It’s not just the national and county selectors who scratch their heads and chew their pencils when faced with the challenge of assembling the ‘ideal team’. The radio and television broadcasters are posed with just as many dilemmas, and face just as much public criticism if the armchair viewer or listener feels they’ve got it wrong. Who are the essential members of your perfect commentary team? To help you decide, here is part two of an A to Z of the different breeds of cricket commentator on show at your local ground this summer (part one may be found here).
N is for Newbie
We come from one of four stables: the blog and vlog media (Vithushan Ehantharajah and Peter Miller), the field of play (Fabian Cowdrey and Paul Johnson), the BBC Sport staff (Charlie Taylor and Michael Perkins) or the under-the-radar commentary services such as Test Match Sofa and Guerilla Cricket (Dan Norcross and me). We don our pristine ‘pitch access’ lanyards and our ‘We are England Cricket’ photographic passes and we tiptoe – nervously, self-consciously – past the advertising hoardings, over the boundary rope and onto the field of play. There is no objection from the groundstaff, no funny look from the players as they warm up, no full-length rugby tackle from a man with a headset and high-viz jacket. Can it be real?
O is for Overseas
The BBC has an uncanny knack of talent spotting ex-pros to act as visiting summarisers to match the nationality of England’s opponents. Who else could have guessed that Matthew Hayden or Glenn McGrath could have been so engaging and insightful behind the microphone? Test Match Special’s particular specialism, though, is the foreign ball-by-baller: the visiting voices such as Tony Cozier, Jim Maxwell, Bryan Waddle and Harsha Bhogle which appear every four years to add colour and variety to the tones of the box. Without them, the English summer might just be too English.
P is for Polymaths
Adam Collins and Geoff Lemon have 27 hours in a day. They must have. That’s the only explanation for the prodigious volume of their output, the variety of their roles and the speed with which they disappear in one country only to reappear in another. In the last twelve months, Collins has written for The Guardian almost daily, commentated for the ABC and the BBC, penned countless articles for ESPN Cricinfo, worked for The Nightwatchman, The Cricketer, the annual and monthly Wisden, and put together (with Lemon) the Final Word podcast in audio and video formats. How on earth does he do it? It’s as if he has a button that enables him to pause time. For heaven’s sake, how else does he have time to travel, or edit, or eat, or even sleep?
Q is for Quiet Ones
You may not hear them, but everything you see and hear is theirs. The senior producers – Adam Mountford at the BBC and Bryan Henderson at Sky – are two of the most powerful players in the cricket media. Until 2024, Test Match Special has the ECB’s radio rights and Sky Sports Cricket the television rights, but that hasn’t stopped other broadcasters from occasionally bidding for – and winning – overseas coverage. Talksport has just acquired the radio rights for England’s next international winter, something they haven’t managed since 2005, meaning that they will have to build a live cricket commentary team more or less from scratch. Hopefully they will be studying this article carefully.
R is for Right
‘I were a proper cricketer. These lot are roobish.’ Fred Trueman started it. Moan and moan, and when you’ve finished moaning, moan some more. Nothing ever seems to please this particular brand of ex-pros. Their joy at cricket’s great moments appears fleeting at best, their frustrations are obvious and their criticisms are legion. The thing is, they’re nearly always right. There’s something deeply satisfying about listening to Geoffrey Boycott on the radio and Bob Willis on the television – we pretend to find them massively annoying, but privately we know they’re right and secretly we agree with them. Willis was disdainful of the media as a player, but now his role is reversed, so too has his point of view. If Boycott and Willis were often wrong – or even occasionally wrong – they would have been out of a job years ago, but these cheerful harbingers of doom are consistently prescient. Boycott’s finest mal mot was during the Mumbai test of 1993: asked what England might achieve on the final day of the match, he happily responded: ‘I think we’ll lose. It’s just a question of when.’
S is for Summariser
It was the BBC that created the template for radio commentary. Test Match Special has had the same formula for decades: a ball-by-ball ‘caller’ describing the action alongside a former international cricketer ‘summarising’ – that is, chipping in between balls and overs to interpret and explain the action. The regent of all summarisers is Vic Marks, whose warm tones and kindly demeanour give an amiable air to his intelligent, insightful and sharp analysis. His love of the game never falters, but push him just so far and he lets fly with a volley of excoriating ammunition, as in his recent blistering attack on the ECB’s new 100-ball competition. No less perceptive and knowledgeable, Isa Guha is rapidly establishing herself in the vanguard of the BBC’s next generation of summarisers – her cool, ‘sporty older sister’ character neatly contrasting with Marks’s role as the grandfather of cricketing wisdom.
T is for Twitterati
The quickest way to garner a huge Twitter following is to be internationally acclaimed and hugely famous. Some summarisers, having played the highest level of for a television audience of millions, have become genuine celebrities – Michael Vaughan and Graeme Swann both have close to a million followers – but the very best professional callers (those verging on national treasure status) are at least equally popular. Harsha Bhogle has nearly eight million acolytes, with Jonathan Agnew and David Lloyd both able to outnumber the entire population of Iceland with their fans. The other way to achieve Twitter prominence is to earn your followers tweet by tweet. The historian and cricketer Tom Holland occasionally speaks mischievously about a ‘tweet-to-followers’ ratio – a statistic which, when computed, reveals who works hardest for their fame. Adam Collins – but of course – puts in an average of 3.5 tweets for each ‘follow’ he gets, but the leader by far is the Elizabeth Ammon, who clocks up double this rate with astonishing 6.9 tweets per follower earned. She has pressed the ‘tweet’ button an astonishing 256,400 times – twice the number of the second most prolific tweeter, Peter Miller – and recruited 37,500 followers (and no doubt she could increase this number substantially were she to reactivate her ‘blocked’ list). She must have bionic fingers, or a bluetooth keyboard in her forearm.
U is for Up-and-coming
This is the stage after Newbie, and with enough ‘promise and potential’ – the BBC under Adam Mountford being particularly meritocratic – a select few find themselves promoted from the county game to the internationals. The passing of Christopher Martin-Jenkins led to the elevation of Charles Dagnall, Henry Blofeld’s retirement meant there was more of Dan Norcross, and Ed Smith’s new job will mean further opportunities for Scott Read, who has earned his spurs on the local circuit. James Anderson proved a popular addition to the team of summarisers, and Sky have found a wonderful anchor for the Blast in Rob Key, who embodies the ebullience and joviality of the domestic white ball game.
V is for Visitors
Providing their ‘view from the boundary’ are the many hundreds of guests called up by Test Match Special: not just ex-pros but musicians, artists, philanthropists and politicians of every type and stripe. Who can forget the discovery of Lily Allen as a high-profile cricket fan in 2009? Certainly not Jonathan Agnew, faced with the opportunity to interview such a charismatic and attractive personality, could barely conceal his boyish excitement.
W is for Writers
So many of cricket’s ‘media names’ have been published. You are hardly a cricketer worth remembering if you haven’t written an autobiography about your playing days, and they come in a variety of flavours: the no-holds-barred (Botham, Boycott and Kevin Pietersen), the challenging (Marcus Trescothick’s Coming Back to Me) and the mind-numbingly boring (Alec Stewart’s Playing for Keeps). Numerous commentators rack up one ISBN after another, but very few have started with writing and then taken to commentary; those who have tend to be the most philosophical and reflective of all. In a healthy mind, this deep analysis can promote thinkers like Ed Smith to positions of great influence; at other times, such as with Peter Roebuck, the intellectualism can mask a psyche that is damaging, even abusive, to the author as well as to others.
X is for X Men
Smith’s commentating days are over for the foreseeable future, but for the best of reasons: he has reached a summit, transposing a career of sporting influence to a role of national importance. Paul Allott has hung up his headphones at Sky in order to take charge of cricket at Lancashire. Others have fallen from grace in less happy circumstances: Dermot Reeve was obliged to leave Channel 4 having admitted to drug taking; Mike Selvey was dropped from the BBC so bitterly that the producer found himself having to make a public defence of his selectorial decision.
Y is for Youth
‘Appeal to the next generation of cricket fans’ is the mantra of all cricket broadcasters. It’s easier for Sky, who can rely on a degree of inherited audience from their innumerable football addicts: ‘just change the channel and watch this.’ It’s less easy for the BBC, and in the last couple of years they have found a gifted communicator in Henry Moeran, who has proven highly adept at assembling vibrant, edgy and entertaining commentary teams for white ball cricket, built around Charles Dagnall, Ebony Rainford-Brent and James Taylor. Test Match Special has taken the conscious decision to separate its test and white ball squads and the ‘horses for courses’ selection has undeniably worked.
Z is for Zaltzman
It should be ‘scorers’, of course, but on account of his surname, Andy Zaltzman will represent them all at this stage in the alphabet. He scores for Test Match Special, sharing the role with Andrew Samson (who tends to take on the tests). Benedict Bermange at Sky has even found himself in front of the camera at times, a role it’s hard to imagine the scoring forefather, the irascible and surly Bill Frindall, being allowed to do. Together, computer aided but still with a healthy library in tow, these dyed-in-the-wool cricket ‘nuffies’ are expected to have every imaginable statistic at their fingertips – and if they haven’t got it, they’re given about thirty seconds to find it. Given that this may be the only time they are heard on air during an entire session, could it be that the scorer’s job is harder than anyone’s? In a world of unsung heroes, that might be a fitting conclusion.