January 26, 2012

A mind-blowing night in Hobart

What's the purpose of cricket commentary? To entertain and enlighten or to exaggerate and aggravate?

Go back far, eight years, and Twenty20 was just beginning, and TV and radio commentators would greet the sight of, say, an airborne pull shot, or a legspinner's wrong'un, with the surprise that might otherwise accompany the discovery that the large-headed musk ox of arctic America reads poems. Should a bowler or batsman blunder, it sounded like triumph. If seats appeared empty, local traffic conditions were a nightmare. This hype-must-go-on commentary style was a feature for several seasons. Then it got less noticeable. But vigilance is needed. Last Sunday evening, the Hurricanes hosted the Sixers in a semi-final at Hobart's Bellerive Oval and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation sent along four radio commentators.

The first six balls, bowled by Hurricanes spinner Xavier Doherty, brought no runs and one wicket.

"Doesn't get any better than that, does it?" said Commentator 2. Three wickets in three balls has happened 39 times in Test cricket; four wickets in five balls on three occasions. Maurice Allom, a 6ft 5in jazz saxophonist from Surrey, accomplished the latter on his first Test match morning. When Chris Old did it, in 1978, he said: "I was just plugging away trying to keep the runs down."

"Doherty again - well flighted," said Commentator 1 in the third over. The ball's flight path resembled a vulture-after-a-carcass' flight path.

"Good bumper," said Commentator 2 in the sixth over. This one jumped up to Steve O'Keefe's bellybutton-level. Yanking it over square leg for a single, O'Keefe moved to 20, sprinkled with four boundaries, one of which he'd inside-edged and another he'd outside-edged.

"Sure, he's ridden his luck… But you do need a bit of luck," said Commentator 3.

"Every run that the Hurricanes can stop is gold," said Commentator 4.

Gold was the colour of Brendon McCullum's helmet when he hit 158 off 73 balls in the inaugural Indian Premier League match. The original IPL winners' trophy showed a gold batsman in front of a gold map of India and was built by a team of 14 craftsmen. Best IPL player is crowned Golden Player of the Tournament. Gold miniskirts used to cover the bottoms of Kolkata Knight Riders cheerleaders. Then they wore shorts with gold tassels, complemented by dull-gold shoes.

In the ninth over O'Keefe stole himself some wriggle room and slog-swatted spinner Jason Krejza to cow corner. "That shot there," said Commentator 4, "was a genuine cricket shot. The most perfect shot. Over midwicket."

Next ball, O'Keefe reverse-swept and top-edged. Out for 30.

The Sixers were 2 for 59. Sluggish - but not without a chance of making Saturday's final against the Scorchers at the Scorchers' home ground. "What do they call it? The Furnace. Not the WACA Ground. The Furnace."

Deep point Rana Naved-ul-Hasan intercepted a slow-trickling ball. "Ho. Look at that for desperation," said Commentator 3.

"How unusual," said Commentator 4. "We haven't seen a six hit." This was in the 11th over. "There will be. But very unusual."

In the early days of Twenty20 - and occasionally now, still - a six-hit was referred to by commentators as a "maximum".

Once, in an Adelaide Test, Michael Clarke chipped wide of silly mid-on, ran three, Kevin Pietersen's throw was wild and went for four overthrows, and so Clarke scored seven.

"First six of the night," Commentator 3 announced. "A decisive blow from Steve Smith. Off one knee." Smith clobber-swept it, his legs like swaying poplars, knees a half-trunk above ground.

In a couple of blinks, Smith and Nic Maddinson had put on 31. "Really impressive partnership from the two young New South Welshmen," said Commentator 1.

An over later - 41. "Very, very impressive batting," agreed Commentator 3.

The words were barely out in the air when Smith tried a tiptoeing-on-the-spot cross-heave that, alas, caught the inside edge and bowled him. "Good bowling. Great bowling," said Commentator 4. It was Ben Laughlin's first wicket.

Soon he had another, Maddinson for a 51-ball 68, caught. "Dirty full toss," said Commentator 2. "Got him high on the bat. Pretty good bowling, Benny Laughlin. He's pretty cunning, Benny Laughlin."

Peter Nevill marched out to bat, purposeful-like.

"Ramp shot," said Commentator 1. "If you talk about the legacy of Twenty20 cricket, there's one."

The ramp shot was popularised by Zimbabwe's Doug Marillier, then Western Australia's Ryan Campbell, two years before the first professional Twenty20 matches in England. Written accounts suggest little discernible difference, other than semantics, between the modern ramp shot and the old-time scoop shot favoured by an Australian undertaker and wicketkeeper, Hanson "Sammy" Carter, in the early 1900s. Pointing the toe of his bat - or ramp, or scoop - at the umpire, Sammy would proceed to flick the ball over his left shoulder.

The Sixers finished on 6 for 153.

The four commentators reckoned 180 was par.

Recapping on the spectacle, Commentator 3 said: "A wicket maiden first up for Doherty. You wouldn't dream of a better start. Although there was a double-wicket maiden in last night's game for Ben Edmondson."

Smith tried a tiptoeing-on-the-spot cross-heave that, alas, caught the inside edge and bowled him. "Good bowling. Great bowling," said Commentator 4. It was Ben Laughlin's first wicket. Soon he had another. "Dirty full toss," said Commentator 2. "Got him high on the bat. Pretty good bowling, Benny Laughlin. He's pretty cunning, Benny Laughlin."

THE ABC's FIRST BALL-BY-BALL radio coverage of a cricket game was Australia versus The Rest in December 1925. Up to 30 hours of cricket commentary a week have aired on the ABC in the 86 summers since. Cricket on the ABC was responsible for many Australians buying radios. Radio was responsible for turning many other Australians on to cricket. Some ABC commentators - Arthur Gilligan, Vic Richardson, Alan McGilvray, Michael Charlton, Johnnie Moyes, Lindsay Hassett, Tim Lane, Jim Maxwell - transcended household-name status. They have been loved. McGilvray, the most influential, treasured the importance of "the pause". McGilvray imagined as he spoke that he was drawing word pictures for a blind man in a chair at home.

Pink fireworks in the softening yellow light of a gorgeous summer's day in Hobart signalled the approach to the wicket of the Hurricanes' opening batsmen.

Commentator 4: "Wow. That's nice."

Commentator 3: "What a show."

Commentator 4: "It's a festival atmosphere. Just outstanding."

Three overs gone. One for 17. An uncertain start. A tennis update from Melbourne - an Australian in a headband, name of Tomic, who some fellow Australians think will experience tennis' highest highs.

"Roger Federer's won - 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 - so a good experience there for Bernard Tomic."

Phil Jaques' drive wobbled down the pitch. "Jaques. Crunching it," said Commentator 1.

Not long after, a lone figure, the bowler, lifted two arms then lowered them. "Struck on the pad - big shout."

"Of course," said Commentator 1, "so much is at stake. A spot in the final. A spot in the Champions League. A chance to line the pockets."

A far-flung field; a half-tracker outside off from the spinner O'Keefe; a backing away by batsman Travis Birt and a shovel-slog to long-off. A single.

"Good shot," said Commentator 2.

"It was a good shot," said Commentator 1.

After eight overs the Hurricanes were 1 for 47. The Sixers at the same juncture had been 1 for 49. Plenty hung on Birt. Nineteen Birt sixes in seven outings before tonight included two landing on roofs and three fizzing into out-of-the-park orbit. Another broke a window.

Stuart MacGill, the greying legspinner, came trotting, arms flapping. The ball, instead of turning in to Birt, who is left-handed, whirred gently away. Birt was stumped. This website's ball-by-ball correspondent recorded it thus: "Fuller ball outside the off stump. Birt looks to drive it and misses. Nevill does the rest as Birt's momentum carries him forward."

Commentator 2 said: "That is amazing bowling. That is a wrong'un. That is amazing stuff. For a 40-year-old ..."

Commentator 1 said: "I don't know if you'll see a finer wrong'un. Birt coming down the pitch. It gripped and spun."

Three overs after that, Commentator 2 was saying: "I'm still in awe of the wrong'un that dismissed Birt. That's just phenomenal stuff."

An over later, Commentator 1 concurred. "It's been a masterclass, hasn't it?" The scoreboard lit up MacGill's figures at that moment: 2.4-0-18-1.

Birt's dismissal hurt hometown Hurricane prospects. "A hush," said Commentator 1, "has fallen over this stadium."

Loud pop music, coming out of the loudspeakers, could be heard beneath Commentator 1's voice.

Bellerive Oval, or "Stadium", has water views, a big grassy hill, a grandstand that seats 6000, and a bunch of smaller stands. Bellerive is the Moomairemener people's word for "beautiful riverbank".

"Stuart MacGill's wrong'un," said Commentator 2. "It was mind-blowing."

A run flurry was needed. To prevent it, the Sixers called up their fastest bowler, Brett Lee. First ball: no run.

"Dot ball," said Commentator 3. "Because when there's no run scored, you put a little dot in the scorebook. Not everybody knows that."

Midway through the over, the 16th, Lee's nose was bleeding. "Well, you can't accuse this Twenty20 format of lacking incident," said Commentator 3.

Fifth ball of the over, a full delivery, Jaques shuffled backwards and slapped it - "That's a fine shot" - through where mid-on would normally be. Jaques was 59. "A heroic knock here." Next over, reverse-sweeping and missing, he was bowled.

"The crowd," said Commentator 3, "starts to file out of Bellerive."

"That's a bad sign, isn't it?" said Commentator 4.

"Yeah," said Commentator 3, "it is a bad sign. Although they also know the local traffic conditions."

The Hurricanes fell seven runs short.

The ABC is a government-funded entity with no known commercial stake in whether the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash fails or succeeds.

The ABC's code of practice - section four, sub-section two - says the ABC has a statutory duty to ensure accuracy. It says: "The ABC should make reasonable efforts, appropriate in the context, to signal to audiences gradations in accuracy, for example by… qualifying bald assertions, supplementing the partly right and correcting the plainly wrong."

Section four, sub-section five adds: "Fair and honest dealing is essential to maintaining trust with audiences."

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country