Greg James: ‘I Want Everyone To Love Cricket’

Last winter BT Sport revealed they had won the rights to exclusively show all cricket played in Australia for the next five years, including two Ashes series. We caught up with presenter Greg James about losing a social life, chasing the sun and whether he’s better at football than Jake Humphrey.

Why did you want to be a cricket presenter?

Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I want everyone in the whole world to love cricket. I remember catching the bug by going to Lord’s with my dad when I was about eight years old, and I don’t know what it is about it that I loved, but I was in and I was hooked. I want people to feel what I felt when I started to watch it, and when I still watch it. When I wake up on a Saturday and I’ve got a ticket to Lord’s, I’m as excited as I was when I was eight, and I want that for other people, I want to make sure they’re not missing out. If they watch it and hate it then fine, but I think it’s not around as much as it could be.

What do you think can be done to make cricket more popular?

Cricket’s a bit alternative, isn’t it? The people who get it really love it. The challenge is making sure there are those ways into it. I want to make it accessible, but that doesn’t mean dumbing it down, or making it lowest common denominator. It’s about telling stories and getting those characters and personalities across, and whether that’s done by watching Joe Root on The Graham Norton Show, or a Carpool Karaoke format that you can do with cricket, that’s something that I’d like to explore. I want people who listen to my Radio 1 show or follow me on Instagram to see it there and think, ‘Ah, this looks fun,’ and give it a go.

A fair bit of BT Sport’s coverage is available for free. Do you think free-to-air cricket is key for cricket to again reach the heights of popularity it did in the ’05 Ashes?

I don’t know if the days of seven million people watching the Ashes are maybe done. I think the days of seven million people watching anything are done, because of how fragmented everything is now. But there are different ways of broadening the game out, and the obvious thing to do is digital presence. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the clips that we’ve shared of Steve Smith’s countless hundreds or Josh Hazlewood’s wickets from the South Africa and Pakistan series. You’ve got to be noisy and make a splash, because it’s a noisy world and you’ve got to try and cut through. With BT Showcase and our digital highlights, we can say, ‘BT do cricket now, and we do it differently’. If you give something away to people for nothing, and they enjoy it, then they are more likely to subscribe.

Are you worried your excitement could start to dull now that cricket is a job, and not just a hobby?

[Laughs] There were bleak times during those night shifts, that’s for sure, and although it ruined my social life for three months, looking back on it we had some great cricket, and it was a great thing to do, and I learnt a lot about the game. My excitement won’t wane, much like my excitement for music hasn’t waned from doing my other job. I just feel very lucky.

What about the future? There’s a huge winter in Australia, and other series BT Sport could get the rights to. How will you balance that with your social life and other commitments?

I’m always open-minded about all this sort of thing. If I end up going to Australia over the winter I’ll have to take a lot of time off from my Radio 1 show, which would be a big decision. I don’t see it as a replacement. I would never want to give up being on the radio, because that’s the thing that I took ages learning how to do. But my dream job would be to travel around the world watching cricket and presenting it and I would never not wish for that to happen, and I would throw everything I had at it. I think that’s why my social life suffered, because I said, ‘I’ve got to keep this Radio 1 show going, and it can’t suffer, but I’ve also got to be not shit at the cricket’. But chasing the sun round the world? That would be a great job.

What challenges do you face presenting cricket, having never played the game professionally?

I don’t think the audience go, ‘Why is he hosting this? He’s never played cricket’. I’ve never said I did. But Jake Humphrey does the football and he’s a shit footballer, and I’m definitely a better cricketer than he was a footballer! I’ve presented for many years and I’m good at that: I know the game really well and I can get a chat going. My job is two-fold really: I’ve got to be good at presenting – telling the stories, asking the right questions and getting the discussion going, but I’ve also got to bring a fan perspective to it and make it fun and entertaining. I can facilitate a discussion by being more removed from the game, it makes me naturally inquisitive. I can ask Ricky Ponting, ‘Why has he placed that fielder there?’ and he’ll say, ‘Because historically he always hooks’. That’s what I can bring to the coverage.

What was it like working with that team of experts?

It’s the best. They’ve all brought something different to it. Ricky Ponting has got this aura around him, because of his record as one of the greatest Australians. It’s not that he’s arrogant; he’s a very kind, calm man and his insight into the minutiae of batting was phenomenal. He spotted something in Shaun Marsh’s technique where he was just falling over – it was the smallest thing – and he said, ‘He’s gonna nick off in a minute because he’s out of line’ and an over later he did. And Swanny was able to explain the mentality of a spin bowler when Nathan Lyon – who’s got a pretty decent record – wasn’t bowling all that well and had lost his confidence. It was fascinating, and I learned so much about the game.

And were you able to contribute with your own ideas?

Yeah! I would suggest things and say, ‘That was a real shit shot, wasn’t it Swanny?’ Or I might suggest to the producer that we get one over in a highlights package, and compare it to highlights of the previous three overs and the producer or Michael Vaughan or whoever would say, ‘Yeah, great idea!’ and I’d celebrate internally. My confidence grew throughout the three months. We got to know each other really well and I started reading the game in a different way. But it doesn’t feel like job done at all, it feels like we haven’t even started yet.

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