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Between the lines

Sideline Cut: In defence of the noble GAA pundit

GAA analysts entertain and inform, writes Newstalk’s Ciaran Murphy, so why do they get such a bad rap?

I HAVE A guilty pleasure, one shared by a small minority of Irish men — we don’t talk about it, we don’t sing it from the roof-top but on wet summer mornings we can be discreetly seen pulling the front curtains closed and sitting down to… watch the cricket.

I can’t profess to know all the intricacies of that most intricate of sports, and I certainly have never swung a cricket bat in anger (I haven’t bowled a Duke or a Kookaburra either, although I fancy myself as a murderous pace bowler). But the rhythms of a test match, and in particular the strategic and mental sides of the game fascinate me.

The quality of the broadcasting is another major factor in my enjoyment of the sport I must say. I have taken to listening to Test Match Special on BBC Radio 5 Live, while watching the pictures on Sky Sports, but either commentary team does it for me.

The TMS guys, for those of you who don’t know, are a bunch of posh old geezers eating cakes, drinking tea and talking rubbish (or should I say talking ‘delightful old rot’ as they would probably call it), with some cricket commentary thrown in for good measure.

Fry and Laurie giving a really rather accurate idea of what the cricket commentary of TMS is like on BBC Radio 5 Live… but stick around for the punchline.

It’s quite the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard on radio but it is a fully fledged institution — not just for English people, but for people around the world who tune into test matches on the BBC World Service.

The Sky punditry is a little more formulaic in that you have Shane Warne and Ian Botham, who are probably two of the only cricketers that non-cricket fans could name off the top of their heads, and a bunch of other high-profile names. But with either commentary team, their ability to explain what’s going on to a relative heathen such as myself is exceptional.

And it got me thinking — these guys can explain their sport so magnificently, why can’t more broadcasters and analysts do this for us, across all sports?

“Hurling is a game you play with your soul”

The reason I think, is that cricket is a game where there is a bowler, a batsman, and an unending repetition of playing or leaving a shot.  There are different types of bowlers, different types of batsmen, but it is a very narrow, very contained atmosphere.

Compare that to (and here, finally, I get to my point) a game of hurling like yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final between Tipperary and Dublin.

The ball is thrown in, we hop on the carousel for 35 minutes or so, and we get thrown off it at half-time. How do you go about analyzing what happened there? And this is a game involving a Tipperary forward line that is supposedly playing to the most rigid set of plans ever drawn up on a hurling field.

The man supposedly responsible for Tipperary’s style of play is their erstwhile coach Eamon O’Shea. He and Liam Sheedy drew up this template which they have been following ever since but when he was interviewed in the Sunday Times this weekend he said he doesn’t have any drills for getting forwards into space. “Trust each other” was basically what he said the Tipp way of playing is.

He went one farther at the “Off the Ball” roadshow in Galway earlier this summer. We were asking him about tactics, about different ways that you can try and set your team up and he said simply that “hurling is a game you play with your soul.”

I thought it was an interesting way of putting it, but does that mean that all analysis of our games is doomed, when you accept their helter-skelter nature?

‘Indignant rage’

Given this was the first year I was directly involved in broadcasting the GAA championships live, maybe I was more attuned to it than before, but it felt like so much of the summer was spent talking about pundits, and about who they had written off, and who they had predicted would win games, and how a few errant words from an ex-player was just what a team needed to get over the line — and not the six months of training, the endless dieting, and gym-work, and sacrifice.

Managers got upset, players got their backs up, fans exercised their ‘indignant rage’ muscles… and all over what someone said on the Sunday Game, or on Off the Ball, or in their newspaper. It just struck me as weird when I know that pundits (all of them!) work hard, study teams diligently, weigh up the key battles between players… and accept that about 40% of the time, if they’re lucky, they’ll be wrong.

If they accept that, then surely we should too — and just ask then, that they entertain us and give us a flavour of their own personal experiences in similar situations.

I get angry with pundits all the time, but never over a match prediction, or an opinion expressed. I only get mad when they refuse to tell the truth, or try and shape a result to push an agenda of their own, which has nothing to do with the game we’ve just watched.

Much of the cricket analysis that I listen to isn’t about who will win or lose — they know that in many ways, that’s irrelevant.  They’re there to shine a light on what’s going on, to laugh at the uncertainties of it all, and to have a good time. The GAA is of course a much more serious business than all that old tosh, but it might help us all to keep that in mind the next time we start foaming at the mouth at that bo****ks on the radio…

This week Murph was – underwhelmed at the return of the Premier League… and international rugby.  They are winter pursuits.  If it’s August, then it’s the GAA.  I’ll see you the far side of the All-Ireland football final, Peter Odemwingie.

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