Geoff Lemon and Adam Collins have changed cricket coverage in Australia. When no-one wanted the rights to an international Test series, they risked a house deposit and bought it themselves, using a few credit cards. Nobody had time to tell them it was a foolish idea.
They’re unlikely business partners: one worked in politics and the other is a poet.
But cricket is a broad church.
The Australian’s chief cricket writer, Peter Lalor, describes them as “the odd couple” — and says their hair provides the perfect contrast.
“Adam is very neat. I reckon there hasn’t been a comb in three generations of Geoff’s hair,” Lalor says.
Guess which one is the poet.
Together, Lemon and Collins are changing how cricket is covered in Australian media.
They freelance for multiple outlets, including the ABC. They blog. They write — Lemon’s seething critical analysis about Nine’s commentary is still discussed in cricket circles. They make video. They have built a loyal podcast community.
Lalor says they brought the gig economy to cricket.
“To see those two come in from the outside, at first the old dogs go, ‘what do they even do?’ But they’re just everywhere and have got this incredible energy for cricket,” he says.
“They’ve created an industry around themselves.”
And last year, they did something so remarkable that not even Lalor — who has worked with them for years — could get his head around it.
Putting a house deposit on the line, Lemon and Collins took the unusual step of purchasing the official radio rights to broadcast an international Test series against Pakistan.
“I just shook my head. Who thinks like that? Good luck to you mate. I never thought they’d pull it off,” Lalor says.
The first Test match they wanted to bring worldwide listeners wasn’t just significant for its unpredictably historic, record-breaking ending.
Australia’s reputation was at stake. This was the first Test match since they were caught cheating.
The pictures are better on the radio
Lemon and Collins didn’t know each other growing up, but their lives shared the same soundtrack: cricket on the radio.
Cricket works on the radio because there’s time to let a story unfold — over a session, or a day or even five days.
Most sports are too fast-paced to allow for that.
“Hearing a radio description, if it’s done well, lets you see the game in your own imagination. So there was a real emotive connection with that,” Lemon says.
This was particularly apparent with overseas games. The further away the game, the closer they leant into their Walkman.
“That’s when I felt that was a lifeline, that those guys in that commentary team were transporting me,” Lemon says.
This is why he was “devastated” in 2013 when the ABC had to pull out of going to India to cover the Test series.
Lemon remembers thinking: “Well, hang on this is bullshit. Someone has to do it.”
‘We’ll do it ourselves’
The Indian cricket board boosted the cost of the radio rights and it wasn’t financially feasible for the ABC to go.
“That pissed a lot of people off, not least me,” Collins says.
“I would have said stuff along the lines of, ‘Isn’t this in the ABC charter?’ It may not be in the ABC charter, by the way, but I would have cited things like that.”
Lemon saw no other option.
“That’s when I said, ‘We’ll do it ourselves.'”
With no broadcast experience, he put together a ragtag team of mates — friends from his cricket club, down the pub and elsewhere.
From the uncomfortable lounge chair of Lemon’s share house in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, they got to work.
The team used Google Hangouts and a YouTube live stream (that expired every hour or so) to broadcast their audio commentary, while they watched the game on TV.
“It was rustic,” Lemon exclaims.
It evolved into White Line Wireless, a pop-up community radio station of sorts, which expanded over the years.
More friends of friends got involved producing and presenting.
And the best part was they weren’t required to have captained Australia to be part of the team.
“God knows how many people drifted in and out of that house over the years,” Collins says.
He should know — that’s how he met Lemon.
A classic cricket partnership
Lemon remembers the first time Collins came to call a game. He’d just come from playing cricket and was still wearing his whites.
“He barrelled in and he’s like — clap of the hands — ‘all right, let’s get to it’. And we were like, ‘yeah, this is good, this guy can stay,'” Lemon says.
They began to bump into each other at cricket games while they were freelancing, writing about international games.
From that point forward, the pair supported each other through what is often gruelling work: long hours and tight deadlines in faraway places.
“Geoff’s been there for me, and I hope me for him,” Collins says.
By 2018, they had proven their worth. They’re now fixtures in the international cricket media press pack.
‘I was playing with a house deposit’
It’s impossible to forget the sandpaper cheating scandal that unfolded in South Africa last year.
The next Test series after #sandpapergate was set against Pakistan in the UAE.
Despite the attention and importance of this series after the events in Cape Town, no Australian radio station was interested or able to purchase the broadcast rights.
Once again, Lemon and Collins wanted to do something about that.
But this time, they wanted to bring the coverage to a bigger audience than what was possible ‘pirate radio style’ from Lemon’s living room.
They wanted to buy the official rights and broadcast it live from the ground themselves over the internet.
When the opportunity came, Lemon didn’t want to rush in. There was, after all, a lot of money on the line.
But Collins wouldn’t have it.
When Lemon went away for a weekend of camping, Collins bought the rights, using a couple of credit cards.
He stands by the risky decision.
“I’m not going to be unnecessarily humble about that. At some stage, I was always going to do this,” Collins says.
“The money side was the punt. I’d sold an apartment with my family earlier in the year. Had this gone belly up, that would have been that gone.
“So I was playing with a house deposit.”
Lemon secretly decided that if it didn’t work out, he’d help cover costs.
“We were in it together. As always,” he says.
Nobody had time to tell them this was a foolish idea. They had three weeks to prepare.
Ready or not, this is happening
Collins doesn’t think he’s ever been under more pressure in his life. And this is a guy who worked as a media advisor to then-prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Apart from the obvious stakes regarding how they’d make the money back, both felt a deep desire to make the most of the opportunity.
“We were really determined to present the public with a broadcast that they could feel close to, in the way that we felt close to a broadcast growing up,” Collins says.
“We wanted this to be the program that we dreamed of putting together.”
One of the turning points to help make that a reality was an old friend Collins had met on a Hawthorn Football Club internet forum.
Andrew ‘Donno’ Donnison had done a stack of work producing and presenting with White Line Wireless.
When he heard what Lemon and Collins were planning, he had to take part.
With a few days notice, Donnison took leave from his public service job, and jumped on a plane to Dubai.
“It wasn’t until I was 13,000 kilometres in the air heading to Dubai, I was going, ‘what am I doing?'” he says.
Lemon and Adams were confident in their team, and their commentating ability. That was the easy bit.
With Donnison’s help they would overcome every technical challenge.
As for sponsorship, that was a ‘scrap’ that Collins took on.
“Almost 24 hours a day I was hunting commercial partners,” he says.
“I vaguely knew how to do it.”
Not all the sponsorship was sold by the time Adam left for the first Test match.
But ready or not, this was happening.
The greatest escape
After a few technical glitches at the start of the Test, the broadcast settled into a familiar rhythm.
Australia, however, was getting smashed.
The Australian fan sentiment was a healthy dose of disdain or disgust.
This was the first Test series after the cheating scandal.
Whatever happened here would set the tone for how Australian cricket’s reputation could be rebuilt.
In the second innings, Australia stepped up to the crease with Pakistan ahead by 500 runs.
There was over a day and a half left in the match and conditions were sweltering.
Australia’s two best batsmen were missing, suspended, and the pitch began to turn.
One of the best leg spinners in the world was coming in to bowl.
Considering the massive run chase, one option would be to hold out for the draw.
“The draw is salvaging something, it’s refusing to be beaten. Literally the only thing you have to do is not get out. There’s something beautiful about that,” says Lemon.
But he admits that was unlikely.
“They barely managed two sessions in the first innings. So there is no way that we’re going to bat five sessions at the end of a Test match. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
Collins explains the numbers.
“No Australian side has ever faced 146 six ball overs to survive a Test match before and there’s a reason why it doesn’t happen,” he says.
“But there was more to this than simply the Test match they were trying to preserve.
“This was an opportunity to give the Australian people a chance to be proud of them again.”
And Australian batsman Usman Khawaja was determined to ensure he gave Australia every chance.
In conditions that he’s known to struggle with, he dug in for 141 runs from 302 balls.
He batted eight hours and 44 minutes.
“I have no doubt it’ll be the great innings of his career. But it’s one of the great innings of Australian cricket. It’s one of the great innings of any cricket,” Lemon says.
Slowly, more light started to shine through the crack of hope Khawaja had pried open.
“And suddenly our numbers go through the roof. People knew something special was happening here,” Lemon says.
“It made me very grateful that we spent the extra money on the server,” Collins adds.
The game was a thriller that came right down to the wire.
Australia held on — the match was a draw.
After five full days of play, nobody won. How could anyone not love cricket?
Collins dubbed the game “the greatest escape”.
Australia went on to lose the next game. But it didn’t matter; the determination shown in the first Test had already gone a long way to helping the team’s public image.
It was relief for Collins too — by the end of the series, all of the sponsors came through. Everyone was getting paid.
Considering this, it might seem appropriate, or even poetic, to call the pair’s broadcast from the UAE a “great escape”.
But it wasn’t.
Lemon and Collins spent years honing their craft building up to that moment.
“No one gave us a cadetship. We built a radio station in my living room and we called enough cricket that we got good at it,” Lemon says.
“All of it’s about democratising cricket. We’re not the first to have that idea. We’re just carrying on that idea — that cricket belongs to everybody.”
Collins says even if he never got the chance to broadcast another ball of cricket, he’ll always have that Test in the UAE.
“We know that we did this. And we know that it was special,” he says.
“What I hope it will mean is that a philosophical shift will be made. That Test series will be considered important enough for the Australian team to have been covered by somebody.”
While cricket tours get harder to cover, Lalor is glad the odd couple are doing whatever it takes to innovate.
“Cricket coverage needs people like Geoff Lemon and Adam Collins to find new ways to do it. And to make it pay,” he says.
Collins says cricket and the radio is a beautiful combination.
“You let people into your space with the radio whereas with TV you’ve got to make an active decision to move into a communal area,” he says.
“I think that’s partially why we feel these deep connections to [radio] personalities. We feel like they’re part of our lives, and not the other way around.”
- Reporter: Mike Williams for Earshot
- Photography: Supplied: Andrew Donnison; ABC News: Michael Rennie; Getty: Ryan Pierse, Nigel Killeen, Paul Kane, Ashley Vlotman, Rustam Azmi, Giuseppe Cacace, aviation-images.com; Flickr/CC/BY/2.0: Alan Levine.
- Editor: Monique Ross
- Digital production: Nick Fogarty