Dylan Cleaver wasn't going to watch the Lions, until he got an offer he could have refused and hitched a lift with the lads of the Alternative Commentary Collective*.

"I wasn't sure if I was on the correct station as the announcer was in the middle of relating the most bizarre story I have ever heard on radio."

And so continues one of the great Otago Daily Times letters to the editor, this one from Carol of Waldronville.

"He was relating a narrative about a rugby player and a businessman, neither of whom I heard by name. I was so disgusted by the ridiculous commentary I switched off and can only say if this is the normal standard of radio broadcast on our national game then long live Sky, even if I don't have it."


The content in question was the Alternative Commentary Collective's call of the Lions' match against the Crusaders and the blue joke about the sock was unquestionably Not Safe For Work. It involved a Grindr hook-up and a sock fetish. From there we'll let you paint your own picture, and possibly Jeremy Wells should have too, but that's not his style.

"We've all got a line we won't cross," says his sidekick Mike 'Grot' Lane, "but Jeremy's line tends to warp".

So we got the full story and it just so happened there were some people channel-surfing while trying to find the conventional commentary and, well, when you've settled in to listen to the footy in Waldronville, it's frankly the last thing you need to hear.

If, however, you're a proud part of the pre-loading generation, that sort of anecdote fits right into your wheelhouse.

There is a slice of New Zealand you may have forgotten existed. While you were busy growing older, growing your debt mountain and growing children, parts of the country carried on as if you didn't exist.

They are the ones who survive Monday to Thursday so they can do all their living on Friday and Saturday nights. They're mainly young men, but not exclusively so. They want people to talk to them how they talk among themselves: giving each other stupid names, recounting sexcapades real or imagined, and getting a massive head of steam on.

I saw these people.

They were in Christchurch, in Rotorua, Hamilton, Auckland and even Wellington, the nation's capital.

They were fizzing. They were doing shots. They were getting tattooed. They were doing brown-eyes on the window. They were getting selfies with the 'stars', one even doing so with his penis out, much to the amusement of his mates.

As a mostly sober observer it's a strange but strangely compelling watch, like Animal House meets the BBC's coverage of Wimbledon.

There are all these people and all this mayhem and they're there because, for a couple of hours or so, the Alternative Commentary collective - Lane, Wells and Matt Heath - were talking to them and they liked what they were hearing.

ALTERNATIVE commentary is a long-established artform, predating the social media revolution that now fuels it.

If you had to pick a modern starting point you could settle on Billy Birmingham, aka the Twelfth Man. Starting in 1984, the Australian became famous for sending up the Channel Nine commentary team and mangling the names of subcontinental cricketers - Areal Muddafarker, Cuthis Arminhalf - and released a number of popular albums.

Hard on the heels of Birmingham's antics came Australian double act Greg Pickhaver and John Doyle, best known as Roy and HG, who elevated the art of mock commentary and analysis, peaking with their Sydney 2000 Olympic show, The Dream, which included send-ups of sports like weightlifting and gymnastics.

On the other side of the world, Steve Coogan alter-ego Alan Partridge would often turn his many broadcasting talents to sport, with some particularly sharp insights into the world of racing - "there goes Platitude Queen, a well-regarded horse known for her sense of humour" - and football.

Although the idea might have started here, it was heavily scripted parody rather than live commentary.

Hard to believe but it was the conscience of the nation, John Campbell, and his mates on Wellington student radio in Wellington who got the ball bouncing in New Zealand. Lane still cites Campbell's gag where he described the All Black captain picking the starting XV based on penis size as one of the inspirations for their show.

In 2005, Jed Thian - The Rugby Jedi - promoted his alternative rugby commentary as live entertainment and pioneered the use of social media to promote it, before taking his show offshore in 2009. He is now tweaking the rugby universe in Hong Kong.

The space remained quiet until the Alternative Commentary Collective debuted during the 2014 ODI cricket series against India. New Zealand Cricket were mostly supportive of the concept, knowing they had to expand interest in the game by seeking a new audience that was not necessarily interested in solemn analysis and ex-international-driven panels.

It was a serendipitous time to launch.

"New Zealand was just starting to win games and Brendon McCullum was leading them brilliantly. People started getting interested again," Wells says.

"Would the ACC have worked in 1991 with a bowling attack of Willie Watson and Richard de Groen?" he asks himself, rhetorically.

Broadcasting onto an online stream out of a caravan from the grounds, the ACC was a qualified success. They merged an obvious passion for the sport with an eye for the ludicrous, the macabre and, yes, the puerile.

The University Oval had bowlers running in from the David Bain End, while a discussion at Mt Maunganui's Bay Oval centred around the smell of human meat being cooked on a barbecue. During another match there was a "Guess the Perineum" competition they shared via their social channels, which most of us could probably have lived without.

What shunted them from fringe to a kind of cultish spotlight was having their Cricket World Cup accreditation pulled when Leigh Hart accepted an invitation from Pepsi to join the Gatorade drinks trolley. The International Cricket Council, which ran the tournament, went off the deep end.

The story made headlines and suddenly everyone knew who the ACC were. It was such a turning point, people still ask whether it was a planned "viral" stunt.

"It wasn't," says Lane. "We were pissed off about it at the time because we didn't think we'd done anything wrong, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us."

Encouraged by the success, or notoriety, and revelling in the antipathy or downright dislike they felt from the "establishment" cricket commentators, the ACC turned their attention to the national sport.

And so here we are.

The ACC commentary caravan.
The ACC commentary caravan.


complainant writes that he finds Heath's nicknames for the players to be abusive, that it is not on for Beauden Barrett to be called a sexy something and another player to be referred to as the human toilet brush.

He threatens to take his complaint as far as the Supreme Court, or even the Privy Council to get them removed.

Barrett is known to the ACC as Slippery, but semantics aside, the point remains: this show is not for everybody. The three would admit their knowledge of cricket is more intimate than rugby so they do not pretend to offer any analysis beyond the obvious. They have no interest in a traditional audience.

"Cricket is easier," says Lane. "We're probably more comfortable with the sport. When you've got seven hours to fill you can go down a few holes, and some of those holes get pretty dark. It's really not much different to sitting on the bank with a few of your mates having a few beers, except anybody can listen in.

"With rugby you don't really have time to converse, which is why we base it more around nicknames and use tools like social media interaction with our audience to break it up."

To help build an audience they've also created a parody rugby panel show, infusing it with some real-world expertise by having Sky Sport commentator Scotty Stevenson report from a "social media testicle". During the Lions tour the show got 300,000 views or shares across social media, the web and, somewhat incongruously, Air NZ's in-flight entertainment.

There's another key difference between their rugby and cricket offerings: you have to actively find their summer commentaries through a digital radio app; the Lions tour was simulcast on a nationally syndicated station. Innocent "victims" were accidentally tuning in and the fact they're on a frequency brings them under the jurisdiction of the Broadcast Standards Authority. It could get interesting.

The ACC's "tour" starts with a low-key warm-up in central Auckland before moving to Christchurch for the match against the Crusaders.

The ACC does not have the rights to broadcast from the grounds, so they base themselves at a central city pub. In Christchurch, it's clear from the outset that they have attracted a crowd who will set the bar for the tour frighteningly low.

They're offered alcohol, which they sometimes accept, drugs, which they decline, and one of them is offered a male-male-female menage-a-trois, also declined.

(From my observation, Wells seems to be an unwitting and unwilling lightning rod for possibly repressed Cantabrian males looking to explore their sexuality.)

A succession of men bare press their butts against the glass wall where the team is broadcasting from, the monotony of hairy glutes broken only when a female does the same.

There's a bloke with a brand new tattoo "Punisher" scrawled across his chest being gazed at adoringly by his girlfriend.

Everyone wants to talk to them so they stand there, skilfully looking interested as they're buttonholed by increasingly unwell patrons.

It must be an act, I think, but Heath says it really isn't. The whole point of taking this event live is to "connect" with their audience; to show that on some level at least, they're one of them.

"When we started we decided we were going to have to convert one New Zealander at a time," he says, as he smiles inanely for another selfie.

At this point of the evening, he's preaching to the well-and-truly converted.

In Wellington, the atmosphere is slightly more upscale, whereas in Auckland the first night proves so popular that for the third and deciding test they are turning more than 100 people away at the door. The outside area of the pub is rammed full of people.

The tattooist stays busy (one of the more curious fashion statements I've seen is a woman who, three weeks before her wedding, gets a Radio Hauraki logo inked on to her arm), the beer keeps flowing and the game is being played to a standstill.

"Shit the bed, it's a draw," Lane proclaims, a fitting enough sign-off to their series. The crowd is momentarily stunned into silence by the result.

Not for long. Darude's hard house classic Sandstorm, the ACC's unofficial theme song, is piped into the speakers and normal chaos resumes.

FOR those who think this stream of consciousness commentary is easy, think again. Due to prior commitments Heath and Wells don't go to the Maori international, so the author was co-opted into a "sideline" seat for the low-key warm-up to the main event - the All Blacks versus Samoa - which despite being played at Eden Park was broadcast live from a caravan in the garden bar of a pub on the main street of Rotorua, of course.

It is hard. I didn't need anybody to tell me I was hopeless as I had slightly more than 80 minutes to come to that realisation all on my own. You cannot think of the game as a match, or a demonstration of rugby as much as you have to think of it as an opportunity to riff on subjects as wildly off-topic as the Buffalo Bill character in Silence of the Lambs.

There is little scripting, there is no kill switch and there is, to the delight of their fans and the horror of those who accidentally chance upon it, no filter other than that invisible and seeemingly shifting line each will not cross. What preparation there is normally revolves around the venue and the amount of alcohol consumed in the days leading up to the test.

For the first test, it was generally agreed, they'd come in a bit cold and there was anxiety to their call. In Wellington the intake went up and they felt more relaxed. Or something like that.

On the eve of the second test, the team gathered around a bar leaner in central Wellington. A curious pre-match conversation was taking place that served as a reminder that not everything is as it appears on the surface.

"So the reason Britain was plunged into the Dark Ages was that when the Romans left to shore up their resources elsewhere in Europe, the Saxons came in and didn't know how to use any of the amazing technology they'd left behind," Heath says, "so it all went to ruin."

Not very rock 'n' roll, is it?

Heath is the son of a professor, Wells the son of a knight of the realm and Lane the son of a doctor. There would be a rich psychological case study, leaning heavily on the works of Freud, to be made on the unconventional career arcs of these three ... but someone else can write that.

I am intrigued, however, by the idea that they're all getting older and wiser but their audience really isn't.

There's no rule book for this sort of thing, but when you look around the crowds at their commentary installations, it's hard to picture 50-year-old guys dancing to Sandstorm, or chatting effortlessly to those who want to tell you about the line of speed they've just snorted in the toilets.

I tentatively ask a couple of punters at each venue what it is about the ACC that appeals to them, almost scared of the answer. The responses are utterly benign and can be lumped together and paraphrased in a couple of short words.

"They're funny."

And there we might have it: the secret to sporting success among millennials who are in it for the japes as much as they are for the result.

Perhaps the Alternative Commentary Collective is perfectly placed to capture this crossover audience. Perhaps they will flame out like a hair-metal band where everybody wants to be lead guitarist.

Perhaps, even, that complainant will get his wish and the Privy Council will shut them down.

At least they'd get a laugh out of that one.

* Disclaimer: The ACC NZ is part-owned by NZME, the company that publishes the NZ Herald and nzherald.co.nz.