February 26, 2013

Cricket commentary still gets us talking

Christopher Martin-Jenkins commentated alongside former players such as Vic Marks and Viv Richards for TMS © PA Photos

A few weeks ago, two of cricket's most-loved commentators died in quick succession. The column inches given to Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Tony Greig illustrate the dear place that cricket commentary holds in the hearts of fans and aficionados of the game. This article was written early last year and has some debate-provoking contributions from CMJ himself.

There's something faintly ridiculous and innocent about cricket commentary that defies the progress of modern professionalism. At times it can be bumbling and haphazard, yet it is uniquely loved. You need only to ask fans about the classic "leg over" incident, when Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew collapsed into uncontrollable fits of laughter on-air - voted the best commentary moment of all time by Radio 5 Live listeners in 2005 - for proof.

The names and voices in commentary - people like John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Aggers and Geoffrey Boycott - have become as much a part of cricket folklore as the players themselves. But what does it take to master the art of commentating? How do you keep spectators interested over five days of rain or when Shivnarine Chanderpaul is batting - surely the hardest slog in all sports?

According to Christopher Martin-Jenkins, veteran of the TMS team, it takes a fine balance of sensibilities: "The first job of the commentator is to give the score, say who is batting against whom and describe every run. But you need to get the balance right between correct, accurate description and entertaining and informative background material."

TMS producer Adam Mountford says the basic skills of the commentator are a deep knowledge of the game, mastery of language, a good broadcasting voice, and a winning personality.

Voice firstly: it's useful for a commentator's voice to be "free of mannerisms that annoy and to have some variety, light or shade, to it," says Martin-Jenkins. From Martin-Jenkins' "thoroughbred tones" to Henry Blofeld's "distinctive and wonderful enthusiasm" and Philip Tufnell's "heavy smoker's voice", Mountford says that he has deliberately tried to get TMS's commentators from a diverse range of backgrounds.

This won't please everyone: Arlott was described as having "a superior mind and a vulgar voice". And plenty object to Tufnell's estuary whine or Boycott's dour northern accent. But there are other compensations. Arlott's use of language is still considered unrivalled - for example, calling a Clive Lloyd shot "like knocking the head off a thistle".

The others have expertise on their side. And for those without a radio voice there is coaching. Bob Willis, who has been with Sky Sports' since it began in 1990, says that he took voice lessons with a Royal College of Music teacher to get more music into his tone. "It's easy to lapse into a conversational mumble rather than to pronounce your words and speak the language correctly," says Willis, best known for his conversational mumbling.

Allison Mitchell, one of the few female commentators working on TMS, says that for her the biggest worry is going too "high-pitched" during moments of drama.

Sometimes it's important to know how to keep schtum. This doesn't always come easy though, says CMJ: "Arlott had an excellent sense of when to speak and when not to speak. He understood the dramatic pause. Which is less common these days because people think that pauses should be filled."

This crime is particularly indecent on television. "Television used to be about the pictures," CMJ says. "You're seeing more frequent interruptions to the commentary from matters outside the match. I think the chat has gone too far."

Willis fires back: "Radio used to be about a guy calling a match who was the only one talking and you had the summariser talking between overs. Now at every pause for breath the summariser comes in and puts in his tuppenceworth. There is a danger of celebrity taking over."

Part of the reason for the excessive talking may be down to the high-profile personalities involved in commentary now. Both TMS and Sky have sought to boost their credentials by bringing in 'big' cricket names.

They do have expertise. Sky already has an impressive roster of ex-England captains like David Gower, Ian Botham, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain and have added to this with Nick Knight. TMS looked to match them by bringing in Michael Vaughan, Viv Richards and Philip Tufnell.

But are talkative ex-cricketers what the public want? Neither Arlott - who was a policeman before he joined TMS - CMJ or Johnston played to a high level. Blofeld played his last competitive match at Eton.

While TMS and Sky battle it out for fans' attention a third contender has come to the fore. This gives more prominence to the listener's voice, or rather, typed words. Text commentary on the internet is now one of the biggest mediums for cricket. Tom Fordyce, the BBC's chief sports writer and the man who effectively launched the BBC's online cricket commentary, says that on a good day they can get over 3.5 million unique page views, far dwarfing the following on radio and television.

Text commentary also has the advantage of interactivity and gets away with more tongue-in-cheek banter like:

"You need to change the summary section from 'series-clinching' to 'buttocks-clenching'."

"Prior shouts, 'Get on it!' after every delivery, much like Bobby Byrd working the crowd at a James Brown gig circa 1969."

"It's counterintuitive since the internet has become all about videos but here is this huge thing using old fashioned text commentary," Fordyce says. "There is also the opportunity for greater interaction between spectators. It's like a club."

For now, both traditional and new mediums for following cricket commentary grow. TMS attracted 500,000 new listeners last summer and celebrated its 55th year in 2012. Sky still leads the way and the interactivity of BBC text commentary offers a different staple for fans to latch on to. Perhaps it's time for Andrew Flintoff to start [another] new career.

After reading English at Oxford and not getting close to a Blue, Safi Thind went on to work as a journalist in India. He is now based in England again