August 21, 2014

'You'll only improve as a commentator if you are a good listener'

The veteran Australian commentator talks about his first steps in the trade, how it has evolved over the decades, and why commentators need to stay in touch with cricketers

Subash Jayaraman: You have been broadcasting for more than 40 years. How did it all start?

Jim Maxwell: It probably started in school, because that was the first time I tried to get a job in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a commentator. Funnily enough, someone who'd been in school a few years ahead of me got the job, a chap by the name of Peter Meares. He had gone through university and was a sportsman. So I thought, "Ah well, maybe next time." After I left school, Gordon Bray, another well-known Australian commentator, got the job. I was fiddling around, not too sure about what I should be doing. Should I go into law practice, or press on with uni?

I went and worked in insurance, and I did that for a while. I got bored with that and went and played some cricket in England. To cut a long story short, my mother said, "I cut this out of the newspaper, the job at the ABC has come up again." I went through the process again, and after six months I did an audition at a cricket match between Australia and Pakistan, sitting in the back of the MA Noble Stand [Sydney Cricket Ground] with a tape recorder. I got the job and started with ABC in 1973.

I always had a passion and feel for broadcasting cricket. I used to have my own cricket magazine when I was at school. It all came out of that, the fact that I was at the right place at the right time.

SJ: Were there people that you looked up to when you were growing and trying to become a broadcaster yourself?

JM: Alan McGilvray was the voice of Australian cricket on the radio in those days and it had been so for some time. He was a fixture at the ABC. Everyone had been listening to him - his silvery, confident style - for many years. All of a sudden I found myself in his presence. I was a little overawed by how good he was in his craft. I would sit behind him in the commentary box when I first started, to see the game through his eyes. It was an important experience. It was a little bit intimidating. He was the former New South Wales captain and a fine cricketer who was certainly a senior compared to a callow 22-year-old who had never played Test cricket or any major cricket in his life. That is how it started, and he was a major influence on what I did in those days.

SJ: What were the things you tried to absorb about how he went about his craft?

JM: He said it himself - copy technique, not style. The McGilvray technique was very much anticipatory. You describe the bowler coming in to bowl and getting rid of the ball before he actually does and then you take it from the batsman's viewpoint and you don't get beaten by the crowd. That is essentially the technique. You work around that and develop your own style, your own way of using language, using the crowd, using your expert commentator etc.

It was all more formal in those days. There were eight-ball overs when I started commentary. The fellow doing ball-by-ball commentary tended to hold the mic during the over and the expert would summarise at the end of it. In the last 20-30 years it has become very conversational, far more relaxed. It was a bit formal and stiffer in those days. You stuck to the game, you didn't meander and peripheral on the subject as we can do these days. For the enjoyment of the audience, through people like Kerry O'Keeffe working alongside, this is very much the trend. That was pretty much how it was. Get the technique right and work on your style.

SJ: In your experience from when you were a young boy learning cricket and listening to cricket on ABC, to a time when you started your career, to now, how would you say radio commentary has changed?

JM: It has become more conversational. The information is still there, that is the most important thing. We are all reminded many times - whatever you are doing, remember to give the score. Every time there is a change of score, at the end of every over. Once in your 20-minute session, you go through the scoreboard. Because the audience is migratory, they are not listening to it all the time. They are coming and going, listening on their car radios or wherever they may be. Getting the basic information across was really drummed into all the youngsters, certainly by Alan McGilvray. But with the nature of society, it has become far more relaxed in each other's company and we can go off on a tangent and not lose the fact that there is a game going around and we have to be talking about it.

Jim Maxwell (second from left): "Radio commentary has become more conversational" © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It is one of the great things about broadcasting cricket. You have the time to reflect, to dwell on other things apart from the game, because there is always the gap between action and non-action, especially when the fast bowlers are operating. It is a wonderful landscape for anyone who wants to enjoy language and technique, the flow of the game.

We are telling stories. That is what it is about. People remember an anecdote, a moment that is unusual in the game. That is one of the reasons why in the last decade in particular, summarisers like Kerry O'Keeffe have drawn people to cricket on radio - because it is unpredictable and it has always got a quirky line.

SJ: You have to give the score every so often and you have to do certain things and be ahead of the bowler etc. Did you have a mental checklist, or did you have something written down in front of you that you kept following again and again?

JM: I just trained myself to do it. I had to try not to have too much written in front of me other than some bio information about players and things like that. Most of the time you are immersed in what you are seeing and the company of the summariser alongside you.

There are many stories around the people coming into the broadcasting box and learning the trade. There is a very well-known one of a former colleague of mine coming in and being very nervous on air in his first time at a Test match, and still feeling nervous when he finished. He asked Ian Chappell's grandfather, Victor Richardson, who was a famous broadcaster, "How do you think I went, Mr Richardson?" Vic said something along the lines of: "Get rid of all the books and talk about the game and the audience will be much better off." That was the lesson, really. Just talk about what is going on in front of you, don't get absorbed into the history lessons because you brought all that information with you to the box.

SJ: As you said, Test matches provide you a larger, vivid landscape to talk about and also the time and space to do it whereas, if you are doing it in a limited-overs match there are a lot of things to do and you have to stick to the cricket a lot more. How does the preparation go for that?

JM: We are always reading and absorbing, interviews with the people in the game, the players occasionally, in the lead-up to the match. Probably the more I go on in the business the more I find that I have got a fair data bank in my brain. I freshen it by looking at a story in the newspaper or ESPNcricinfo or wherever to keep backgrounding myself, especially when you have players playing a Test or an ODI who you've never seen before. That is the usual kind of preparation. Essentially, you just kind of have that at the back of your mind.

What is a good prompter these days of course is social networking. I do use Twitter a little bit, and just see how and what the people are responding to what is going on and there are one or two known people out there who can almost instantly give you information if you throw them a line. That, with the feedback you get from the audience, where you have this engagement through text/SMS involving Bill the truck driver going across the border carrying his wheat, or some fellow on the tractor doing his harvest, or that chap on the beach, or whoever it might be - you are getting that personal and almost intimate connection with people who are following the game. It just personalises it a lot more. There are a lot of women who follow the game, who really, as I understand, some do and some don't have the knowledge of it, but listen because you are telling a story, and you might be telling a few jokes at the same time.

SJ: This modern era, does that make your job any easier, or does the feedback coming in instantaneously help you change tack or style as you go along, or do you find the olden days were better for your commentary?

JM: I think it has changed for the good of the audience. We are in contact with them and the information is more instantaneous. It is excellent that you don't have to chase it through a book because you can get it on the screen. There is a good scorer that is working with me to help me out. You engage with the scorer even though you may know exactly what is going on in terms of the player and the game. Just bring this fellow in and bring some of that into the conversation. That is another part of what we are on about. I think the whole method of doing broadcasting in cricket has been improved by having this instant access to information.

"We don't have trainees in the ABC any more. This probably means I'll be doing this till I'm 95 if they don't start training some people"

SJ: Have you ever wanted to switch to television?

JM: In the 40-odd years, I have done a lot of television, for other sports, primarily Rugby Union. I have done Rugby League at some stage. I have worked on golf tournaments going back. I have done, when the ABC was still doing television after World Series Cricket - there was a period of nine years when the ABC was doing cricket to regional Australia because the Channel 9 network could not reach that market. That ended up costing the ABC a fortune because they had to split the network between the city and the country. So I did some TV commentary there.

Recently in Sri Lanka, the late Tony Greig had to leave a day early during a Test match between Australia and Sri Lanka in Colombo. I did TV that day. TV is a lot of fun but it is a completely different medium where you tend to be a little bit more of a slave to the pictures and the gimmickry of the technology. You cannot allow your mind to wander as you might on the radio. It gives you so much opportunity to relax and express yourself without being a slave to technology and the pictures.

SJ: Do you see the same kind of interest in the young and up-and-coming group of broadcasters that could take over from you and take radio broadcasting further?

JM: I started out as a trainee in the ABC. We don't have trainees in the ABC any more. This probably means I'll be doing this till I'm 95 if they don't start training some people.

I am sure there is a huge interest out there, but it is not on my fingertips. There are plenty of my colleagues in various places in ABC who have done some cricket and are keen to do more. I was the lucky one. I started doing Test cricket when I was 26. I would like to think that we are going to have some young broadcasters who are going to be ready for the opportunity to do the same. But that is not the way it is at the moment, even though we have got more people doing tertiary courses in media than when I was heading out in to this world.

SJ: When a newbie comes along who has not done radio commentary on the scale of ABC before, how do you help them learn the ropes?

JM: The wisest advice which was handed to me was: you will only improve if you are a good listener. Which means you have to observe, sit, watch, take it and go away, and practise, audition and let someone who has been around analyse what you are doing and constantly give some feedback.

I think any vocation that you get in life, you try and glean something from your peers and put it into practice. It takes time. I didn't feel comfortable as a commentator on cricket for at least ten to 15 years. I was treading water in many ways even though I had the self-confidence to press on. It takes time, particularly if you come from a background of just being someone who was keen but never played at the top level. It is pretty hard to win the confidence of the ones you are working with instantaneously. It takes a while.

SJ: When do you think that you have this thing figured out or at least you are confident enough in your abilities to not worry about the shortcoming that you didn't play Test cricket?

JM: I think anything that you get involved in, there is a point where you become accepted and respected. You have to earn that. That goes for any vocation. It is a matter of time, particularly if you are a young person with much older people. It takes quite some time to win that acceptance, to have that confidence so that you are not having foot-in-mouth disease, or just being aware that you might every time you start talking.

SJ: What do you do to keep your ears to the ground and change as per the requirements of the broadcaster?

JM: You just keep in touch. I spent the whole of yesterday with the Australian players, doing 17 five-to-ten-minute interviews with every contracted player, which is a part of the preparation every summer. It helps you have that contact.

When I started, there was so much more informality in the relationship between the players and the media than there is today where their lives are organised, even their dreams, and they have to report back on their wellness and goodness knows what. It is hard to get close to the players the way we used to in the earlier years, where you might just meet up for a beer at a bar or even go out for dinner.

It is important to try to be in contact as best as you can and the situations like the one I had yesterday are fairly important. That makes for an easier life when you are away and you do get the casual opportunity to talk to somebody away from the organisation of a press conference, a one-on-one interview at the end of the day. You just have to grasp what you can so you are absorbing information and building relationships with those involved in the game. It is an ongoing thing.

SJ: Who were some of your favourite partners, ones that you enjoyed doing the commentary with?

JM: I had the chance to work with so many interesting people. In the last 13 years, Kerry O'Keeffe has brought something special on to the coverage of the game that I don't think anyone else possesses - his unique ability to talk in an informed and educated way about the game, but to go a little left-field - he has an extraordinary power of observation and sharp wit. That is unique.

I worked with a lot of people who know the game inside out, like Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Vaughan in recent years, Vic Marks - you work with all these people on the BBC. Going back at the ABC, Lindsay Hassett was there at the start, Max Walker came in.

In recent times we have had a variety of experts. I have worked with Geoff Lawson more than anyone else over a long period. Younger people are coming in. Ed Cowan is going to be working with us this year. We had Andrew McDonald last year, when he was injured, and he was outstanding. Tim Nielsen, the former coach. Terry Alderman is a regular in Perth.

It has been a long list of people who have come through the game, who carry a massive amount of respect because of their playing record, and they brought that to the box. There are so many of them, I can't remember them all off the top of my head. I have also had colleagues like Harsha Bhogle, Jonathan Agnew, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Tony Cozier, some outstanding ball-by-ball commentators that I have been lucky enough to spend time with in the box and elsewhere.

SJ: Over these 40-plus years, you have seen so much cricket and so many dramatic days and sessions of cricket. What were some of the favourite ones that pop into your head and make you say, "I'm glad I was on air at that time"?

JM: There are so many. Shane Warne's bowling, at any time. He brought something special to the game, a once-in-a-100-years player. Around him, there have been some sensational players, but to bowl wristspin in the way he did and to have that confronting personality that took the opposition on. Bill O'Reilly might have been a bit of the same, but that was a long while ago. There have been great batsmen like [Brian] Lara and [Sachin] Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist. I mean, Australia has had so many outstanding batsmen. Glenn McGrath as well, in recent years. Dennis Lillee, the Chappells and Rod Marsh. They were about when I first started. There is a long list of stunning players.

The master blaster Viv Richards walking across his stumps and hitting outswingers to midwicket for four - I can think of so many shots and wicket-taking deliveries from a vast array of players. But Warne really does stand out because that particular skill takes some mastering and it is hard to see how we are going to see anyone in my lifetime be as accomplished as he was bowling wristspin.

Plenty of fast bowlers and a lot of batsmen. David Warner is one of the most exciting batsmen in the scene and he continues to get better.

There was a very good story from Matthew Hayden when he was hitting India's bowlers in 2001 and he decided on a method of slog-sweeping them and hitting them back over their heads. I was interviewing him and said, "It is fascinating to watch the way you go about trying to destroy the spin bowling in India. I don't think the Don would have approved because he said that if you don't hit the ball in the air, you don't get caught." And Matthew's response - and I haven't forgotten this line - was, "Sorry Don, there's a lot of room in the air."

That is the way the game is played today, isn't it? It is confronting, challenging, they take the field on, they take the boundary on, and they have the weaponry to do it now with those big bats. But it is a far more attractive game in many ways than it used to be. The technique for batting is a bit lost when the ball is doing something. Everyone is going hard at the ball that when it moves, you are going to nick it and get out.

The game is combative, fascinating and challenging like it has never been before. There is no other sport that has the variety and diversity with three modes of the game. We are really fortunate. If they can ever get a T20 game going in the USA, I know the other sports are so immersed in their culture, I would have thought T20 would be a huge hit in the USA, and can be far more entertaining than baseball.

SJ: There were some issues in Australia recently about the radio rights. ABC lost its exclusivity and some streaming rights. How did any of that affect you, personally, as the voice of cricket?

JM: I don't think so. There was a bit of brouhaha at that time because ABC felt a bit put out as they no longer had the streaming rights to push the game out. Cricket Australia wanted to take that over and run it themselves. It is all about controlling and branding the game. They were keen to take up a partnership with a commercial radio organisation which was essentially cherry-picking the season, and was just picking out a few matches. There was bit of disquiet about that, but we have moved on.

The fact is, when the game is played outside Australia, not on every tour, but when in South Africa, the ABC was there to cover it. There was no commercial operator doing that. The ABC is still holding sway on the coverage of cricket on the radio. The commitment will continue, the relationship between the ABC and CA will be sustained, it will be an important one for the game. The radio coverage over the period of 80 years has done more to proselytise the game than anything else.

SJ: Peter Roebuck, your good friend and a colleague, he passed away in difficult circumstances. What sort of an impact did it have on you?

JM: It still cuts me up to think about it, to be honest. His life was a bit on the edge, I suppose, for various reasons at the time. It just left a huge hole in my life in a way because we constantly talked about all sorts of things and not just cricket. So there was a strength to the relationship. It still haunts me to think about all that. The loss of a friend and somebody who was something of a soulmate. As a radio broadcaster he was so unique because he could take the game to so many places. He was so eloquent and penetrating on all the issues in the game.

It still sits with me, something he once said. I threw him some material that I was writing about for the season coming up, and he came back to me instantly - he was such a sharp mind - and said, "One of the things you need to be saying is that 'Sadly, Australia were once a leader in the game and now they are a follower.'" I would have to say that in the time since his death, that is exactly where Australia finds itself on the world stage in terms of decision-making. That is the way it is for reasons of commercial rigour, being expeditious, whatever it is… which I find a little bit disappointing, but that is the commercial reality.

SJ: How do you see the future of radio commentary. It used to be on actual radio, in cars and stuff, but now lot of it is done on the internet and smartphones where you can listen to ABC. How do you see that changing landscape for radio broadcasters?

JM: The delivery of live sport to the marketplace is changing enormously. I am thinking in terms of cricket here - because it is played over such a long period of time, even ODIs are for seven-eight hours, there will be the need for a radio broadcaster to inform the audience. Not all can sit in front of a computer or some handheld device and watch the pictures. They come and go, like I said, and that is why there is a need for some kind of radio coverage. I would like to think that it would be there more strongly in the future than it is now. We know people are following in all parts of the world. A lot of the time, it is much easier to follow it with their chunks of technology while listening than find the pictures. That might change too.

There is so much demand in the broadening market for cricket. It has got so much more to offer in terms of where it finds itself. If the ICC could ever get their head around and enter the Olympic Games, that would continue to broaden the appeal for the game. That is a place where they don't want to go at the moment for a variety of self-interest reasons. I think the audience on the radio will continue to grow and be significant in keeping it in its pre-eminent place in world sports.