February 6, 2014

When cricket crackled

Listening to radio commentary required you to construct an image from the words you heard and create a rich movie of the match in your mind's eye

Listening to radio commentary gives one a great chance to imagine worlds from afar © PA Photos

Cricket in the pre-television era was heard over the airwaves and imagined in our heads. In India, of course, the pre-television era lasted a lot longer than in many another countries - pretty much into the early 1980s. For me, India's greatest cricketing moments - and their more frequent plunges into the abyss - are inseparable from the voices of commentators.

If ever the cliché "less is more" was true, it was during those radio days. You had to work at constructing an image from the words you heard. You triangulated the commentator's descriptions, the blurry newsprint photographs of cricketers and grounds, and images of the different countries of the world, to project a rich movie of the match in your mind's eye.

Gavaskar's incredible display of technique and determination at Old Trafford in 1974, when he got a century in the biting cold, is indelibly associated with John Arlott's Hampshire burr as it waxed and waned through the ether to reach my transistor radio in Madras.

You had to keep fiddling with that dial, changing the position of the receiver, and trying every trick you knew to keep the short-wave transmission reasonably clear. For some reason, it got worse as the evening wore on. It was a great way of developing fine motor skills and patience, I suppose. I recall too the barely concealed glee with which Brian Johnston and the rest of the BBC crew described India's catastrophic 42 all out in the next Test, at Lord's. It somehow made the experience that much more painful.

Rivalling that occasion was the inaugural match of the 1975 World Cup, between India and England. After having listened to England rack up well over 300 in their innings, one settled in to hear our boys make a fist of it. With Sunny, Vishy, Brijesh Patel, Farokh Engineer and Abid Ali in India's line-up, they had quite a few dashers. We thought even if victory was a long shot, surely some fireworks would be in order. A growing frustration was followed by sheer disbelief as we numbly realised there was going to be no acceleration at all. Gavaskar inexplicably played out 60 overs to remain unbeaten on 36 and we doddered to 132 runs in 60 overs at 2.2 runs per over.

The English commentary team pretty much lost interest in describing the proceedings as India batted. They discussed just about everything under the sky barring the cricket. I think it was Freddie Trueman who suggested the crowd would be well advised to demand their money back as recompense for the torture they had endured. To compound the Indian listeners' misery, the BBC commentary on that first day rotated between the various grounds and we were constantly updated on the three other matches as India mystifyingly plodded on.

During exam time, commentary was a distraction that was difficult to resist. I remember once when in college, a friend coming to my dorm room late one night with a weird request. He handed me a few Eveready batteries and wanted me to keep them for him

The late Suresh Saraiya may well have been the man Mark Tully was thinking of when he titled his book No Full Stops in India. Saraiya spoke a variety of English I have not heard before or since - it simply had no punctuation at all. He paused when he had to take a breath, but otherwise the words just cascaded out in a torrent of free association. I do have to thank the man for one thing though: he unwittingly ended up improving my Hindi considerably.

I was so put off by Saraiya's style that I preferred listening to the spare and elegant Hindi commentary of Ravi Chaturvedi, who was frequently his partner on overseas tours. The two of them took us through the exhilarating win in Port-of-Spain when India chased down 404 in the fourth innings against West Indies. In retrospect, I must admit that Saraiya was a genuine lover of the game and appreciated opponents as much as he did his own team: one can forgive a man who has those qualities a lot of early-morning aggravation.

Matches played in India meant our lives revolved around the commentary. If it was an exciting match, life pretty much ground to a halt as everyone huddled around the radio sets. The kids in school who had access to a pocket transistor saw a sudden surge in their popularity. You had to quickly catch the score between classes or when the teacher was distracted. Somehow, even amid the restrictions, one person would find out the latest score and it would soon spread through the entire classroom through notes and whispers.

Anant Setalvad was a personal favourite. He had a rare quality among Indian commentators: understatement. Dickie Rutnagur and Narottam Puri were very good as well. Anand Rau and Balu Alaganan epitomised southern charm - dulcet voices and calm non-partisanship. And when it came to expert commentators, the Lala was in a class of his own. His bluntness was refreshing and he was great at putting some of his over-analytical colleagues in their place. "I don't think it was a great ball or well flighted or anything of the sort. It was a straight ball, the batsman missed it, and he was bowled," was one zinger I recall.

During exam time, commentary was a distraction that was difficult to resist. I remember once when in college, a friend coming to my dorm room late one night with a weird request. He handed me a few Eveready batteries and wanted me to keep them for him. He had been wasting endless hours listening to the cricket instead of preparing for his exams - and pulling the batteries out of his radio set was one way to silence the damn thing. I have no idea if it worked, but he did stop by a few weeks later to collect the batteries.

Those radio days are long gone. Now it's cricket in high-resolution all over the world, all around the year. Nothing is left to the imagination, and live coverage, endless replays, highlights, and Youtube ensure that nothing can be. When everything can be seen in such vivid detail, what is left to say? The clichéd repetitions of balls traveling like tracer bullets, words like "magnificent", "tremendous", and "fantastic" are repeated over and over again till they have lost all meaning. The moving image has displaced the spoken word and all its richness has strangely left us a little poorer.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Michael on February 7, 2014, 19:34 GMT

    In England there used to be TV cricket for all. Since Sky bought it all up, many have had to go back to radio commentary, which is a sad state of affairs.

    On the plus side, BBC Radio 4's TMS commentary is still excellent - they certainly wander off topic, but it's all part of the charm and infinitely better than the Sky commentary, which is lazily delivered by a bunch of bitter ex-England captains. They also seem under less pressure than TV commentators to pretend every cricket match is the best they've ever seen, and you feel you get a really honest appraisal of what's afoot on field.

    Long live radio!

  • Clifford on February 7, 2014, 17:10 GMT

    In the West Indies our TV-lessness existed into the 90s. If a series was played in Australia or England we'd get nightly highlights in the late eighties, before that maybe highlights from the BBC on the weekends. Even the TV age you could often only get it if you had a satellite dish to pirate the Sky signal being sent back to England. As a result you often didn't know what your heroes looked like: the dart-like ball from Mikey Holding's silky approach, the sheer altitude of Joel Garner's release and the heaviness of his deliveries, the barely controlled fury of Malcolm Marshall. Worse yet you never knew what you opponents looked like: those fearsome subcontental leggies that took scads of wickets in the middle of the night (we had few leggies in the West Indies so you barely even knew what legspin looked like!).

    Those of us who live in cricket backwaters like the USA still have to depend on hard to find audio (after all we can't watch at work!).

  • Pramod on February 7, 2014, 11:24 GMT

    I think its just nostalgia speaking than anything else , sort of "my days were better" tone. Lets just say , if radio commentary was better than viewing on tv , radio would never have died out. the television gives you a first hand account rather than the view of someone else. I prefer to see the story with my own eyes. Am not talking about the commentary on televsion which could be boring like some radio commentators in the old days. There are some really good commentators in the televison era as well. I dont agree with the author at all the cricket has been left poorer, the author eyes have been clouded by nostalgia and his judjement to its whim. Cricket has been hugely benefited by television ... can you imagine speaking and waning about warne's magic without ever actually seeing it with your own eyes? The magic is more practical and more beautiful when you actually see and experience it.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2014, 10:40 GMT

    Beautifully written article on Radio Commentary. Has taken me back to my school/college days. The one commentator I vividly remember is Alan McGilvray who was acclaimed as the Voice of Australia. The manner in which he described the closing moments of the 4th test at Sydney in 1977-78 Australia-India Test Series still lingers in my memory. I am quoting from my memory his description of Peter Toohey's dismissal:

    "Ghavri comes in and bowls to Toohey. Short of length. Toohey pulls and pulls it well. Madan Lal runs around from fine leg to make a catch of it and my goodness he has taken it. What a magnificient catch. He had to run about 20 meters, dive full length and come up with the catch inches off the ground. Sensational catch."

    This brought the entire scenerio in front of the eyes as if witnessing the match from inside the stadium. Of the Indian Commentators VM Chakrapani, Pearson Surita and Sydney Freskin are worth mention as excellent.

  • Arvind on February 7, 2014, 8:39 GMT

    Then the radio commentators carried over their commentating style to television commentary, reaching new heights of mediocrity describing mundane events such as a player tying his shoelaces, or rubbing sweat with a towel. They simply failed to come to terms with the shocking idea that the audience could now see the game with their own eyes!

  • Subramani on February 7, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    There used to be AFS Talyarkhan,Berry Sarbadhikary,Pearson Surita, V N Chakrapani, from India and then Omar Qureshi and Jamshed Marker and later Chisti Mujahid from Pakistan who were very very good as well. Radio Commentary was truly exciting because it was uninterrupted by commercials which seem endless these days. What is more is that all these people had good voices and an excellent knowledge of the game. I remember Devraj Puri, the father of Dr Narrotam Puri because he expressed that some from India was not out but had been given out,there were riots in the Bombay Test of 1969/70 against Australia ! John Arlott of course was matchless in his command of English, understatement and stiff-lipped humour unlike Brian Johnston who was of course more bubbly. Christopher Martin Jenkins Dom Mosey,Henry Blofeld even though more recent were also excellent. They all had a distinct flavour and identity. I cannot remember any of their jokes falling flat. Beautiful listening to them all.

  • Rupesh on February 6, 2014, 19:10 GMT

    Ravi Chaturvedi, Narottam Puri, Anant Setalvad! These names bring back some memories. The funny things is how TV commentators in India are still influenced by the radio commentary. They still feel that they need to talk constantly, because they are the commentator. "Zaheer bowls, it is on the off stump and Smith pushes it towards the cover and they are taking a single". Hey, you are on TV, you don't have to say everything, we can see it.

  • Rajib on February 6, 2014, 17:30 GMT

    Great article. Reminded me of the days when I was up late in the night to listen to Ind v WI commentary and hear about Mohinder Amarnath's exploits and the silky voice of Tony Cozier. You failed to mention one great Hindi commentator who used to infuse so much of energy into his commentary .. Sushil Doshi.

  • ian on February 6, 2014, 8:06 GMT

    The skill of the radio commentator demands the sustained attentiveness of the audience. The man or woman watching on behalf of us has an obligation to describe the unfurling of the game as if we were blind, yet sitting next to him or her in the ground. A commentator needs high-order language skills to do the job well & for the audience it's brilliant for developing listening skills. The are too many people in the world who hear but do not listen. I still listen to the radio with the TV comms muted or the TV switched off. I lose little, I think.