August 15, 2011

The novelist with the mike

Commentary styles change with the format of the game being described. In Test cricket, it's about being a storyteller

Imagine a novel unfolding, characters flitting in and out, a climax building up, a twist round the corner. But it's all happening in real time, and so you can't secretly dart to the last page, because, among other things, it hasn't been written yet. Now imagine you are the narrator, with the power and the responsibility of bringing this evolving story to a reader who may either not see it at all or only have access to parts of it.

The novel is the Test match, and the commentator the narrator who must use the magic of words, marry them to the picture and present it to the audience, who are in different time zones and have varying degrees of interest. By contrast the one-day international is a short story and a Twenty20 game but a 140-character burst.

As a commentator you must tell each genre as it is, but in the short story you can summon a nice turn of phrase only occasionally, and must hold your audience as it waits for the twist. In T20 you are direct; there is no discussion, just a quick point and pause. You cannot justify or explain your phrase. Like a shot, it is played and gone. It's not necessarily a lesser skill, just a different one.

Many years ago one of the game's great gentlemen, ML Jaisimha, told a callow youth in Hyderabad who wanted to become a commentator that it wasn't his responsibility to inject excitement into a game that didn't have it. It is something everyone must know, for we can sometimes seek to flog a dead horse. A commentator is not an auctioneer; he must move with the ebb and flow of the game. And that is why working on a Test match is so rewarding.

It allows a commentator to go back to what he originally was: a storyteller. In its most unadulterated form, a cricket broadcast is, as many greats over the years have told us, a group of cricket lovers sitting together and chatting, with a larger group eavesdropping. There is an unhurried air to it. You can pause in speech to take a sip and put the glass down. There may be no boundaries hit for a while but there is still a rhythm to the game that the commentator must seek to capture. And then someone else takes up the story, not necessarily agreeing with what the earlier man has said but telling it equally engagingly. And so in Test cricket, the storyteller has time to summon the right word; the grandeur of the stroke played must be matched by its description, otherwise it will injure the shot forever. It is an ideal world but we must seek to get there.

And the conversation can dart here and there occasionally, like with the peerless Kerry O'Keefe on ABC radio when he remembers the weatherman in Darwin or says the man chasing the ball down to the boundary is "as stiff as a triple whisky".

In its most unadulterated form, a cricket broadcast is, as many greats over the years have told us, a group of cricket lovers sitting together and chatting, with a larger group eavesdropping. There is an unhurried air to it. You can pause in speech to take a sip and put the glass down

Some years ago Graeme Fowler said a batsman had "thrown the kitchen sink" at the ball. In T20 that would be it, there would be no sense of bemusement at the choice of expression. "But how do you throw a kitchen sink, Graeme?" I asked him, "with all the plumbing and the faucets..." In no time an alert listener had emailed, saying the original expression was "threw everything but the kitchen sink". Others wrote in with humorous anecdotes of their own, and for a while we had a wonderful interactive conversation while the game continued with no more boundaries struck, and so no more kitchen sinks thrown.

Radio was the original home of Test cricket. But the picture does indeed speak a thousand words and has changed the flavour of a Test match broadcast somewhat. While radio has the time to tell an unconnected story, the telecast cannot deviate from the picture. It's the difference between being asked in an exam to write an essay on an afternoon spent watching cricket and getting a photograph of a cover drive and being told to interpret it. The most skilled commentators take this photograph and tell a beautiful story. In the more commercially driven broadcasting world of the subcontinent, you have to write a precis. It is a different world, not necessarily black and white, just different. Like playing on a different pitch, where too you must score runs.

In recent times I have been doing a lot of T20 cricket. I enjoy it greatly. The challenge is akin to making a ten-second commercial, which, as ad filmmakers will tell you, is never easy. But you cannot produce interesting graphics, ask for too many replays; the stats man, for example, has no time to make a contribution once the game starts.

I still remember a Test during which Mohandas Menon pulled out numbers on how many sixes Geoffrey Boycott had hit. Geoffrey and Mohan had a few interesting conversations after that, one demanding numbers, the other producing them. Everyone enjoyed it. A slow period in a Test match is not necessarily an uninteresting commentary phase.

I look forward to doing Test matches. I enjoy owning the pause. I look forward to the unhurried yet intense passages of play, and I hope there will be enough people eavesdropping.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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