February 28, 2008

Raised on radio

In the West Indies, the relationship you formed with cricket was filtered through one omnipresent medium



Farzana Cooper

Many West Indians learned to love cricket through the radio. Television came late, and the only time people could see their heroes was when they played locally. Even then, not many could attend matches that were not taking place in their territories.

The relationships generations formed with Test cricket were filtered through the commentary of John Arlott and others from across the seas. The eloquence of these commentators, and the imagery they invoked, suited a West Indian culture deeply immersed in its oral traditions. All the great stories of West Indian heroics had been handed down by mouth. Written accounts would come as a literary culture began to flourish, but in the early days the listener had the liberty to configure a hero based on the storyteller's skill.

Thus the radio offered its own magic, transmitting tales of brave deeds done in lands far away. How could it not enthral? The former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop's first memory of cricket was of lying on the living room floor at night with his brother, diligently copying down the scores made by a Test debutant far away in India. The batsman was Viv Richards. The Bishop boys were building their archive of inspiration with a small radio glued to their ears.

You'd have had to love cricket, though, to take the tinny transistor sound. It used to drive Curtly Ambrose crazy, the way his mother would be listening till all hours of the early morning. He wasn't interested in the game, and she was obsessed. She dreamed her big dreams for her sons, and when Aldensa, the elder Ambrose, migrated and dropped cricket, she set her sights on Curtly. And that was that.

Today a plethora of technological devices have stripped cricket of artifice and mystery. Replays: real time or ultra slow motion; angles: up, down, sideways, or inside the stumps. What can you hide? You can measure a bowler's action to the nth degree, calculate a batsman's weakness based on the number of times he's got out to a ball landing in precisely this spot at exactly this speed.

What's missing from this surround-sound, big-screen picture? Imagination. You can't construct your hero with some material of your own choice. Television presents a complete image. More importantly, all those waves of technology have not penetrated too deeply into the islands - and although I say islands, I include Guyana. For those who travel and visit the West Indies there is the tendency to measure the territories in terms of the direct experiences of hotels, cabs, and nightspots. Yes, people party here, but they make their livings too. A hotel with modern facilities is designed for a tourist; it does not express the real way of life.

 
 
The radio offered its own magic, transmitting tales of brave deeds done in lands far away. How could it not enthral? The former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop's first memory of cricket was of lying on the living room floor at night with his brother, diligently copying down the scores made by a Test debutant far away in India. The batsman was Viv Richards
 

Some of the economies, like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica, can support households with access to televisions, computers, internet and so on. But although televisions have grown more commonplace, radios still find a home everywhere. In the most rural of spots it is possible to hear the sound of Bob Marley bursting out of some tinny transistor. In truth, without trying to romanticise poverty, there is something about hearing Marley on a transistor coming from a shack in the heart of the bush that makes you feel the power of his music. It gives it a context of authenticity.

I suspect there is something of this in the pull of radio despite the advanced state of technology. A culture that evolved from listening to the day's play on the radio has linked it to authenticity. The commentator had to be trusted because he was the voice of the griot.

This trust remains because it is part of a pact made between listener and broadcaster. The early voices of Trinidad and Tobago's radio commentators were men of stature and knowledge, like Raffi Knowles, and the former cricketers Learie Constantine and Gerry Gomez. They followed that line of excitement and eloquence imbibed from Arlott.

Paget deFreitas, a veteran journalist who grew up adoring Richards in Antigua, tells of how he followed Richards's maiden hundred at Delhi in 1974: "Berry Sarbadhikary, the Indian commentator, screamed excitedly - 'That's a big hit. The ball is going 20, no 30, no 40 metres over the stands.' It filled me with pride, confirming that the world was recognising my hero."

That was the same voice Ian Bishop was hearing, and that is how deep a good commentator can go. The Caribbean has produced one of the finest commentators in Tony Cozier, and other notable voices like Michael Holding, Ian Bishop, and Fazeer Mohammed. Each brings a different style but maintains respect by knowing the game intimately and bringing that knowledge to their commentary.

The listener can take this information and do with it whatever his mind pleases, filling in whatever he finds missing. If you want to understand the root of rum-shop talk, and why there are so many experts on every corner, look around. Bet there's a radio nearby.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad. This article was first published in the print edition of Cricinfo Magazine in 2006

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