It struck me that as one of the new boys on the popular BBC test Match Special fans might like to know more about Dan Norcross. the man behind the dulcet tones. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know him a bit after meeting him at a benefit lunch for Darren Stevens last year, he’s delightful company!
We arranged to meet in Tooting, Bec that was not Broadway – a stones throw from The Oval. We started at the beginning, how does a cricket obsession start?
Dan first became aware of cricket on TMS on long journeys to Wales at the age of 6, with an 8 hour trip TMs made it bearable. His Dad was obsessed with the game and with a maternal Grandad from Yorkshire there was an inevitability about Dan’s interest. Grandad had pushed for Dan to be born in God’s Own County, but his Dad was a Surrey fan so that wasn’t going to happen!
Radio listening progressed to TV watching at 6 or 7; Dan’s Dad was a Headteacher, a job that keeps you out of the house and away from your family. Over the summer he’d watch the cricket and Dan would sit with him, it was a way to bond.
The family lived in Clapham South and in 1976 Father and Son went to Dan’s first Test match, he saw Dennis Amiss Score 203, I can only imagine the awe of a young cricket mad boy, England amassed 435. West Indies were the opposition and Michael Holding was bowling from the boundary edge it seemed, he took 8 wickets for 92 runs. Dan got sun burnt at the Oval as he literally didn’t move, it was that heatwave summer I remember so well from my teenage years.
This was the West Indies team of which dreams were made, looking back at the scorecard one IVA Richards scored 291 to help West Indies reach 687 for 8 in their first innings. In their second Gordon Greenidge and Roy Fredericks made 182 not out, giving England a target of 453 runs. A tale that will be familiar to England fans saw England all out for 203. What an introduction to Test cricket!
Dan recounted a story that showed his obsession, he had an argument with his Grandad at his Grandmothers’ funeral, At 8 – he had read Wisdens along with a David Frith book.
A pictorial history of the Ashes, it featured every test since 1877. The row was over who was the better batsman Jack Hobbs or Len Hutton. a kind of a Surrey v Yorkshire thing. This is cricket we’re talking so looking up the stats is a must!
Jack Hobbs – played 61 test matches and made 5,410 runs in his 102 innings, an average of 56.94, with a high of 211. in 834 First Class games he scored an immense 61,760 runs in 1325 innings at an average of 50.70, with a high of 316*.
Len Hutton – played 79 test matches and scored 6.971 runs in 138 innings, an average of 56.67 and his First Class overall higher score of 364. In 513 First Class matches he scored 40,140 runs in 814 innings at an average of 55.51.
Looking at the stats it’s understandable that a Surrey and Yorkshire fan didn’t see eye to eye on the matter, but an 8 year old at a funeral? A true sign of the depth of this mans’ interest in cricket!
All of Dan’s stories at school were about cricket, Derek Underwood featured a lot, he started playing in 1979 at the age of 10, his team were bowled out for 4 the other team reached 5 for 6 to win. Dan had a part to play in the highest partnership in the match, of 2 – his part being a Leg Bye, and to this day he argues for Leg Byes to be attributable to the batsman, I confess to fair amount of laughter at this time. One of the opposing bowlers took 8 for 2, a boy called Jay Elder, he became a rugby league professional.
He was dropped after that calamitous game, but by the age of 13 he realised he wouldn’t be a pro cricketer, he was nowhere near good enough. Dan kept reading, and invented a dice game, commentating to himself as he played. He was the youngest of 4 children, the son of 2 Literature Graduates, school was a place Dan enjoyed, he played every sport but not too well. It was more about participation, he captained sides, so became the organiser.
He also watched any kind of sport, Grandstand was a regular feature, as it was for many of us growing up at that time. Dan had been fairly nonchalant about his school career, but he won a place at St John’s College Oxford to study Latin & Greek, ironically he achieved B, B, C in his A Levels, he loved the history, around the classics, in his words Roman history is like the Godfather.
We spoke about Dans’ wife Catherine and he told me the tale of when he fell in love with this Essex Cricket fan, when she recounted the tale of sending a whole Stilton to Graham Gooch in India, at the age of 14; her Dad loved Stilton so she presumed he would! Teenage logic. He needed a partner who loved cricket, as I’m sure many sports lovers are he’d been made to feel guilty about his interest/obsession with cricket, a shared interest was vital and he’d found his match.
University was fun and you won’t be surprised to know Dan got involved in most things, studying wasn’t a big part of his time at Oxford, he was kicked out for a year so his 3rd Class Honours Degree took 5 years to obtain. His story of his final Finals paper is a very funny one, most of the exams were in English apart from this final one, which was in Ancient Greek. His translation was around naked boys on tables, all rather racy, when the subject matter was actually based on trade and very dull.
After university he had no idea what to do, and spent a year making £200 a week on quiz machines in pubs. He and a good friend, now a senior BBC journalist, rang up the number on the machine, asking for the location of all of their machines in a 5 mile radius in South West London, in order to write a story. The small database available at that time meant they cleaned up on a daily basis, spending 3 to 4 hours a day making money from the machines.
Cricket remained in the forefront of Dan’s mind and wasn’t going away, he wanted to work in the game and knew that he’d need to be a journalist, but was getting to the stage in life where he needed a proper job. In his 20’s he was scared at the thought of being in front of a microphone, and there were few options. Along came a friends’ father who was a publisher in electronic media. He was developing an electronic data interchange in 1994, way before the World Wide Web became a thing, Dan stuffed envelopes to start then developed ideas for the Internet. He was getting frustrated on missing out on actual cricket but had to learn a living. That company folded in 2000 and Dan spent a year as a project manager. He wrote and produced a play and also wrote a Sit-com.
Dan worked for financial services for 4 years but lots of cricket was passing him by. He invented meetings for the 2005 Ashes, so he could watch the matches and listen on the radio. Unhappy in his work, he was paid well enough to resign himself to his fate however. Fate intervened and he was made redundant in 2008. and he wasn’t going to miss the 2009 Ashes!
And so Test Match Sofa was born, to appeal to many of the 1 in 10 people who like cricket. The ‘show’ had to be on the internet, Dan found the coder and the sys admin person from amongst his friends and from his block of flats a web designer, the sound man was from the cricket club and had worked on Homes under the Hammer. His sitting room in Tooting was the studio. Dan had in mind to keep his brother living in America in touch with the Ashes as he couldn’t get the BBC, a week before the first broadcast Dan’s Mum died suddenly and realistically the programme helped pull his father through his grief.
Things took off for Test Match Sofa with the growth of Twitter and after an article written by Guardian journalist Barney Ronay, you can read it HERE.
Jarrod Kimber became a regular guest and there was even an article in Wisden in 2010, all of this growth was giving the cricket boards something of a headache, although not a radio or TV broadcast for which they sold rights there was a concern that the power to sell those rights would be affected. That complication didn’t temper the fact that the whole experience was amazing fun, but the joy was tempered when Dan’s Dad died within 6 months of his Mum.
The joy was however worth sticking with and things moved on when some investment was garnered and a small fee charged for access to all things Test Match Sofa. The brand came to the attention of the Cricketer who bought it out. The programme was broadcast live on Freeview Sports Tonight in 2012 and Dan was being paid a small salary. That meant having to ditch the swearing, sanitising what had started out as a fans eye view of the cricket. It had never been the intention to compete with BBC Test Match Special, the reason Dan’s love for cricket had started was sacrosanct in his mind.
The change in the profile saw things became heated and fans of the two mediums had rows online as did The Cricketer and BBC TMS, by 2013/14 things were no longer fun for Dan and he was ready to walk away from his cricket dream as the Sofa was coming to an end.
He took one last shot, sending an email to BBC TMS producer Adam Mountford via email. He expected no response but Mountford replied in a day offering him the chance to commentate at the Oval for the Surrey v Gloucestershire match with Surrey stalwart Mark Church. And so began Dan’s career with the BBC.
How did that take him to the venerated TMS box? He had an advantage over county cricket commentators, with 5 years of broadcasting experience under his belt, having to fill during tea, lunch and rain breaks. It was a hard transition to be more journalistic, not to use WE for example. Test Match Sofa was definitely a programme run by fans for fans.
What is so clear is that Dan really is living his dream, I can understand when he says he feels like pinching himself to be sitting next to the likes of Graham Smith and Graeme Swann. I feel the same when I interview some of those I’ve seen playing on a rugby pitch.
I told Dan how much I enjoy his partnership with Tuffers, they’re brilliant together, he confirmed how professional Tuffers is and what a generous colleague he is. It can be hard not to be over excited, but of course a scene has to be set and the main skill for those in the commentary box is to judge the mood of the game. You have to know your moment in order to expand the commentary. BBC Test Match Special is a unique form of entertainment unlike any sport, I look forward to enjoying many more years of listening to Dan Norcross.
I’m part of a TMS Appreciation Group on Facebook and asked for some questions for Dan – here are a few of them
Duncan Ellis –
Q – What’s surprised you most about TMS being on the inside?
A – How generous and welcoming the team are, it’s a very comfortable working environment.
Q – What do you feel is the right mix between pro broadcasters and ex players?
A – Dan thinks the mix is right as things are, with a ball by ball broadcaster and an ex-player summarising. Jonathan Agnew is in fact both, an ex player and a trained broadcaster and Charles Dagnall served a broadcasting apprenticeship after his cricketing career.
Q – How are slots allocated and how far in advance is the schedule known?
A – Slots are allocated based on seniority, Dan understands that as the new boy he’ll receive fewer than the old hands. The schedule for the year is usually known by March for the coming season.
Q – Will you still be paid the same for 4 day test matches if they happen?
A – No = 4/5ths
Q – What did you find tougher, your first stint on TMS or appearing on BBC2’s Only Connect?
A – Dan was more scored than ever before his first BBC stint, for 5 seconds. Only Connect gave him brain bleed for half an hour.
Q – What happens to all the spare cake?
A – a fair amount of cake is eaten, so the pounds pie on during the summer. the leftovers are shared with the engineers and the people cleaning up the box.