14 April 2018

THINKING INSIDE THE BOX: PART 1

Cricket commentators spend a vast amount of time discussing the composition of the ideal team’. Players fall into types: you’ll want two specialist openers, a versatile and resilient number three, your best batsman at four, the newcomer at five, a seam bowling all-rounder at six, a wicketkeeper who can bat, then ideally two spinners turning the ball in different directions, a paceman and a swing bowler. Permutation upon permutation is painstakingly discussed. 

But what of the commentators themselves? Someone, presumably, has to give a good deal of thought to the personnel of the television or radio box, with an eye to assembling the ideal team’. Whom would you pick? To help you decide, here is part one of an A to Z of the different breeds of cricket commentator on show at your local ground this summer.

A is for Analyst
When free-to-air cricket switched from the BBC to Channel 4, Simon Hughes sat in the outside broadcast truck all day and reinvented the summariser’s role with four revolutionary gadgets: ball tracking, super slow motion, heat cameras for edges and the snickometer. Michael Holding adopted a similar role for Sky, who more recently found another way to innovate and add value simply by having Nasser Hussain bring the viewer into the nets for their superb ‘Zone’ masterclasses (such as this astonishing feature with Shane Warne).

B is for Benaud
The undisputed master of the moving picture, whose famous mantra was ‘never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see’. Today’s television commentators pay homage to him, and frequently quote his maxim, before cheerfully informing listeners that the ball has been hit for six, or the umpire has raised his finger, or a catch has gone down. His finest moment was the way he signed off at the end of Channel 9’s coverage of the 1981 ‘underarm incident’.

C is for Captains
It’s quite fashionable to berate those broadcasters who fill the pundits’ chairs with anyone who’s ever skippered England, but some of the chosen ones have found ways to embellish the match-play with great insight. Just listen to Mike Atherton describe what players go through, Michael Vaughan talk about man management, or Charlotte Edwards share her expertise on just about every trait of the women’s game.

D is for Deskspert
There is an unwritten rule of televised sport that during breaks in play, a panel of experts must sit behind a desk – outside if it’s Wimbledon, without a desk if it’s athletics, standing up if it’s T20 cricket – and be led in discussion by someone such as Charles Colvile, who has been fulfilling this job at Sky for three decades, during which his lower half has never been seen.

E is for Establishment
The squareness of their jaw. The exactness of their tie. The safeness of their pair of hands. Sky stands them up straight, puts them in a collared shirt and cues them in. Nick Knight – who showed us how to substitute the word ‘special’ for any positive adjective – is the archetype. And these days, the anti-establishment, mould-breaking, spliff-smoking, three-Shredded-Wheat-eating ‘Guy the Gorilla’ has evolved into Sir Ian Botham, England’s only living cricketing knight, a man of tradition and national pride, a standard-bearer for Brexit Britain and the proper way of doing things.

F is for Front of House
The top of the programme. The first face you see, the first voice you hear. They’re the presenters: people so smooth that you could chuck them into a threshing machine and they’d come out laminated. Tony Lewis was the BBC’s resident smoothie, but Channel 4 chose to make an overnight star of Mark Nicholas – a wonderful writer, but the commentator to blame for giving the world such banalities as ‘a wonderful cricket shot’, ‘truly mesmeric stuff’ and ‘yyyup, that is so good, that is so, so good.’ A man who, while so gifted with the written word, persistently describes a boundary or wicket by simply exclaiming ‘Ohhhhhh, [insert player name here]!’ He is lost to Australian television, where such careless platitudes matter less, but the English broadcasters still boast three consummate professionals in the form of David Gower on Sky, Alison Mitchell on the BBC and the winter’s surprise package, Matt Smith on BT Sport.

G is for Gigglers
The quickest way to become a national treasure in England is to be a ‘character’. To be funny when you want to be funny. Of course, Sky’s David Lloyd is the godfather of the giggle, a genuine eccentric who keeps people laughing with him but never at him. In recent years, the BBC has signed up two broadcasters of immense charisma: the utterly engaging and charming Phil Tufnell and the superb mimic and mischief-maker Graeme Swann.

H is for Howells
Even for the casual observer of cricket, it is relatively easy to imagine what a commentator’s role entails. The one exception has got to be Kevin Howells. It’s quite hard to convey just how demanding his unique job is. He anchors the BBC’s Radio 5 Live Sports Extra during the domestic season: this involves opening and closing the coverage, moving the listener seamlessly from one county commentary to another, and providing a brief round-the-counties update whenever Radio 5 Live drops in (which is often). What’s more, he does all this from whichever county press box he’s been sent to at short notice that week.

I is for Interviewers
All cricket broadcasters have to do it from time to time, and it’s not easy – county players and staff tend to dislike being interviewed, and when they do find themselves thrust in front of the microphone they roll out the usual clichés about ‘sticking to the basics’, ‘executing our plans’, ‘picking ourselves up again’, ‘there’s a lot of time left in this game’ and so forth. The one person who is universally admired by other journalists for his interviews is Sky’s Ian Ward, whose interview with Jonathan Trott went somewhere that others rarely did: it brought out self-doubt, vulnerability and pathos.

J is for Joyful
BBC’s Test Match Special has a tradition of having someone on the team who can convey the sheer, unbridled joy and excitement of cricket. They don’t sound like they’re at work, they sound like they’re at the game. It’s an important distinction: all journalists take cricket seriously, but only a few take it joyously. Brian Johnston filled this role for very nearly fifty years, Henry Blofeld only recently vacated it, and the discovery of Dan Norcross will ensure that this crucial element of radio commentary will be present for years to come.

K is for Keyboard Warriors
For years there was only page 340 of Ceefax, but along came the world wide web and suddenly text commentary was a thing. It started with over-by-over summaries from the Guardian and Telegraph, before ESPN Cricinfo’s team of top-tempo typists brought us ball-by-ball. They may not talk, but they’re still commentators, and for millions of people who are surreptitiously trying to follow the cricket at work, the rapid keystrokes of Andrew Miller and Andy McGlashan for ESPN Cricinfo and the multimedia updates of Kal Sajad and Stephan Shemilt at BBC Sport are the only way of learning what’s actually going on out there.

L is for Locals
BBC Radio has live commentary of every county match thanks to the imagination and dedication of its local stations, which provide each county with a commentator for the season. The pioneers here were BBC Radio London, who sent Mark Church to Surrey and Kevin Hand to Middlesex. Others followed their lead, and the county circuit began to hear regularly from a varied cast of locals, including the late and much lamented Dave Callaghan, the amiable gruff ‘Mr Badger’ figure Anthony Gibson, the undeniably not neutral Martin Emmerson and the heroic Welshman Eddie Bevan, whose panic as Peter Trego hit a six through the commentary box window (listen here) must surely be the all-time highlight of local cricket radio. For matches in County Championship Division One, the pairs of local voices are augmented by the ‘third voices’, a small platoon of non-partisan commentators deployed and managed by BBC Test Match Special. The most frequently heard of these voices are Isabelle Duncan and ECB Broadcaster of the Year Izzy Westbury.

M is for Mainstays
Some commentators defy all attempts at categorisation; they are simply too prominent and important to be pigeonholed. They don’t play character parts, they’re the leads. John Arlott was the mainstay of BBC Test Match Special for 23 years from 1957 to 1980; Christopher Martin-Jenkins surpassed this longevity record and extended it to 40 years; it is unthinkable that Jonathan Agnew should not extend it yet further. Cricket commentators seem to exist outside of time – it feels like Agnew’s deputy Simon Mann only came on the scene a few years ago, and yet he’s been around for as long as Arlott was. The boyish Mark Nicholas is 60; the eternally youthful Charles Colvile is 63 – and Agnew is a mere stripling of 58 – but he has already made as indelible a mark as any of his predecessors and today he is, for millions of followers, the ‘voice of cricket’.

Part 2 of this article may be found here.

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