Thursday, 28 August 2014

Is Sofa Dan the new voice of Women's Cricket?

If you are a cricket fan then you are almost certainly a fan of TMS, or to give it is full title Test Match Special - the BBC's ball-by-ball cricket commentary on the radio, which started in earnest back in 1957. Back then the programme covered just Test Cricket, but it has diversified over the years to cover all formats of the game, and has been a big supporter of the women's game over the last few years, starved as it has been of television coverage. One might say that TMS has been at the vanguard of promoting women's cricket to a wider audience.

In fact TMS first covered a women's game in full in 2004 - it was England v New Zealand in the first ever T20 international match. Clare Connor was skipper of the England side (one of only two T20Is she ever played in), which contained Charlotte Edwards, Lydia Greenway and Jenny Gunn. Since then TMS has provided excellent coverage of women's cricket including full coverage of last year's Women's Ashes Series, the Women's World Cup and the T20 World Cup. They will cover the Ashes series again here next year, and you will probably hear coverage of England's tour to New Zealand in February, subject to dates.

This year TMS will have covered every ball of the women's summer internationals - the England v India Test and ODI series are done, and they will be providing ball-by-ball commentary on the England v South Africa T20 series which starts next Monday. "Its the coverage that women's cricket deserves and should be getting," says TMS producer Adam Mountford. "What I am most proud of is that we have shown consistent support (of the women's game). I'm also very pleased that next year the fixtures will have women's games separate to the men's games. Next year we can have a real summer of Ashes' cricket".

For the past couple of years Charles Dagnell (Daggers) has been the voice of women's cricket on TMS. He is a keen follower of the women's game at the highest level and it shows in his informed commentary. This year, as Daggers moves up the TMS echelons to men's cricket, others are being given the chance to show what they can do. Perhaps the brightest prospect is Dan Norcross - described to me as the "Aggers soundalike" (a reference to Jonathan Agnew of course). It is true that he does have the clipped English private school accent (he was educated at Dulwich College in London), but his delivery is much more quick fire than Aggers and perhaps slightly more irreverent.

At the Test Match in Wormsley Dan was making his TMS debut. I asked him how it felt. "I'm stoked. I am on Test Match Special. I've got a Test Match special cap. I'm in. I opened the programme, with the sound of Soul Limbo going, and it's my voice, and I'm kind of welling up. I feel like kissing the accreditation badge". He looks like a kid in a sweetshop throughout the whole four days.

So how did he go from being a project manager in IT, and a self-confessed very unsuccessful scriptwriter, to a cricket commentator on TMS? Well the answer lies on the sofa - Test Match Sofa that is, the alternative cricket commentary, which Dan started with a mate in his front room in 2008. "I had been obsessed with cricket since I was seven. Saw my first Test in 1976. I've talked and thought about nothing else. I had brothers in the States and they couldn't hear Test Match Special in the States. I had a kind of crazy idea that there were enough people who couldn't get access to radio commentary that it was worthwhile setting up a service for them". So that is what he did - internet-based Test Match Sofa was born. Little did he realise what ructions it would cause with the powers that be, including with the real TMS. "I never even thought of the three letter acronym. We referred to ourselves as the 'the Sofa'", he explains. The ECB weren't happy either. Here was an unlicensed broadcaster treading on their toes and paying nothing for the privilege.

The Sofa gained a kind of cult status and developed a loyal following of several thousand, but by 2012 money was beginning to run out and the Cricketer magazine bought Test Match Sofa. Dan stayed on until the beginning of 2014, when he decided that the Sofa was perhaps doing more harm than good to cricket. "The purpose had been to provide entertainment and to reach out to a wider audience, because I passionately believe that cricket needs a wider audience. I didn't want in any way to harm English cricket". Shortly after he left, Test Match Sofa came off the air.

After five years as an "amateur" cricket commentator Dan decided to contact Adam Mountford, the producer of TMS, to see if he could turn his passion into a living. Having heard him on the Sofa Mountford agreed to try him out on a couple of county games and see how it went from there. A couple became a few, and then a few more. Mountford explains "Dan Norcross is someone who, through his time with Test Match Sofa has commentated on hours and hours and hours of cricket, and I have always thought he was a very talented broadcaster. What I wanted to hear from him this year was to hear him at grounds". Having heard him around the country commentating on county games Mountford felt he had the ability to step up to international cricket - hence his first gig at Wormsley.

And he made a good job of it too. He had watched the girls on television and done his research, although eight Test debutants and no names or numbers for the Indians was quite a challenge. He really does sound as though he is enjoying the game, and wants to share it with all his mates (the listeners). Off-mike he is just as affable, always wanting to chat to anyone... about cricket of course. As he says himself, it is early days, but he has made a solid start. The bat is coming down nice and straight and there have been one or two nice clips to the boundary. The question is can he go on from here?

I suppose as a commentator I ought to let Dan have the last word (for now). "Its been mental frankly. I've just absolutely loved it. From being just a really enthusiastic observer and obsessive to suddenly finding that I am rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mike Gatting. You pinch yourself. It's bizarre".


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