THE absence of Tony Greig was conspicuous as Channel Nine began its 36th year broadcasting Australian cricket last week. Along with Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry, Greig is synonymous with Nine's coverage of the nation's summer sporting pastime.
For hundreds of thousands of Australians, those four are no less than the soundtrack to summer, their idiosyncrasies and catchcries aurally documenting the game's triumphs and disappointments.
This week Greig, who is battling lung cancer, began chemotherapy. When the group gathered at the Gabba in Brisbane for the first Test in the blockbuster Australia-South Africa series - the second Test starts on November 22 in Adelaide - the inimitable Greig was sorely missed.
Former Australian opening batsman Michael Slater, who along with former teammates Mark Taylor and Ian Healy form the ''younger'' core of Nine's on-air cricket team, sent him a text message: ''It's not the same without you, Greigy.''
''The challenge in front of him is very sad,'' Slater says.
Late on Friday afternoon, Nine crossed to Greig's Sydney home. The 66-year-old, who has revelled in his on-air role as devil's advocate since he relocated for Kerry Packer's World Series Cup in the late 1970s, was plainly emotional.
He pledged to fight his cancer. After the cross aired, he teared up, pointedly telling his colleagues off-camera: ''It'll come one day that you don't go to the cricket, so don't ever take it for granted.''
Choking up, host Mark Nicholas excused himself from his commentary duties for a minute. Not that the day in the box was morbid. As Healy says, these men simply get on with it.
''Hard is never a word we use around here,'' he said. ''We just move on. That's how we've been trained. It's really different without his presence … He's the most global out of all of us in his game knowledge.''
The next day, Nine's head of sport, Steve Crawley, summed it up best.
''That's the family thing with this group,'' Crawley said. ''Greigy is not a softie. He is a big, tough bastard. But yesterday him [choking up] was a big insight into the feeling of cricket in this joint.''
That feeling may be about to be tested further. Nine's seven-year agreement to cover the Australian national cricket team's home games, worth about $300 million, ends at the conclusion of the summer. There is a sense that Cricket Australia, having watched sports such as Australian football and rugby league accumulate billion-dollar broadcast deals, is after its own profound payday.
''I'm hoping we're here doing this again next year,'' Taylor says. ''But I know that no one has an absolute right to broadcast the game forever.'' On the second day of the Brisbane Test, November 10, rain fell on the pitch. Eventually, play would be called off. Yet Nine's storied team remained busy in the stands, awaiting play to resume.
Nicholas spoke with network statisticians in the box. Chappell sat at a desk writing a newspaper column. Benaud was perched at his laptop, mulling over statistics. Taylor was busy entering a fishing competition online. Healy was introduced to a group of Nine sponsors touring the boxy Gabba studio.
An hour later, as they queued with production staff at bain-maries for a lunch of roast beef, baked potatoes and salad, the banter flowed freely. When asked individually, all concede talk of future broadcast rights is prevalent among the group.
''We keep asking each other when a deal is going to be done,'' Slater says. ''At the moment, there's no news.''
Of course, a few months ago, Howzat!, a dramatised telling of the story behind former Nine boss Packer's takeover of World Series Cricket - and the commercial broadcast rights for the game locally - encapsulated the relationship between the game and the Nine Network.
To the outsider, the two appear intrinsically attached. Rugby league is the pillar around which Nine's winter sports coverage is built; cricket is the summer schedule bedrock. As recently as a few months ago, it seemed unthinkable Nine could lose the cricket.
Sources say a decision will be made in early January.
''We have a great relationship with Cricket Australia,'' Crawley says. ''We're confident. It's part of our DNA. That sounds like a cliche, but it's true. Our original commentators are still working on the team. One's 82. Another's deep into his 70s. Without being arrogant, I don't know if anyone can do the cricket as well as us. I don't think they could.''
Either way, changes are ahead. Although next summer's mouth-watering Australia-England Ashes Test match series is a massive drawcard (and guaranteed ratings hit), just as crucial will be the rights to the sport's new growth centre, Twenty20 (T20).
Chappell, who as the captain of the rebel Aussie side portrayed in Howzat! has an almost four-decade relationship with Nine and the Packers, is a voice of dissent when it comes to Howzat!.
While happy with actor Clayton Watson's portrayal of him, he is critical of the dramatisation of the story. He was incensed, for instance, by the depiction of former teammate David Hookes and felt Packer was ''hard done by''.
''There was another side to Kerry,'' Chappell says. ''He wasn't the only one dropping F-bombs.''
Chappell is indicative of Nine's crossroad with its cricket coverage. Five-day Test match cricket, the most prestigious and pure form of the game, but also arguably its toughest sell, has been outshone by the hyperactive T20s.
When Nine began broadcasting T20 in 2006, it split up its commentary team. The old firm of Chappell, Benaud and Lawry were left out in favour of younger, exuberant talent such as James Brayshaw. Removing Chappell and co from T20s was difficult for Nine.
''It was,'' Crawley says. ''They're competitors. When you tell someone like that they can't do something, they don't like that. They might be respectful, but you know those decisions burn. But that's the sort of people we want to be working with.''
For his part, Chappell remains diplomatic. ''They made the decision, so you learn to live with it,'' he says.
For the first 25 years or so of Nine's coverage, Benaud was the onscreen leader. He would host the coverage from an inside studio. Chappell would lead the team's captain out for the coin toss. And Greig would deliver a pitch report.
However, the shift to Nicholas as host has coincided with a shift in style. There's more filmed outside, for instance. ''We are living the game more,'' Taylor says. ''The technology and the broadcast have evolved massively.''
The generation gap in the box is pronounced. Lawry is said to watch every ball of play intently. Like Chappell, whose wife complains when she watches sport with him at home that he commentates too much on the couch, Lawry instinctively calls the action whether on or off camera.
In contrast, during Shane Warne's breaks while commentating at Nine, he was said to sit on his laptop playing poker.
''The older fellas were never coached,'' Healy says. ''They just went and played, whereas we had coaches and the younger players now expect feedback. If the older guys thought they had a good day, it was a good day.
''Now, players want to know why it was a good day and how you went. Television traditionally doesn't really tell you what it wants or how you're going. Feedback is not big in TV. They just react to the public. You have to find your own niche.''
Crawley is consistently looking at younger former players to join the team. As well as Warne, Adam Gilchrist has featured sporadically in recent years and Glenn McGrath was in the box this week in Brisbane.
Is McGrath auditioning? ''Yes, it's an audition both ways,'' Crawley says. ''Because he doesn't know if he wants to do it and he needs a taste of it. I think in years to come, Michael Clarke is ready-made for this. Whether he wants to do it or whether he is as good as we think he will be is another thing.'' It's not only the voices that have been tested. Producer Brad McNamara, a former player for New South Wales, sits at the back of the box during games and spends his winters working on improvements for the broadcast, more of which can be expected at the Melbourne Boxing Day Test.
''Boxing Day is the marquee day of the summer,'' McNamara says. ''We'll bring out our best silverware for that one. We do hold back stuff for that. We try not to bombard the viewers with all the new things at once.''
Not everything runs smoothly. The ''spider cam'', which hangs above the heads of players and is connected with wires set between the stadium light towers, was out of action on Friday in Brisbane due to jostling over player enmities.
However, by Monday afternoon, Nine was broadcasting spectacular overhead views of the players. In Adelaide, McNamara will introduce ''augmented reality'', which will take the commentators from the studio and insert them as a 3D figure in graphics or historical footage. Despite all this, the cricket on Nine is not yet shown in high-definition. ''We do shoot everything in HD and it's actually downgraded to go to air,'' Crawley says.
''We do not have the spectrum to show it as yet. The government won't let you. We don't understand exactly why that is … Our trucks are all HD. It's a political thing and the same for every other free-to-air sports broadcaster. But it's not forever. In the goodness of time, HD will be out there.''
Crawley and Healy defend the team against charges they lack punch in their call. Healy says the group discusses criticisms from the outside. ''If we see it, we talk about it and we think about it,'' he says. ''We have a fair idea as to whether we know it's fair or if the journalist is biased.''
For former players, a spot on Nine's commentary team gives them nearly everything they miss about their playing career. They still spend their summers on the road, travelling in a team environment. The thrill of camaraderie remains.
''And you're out of your comfort zone,'' Healy says, ''so you still get nervous. Live television is a sphere where you can look very foolish very quickly.'' Slater, who joined Nine in 2006 after a working for Channel 4 in Britain, admits joining Benaud's team was intimidating.
''It was a great honour, but it took a while to feel comfortable,'' he says. ''I was worried most when I started about what the guys in the room listening would think about my commentary and if it was acceptable to their standard.''
After 12 years with Nine, Taylor notes that occasionally after he has made an on-air statement, Benaud will glance intently at him sideways. ''Sometimes I don't know if it's a good glance or not,'' he says.
When Benaud's role will end, if ever, is impossible to say. Crawley notes drily that Benaud's mother lived to 104.
''Richie can be sitting here in the box or at home in Coogee and he's still the captain,'' Crawley says. ''But let's face it, it is coming to an end. We can't keep going and going with what we've got. A lot of people when they get old can't change. But there's a reason these guys can still do this at their age. They adapt. And that's why they have been able to move with the times.''
The second Test, in Adelaide, begins at 10.30am on Thursday, November 22, on Channel Nine.
Future of cricket is no safe bet
ANOTHER challenge facing cricket, aside from future TV rights, is the question of match-fixing and betting corruption surrounding teams such as Pakistan.
''There's a huge cloud,'' Ian Chappell says. ''It's the issue that can bring the game down. The public won't watch something they think is rigged.''
Ian Healy says the image of cricket as a quaint ''gentleman's game'' has been altered by illegal gaming scandals. ''We're much more likely to think that a sport is tarnished now,'' he says. ''The spectre of gambling has been exposed. For cricket, the gentlemen's game tag was probably always unfair.
''In 1994, the corruption was so brazen, they approached two Aussies. Lots of former players had bookmaker connections and many loved the punt, so you wonder how long it was going on.''
For networks such as Nine, the sponsorship money offered by betting agencies comes at the risk of polarising viewers.
''It's a real dilemma for any sport,'' Chappell says. ''There is huge money coming in but there is also a huge problem with [potential corruption]. This is not unique to cricket. It's a big issue for all sport.''