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From playing to punditry

Sports Editor Tom Hollingworth on the pitfalls of second careers

The fall-out from the abrupt removal of Kevin Pietersen from the elite England cricket squads – a decision I support, incidentally – continues to ripple across the media pages and airwaves.

See here for the latest, as described in an article that appears today on the website of the DAILY TELEGRAPH

I do not propose to embark upon further analysis of the Pietersen psyche, speculation over ‘who said what and when’ or even the parlous state of England and Wales cricket administration. I take the view that what’s done is done. There is going to be no rapprochement with Pietersen, no restoration of him to the national team, so what is the point of continuing what now appears to be a feud between him and certain other members of the Ashes squad that performed so poorly in Australia?

Rather, my subject today is that of former sportsmen and women moving into media punditry upon their retirement.

E.W. Swanson

E.W. Swanson

In times gone by there was a gulf of demarcation in sport. Those that could play ‘did’ … and those who ‘couldn’t’ wrote or talked about it.

Or, to put it another way, in relation to the game of leather and willow, for example, cricketers played and sports journalists plied their trade reporting in newspapers, on radio and on television.

Recalling hazy memories of my youthful heyday, the ‘end of the day’ summaries from the Test Match Special studio and E.W. Swanton’s fruity-voiced efforts on BBC television loom large.

Then gradually, ex-players began to be hired as pundits, supposedly because – having played the game – their views carried greater weight, or was it just different insight, when it came to analysis. The professional broadcasters [e.g. John Arlott, Peter West – even Brian Johnston, though perhaps I’d prefer, with affection, to describe him as the archetypal enthusiastic amateur] were still dominant at the mike, but the likes of Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman were admitted to the cosy club with positive results.

Then came Richie Benaud, the much-respected former Aussie skipper, who took to the commentary box with the same professional dedication he applied on the cricket square and soon became a staple of broadcasting coverage, eventually almost acquiring ‘honorary Englishman’ status in the process.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, and even into the Nineties, the broad mix of professional broadcasters and ex-players continued.

I guess that the arrival of Jonathan Agnew at Test Match Special – a pretty average England cricketer if we’re honest – was the catalyst for what has developed into a wave of ex-players who have turned themselves into ‘proper’ cricket journalists. Jump forward to 2014 and the list of ex-players now plying their trade in the media [Mike Selvey, Steve James, Derek Pringle, Mike Atherton, Vic Marks to name but a few] is long.

It seems to me that two factors have brought this about.

The first is that, in days gone by – to get to the top in sports reporting – it had been accepted that you needed to learn your trade on local newspapers or in local radio and gradually work your way up. However, the truth is that, whether you spent years learning your trade or simply arrived on the scene with a strong personality and the gift of the gab, at the end of the day all that matters is the end product, i.e. are you good at the job, or not?

There are books published on the subject of the ‘10,000 rule’, i.e. the theory that, by prolonged and dedicated practice, most people – innately talented or not – can acquire an acceptable facility for doing anything, whether it be, for example, play a guitar, hit a pin-point cross into the penalty box, or broadcast from a radio or television studio.

The second is that working in the media became attractive, and possible, for ex-players. If you retire from the pastime at which you excel – as most sports people do – in your thirties, however well-off you are, you’re still facing (hopefully) 50% or more of your life span having to cope with no longer being able to do the one thing you loved, and were good at, more than any other. It’s a tough prospect.

So you do something else. Why not talk or write about your sport?

linekerMedia companies dealing with coaching politicians and others how to perform better in interviews on television etc. had already burst onto the scene. Why not set up to coach ex-sportsmen and women, or indeed people walking in off the street, how to perform in broadcasting situations?

Suddenly the likes of Gary Lineker – seeking a new career – didn’t have to disappear off to some hick country local newspaper for three years or more to begin to learn the trade. He could go on a couple of intensive courses, get his agent to put pressure on the broadcasters to give him a chance … and, for the rest, hopefully learn on the job.

Now ‘working in the media’ has become not just a way of ex-players filling in their retirement days. The ex-soccer players might not earn the stratospheric amounts they did in football but, for ex-players in many sports, ‘media’ has become a very-well-paid-if-you-can-get-it second career.

Apart from anything else, it can easily provide you with the means of staying in the public eye potentially for as long as your original sports career did, if not longer.

I go back to my original point – at the end of the day, all that counts is  whether you’re any good or not.

We all have our favourites – and favourite villains.

For example, I totally fail to see what John Hartson or Steve Claridge – who operate mostly on Radio Five Live when I hear them – offer in terms of soccer punditry insight that I couldn’t … and I know nothing about football.

Yet Gary Lineker and Sue Barker have turned themselves into consummate broadcasting presenters, even though some viewers, me included, are prejudiced and find it difficult to accept them pontificating about sports in which they had not excelled (e.g. Lineker, a fanatical golfer, was eventually taken off presenting coverage of the Open golf because of this, even though – de facto – there was no strict professional reason at all why he could not do it).

I came to this subject today because, over the past three months, I’ve been hearing and seeing much more of the now retired England spinner Graeme Swann on my radio and television.

Yesterday, having listened to extracts of his interviewed reaction to the current Twitter spat between Matt Prior and Kevin Pietersen all day on the radio, I was somewhat stunned – when watching the BBC’s Question of Sport last night – that, with Matt Dawson absent for some reason, Swann was deputising as one of the team captains.

Plainly, Swann and his advisers have been planning this move into a media career for a while. Good luck to him. But I also wonder which professional sporting journalists, or fellow ex-player pundits, are now having their work opportunities reduced in order to allow Swann his place in the spotlight.

There’s only a limited amount of broadcasting time available, after all, and it’s a jungle out there.








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About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts