I am sitting in the breakfast room of the Intercontinental Hotel in Adelaide. It is the morning after the fifth day of the second Test of the Ashes, and the mood is glum. The hotel is full of England fans who, like me, had experienced the excitement of a possible legendary comeback only for the team to crash on the fifth day in a slew of wickets against the usual Aussie suspects.
Dan Norcross breaks the mood. Wearing a questionable cork hat that he bought for an excessive price, he tucks into the hotel’s continental breakfast. It is safe to say that the tour life is less glamorous than often viewed. But for Norcross, the tour still had significance. It is his first Ashes as a commentator on the Test Match Special team, a reality he has dreamed of since he was seven.
“My first memory of TMS was 1976, when I was seven years old. It was the West Indies tour. I remember that rich crackling sound coming through the radio.”
Norcross started to listen to cricket as a way to connect with his father, who was a teacher and didn’t have much opportunity to talk to his son. “I must have clocked that if I went and sat and watched what he watched that would be my best chance to spend any time with him.”
He says that in his early life “the noise of cricket was TMS. My dad, like a lot of listeners, would put the radio on and mute the TV to listen to their commentary.”
Norcross quickly gained a passion for cricket that would dominate his life. “I know that I was fixated by the end of that series.
“I would take my tiny transistor radio to school and put it in the old school desks with a little earpiece and I would bend down to sneak a listen to it. Cricket was such a precious commodity but, when it was on, you were at fucking school and so you were missing all of it.
“At night, I used to have the ear piece underneath the pillow and I was so exhausted but I had to listen to what was happening.”
Norcross won a place at St John’s to study Latin and Greek, and cricket continued to play a part in his life. From the impression he gives, it seems that cricket and ‘fun’ was more important than his work when he was at Oxford. It is perhaps unsurprising that, five years after he started his degree, he left the city with a third to his name.
The fun continued after university, when he began scamming pub quiz machines by learning all the possible answers to the questions. Norcross, with a friend from university, who went on to become one of the BBC’s most senior journalists, would travel round London visiting all the pubs with the specific type of machine to collect his winnings. The money and experience was enjoyable, he says, but mostly “it was a good excuse to watch cricket which was always on in the pubs.”
The pub ‘scam’ could only last a year and Norcross found himself in dull jobs to make ends meet. Cricket, his passion from birth, had to take a backseat for jobs in office management and financial services.
But, in 2008, that all changed when he was made redundant. With the 2009 Ashes series coming up, Norcross decided to follow the passion he had held since he was four. He asked, “Why doesn’t someone broadcast cricket commentary so that everyone can hear it? I thought it was scandalous that even on your holiday the Ashes could be on and you didn’t know what was happening.”
Norcross decided to set up Test Match Sofa, a streamed spin off of TMS. Norcross says “I think TMS has been in my head all of my life. Test Match Sofa was its bastard son, the crazed angry chimp on the shoulder of TMS.”
The set up of the show was far from formal: “I didn’t understand anything about rights but I just thought I had the right that I should sit down in front of the telly and talk shit.
“I had this slightly arrogant idea that I could commentate because I had been commentating in my brain and had been immersed in cricket for such a long time.”
The format was similar to TMS – there would be a ball by baller, a statistician, and a summariser.
Again, Norcross says that his dad was one of his inspirations for the show. His mother died of sudden heart attack just before the first edition, and Norcross says that the show helped him cope with his, and his father’s, loss. “It started to act as therapy for me and a little bit of therapy for my dad. It was just enormously good fun and it was a great way of being distracted from a 82-year-old man who can’t believe his life has been turned upside down.”
The show took off and was eventually bought by The Cricketer magazine. Norcross, ever the anarchist, started to lose enjoyment in the show after it joined this cricketing institution.
“We had deliberately designed the show to be a comedy show. A range of comics came on and the musical jingles were designed to be absurd. I think the tension built when we were bought by The Cricketer and they wanted to make it more like TMS. They wanted to cut out the profanities and the jingles and they didn’t really like the format. They didn’t like us taking the piss and the fact that we were taking the piss. I understood it but my enjoyment for it started decreasing.”
The final straw was the 2013 Ashes. A week before the show was set to air, The Cricketer told him they hadn’t found funding and the edition would be cancelled. Norcross says, “Cricket has to be fun and if you are working in it and not enjoying it then it’s wrong. So I resigned.”
But cricket couldn’t stay out of his life for long and Norcross sent off an email to TMS producer Adam Mountford on the off-chance that he would have a place on the team. Four seasons on, and he is now an established part of the setup. He says that the change from the anarchic style of Test Match Sofa to the reverent TMS was tough at first.
“In the first year at various points my brain would say ‘don’t say fuck, don’t say fuck, don’t say fuck.’ The very first time I did men’s TMS, it was an ODI and I was absolutely petrified. It lasted for about half a second and Adam put me on with Ellie. I could see my world closing before me and the batsman came to the crease and I said ‘here he is’ and I used my epithet for him and from that moment on it felt natural to me because that voice had been there for so long in my life.”
TMS has been the voice of Norcross’ obsession with cricket, and now he is the voice of TMS. His genuine passion for the sport, and his constant excitement about covering it, is a welcome relief from the glum looking England fans who are milling out of the breakfast bar as we wrap up the interview.
TMS may have been his introduction to cricket but for future generations this may change.
TalkSport recently won the rights for England’s Autumn and Winter tests to Sri Lanka and West Indies. The crackling “homeric” rhythm of cricket commentary will inevitably shift with its new commentators.
The times are changing. TMS and the days of Blowers and Aggers may be the present and the past of cricket commentary, but it is the likes of Norcross and others who will be its future.