SABC’s T20 coverage: Shaky as hell, BUT ...

Muhammad Nawaz (Gallo Images)
Muhammad Nawaz (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - If a picture tells a thousand words then the SABC television coverage, purely on that basis, of the Mzansi Super League opener at Newlands on Friday night ticked the box for a refreshingly widespread audience.

Call it a gremlin-littered winner - and in a one-horse field - but a hobbling victor nevertheless.

Almost expectedly, there was ample ammunition for the privileged minority in South Africa boasting subscription-based access to usually polished, widespread SuperSport live fare of planet-wide ball games to quietly (and some not so quietly, via unforgiving social media) snigger about the national broadcaster’s naivety and fits of rank, all too obvious incompetence.

Those hallmarks were amply evident, for sure, during the course of the much-hyped, tournament launching clash between the Cape Town Blitz and Tshwane Spartans.

Yet even then, you also picked up a sense that, like the braai-fire that struggles initially to snap, crackle and pop due to damp wood, the offering got progressively better as the game progressed.

That was in line with the trend at the ground itself, as the crowd grew to fairly agreeable proportions (official attendance a shade under 7 000) and the quality of the cricket - from seasoned figures and some engaging new names alike - similarly sufficient to keep any cynics and more traditionalist-minded souls at arm’s length.

Helped by the event’s critical poster figure, the Spartans’ captain AB de Villiers, lashing 59 at a strike rate of almost smack on 200 in the failed chase of 181 to win, the game stayed tantalisingly in the balance to around the three-quarters mark and that would have been enough to keep eyeballs glued to screens countrywide.

Pivotally, I thought the pictures presented from the ground on the rare cricket location - for me - of channel 193 were, generally speaking, in the same league as anything SuperSport could muster, including ample camera angles on flashpoint moments like sharp catches or inspired bits of last-ditch boundary-rope diving by fielders.

There is help from a Singapore-based technology service company that works with the market-leading Indian Premier League, and pleasingly it showed.

If you can get that right, let’s face it, any woes in commentary or technical booboo terms kind of come second in priority terms anyway.

That said, it did seem up front like being a long night for the couch-potato audience.

There were audio snags galore, with microphones - both pitch-side and from the booths - either showing erratic levels of volume or possibly not even being switched on at times.

We also heard too much, on occasion, from panicked aides believing they were out of sound reach: “One two, one two ... try to put it right ... one two, one two.

Or even, when a commentator in live play turned away from the mike (or thought he’d turned sufficiently away) to whisper to an ally: “Er, who’s the ‘keeper?”

Nothing like good prep, knowing your stuff, of course ...

And then there was: “Great bowling there by ... by ” ... (“Birch”, piped up another of those save-his-soul, supposedly off-air voices).

There were awkward silences during live play at times – possibly technical, again, but perhaps (OK, long shot?) just certain commentators picking up their cue from the philosophy of the late, great Richie Benaud that if you don’t have anything special to say in the specific moment, don’t say it at all.

Then just as teething problems seemed to be ironing themselves out to an extent, the break between innings proved a bewildering experience to the telly-watchers: instead of any mid-game analysis from the middle, the SABC cut away to a jerky sequence of programme promos, advertisements, a lengthy panorama of Newlands from a single camera with no sound, a 30-second production countdown clock that remained stubbornly static, and lashings of music videos to spice the weird, motley interval potjie further.

By the end of the contest, in fairness, things were normalising to a considerably more acceptable degree.

The commentary panel contained some frankly weak, clearly very raw elements, and no doubt under pressure to pile on the inane superlatives about both the match and broader, controversial tournament.

But that facet also wasn’t beyond redemption: former Proteas Test spinner Paul Harris is a familiar, perceptive and frank crossover voice from SuperSport, Kass Naidoo bowls in a corridor of articulate certainty, if you like, and television rookie JP Duminy, I thought, warmed to his task promisingly enough after a hesitant start.

Of course it must be a great frustration to the MSL organisers that he isn’t actually playing at present due to injury, but Duminy has a wealth of experience and excellence in the T20 format - South Africa’s leading international run-scorer, for starters - and his insights became more and more welcome as he gained confidence and began sounding more like himself, really, than some sort of forced, dedicated microphone person.    

Let’s not lose sight of this hardly unimportant truth: masses of people throughout South Africa, multiple times more than SuperSport could command, will have saturation coverage of cricket on their screens - yes, warts and all - for a month.

That can’t be too bad for the game.

And hey, you’re always at liberty to put the sound down just a little if you wish, or pop off to the fridge or kettle when there’s a wee bout of “Houston, we have a problem” …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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