Interview: Jonathan Agnew

'You've got to inform, entertain, and educate'

Jonathan Agnew of the BBC's Test Match Special talks to Nagraj Gollapudi

Jonathan Agnew of the BBC's Test Match Special (TMS) was recently voted Britain's second best-loved cricket commentator by readers of The Wisden Cricketer. Nagraj Gollapudi met him in London.

Jonathan Agnew: "Television people ask me how I do radio, because you've got to talk all the time" © Nagraj Gollapudi

What makes a good commentator?
Jonathan Agnew
My perception of what it takes is: you've got to inform, entertain, possibly educate - in terms of attracting people to cricket - in that order. Basically you tell people what's going on, hopefully do it in an interesting way, possibly with bit of a smile or two around the way, and just pass the word along about what a great game it is that we are watching, and try and get people to come along.

A lot of our [TMS] audience are listening in the crowd [at the game] and I do think it is good to explain to some people exactly what is happening so as to help them learn the game by listening and watching at the same time.

How important is having powers of description?
What you have to avoid is saying the same thing in the same way - that's a very easy trap to fall into and you don't know you are doing it. And it takes someone brave enough to come to you and say, "Do you know you're saying, 'Hitting through the covers like a tracer bullet' three times an over?" And you reply, "No."

You've got to learn to adapt what you are saying, and you can only do that by listening back to your stuff, and I do listen back sometimes, or by trying to drop the pet word which sometimes stays with you.

What is the essential difference between commentating for TV and for radio?
I do both, so I have an idea. On TV you are more analytical, you are studying replays, you are explaining again, you are educating people. You've got to have a better knowledge of cricket to be a television commentator. I think the days are gone of people commentating who don't know what they are talking about. People do grumble about commentary boxes being full of former players, but if you are presented with the sort of slow-motion replays you get these days, you've got to know what you are talking about.

The TV commentators' job is generally a lot straighter: they have got the pictures. There is less demand for them to try and be humorous. Of course, their job is difficult because you can't say the obvious, whereas on radio I find it much easier. But then television people ask me how I do radio, because you've got to talk all the time.

Basically you know what you are best at, and very few people are really successful at doing radio and television. It's a hard call: you are usually better at one than the other.

How significant are style and tone to a commentator?
You've got to have a voice that people like, or at least a voice that doesn't make people switch off. If you grate too much, if you shout too much, if you get on a high pitch sometimes, that is all close to being a turnoff and people don't want to listen to it.

As for style, I prefer a style that is a fairly gentle flow and only rises when its really worth going high about, because people are usually listening while doing relaxed things like gardening, or they are driving the car, or pottering round the house, working online, so they don't want to have someone yelling at them all time. It should be a nice, comfortable listen that just flows over you. You raise it a bit when something exciting happens; that way the listener knows even if he is only half-listening.

It should be a nice comfortable listen that just flows over you. You raise it a bit when something exciting happens; that way the listener knows even if he is only half-listening

Is there a danger of coming across as biased?
You can, but you try ever so hard not to be. There is only one match in my life which I wanted England not to lose - at The Oval during the 2005 Ashes - I wanted them to win the Ashes because that would be so good for English cricket, but otherwise I have always done my job.

Cricket to me is turning out, doing my job. Who wins out there doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter to my job, and that's all that matters to me - doing my job well.

Barry Davies, the famous BBC football commentator, said that timing is the mark of a great commentator. Do you agree?
He was absolutely right. Absolutely right. Particularly for a television commentator - they can leave in pauses as they are not talking all the time. On television you can make a deliberate decision of when to talk and when not to talk, and Richie [Benaud] was master of that.

What I don't like hearing is TV commentators gabbling all the time. There is no need for them to do it. Shut up! Speak when you've got something to say and when the time's right.

On radio you can actually sometimes speak really slowly at moments of high drama, which I find works quite well.

What are the hallmarks of a good commentator then?
A good commentator is someone who obviously people like listening to, who gets the blend between description, entertainment and accuracy of conveying the event right. If you can do that in an interesting way, you are a good commentator.

If someone comes to me and says, "I've been listening to the radio for the last ten years, never been to a cricket match before, but your explaining sounds so exciting and wonderful and that's why I'm here today," that would be the best compliment you can ever be paid because that's you doing your job.

How important is it to develop an intimacy with the listener?
First and foremost, if they trust you then you are off to a good start. I just like listeners. I'll deliberately tease them a little bit, take the mickey out of them and the mickey out of myself. If you ever come across as being a pompous so-and-so then again they'll just switch you off.

You do develop a relationship with the listeners after years; you can't do it straightaway. As long as they know how enthusiastic I'm about the game, that I love the game, and know that I can be good company and have a good laugh, then that's all I'm concerned about.

With ex-players increasingly commentating on TV and radio, has the style become more conversational now, with the commentator reacting to the expert?
That's the danger, something that I'm against quite strongly in our box, because the commentator has to set the pace and he should be in charge. There is a tendency these days for a summariser to speak too much in my view. Whether it's a modern style, I'm not so sure. I'll instigate a conversation if the cricket's boring or we are taking the mickey out of somebody, but generally I prefer, if most of the over is yours, then you describe it and then the summariser talks. But styles have changed over the years and I find summarisers tend to talk more, especially if they aren't sure about the commentator's knowledge.

Steve Waugh's century against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2003: "When he hit that last ball for four ... every hair stood up on my head" © Getty Images

Is there occasionally the danger that commentators begin to talk among themselves rather than to the listener?
What I do is talk to myself without picturing anybody near me. I will always pay heed to an email from a blind listener, because if they say, "Look, do me a favour and do this more often or try and do that," I will do it. That's because they are the people, more than anybody else, who you are trying to help.

With ex-players increasingly making it into the commentary box, is the role of the professional journalist-commentator diminishing?
The problem for a professional journalist is more in the press box than in the commentary box because the fact is, these days players everywhere are more educated than ever, there are more media outlets than ever, and so there are more opportunities for ex-players to come in. That's a rambling answer to a very good question, but the answer is: yes, unfortunately.

It seems to be more of a situation developing where the cricketer is the main writer who writes his view of the match and the journalist goes scurrying around after the quotes or any other follow-up story there might be. I guess that works quite well as far as the newspaper is concerned; as long as the player is a good writer, you are getting the best of both worlds. I would hate the role of the special journalist to diminish.

Ian Chappell has said that he believes the best training for broadcasting is actually playing the game, because as a player you are always concentrating.
Could be. I'd hate to argue with Ian Chappell and he'll hit me if I disagree. I don't know about the concentrating bit. If you fail to concentrate when the little red light is on in front of you and you are broadcasting, then you are really in trouble and you shouldn't be doing the job.

I wouldn't concentrate all day. I would deliberately go off somewhere, have a cup of coffee, talk to people. As long as you're on the ball when you go on the air and you've been watching what's been going on and know what the other commentators have been speaking about, lest you repeat the same views - there is nothing more unprofessional than that - then you are fine.

How difficult is the challenge of commentating on an evolving format like Twenty20?
Twenty20 commentating is exhausting. Its quite fun, but you've just got to do it differently. You just go there and adapt.

In many ways it is very easy. No way would I elevate a radio commentator I've heard commentating on Twenty20 and put him on for a Test match; it is a completely different thing. Anyone can stand there and say, "Oh, he smashed it for a four." It can become a bit banal. The Twenty20 is itself a banal game, a crude game, but it works, so I hope Twenty20 commentary works.

As far as adapting, my job generally has changed hugely since Brian [Johnston] and Christopher Martin-Jenkins did it. There are scores of different outlets and demands 24 hours a day, so that aspect of my job has changed because I'm always on call. But we should move with the game, and you are right, it is becoming a louder, slightly brasher game in which the audience is now expecting things to happen more than it did 30 years ago, and it's good fun.

We don't cover too many draws in Test cricket and its great: it means the cricket is more interesting, more exciting. People are not expecting a slow, turgid commentary involving just what's happening out there - you've to throw it around and try and bring in all sorts of bits. And the audience likes that; they join in, and an interactive audience is fun and that's how it has changed. It's like a safety net you can use if there is nothing much going on - resort to a few emails people send in and off we go. That interactivity is probably where commentary, and TMS, has changed most.

What I don't like hearing is TV commentators gabbling all the time. There is no need for them to do it. Shut up! Speak when you've got something to say and when the time's right

Are there ever moments when the passion of the game overcomes your ability to commentate?
No. Honestly no.

My most enjoyable moment of commentary, in terms of building up a moment into an absolutely astonishing scene was Steve Waugh scoring a hundred on the last ball before the close of play against England on the last tour but one [2002-03]. I was on with 20 minutes to go, with Kerry O'Keeffe, and we had not thought of him scoring the hundred. And there was the last ball and it was fever pitch at the SCG. There were all the stories about him, whether he was finished, but when he hit that last ball for four it was a massive moment, every hair stood up on my head. That's the most frenzied moment ever and it was awesome.

You were forced to report from the outskirts of a cricket ground once in the past [at Galle in 2001] owing to a dispute over broadcast rights. With the increasing say of sponsors in broadcasting, do you fear for the independence of the media? JA Yes. Without television, cricket would be a poorer place;the two have to coexist. But television has its own rules and the exclusivity on television is one thing, news reporting is another and that was what Galle was all about.

I was acting as BBC correspondent. We didn't have rights to broadcast commentary, but I was just feeding scores, and bang, they threw me out of the ground for doing that. They were demanding money for us to be there. So where is that going to stop? Will they stop the photographers, the newspapers, agencies, websites, if we are all going to pay to be news reporters, cricket will die. That was the only stance I was making: you cannot walk news reporters out of the ground. It is in everybody's interests, including the administrators, that cricket is heard, seen, watched and read by as many people as possible in the world.

Nagraj Gollapudi is assistant editor of Cricinfo Magazine