July 31, 2013

When heroes fall

Why do once-great players insist on tarnishing our image of them by going into the commentary box?

David Gower: better remembered with bat in hand than mike Tom Dulat / © Getty Images

In the summer of 1979, I fell in love with David Gower. It must have been love; what else would explain the trembling anticipation of a glimpse of his seemingly perpetually sunny countenance, his lissome strokeplay, and his electric fielding? What else could ground the sick fear I felt that he would be dismissed all too prematurely, that a crude umpiring mistake would brutally smear the canvas of his artistry? Did it matter that he was "the enemy"? I was ready to betray all - friends, family and country - for this man.

Nowadays I still see Gower on occasion. He has aged, rather gracefully. I've finally become familiar with his cultured, private-school intonations. (Back in the summer of 1979, I could only impute dulcet tones to his imagined voice.) He commentates, analyses and ruminates; on television. He asks questions, follows-up (not on), and offers expert opinion. Gower is now a member of the media, of that contingent of ex-cricketers who make a living by talking about cricket.

I don't think I love him anymore. I don't dislike him either, but there is no mystique about him. Gower has become mundane, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, just another groomed, suited, well-rehearsed frontman. He does his job competently, and that's about it. From hero to humdrum in the course of a few easy steps.

My assessment of my relationship with Gower is relatively mild compared to that with some other cricketers who have made the transition from crease occupation to commentary box stakeout. Gower gets off lightly. Others who I once revered are now reviled: they bore me with their meandering descriptions, their partisanship, their fallacy-riddled arguments, their jumping on ideological bandwagons, their incoherence.

I've written of a related fall from grace of my heroes before; but in that case I was describing my changing relationship to cricketers in general, one occasioned by my changing station in life. This relationship is attenuated by that growth, of course, but with a difference: here, a childhood hero has stuck around too long in the limelight, has declined the opportunity to seek a quiet life after retirement, which, even if not Pynchonesque or Salingeresque in its seclusion, at least ensures the careful guarding of the aura so carefully constructed by his feats on the fabled 22 yards.

Here a hero becomes tragically complicit in the deconstruction of his own image. That image, the subject of childhood adoration and adulation, was built up from radio commentary, television broadcasts, and sometimes, most dramatically, by the action photograph. Our hero's efforts were rendered ever more dramatic by the contributions of these media; they became larger than life. That same image, that cluster of mental associations, was slowly replaced by others: the querulous, garrulous, self-centred opinionator, all too happy to waffle on, trafficking in irrelevances and clichés.

I wonder why, besides the allure of the big paycheck, our heroes do this to us. Are they afraid of the constant idolisation? Do they imagine that television will turn them into bigger stars than they were, that the glory of media is greater than that of the feats that brought them to its attention? They seem blithely unaware of the perils of over-exposure, of the relentless, merciless gaze of the camera, the omnipresence of the microphone, the possibilities for endless replay of their worst moments.

Modern television coverage of cricket disdains the professional journalist and seeks instead, exclusively, the famous ex-cricketer with which to staff its commentariat. The most pernicious effect of this personnel strategy has been to ensure, for a legion of fans, an ongoing demotion of the status of their idols. They stand exposed now, no longer assessed for their cricketing skills but for something else altogether, a task for which their experience on the field has not necessarily prepared them.

If only they could bring themselves to see what we do; perhaps some of them would walk away from it all. One can only hope.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jaya on August 5, 2013, 15:44 GMT

    A cricket fan ,after years of watching cricket matches on TV, does't need a commentrator to follow the match.In fact it is the ex-great cricketers whose expert comments and anecdotes which make it interesting to hear.I am eager to hear to what the experts say,even if they do not have the eloquence in their speech.I too had a great image about Gower's personality.His elegence in whatever he does,his batting,his gait,he was elegence personified.At present to expect him to be the same with age catching up,is unreasonable.Hence on this count i feel the author has uneccessarily disappointed himself.

  • Cricinfouser on August 2, 2013, 14:48 GMT

    Good article. Whilst there are exceptions, the majority of cricketing greats don't make good commentators. Benaud certainly was an exception but, unlike the modern player, he actually trained specifically for the role while he was still playing. It still seems a shame that Benaud the cricketer has been overshadowed by Benaud the commentator - he recounted a story of an autograph hunter asking him if he ever played test cricket!

    @MrKricket - Your point about Steve Waugh is a good one. I had hoped that Strauss would follow his example - fat chance!

  • Dwijottam on August 2, 2013, 13:55 GMT

    I have to say I by and large agree with Ladl1947. This is silly. Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, Tony Greig, Ian Chapell, Rameez Raja, even Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri but among the Indians, especially Sanjay Manjrekar bring enormous value to cricket commentary by dipping into their experience and coming up with amazing insights. Benaud perhaps tops everyone with his grasp over the language and his peerless sense of dry, understated humour. I agree that when I listen to VVS Laxman or Martin Crowe, and especially Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, I feel sad that they chose to expose their lack of ability at commentary. But there are enough good ones for us to not condemn the general practice of having cricketing greats in the commentary box.

  • colin on August 2, 2013, 13:08 GMT

    Atherton and Lloyd always good value

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2013, 11:13 GMT

    While I agree with your point, I'm surprised at the example you use to illustrate it: although I'm not old enough to have seen him play, Gower has always struck me as an excellent commentator - not quite in the class of Benaud, but still very good. More obvious examples would be Boycott (great player, albeit never one who was pretty to watch; tediously predictable commentator, always trotting out his line about how his mother could have done better) or Willis (excellent player, if not quite qualifying as 'great'; atrocious commentator).

    TV broadcasters need to start following the lead of TMS, which has always selected commentators on grounds of their suitability for that job (with the apparent exception of Boycott), rather than their reputation as players. Arlott, Mosey, Johnston, Martin-Jenkins, Blofeld: not a Test between them, but five of the greatest names ever to grace a commentary box.

  • John on August 2, 2013, 4:55 GMT

    I have to say I think this is a rather silly article. Former great players, especially captains, are uniquely qualified to talk about what is happening on the field and why. Moreover, their careers as players are finished by about 40; why should they not carry on doing the one thing at which they were world class, only this time from the commentary box? By all means criticize commentators who are boring or not very insightful, but to criticize them because you want to preserve them in your memory as players is not only ridiculous, but somewhat pathetic.

  • Scott on August 2, 2013, 1:24 GMT

    Why have you named only Gower, if you assert him as being one of your more favoured scribes, and none of the others? Seems a bit harsh. And David made the transition a lot earlier than the most recent induction bandwagon. I like David and think he is excellent, especially with Holding. Take Botham, he says so much that is so often proved false and he shrugs it off. He recognises that he's just offering posturing ejaculations so as there is some noise. Some of the others take themselves too seriously and dig far too deep into the the pit of inane in search of something relevant. As always the best commentary is found on radio. They're not distracted with needing to offer the latest gimics and musings in order to justify their existence.

  • Warks on August 2, 2013, 1:02 GMT

    I think that's why the public in Australia still revere Steve Waugh. He hasn't sullied his reputation by becoming a member of the commentariat unlike his compatriots Taylor, Healy, Slater, Warne and now McGrath. McGrath is new to it and still well-liked but the gloss has gone off the rest. Adam Gilchrist is still revered though, also keeps his nose out of it most of the time. Border, Blewett, Fleming, M Waugh all talk on pay TV but aren't in your face all summer like the Ch9 team. I can only be glad we don't have to listen to Botham et al all summer here in Australia!

  • david on August 1, 2013, 22:49 GMT

    All commentators eventually get boring - there's only so many ways you can describe a cover drive and only so many times you can listen to the same anecdote. One of the things I miss about watching cricket in days gone by is that along with a touring side, you got a "touring commentator". A fresh voice in the commentary box with an exotic accent, in-sights about the touring team and the ability to pronounce the players names correctly was great fun. Whilst the technical aspects of cricket coverage such as the camera work is now amazing, I am stuck with the same commentators tour after tour. Thank god for "Test Match Sofa"!

  • beverly on August 1, 2013, 20:20 GMT

    "Nowadays I still see Gower on occasion. "He has aged, rather gracefully". He commentates, analyses and ruminates; on television. He asks questions, follows-up (not on), and offers expert opinion. Gower is now a member of the media, of that contingent of ex-cricketers who make a living by talking about cricket. I don't think I love him anymore. I don't dislike him either, but there is no mystique about him. Gower has become mundane, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, just another groomed, suited, well-rehearsed frontman. HE DOES HIS JOB COMPETENTLY, and that's about it. From hero to humdrum in the course of a few easy steps". Samir, based on what you've written here, you've not given us any convincing reason why you "think" that you don't love Mr Gower anymore! So, that has given the licence to conjecture as to why. I think it's just one thing - that is, as a result of the COMPETENT job that he's doing, "he mashed your corn" and criticised one of those cricketers whom you worshipped as "God"