December 26, 2013

Faint fluttering decibels

Bill Lawry, no stranger, returns, with his gift to articulate precisely what the viewer is thinking

Lawry: the voice of the fan © Getty Images

This is a celebration of, or possibly it's an unwanted scattergun intrusion into, the life's work of Bill Lawry, who after an 11-and-a-half-month break is commentating a Test match on TV today, and anytime he does call a game, you fear maybe it's for nearly the last time, in which case, welcome to the highlights…

RW Marsh b Garner 16
Getting in close to the stumps is a tall bowler in a shark-coloured uniform, his long arms circling and thrusting high, then unloading, giant frame pivoting on his back foot's tiptoes, a pixelating specimen of reliability, and of stillness at the point of delivery. Whirring and blurry yellow is the ageing batsman. The bat, wrapped in banana-finger batting gloves, curls up behind his buttocks, the stamp of an experimental late-career change in backlift. Abruptly, his feet lunge sideways as he tries pull-slogging the ball. Bouncing back comes the following Monday morning's conversation beside the makeshift Newcomb ball court in our primary-school breezeway. My friend is replaying, stern-lipped, for me the TV commentary of that moment: "Bowled him. Dear oh dear … Joel Garner. Too straight. Too consistent. Bowled the f****** wicketkeeper."

Bowled the who? Disbelieving, also wanting to believe, I protested. Recited and re-recited in my head the precise phraseology till home-time. Flipped on the VCR, pressed the button down through to the right bit. Lawry commentating - that much was true. "Plucky wicketkeeper." "Plucky little keeper." The sound was a fff-sound. "Funky little keeper." No, the word that he spoke was not "funky".

Months beforehand, in late 1983, Rod Marsh had released the third of his four ghostwritten books. A chapter was headed "The Phantom and I", and in it he painted Lawry as a "dour sort of bloke" who "doesn't join us for a drink in the bar" which was no bad thing as foremost among Lawry's personality traits was his "a bit limited" sense of humour. Also, Marsh objected to Lawry's recommending that Marsh be axed from Australia's one-day side in favour of Wayne Phillips. "Wayne Phillips!" boomed Marsh/Marsh's ghostwriter. "Christ, he's a lovely young bloke… Strictly an emergency wicketkeeper at this stage."

So the two had history, of sorts, and it was recent history. An additional history - 13 summers ancient but still with wet paint on it, for Marsh - concerned a 1970-71 MCG Ashes Test and captain Lawry declaring on Marsh when Marsh was 92 not out. The circumstances were these: Australia were 9 for 493 on the second evening of the fourth Test of a series they were losing 1-0, Lawry's late-notice declaration giving the bowlers 11 overs at England's batsmen and coinciding with Marsh's batting partner at the time being Alan "Froggy" Thomson, for whom runs were rarer than toadstone sightings.

Here's the shorthand version - the declaration was a no-brainer.

Here's Marsh - "I look back on it now and think maybe he could have given me another over or two… Our beloved leader… Drinks arrived… And Lawry declared… His timing was strange… Perhaps it was some mystical tactical masterstroke… The Good Lord and Phantoms work in strange ways."

Two Tests later, in an unconnected but potentially lifetime insomnia-inducing development, Lawry was sacked as captain and batsman.

He has never mentioned publicly a minute's bitterness about that. He neither shirks nor deflects his slowcoach batting reputation. No masculine pride kicks in when the sacking or the slowcoach stuff are brought up. He laughs along with the others.

"Bowled the f****** little keeper" - I decided, at the time, after painstaking consideration, that was the wording.

Now, I suspect what he tried to say was "plucky wicketkeeper" and, in his excitement, out popped "f***y wicketkeeper", though whether subconsciously, or semi-consciously, this I don't know and probably Lawry himself cannot say and would rather not think about.

RS Langer c Julien b King 8 Periscoping back - to Adelaide's Football Park for the third Supertest of World Series Cricket's opening season, and thus one of Lawry's first dates with a microphone. As a sports-following boy, radio had been king. An open fire roaring and the radiogram speaker; 3DB tuned in; the family dog's head cocked and listening; horse races, football, tennis, cricket. The TV cricket he'd seen in the years since featured cameras at only one end. It felt mono-stylistic verbally, as well. Upon entering TV himself, Lawry was instantly doing the maths: you get ten dismissals an innings and a good commentator should not underplay a single one. "It's all very well," he once explained, "to say 'he's out', but I think there's more to it than that."

Robbie Langer, bareheaded, jerks the black hair out of his sightline, and hooks, and Lawry's opportunity comes, Bernard Julien tumbling left, and rolling, surfacing momentarily on his own head, clutching the ball high for all to see. "Magnificent catch…" - and if it wasn't quite that, it was undeniably extremely fine - "… and great camerawork by the Channel 9 crew."

If there exists today a hyperbolic strain to cricket commentary that is distinctively Channel 9-ish, then Channel 9's turbulent cricket beginnings might account for why. To be a Channel 9 commentator at that time must have taken some steel and hard-headedness. They were commentating on renegade cricket, which was at war with establishment cricket, yet they were all ex-establishment players. Until it went ragged, Lawry would wear his first baggy green cap while toiling away in the cherished pigeon lofts at home, and kept the others safe in a trunk.

He has said he felt no internal friction, tearing or confusion, personally.

He has denied that the commentators ever received instructions to make the cricket sound more exciting than it is.

Back in the first week of 1978, for that Robbie Langer dismissal, Lawry's tone is unfamiliarly flat. He is still trying on a persona. His repertoire is not what it would become. Three times in seven sentences he says "magnificent". But the fine-tuning happened fast. The summertime after that, Wessels was catching Haynes in the gully - "a screamer… KEPLER… he's a Brisbane hero" - and Lawry's voice was the voice. By the 1981-82 season he was crossing the borders into some kind of commentating nirvana. When John Dyson hurled himself backwards and caught Sylvester Clarke in the SCG deep - a catch even more implausible today, for that area of the field would usually be roped off - a heartfelt word poured out of Lawry: "GOSH".

He is back, for five days, lightning-tongued, fun company, warm, yet with some hard-to-read crosscurrents, projecting certain resonances on to particular passages of play, a man with a past, no simpleton

It is not totally instinctive. He likes to imagine a person outside painting (or perhaps operating a lawnmower) and discerning the faint fluttering decibels of Lawry's voice on the breeze, through an open window, and wandering inside to inspect what's happened in the cricket. It is, though, mostly instinctive. During tense climaxes, even when off-air, Lawry has been known to be babbling while his friend and colleague Ian Chappell is stone-quiet. If it is not his commentating shift, Lawry still watches every ball. He does not pull out his laptop. He does not bring a laptop.

Among Lawry's gifts is his ability to articulate precisely what the viewer is at that exact moment thinking. This is at once a skill and a quirk running counter-clockwise to his mentor Richie Benaud, whose way is to be silent and speak only when he can add to the viewer's thoughts. At Headingley, 1989, the Ashes alight, Phil DeFreitas turned at the top of his run-up and Lawry said: "Very intense start. First morning of a Test match. DeFreitas looking for line and length." Whether Benaud was sitting next to Lawry at the time is a detail not salvageable. But wherever he was, if he heard it, that famous jutting-out Benaud bottom lip might have jutted out a little further, and curled.

MJ Slater c Tufnell b Malcolm 5 When Michael Slater hooked high and Phil Tufnell shufflingly manoeuvred himself in the outfield, Tufnell was averaging two with the bat for the series and had captured one wicket for 425 runs with the ball. And Lawry said, loudly: "He's gone for it. It's in the air. Tufnell. Tufnell. YAY, it's TUFNELL."

Compassion, empathy - we hear these often, when watching the cricket, and we smell the fakeness. But the unsung cricketer sings to Lawry.

"Julian. Julian. JULIAN. Yairssss" - another outfield catch, Sydney '99, Brendon Julian the catcher.

Cameron White hit a third cloud-buster out of Bellerive Oval one day in 2007, and Lawry - "Whoah-ho! On your bike. Away she goes" - awarded the ball a gender.

Last month at the Gabba, with England 8 for 106, James Brayshaw in the commentary box said, "Test cricket is such a compelling product", and you will never ever hear Bill Lawry say that.

The game is no product. Boxing Day in Melbourne means something that's real. He loved the archway entrance, the hot northerly, the hike to the middle. The annual Victoria v New South Wales Christmas fixture, he knew, was the best and fiercest game of cricket in the world. That world was his world from early on. "I don't think," observed Sir Robert Menzies, "he worries unduly about the onlookers; for him, as in Hamlet, 'the play's the thing'." If that was right in 1966, it has been wrong for 36 seasons. He is on the fans' side. Batsmen seldom hook anymore, and the hook, he reckoned, was his most profitable shot. Extensive post-morteming of umpires' decisions always sat uneasy with him. But he is back, for five days, lightning-tongued, fun company, warm, yet with some hard-to-read crosscurrents, projecting certain resonances on to particular passages of play, a man with a past, no simpleton.

Friends, adversaries, acquaintances claim that to hear Lawry in the commentary box is to have no proper sense of him, a stranger, but we know without knowing him that's not right.

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