The fine art of Bumbling
Peter West was one of the BBC's foremost old-school radio and TV commentators, a genteel, no-frills, all-purpose microphonist who coped as smoothly and serenely with ballroom dancing and state occasions as he did with rucks and sweeps. Cricket, one always sensed, was his greatest passion. In the summer of 1998 I asked him whether, given the pace of technological change during a career that had spanned England's retrieval of the Ashes in 1953 and Headingley '81, he felt that the art of commentary had changed. The answer was instant, and firm. "No."
Happily, he elaborated. "The basic essentials still haven't changed. I think it's much more difficult to commentate on television than radio. Radio is your own thing: you're the eyes and ears of the listener, so it suits you if you like to be the chap who's telling the whole story. It's more satisfying, whereas on TV you're part of a great big machine really - cameramen, lighting crew, sound crew and God knows what else. You've also got the eternal problem of how much to say, because whatever you decide to do you're not going to please everybody."
He recalled the head of Outside Broadcasts issuing "an absolutely timeless" edict while West was on his first job at the BBC. "The art of TV commentary is to know when to say nothing. It's true, isn't it? I think we've all talked too much over the years - and I suppose this is a mild criticism of Sky, whose coverage is so good. Because they've got the commercials coming in between overs, they tend to talk too much. They know they're not going to get a chance otherwise."
For as long as I have been watching televised cricket - summer No. 45 is fast-approaching - one man has been universally acknowledged as the master of saying nothing, the Bradman of the booth, the Murali of the mike: Richie Benaud. It has often been said of Eric Clapton that what separated him from other guitarists were the spaces between the notes; much the same can be said of Richie.
Where the vast rump of television commentators chatter interminably, petrified of silence, he embraces the well-chosen pause. He also knows how to weigh what he does say, and when to say it. One never has the sense, even in his dotage, that he is searching for something to say. He knows his job. He knows he is there to supply the essential punctuation - the commas, full-stops and exclamation marks. He is there to guide and encapsulate, to be, not our eyes and ears, but our nose. He is there to sniff the air and scent the mood, smell the sun and the wind, the rain and the crowd, to inhale the day. As he has aged, however, he has been increasingly reluctant to criticise. Having begun his broadcasting career as an Australian interloper in Pomland, this may be traced to an understandable fear of giving offence.
The problem, as Sriram Dayanand recently noted with some eloquence on this site, lies with those who fear giving offence for other reasons - whether to organisers, national boards, individual players or sponsors. It is they who have generated the excruciating, nauseating blandness that blights so much television coverage.
The desire to be fair should always be applauded, but the casualty has been the independence, honesty and frankness for which newspapers - and radio stations to a lesser extent - are rightly celebrated. Worse, the cheerleaders are taking over. Not so much arch-patriots such as Ian Healy, who check their critical faculties in at the door to the commentary booth and serve as non-stop, flag-waving boosters, but those whose entire raison d'etre is to promote the event, warts and all.
Coverage of both ICC-sanctioned tournaments and the IPL is, with an exceedingly few precious exceptions, anodyne in the extreme. In order to land such a gig, commentators do not merely require a famous name but a degree in hyperbole, an MA in clichés and a PhD in the Blindingly Obvious (mind you, when it comes to overkill, even the commentators lag behind Shane Warne's touting of Yusuf Pathan's 37-ball ton for Rajasthan against Mumbai as the greatest innings he's ever seen, relegating, merely to name the most obvious, Brian Lara's Bridgetown masterpiece in 1999). A boundary is almost invariably the consequence of a "great" or "fantastic" shot. Here burns the bonfire of the banalities and inanities. While one sympathises with those to whom commentating is solely a way of earning a crust rather than a means of self-expression, there is a happy medium.
All the more reason, then, to hail those who resist the safe option. In one corner stand (or should that be bellow?) the expressionists, the likes of Tony Greig, Bill Lawry and Mark Nicholas, men unafraid of their inner boy, unafraid of sounding daft. They may be salesmen, but at least what they're flogging is worthier of our attention and consumption than aluminium siding or dead horses. We need them, need their unbridled enthusiasm. But commentary is about teamwork; their excesses must be balanced by subtlety, by those less eager to turn a hiatus into a crisis, less compelled to sell so hard.
At the risk of being accused of parochialism, I can't help but suspect that Sky Sports subscribers are blessed. The lack of a professional broadcaster may trouble some. For all his unflinching insistence on calling a spade a shovel, Ian Botham's reluctance to admit he is ever remotely in the vicinity of wrong can grate; Bob Willis' manly efforts to sound less sour often border on the saccharine. In Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, however, the team boast two of the most fearless and erudite commentators ever paid to dispense on-air wisdom. Their frankness aggravates current players, who accuse them of disloyalty. That they delight in niggling each other, and indulge in prickly but good-humoured games of one-upmanship, only adds to the frisson.
As does their willingness to say the unsayable. While commentating on the 2007 Trent Bridge Test, both scoffed at those who bang on ad nauseam about over rates. If this was primarily to justify their own captaincy tactics, at least they did not follow the lead of so many others by ridiculing what they once promoted. Hussain explained India's sluggishness by listing all the causes of delay, from the need to sawdust the run-ups and footholds to the remarkably greater incidence of left-hand batsmen in the modern game (up from 17% in the 1950s to 30%) and the consequent impact on field adjustments. Atherton simply declaimed that Test cricket was more exciting than it had ever been, so why complain about something so petty?
Two other members of the Sky team stand out, for differing reasons. Michael Holding's mode of delivery has much in common with his modus operandi afield - smooth, superbly co-ordinated, cooler than a frozen cucumber and seemingly effortless. But whereas pace was his sharpest weapon as a bowler, his gift to commentary is his stately minimalism. Richie has plainly been an influence.
And then there's David "Bumble" Lloyd, the swingingest sixty-something in town. For all that twittering and tweeting, he remains the epitome of modesty (hell, he doesn't even have a middle name). Here, after all, is a pundit with few claims to flannelled fame. Sure, his CV includes a double-ton against India and a three-year stint as England coach, but he is considerably better known for mastering the not inconsiderable art of looking foolish without losing face.
In his only Ashes series he was cruelly crusted by Jeff Thomson - one of the few scenes from that x-rated 1974-75 Ashes tour we Poms have ever been permitted to see was Bumble bent double, paralysed by pain. He was also the author of that forgivable if profoundly ill-advised "We flippin' murdered 'em" speech amid the emotional aftermath of England's unprecedented scores-level draw against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo in 1996. Crucially, and unlike any other member of the commentariat, he has seen the game from a kaleidoscope of professional angles - as player, captain, coach and umpire. Few have known so much whereof they pontificate.
Except that Lloyd is less a pontificator than an entertaining companion. All those years on the after-dinner circuit have paid dividends. Here is a chap accustomed to holding an audience in the palm of his hands. Self-deprecation comes easy; drawing laughter is second nature. Like journalists, broadcasters have a dual duty: to inform and entertain. Unlike most broadcasters, Lloyd never forgets the second half of that equation. In this respect he has only one peer, the arch-iconoclast Jeremy Coney, whose wit, verbosity and innovative aphorisms keep him just the right side of cosmic buffoonery.
Sure, Lloyd makes mistakes, commits errors of judgement and lets his enthusiasm get the better of him. It's a bloody difficult job. But while his own struggles as a player deprive him of the automatic credibility commanded by colleagues, they make empathy easier, more believable. Helpfully, that Lancastrian accent, chockful of warmth and homely humour, is a significantly greater advantage than a snobby Home Counties tone or an arrogant Yorkshire twang.
What shines through, though, is his ardent love of his subject, his compassion for players and his belief in the game he so eloquently describes, in the soul of cricketers and the spirit of cricket (as opposed to Spirit of Cricket). Nor does he take it all so seriously that he forgets he is paid to interpret a game. Long may he bumble.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton