisite. Some of his “off message” moments whilst calling games and doing the media rounds were a joy to behold, not just for their rarity, but that a bloke who gets paid to watch cricket might actually be prepared to jeopardize his livelihood by making thinly-veiled admissions that he was bored shitless. I know, he hardly went ‘Peter Finch in Network’, but for me it was a welcome antidote to the usual gushing nonsense.

One final note on Big Bash Volume Two; eight teams is still two too many for my own taste. Sure it’s necessary for the “television product”, but I don’t entirely envy Mike and the McKennas job getting 10-year-olds excited about watching old-age pensioners like Herschelle Gibbs. I myself once had a marketing job where I was asked to make a gear wrench sound sexy, so I feel your pain, Mike. The eight team league just feels a bit threadbare to me. With top local and overseas Internationals unavailable for most of the tournament, the talent appears to be spread far too thin. As a result, mediocrity is richly rewarded. Chris Gayle continues to relieve recklessly-spending franchises of large sums of money for minimal return, and other international has-beens and never-gonna-be’s are sold as something they’re not.

I know some stats-geeks could mount an argument about the quality of players on display, but I’m not buying it. Put it this way, if my girlfriend walks into the room and wants to watch those seven DVR’d episodes of Storage Wars immediately, I’m not winning the argument by saying that it might be the day that Alfonso Thomas takes all 10 wickets. That’s not to say there weren’t unexpected delights awaiting the cricket nerd who hadn’t yet encountered Alex Hales, but seriously Mike, get this thing to a point where we can actually recognize the faces of the players out there.

So in the wash-up, McKenna is now spruiking (CA-generated) figures that indicate T20 is dragging new customers through the door. If this is the case, all power to them. Mike McKenna may end up being hailed as somewhat of a genius. If the financial health of the Australian game is stimulated by the BBL, he will have done his job in the eyes of the number-crunchers, and perhaps even the more rational of us traditionalists. For many of us though, the prospect of Twenty20 cricket becoming such a central pillar of the summer game is another philosophical crisis altogether.