'I just try to convey my enjoyment of cricket'
A lot of commentary today is noise. Just gratuitous and grating shouting. Yet one of the most loved commentators of all time is a shouter. Like the rest today, Bill Lawry too is a peddler, but he sells enjoyment of the cricket. Talking to him, you understand why his loudness doesn't jar. This interview was after Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke had both scored double-centuries on the second day of the Adelaide Test between Australia and India, and Brad Haddin was trying to get some quick runs to set up a declaration. It wasn't the most gripping spell of cricket, but you couldn't take Lawry's eye off the cricket, even when he was answering questions. Once, during an answer, he went, "There he goes…" He restrained himself, and even though it was all happening out there, he was clean as a whistle until it was all over.
How did you first get into commentary?
I first got into commentary when we were playing state one-day games. There were Richie Benaud, myself and Bobby Simpson, working for Channel 10. Channel 0 [it was called] back then. We did one or two of those, on small grounds. And then, of course, along comes Kerry Packer in 1977-78, and the first commentary team was Richie Benaud, Fred Trueman, Keith Stackpole, and myself.
I was an estate manager for a manufacturing company and had a full-time job. This just came along. Something new. Under lights, coloured clothing. We had a great time.
Keith Stackpole and I had never done television over a long period before, and Frank Tyson joined the team as well. And we had guest commentators over the years come from every country.
Were there any nerves the first time?
Well, there were but it was quite a good feeling to have Richie Benaud there. Richie had been commentating in England since 1960-61, so we had his experience.
It was all new. Everybody was excited. We had cameras at both ends for the first time in the history of the game. We had cameras square of the wicket. We had all these wonderful new things. Exciting time. Very lucky to be there.
And of course we had very good players. Australia had the Chappell brothers and Lillee and Marsh, and all these types of guys. The World XI was Tony Greig, and West Indies with Clive Lloyd, and all their wonderful cricketers. It was just an exciting time. Changing of the guard as far as cricket was concerned. All of a sudden we had an outside promoter promoting the game rather than the cricket boards.
Did you have any reservations against putting your name behind this non-traditional cricket?
I didn't have any reservations, because as former players we were unhappy with the amount of money we were being paid. Once Kerry Packer came along, it became a professional sport. What we see today, 40 years on, what we take for granted, all started with World Series Cricket. He paid the players well, the crowds were big, we went full-time on television.
Were you asked to make it sound more exciting?
No. We had no instructions whatsoever.
Did you expect to make such a long career out of it?
No. It was not a career for me. Until I retired at 65 - I'm 74 now - I did this for fun. I got a pay obviously, but I did it for fun. Just an add-on to my working career. It's just been a wonderful enjoyment. I enjoy the money - because I never got any money when I played - but I have enjoyed more the thrill of watching great players over the last 40 years. The Vivian Richardses, the Lillees, the Chappell brothers, the Bothams. In recent times we have got the Pontings and the Shane Warnes...
You were an intense batsman. As a commentator did you go back home and analyse how you did that day?
I never treated it like that. Our first producer was a guy called David Hill. And he just said, "Be yourself." That's all. I just come along to enjoy the cricket, and hopefully convey to the people at home that I am enjoying the cricket, and it's a great game, and enjoy the skill. We have been here and seen Clarke and Ponting score double-hundreds. I mean, how fortunate are we to be sitting right behind the wicket? There are people at work, and people at the beach - they come home and all of a sudden they find two double-hundreds. Richie and I for the last 30-odd years have seen all this happen. It's wonderful.
You said your first producer told you to be yourself. Our impression of you was of a stodgy opening batsman.
Well, that's right. But I scored the first one-day hundred in Australia. (Laughs) That's a record Ponting or Bradman hasn't got. (Laughs)
It was different, I suppose. We were playing as amateurs. We just went out to enjoy batting. I just enjoyed batting. I think today, obviously, you are getting a lot of money to perform well. We probably had a different attitude. We just played to win the game.
As a commentator were you this excitable always?
Well, I was always excitable when I played. It might not have shown in my batting, but I always appealed the loudest in the field. In fact when I was on my first tour of England, I was fielding at square leg or somewhere, and I come in after the game, and Mr Jack Fingleton [then a journalist] called me aside and said, "Bill it's great to be enthusiastic, but you shouldn't be appealing for lbws at deep midwicket."
How did the phrases come about? "It's all happening." "It's all over at the WACA." "Clean as a whistle."
They just come out. Just pick up the mic. Nothing is pre-planned. I don't sit down and do any homework, apart from studying who the players are.
I have been very lucky. I have seen some wonderful moments. Once [Shahid] Afridi hit two sixes off the first two balls down in Hobart. Those are great moments to be on air. Also, it helps to be on first, which I do a lot of the time. In Test matches you might get two wickets in the first two overs, and you only get three wickets on some other days. You have got to make sure when you get those wickets, that everybody at home - if he is outside in the garden - comes in to see what is going on. You want him to say, "What was that noise?" and go in and see a wicket has fallen.
How much of your commentary is science? How much of it is instinct?
Mine's all instinct. I just try and call it each ball as I see it. I love to get a wicket, I love to get a great catch or a run-out. I just try and be involved without going over the top.
I don't try and analyse it too much. I just try and bring in my experiences as a player. I realise that probably 70% of the people at home are not cricket experts. The people that come here probably understand the game 80%. The people at home don't understand that much. I try and explain it to them. When we first started, David Hill actually had a chart up on the wall with field positions, because when we were saying to somebody who has migrated to Australia, "He has got a man at leg gully", what does leg gully mean to a 14-year-old girl or a young boy who is not brought up in a cricketing family? What is silly point? A traffic stop or something?
A bowler starts to think where he is going to pitch the ball before he starts running in. When you are off air, what do you do?
I watch every ball when I am at the cricket.
Even when you are not on air?
I always watch. I don't bring a computer to the ground. I don't do any other work at all. I just watch the game. That was because David Hill earlier on said that if you are on next, I don't want you to repeat what the guy before said. Most times I sit in there, I watch what's going on, so when I am on, I have got my thoughts, not Richie Benaud's or Tony Greig's. And I love watching the cricket, and I have always loved watching it, and I think you can learn by watching.
Richie Benaud is a man of few words. He is an analyst. He analyses the game. Tony Greig talks about Africa. He cares about Africa. All that sort of stuff. I bring out my feelings about the game. Tony and Ian [Chappell], they have been there since the World Series ended. We have been there 30 years as well. Luckily there have been very few changes. Not only are we working together, we are great mates. You don't have a 30-year career as a cricketer. I said to my wife - when I met her, I was 19 years old and I was playing for Victoria - this will last only five or six years, this cricket.
I have been one of the lucky generation to have gone on from being an amateur to a professional on television but not as a career, as a hobby and a delight.
You were once quoted saying you enjoyed this more than your cricket. How can that be?
That's probably not quite right. Obviously you enjoy the game more as a player. I suppose it was the times. When I first played for Australia I was a tradesman of tools. I'd work till five o'clock, I'd rush to practice, get there at 6 o'clock, and bat for 20 minutes in the dark. I'd love to have been a professional because you can train your skill all day. I often felt for our fast bowlers. They'd work a full day's work and get to practice at, say, 6pm and bowl for two overs and go home and go to work the next day. When we played four-day Shield games, we'd arrive on Thursday night and play on Friday and go to work the day it was over.
Could that have played a role in what kind of batsman you were?
I wasn't a slow scorer, really. I played one or two slow innings, but I think Bobby Simpson and I had a pretty good partnership, and I reckon our strike rate would be the same over our career. Not one or two games, where I might have batted all day for a 90 or something. That was something you do intentionally. You see a situation and say to yourself, "I am going to be here at stumps." That's part of your job. It's all very well to be flamboyant, but if you get beat, that's not a lot of fun.
Do you struggle to stay in your chair?
I jump up and down occasionally.
What do you enjoy the most? A six or a wicket or a run-out? Or a cartwheeling stump?
All types. I guess, reflecting back I would say what really excited me the most was when Hayden and Gilchrist were opening in the 50-over games. Up till then the plan seemed to be, if the openers got through the first 15 overs and you were none for 70, you had a real good start. All of a sudden Hayden and Gilchrist come out and they were 60 after eight overs. What you are trying to get across to people is, it's not easy. It's very skilful. Very few players who can do it. Walk out against the new ball, and go bang bang.
If you ask me the three most exciting cricketers I've seen, one of them I played one Test with was Dennis Lillee. I think I have to say Warne and Gilchrist in my memory were most exciting. Warne, because he is the best legspinner of all time, but Gilchrist is the only wicketkeeper in the history of the game to come in at No. 7 and change the game in an hour. You could be 6 for nothing, and he could come out and change it with a quick hundred. So they remain in my mind.
Some of the great catches... I remember Allan Border catching [Mike] Gatting at the MCG at first slip in a one-dayer. Still in my mind, diving to his left. Glenn McGrath's catch here. Things like that stick in your mind. Of course you remember the dropped catches. Earlier people wouldn't know if a catch was dropped. Now with TV the whole world sees it.
Who is your favourite commentator to work with?
I suppose I'd have to say Richie. Richie was my first Test captain, and he was a very good cricket captain, but he has been an exceptional captain of the Channel 9 team. He has set the standard. He gave us credibility, and his knowledge of the game was fantastic. Blokes like myself were allowed to be a bit vocal because he was the steady influence on the other side of the mic. You could always look up and see Richie was there and feel safe.
Has he ever had to restrain you? "Steady on Bill"
Never. Never ever said that. No. Richie is not like that. If you are going to hang yourself, Richie will let you hang yourself.
Tony Greig and myself are very good friends. Ian Chappell and I played together, and I can honestly say none of us have said a cuss word in 30 years. I don't think there has ever been an argument. That's full credit to the producers and the directors.
The guys who do the best job, who we don't mention, are the cameramen. They stand out in the heat for six hours and rarely miss anything.
Have you ever met Billy Birmingham?
No. Billy Birmingham is very interesting because when he made those tapes, I was cricket manager of Victoria, and I'd go out to schools, and obviously a six-year-old kid had no idea who I was because I wasn't playing then. They'd say, "Are you Billy Birmingham?" I'd say, "I wish I was."
Who are you favourite commentators?
Unfair to pick out any. I'd have to rate Richie as No. 1. I used to enjoy Keith Stackpole, an old team-mate. I enjoy being with Tony Greig because we are always challenging each other. That's good. You have got to have your own point of view. Sometimes it gets a bit argumentative. That's fine, as long as it is not spiteful. And I obviously liked Michael Holding because his voice was so soft. Couldn't understand what he was saying half the time, but I loved his voice. Freddie Trueman in the early days was good. Freddie would be smoking his pipe, which is unheard of today. Tony Cozier from the West Indies. We have had some wonderful overseas commentators. They have all been wonderful, and they have all been different. That's the reason why I enjoy it.
Cricket has changed completely since when you started. Do you ever get cynical?
I never get cynical because I think back and think I have been very lucky. The fact that I played and toured England for seven months and played every county and did it for no money gave me more of an appreciation of the game. The difference was, when I played, you never said you had an injury, because if you dropped off, you never got back. Players get injured today, they put them on leave for months, and back they come.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo