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Test Match Special fights to extend its innings

June 2, 1997

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Test Match Special, one of the venerable institutions of British broadcasting, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week with its future under a cloud.

Despite continuing to captivate an audience of two million and being one of the longest-running radio programmes, along with The Archers and Woman`s Hour, its existence is threatened. Earlier this year James Boyle, the new controller of Radio 4, said he would keep a stern ear on TMS because "it makes significant numbers of Radio 4 listeners unhappy".

Significantly, Mr Boyle will be one of the programme`s chief guests at Edgbaston on Thursday, along with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, the former Australian fast bowlers, when TMS celebrates its birth- day as England start their campaign to wrest the Ashes from Australia.

Its commentators, renowned for their sharp wit, nicknames and practical jokes, have promised to be on their best behaviour, according to the programme`s chief producer, Peter Baxter, or "Backers" as he is affectionately known by TMS listeners.

"Despite all the noises, we have received some encouraging sounds from Radio 4," Mr Baxter said. "But there will always be a shadow over TMS until digital audio broadcasting (DAB) is introduced which will free-up the number of national radio channels in this country."

The future of the somewhat eccentric programme that nurtured the radio careers of John Arlott and Brian "Johnners" Johnston was thrown into doubt three years ago after it lost its traditional spot on Radio 3 medium wave when the wavelength was allocated to a commercial station. Since then, it has forged an uneasy alliance with Radio 4 on long wave, the frequency thousands of listeners, including the Prince of Wales, fought to keep. Many resent cricket swamping the schedules for days and write anguished letters of complaint to Mr Boyle.

Mr Baxter said: "I would imagine this argument will run and run. But we have such a vast army of regular listeners and they would never countenance TMS going off the air."

It was at the end of May 1957 that Rex Alston launched the first of many thousands of TMS commentaries from the soundproofed, and often cramped, radio boxes of the world`s cricket grounds. Appropriately, the first TMS was broadcast from Edgbaston during an England- West Indies Test. With its slogan "Don`t miss a ball - we broadcast them all", TMS managed to keep its promise until the move to Radio 4 when the ball-by-ball commentary had to stop twice a day for the shipping forecast.

It will celebrate its birthday with its regular commentators, including Jonathan Agnew, Henry Blofeld, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Trevor Bailey. Archival material will be broadcast during the intervals.

What is certain is that listeners will bombard the TMS team with birthday cakes for the traditional on-air teas started by Johnston. "Since we moved to Radio 4 we have more women listeners and get sent more cakes. I`m all for it," said Agnew, the former Leicestershire fast bowler.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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