Cricket Commentary: WHAT makes a Good Commentator?

Rob Steen, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo,

For decades this column wished it had been born ten years earlier, in 1947 rather than 1957, and thus been old enough to put flowers in its hair and claim it only didn’t go to Woodstock because of the airfare. On occasion it fantasises about being born a millennium hence, by when governments, guns, cars and disease will be extinct, sweatshops won’t be sweatshops because robots don’t sweat, and the only non-creative or non-culinary professions will be undertaking, hotel management and window-cleaning. tony cozier Tony Cozier

More often than not, however, this column is grateful to have been born in the second half of the 20th century, enabling it to savour so much belated social change and so many wondrous songs, movies, plays and games. The drawback, of course, is that familiarity seldom breeds contentment and that one always craves more.

bENAUD IN BOX--PAphotos  Richie Benaud: a shoo-in for any commentary team © PA Photos

If last week’s epic face-off between New Zealand and South Africa was a feast for the senses – limited by overs and rain, unlimited in suspense or emotional scope – gratitude is also due to that much-maligned monument to our baser instincts, television. Without that invasive, domineering, scruple-free box, the vast majority of us would have been deprived of such splendours. That’s why there’s a small, usually well-concealed part of this column that can’t help but raise a guilty toast to Uncle Rupert and his ambition to run – or at least own – the world.

Caps, therefore, must be doffed to his minions and their counterparts elsewhere: the camera crews, technicians, producers, reporters, assistants, runners, interns and, above all, those doughty, devoted denizens of the commentary booth, without whom sport would be a lot less jolly, not to mention appreciably quieter.

Naturally, certain fashionable tropes (let’s not even elevate them to the status of clichés) should be banished forthwith. “Good levers”, for starters. For one thing, it’s confusing: when enunciated, “levers” is indiscernible from “leavers”. For another, it’s meant as a compliment but is actually profoundly demeaning, reducing everything to quality of limb. Next up: “Good pulleys”.

These, though, are mere trifles by comparison with the truly nauseating offences. The next time this column hears that dread phrase first foisted on us by Nasser Hussain, “Yer Sehwags, yer Tendulkars, yer Gayles, yer Guptills”, it will send a letter to David Cameron urging the introduction of compulsory public caning in commentary booths.

All the same, yer Nassers and and yer Benauds and yer Manjrekars have a tough job. You could offer this column all the gluten-free cheesecake in Islington and it still wouldn’t fancy it. Those who do serve are easy to decry, and hence warrant patience and indulgence more than jeers. Three reasons loom largest:

1) Writers have time to think before committing themselves but are restricted by space; commentators have acres to fill and barely enough time to draw breath, making errors not only inevitable but audible.

2) Barring on-screen graphics and scraps of paper, commentators are not armed with anything that could remotely be described as a script, and hence react to events much as we do, i.e. getting carried away and saying silly things – or even, if you’re an esteemed Australian wisecracker, offensive ones.

3) Because commentators are contractually, even spiritually, obliged to sell, sell, sell, most invest the humdrum-est occurrences with world-shattering importance.

The most eminent, conversely, sell subtlety. They are thoughtful, unhurried cheerleaders. They don’t rush to judgement, reach for the hype pills or let local bias defeat professional neutrality. They rise above the din. They also know how to anticipate, detect and analyse the catalytic moments, and to articulate our own responses.

Compassion for competitors, after all, is what distinguishes the commentator-as-showman from the commentator-as-narrator

Like us, the best are appreciative fans, the key difference being that, by and large, their critiques stem from first-hand experience, albeit ever more distant. No cricketing honour can match the Richie Benaud Seal of Approval. Without the soundtrack supplied by Mark Nicholas*, AB de Villiers’ onslaught against West Indies last month would have lost something vital: the sound of barely contained awe.

So, half an hour left, 30 to win, two wickets standing: who would you want sharing mic duties? Let the almost wholly justified allegations of flagrant Anglo-Antipodean-Caribbean bias commence.

Knowledge is the one indispensable, the only way to inject proportion and perspective, and hence counter the tyranny and hysteria of the moment. Even now, Our Richie, the Caliph of Cool, the Imam of Implacability, would walk into any commentary team anywhere, anytime, be it the West Sussex Tiddlywinks Championship or a sultan’s wedding. No one, as John Lennon once boasted, is in his tree.

Who, then, is Richie’s heir? Tony Cozier also exudes wisdom and subtlety but lacks the charisma of Our Warney, who offers two for the price of one: one of the boys and astute analyst. While Imran Tahir and JP Duminy were spinning out Sri Lanka at the World Cup, a list popped up on screen saluting the highest career strike rates among ODI twirlers, whereupon the presence of Darren Lehmann and Allan Border drew a riposte oozing indignation – “Left-arm pies” – yet moderate of tone, followed by a gentle, helpless “Jeez”. And that was where he parked it. No self-justification festering through the rest of the broadcast, no brooding sense of injustice. He knows these trifles matter less than a jot, and he knows the more discerning viewers know it too.

Ear candy? John Arlott and Michael Holding were/are both sages, complementing their inimitable vocal talents. The former was renowned as a radio man but both would rather staple their lips together than shrink from a contemplative pause. Listening to them in harness would have been akin to having one’s ears bathed in mules’ milk (asses’ milk sounds far ruder than it was in Biblical times).

Able but flawed salesmen abound. Danny Morrison could enliven a monastery cemetery but overdoes the giggles; Pommie Mbangwa is sweet but lacks edge; as valiantly as he strives for balance and distance, you can hear Ravi Shastri frown from next door; Ian Healy works chattily and cattily, but no one does less to take the “p” out of parochial.

All could have learned more from Tony Greig: utterly fearless, never knowingly overstated, and winningly self-mocking; nobody, moreover, has rooted more animatedly for a nation to which he owed no allegiance, as he did so affectionately for Sri Lanka.

As honest as that nose is long, Bill Lawry is another willing cartoon: happy inhabiting his own skin and prejudices, a fierce defender of The Way It Always Was And Ever Shall Be. And yet, as he draws to the end of his lengthy innings, he, too, has been increasingly able to laugh at himself, growing infinitely more loveable.

Nicholas, nonetheless, is alone in this category in blending nous, humility, boyishly uncurbed enthusiasm and an actor’s ability (inherited from his mother) to dramatise without diving too far over the top. There can be no higher honour in his profession than becoming the first Pom to front the Channel Nine gang.

Crucially perhaps, he did not reach the summit as a player, which may be why he never takes brilliance for granted and empathises more readily with failure. Compassion for competitors, after all, is what distinguishes the commentator-as-showman from the commentator-as-narrator. Sure, he grievously misuses “bunt”, and that penchant for Etonian English can grate, but as the only commentator romantic enough to pepper his routine with references to his mate Bruce Springsteen, all qualms can be suppressed.

Perhaps the ideal duet would be Nicholas and a joker, a role for which nobody is better suited than David “Start the car” Lloyd, but those seeking a replication of the spectating experience might prefer a pair of scrappers. This column is partial to creative friction, so Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain get the nod. As former national captains, team-mates and university graduates they have far too much in common not to revel in the delights of one-upmanship. Especially since Atherton attended Cambridge while Hussain had to make do with Durham.

atherton naser- GETTY Athers and Nass: nice swordplay © Getty Images

Take the second day of the 2006 Adelaide Test, when they dissected the ethics of Shane Warne’s outside-leg strategy against a rampant Kevin Pietersen. Back and forth they jabbed, growling as they circled each other, brains clenched and cocked.

Ever the aggressor, Hussain reasoned that a Test was precisely what it says on the tin – a test of perseverance – whereupon Atherton, the sly needler, demanded, politely, that he justify his adoption of the same dastardly ploy to halt Sachin Tendulkar a few years earlier. Unable to stifle a self-satisfied snigger, Hussain pointed out that Tendulkar had blinked first against Ashley Giles and been stumped, that the end justified the means. Game, set and match? No chance.

Having checked the relevant law, Atherton actually quoted it, then let fly with three dingers: the umpires could and should have called wides, the principal function of cricketers is to entertain, and besides, viewers had been firing in baffled emails. Undaunted, Hussain countered with an uppercut: the mind game being played by Warne and Pietersen was the very quintessence of sport. If you didn’t know, you’d have been able to tell who had the better captaincy record quite easily.

At one juncture, the camera picked out the duellists: all four eyes were gleaming, a tussle relished. Broadcasting with sleeves furled and intellectual biceps bulging but still accessible to all. Broadcasting at its most hypnotic.

Future immortals? One stone-cold certainty is VVS Laxman, who turns out, reassuringly, to be exactly what you’d expect: cool, sunny, elegant of expression but always purposeful, not to mention possessed of a toothy smile every bit as wide and radiant as the millions his silken bat once raised. As a dark horse, try Rob Key: sharper than a freshly groomed porcupine, unafraid to challenge received wisdom, refreshingly Kentish and entirely un-posh.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.


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