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Nine takes block, defends its pitch

Date

Jon Pierik

WHILE Channel Nine insists there won't be a shake-up, an injection of fresh faces means life in its commentary box could become a tight squeeze if it secures a new agreement with Cricket Australia.

Nine insiders are confident it will fend off a challenge from Channel Seven to retain the rights to the three forms of the game - Tests, one-dayers and Twenty20.

Nine's seven-year deal, worth between $315 million and $350 million, expires at the end of this summer. There has been speculation Nine would also seek a slice of the Big Bash League, possibly a prime-time Friday night match, but that could affect CA in terms of diluting what Fox Sports, which has exclusive rights to the BBL, would offer.

Channel Ten, in need of an injection of major sport to lift its ratings, has also expressed interest in the BBL.

''It's no surprise Seven is interested in cricket. Cricket is a great game and a great television game,'' a Nine source said. ''We have got a great relationship with CA and talks will follow due course.''

Nine is aware Seven has money to spend on cricket, having missed out on securing the rights to the NRL. But Nine has the right to first and last refusal, meaning it can match and better any deal put forward by a rival.

CA has been in discussions with the networks, including Ten and Fox Sports, for two years, but these will intensify from November. ''It would be a big thing to take it off Nine,'' the Nine source said.

Channel Seven sources told The Age last month it was considering seriously a bid as this was the first time since Kerry Packer won the rights in 1979 that they had ''seriously gone to market''.

''This has been a closed negotiation for more than 30 years. The relationship with Seven and CA has probably never been as active,'' the source said.

Seven has also said it is open to bidding for a slice of cricket, which could mean it would only broadcast the one-day series.

If, as expected, Nine retains the rights, there could be changes in the commentary box, with the contracts of several callers, including Richie Benaud, expiring next year.

But Nine is mindful of the history several of its commentators have with the network and will not ''sack'' anyone. Rather, any changes would be delicately ''managed''.

When he retires, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting will be asked about his interest in joining Nine. Ponting wants to play on for another year and even take part in the 2013-14 home Ashes campaign, but if the veteran has a poor summer his grand career could come to an end. He also has business and charity interests but is considered a prospective commentator because he speaks his mind.

Nine once had a ''captains or vice-captains'' policy but that has changed in recent years, particularly since the advent of Twenty20 and its focus on a younger generation.

Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Tom Moody had stints on Nine last summer, and the network was particularly buoyed by the insights given by current players who were used when they were injured or rested. One to impress was fast bowler James Pattinson.

Nine has had a healthier relationship with current players since a meeting with Ponting, Hayden and Gilchrist several years ago and will tap more and more into this talent, adding to the squeeze in the commentary box.

Benaud has shifted into a slightly different role in recent seasons, with less focus on ball-by-ball play.

He turns 82 next month but is set to remain part of the team, perhaps in an infrequent role, should he wish.

Fellow veteran callers Ian Chappell, 69 this month, Tony Greig, 66 next month, and Bill Lawry, 75, are also expected to remain a part of the Test team, although this could be in a reduced capacity.

Lawry, for instance, could be used exclusively for matches in his home state of Victoria.

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