Ed Smith, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo where the title reads “Was Tony Cozier the last of a golden age of commentators?”
Pic from www.siasat.com
We did indeed see Barbados’ rugged east coast – where Tony owned a wooden beach house – but by a most circuitous and sociable route. The stories flowed as easily as the rums punches, and by the end of that sultry afternoon, steeped in a mellow glow of nostalgia, I realised I had travelled on two journeys, impossible to disentangle: the first around an island with cricket in its blood; the second around a life, equally defined by the game we love. The place, the voice, the game: a triad that Cozier unified and invested with lasting meaning.
“We won’t see his like again” is a weary cliché. Sometimes, however, it is true. Cozier belonged to a generation of iconic cricket commentators that included Richie Benaud and Christopher Martin-Jenkins, three men who were born between 1930 and 1946 and died between 2013 and 2016. Their careers – distinct but overlapping – could not take a similar shape inside cricket today. The sport and the media have both changed unrecognisably. The foundations are no longer there to support enduring careers in that mould. By nature I am optimistic, but this piece, I fear, will leave an impression of loss more than progress.
From the 1920s, when baseball pioneered play-by-play broadcasting on the radio, the drama and colour of sport were transmitted directly into everyday life. Sport entered the living room for the first time. Family life, consequently, had a new voice around the dinner table: the sports broadcaster, or as he was known initially, the “announcer”.
This voice, of course, defined the game. It was the job of a solitary man, with words as his only tools, to bring to life a whole scene – the players, the ground, the crowd, the sense of event and expectation, the drama unfolding. His eyes, our ears – an intimate relationship. Over time that voice became much more than just a conveyor of information; he became a trusted confidant: the announcer (much to the surprise of the radio stations) turned into a friend, someone who seemed to share experiences with the listener, even as he described them. It is a mistake to think that modern sport created the need for commentary. Commentary invented modern sport.
In a monolithic media, where sport was always found on the same radio stations or TV channels, some voices became so deeply associated with games that it was hard to think of the sport without them. To British rugby union fans, Bill McLaren, who died in 2010, was the voice of the game. Tony, of course, was the voice of Caribbean cricket. Whenever he came on the radio, by the time he’d finished saying “Good morning”, he had automatically initiated a complex layering of associations in the listener’s mind: images and recollections of West Indian cricket in its glory days, a high point that coincided with the middle years of Tony’s career. We heard a voice and saw a sporting culture in full flow.
In today’s media landscape, with far greater competition and hence fragmentation, it is impossible for any voice to become so universal. Much is gained by that competition. But the next generation of cricket fans will not draw on the same shared experiences of definitive voices. There is no single voice of cricket today, nor can there be one.
Tony came from a particular cricketing culture, which he knew intimately and could explain to the rest of the world. He was not incidentally West Indian; his identity was central to his whole working life. (It did not, however, prevent him being outspoken and courageous, especially in his later years.) Again, in this respect Tony belonged to a particular generation. International cricket, for the majority of Tony’s career, was the truly glamorous spectacle, the game’s gold standard.
In the era of the IPL and franchise cricket, in which the players and the media are drawn from around the world, jumbled up across every team, the new cricketing landscape is very different. In some respects, the game is more cosmopolitan now. But the old sense of distinct national blocks within a cricketing culture – each with one explainer-in-chief – has long gone. The players do not belong to their countries in quite the same way today. In that transition, the ownership of the distinctly national commentator has also waned. Who knows Chris Gayle’s game the best: a West Indian commentator/fan or an IPL commentator/fan?
Finally, Tony’s career began in a different culture of player-media relations, defined by trust rather than suspicion. On those long tours in the 1960s and 1970s, so much was shared between fellow travellers that trust was built into the game. It is also revealing, as with Martin-Jenkins, that Tony’s broadcasting never suffered from the fact that he hadn’t been a top player. Perhaps it sustained his passion.
I was once shown a study that explored different branches of the media and how people felt about them. Which word did people associate with the radio? The answer was “friend”. Though Tony was also a prolific television broadcaster, it was the radio that gave primacy to his greatest asset: his voice, the voice of a friend.