The frantic legs beneath the water
It is almost inevitable that radio producers go relatively unnoticed. They are like wicketkeepers: their silkiness remains anonymous, their howlers grab attention. Peter Baxter, who retired from BBC's Test Match Special in 2007, was one such unseen smooth operator. His autobiography, Inside the Box, is a revealing and intriguing account of a man at the top of his game.
With so many strong characters Baxter, or "Bartex" as he is endearingly known as by colleagues, owing to an amusing misspelling made by an Indian engineer, often came across as a studious time-keeper at the back of the box. While Messrs Martin-Jenkins (a terrible time-keeper), Agnew (Baxter's mischievous underling and great friend), Blofeld (who came across as quite a loose cannon) and the two legendary figures of Johnston and Arlott were fronting the programme, Baxter acted as the frantic legs beneath the water, desperately ensuring communication with London and that everything was in order. Occasionally listeners were aware of his tribulations in readying the show, via a commentator's on-air jibe that Baxter couldn't find CMJ, but for the most part Baxter was the silent engine behind a national institution.
That isn't to suggest the programme runs without fault or alarm, and some of the many tales he tells make you realise just how much work goes into such a programme before "Soul Limbo" cracks into life. Coping with unbearable heat in Pakistan, managing Blofeld's "Oh my dear old things", attempting to communicate with London via foreign engineers who wanted instead to do his laundry, Baxter reels them off. There's natural dry wit, no stodginess, and the book races along, comfortably flitting back and forth in history.
The character of the commentators and experts is the essence of Test Match Special's success, what makes it so timeless. Baxter's own relationship with such contrasting individuals makes for fascinating reading. He also sounds a warning to the programme's future. It is clear to most listeners (and readers of this book will have it further confirmed) how family-like TMS is, and the likes of CMJ, Agnew and Blofeld came to the job from widely differing backgrounds. "The big problem in determining the heirs of the pillars of Test Match Special commentary has been the paucity of quality training slopes. BBC managers' preference seems to be to look no further than their own offices... but TMS should be special and cast its net wider."
It is a cautionary note, and one a nation hopes is heeded. In the meantime Inside the Box is a generously witty account from a humble legend of cricket broadcasting.
Inside the Box
by Peter Baxter
Quiller Publishing Ltd, hb, 220pp, £18.99
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo