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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ishan on August 16, 2011, 16:40 GMT

    "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" - Harsha, does different in case of the subcontinent (we call it South Asia, don't we?) mean" biased"? If thats the case, I'm afraid you're giving a short shrift to many listeners and viewers. I can assure you not everyone inhabiting these parts is as jingoistic as a Gavaskar, Shastri, or dare I say, you would like everyone else to believe. It's also strange you call the broadcasting world 'commercially driven' since, the sports channels here have a flat-rate-rent, unlike Sky's broadcasting in the UK, which charges differently for different series.The only people commercially involved, are the sponsors and the board here. So, does the tone of the broadcast cater to its board's diktat, as opposed to the 'sports' viewers'? I'm sure a word of appreciation for the excellence of the oppostion will be appreciated too.

  • Wayne on August 15, 2011, 22:32 GMT

    BBC's Test Match Special radio remains the barometre of cricket commentary excellence AND NO ANNOYING AD BREAKS DURING PLAY. Rumours of Henry Blofeld's decline have been misplaced: "Blowers" has been on top form this summer, nearly self-combusting commentating when Broad took that memorable hat-trick. The regulars Aggers, Vic Marks, CMJ and Boycs are all excellent. The team always has excellent oversea's co-commentators. Even Matthew Hayden stopped being pompous and boring and turned out to be a rather nice chap after his long TMS stint in 2009. Test Match Cricket, Wimbledon, Golf, Rugby... sports commentary the BBC has always excelled, continues to do so and dare I say it ... ARE THE BEST !

  • Mina on August 15, 2011, 17:57 GMT

    If the test match is a novel, it is eminently readable and un-put-downable.

    Like Christie's stories, there are enough twists and turns to keep one guessing right down to the wire.

    The narrators are an integral part of the 'rhythm to the game'. And the author of this piece is one of the most articulate and flowing of the storytellers..

  • Dummy4 on August 15, 2011, 17:45 GMT

    Really nice article Harsha! You are a pleasure to read and listen, always so well thought out and heartfelt commentary!

  • Dummy4 on August 15, 2011, 14:44 GMT

    Great article Harsha. Even when the Test match can be watched, I'm always inclined to mute the set and enjoy listening to the masters ply their trade on the radio.

  • Ryan on August 15, 2011, 14:44 GMT

    My dream commentary team would be: Starters: Ian Smith to present the game at the start; 1st change/starters - Richie Benaud, David Gower and Bill Lawry; 2nd change - Tony Grieg, Harsha Bhogle and Geoffrey Boycott; 3rd change Pat Cymcox, Mark Taylor and Ian smith. After that back to rotation from there.

  • ian on August 15, 2011, 13:51 GMT

    The real home of cricket commentary, especially, test match commentary, is the radio. 'Owning pauses' is the privilege of the TV commentator, Harsha, and you are right, the less said on TV broadcasts the better: feel free to own as many pauses as you please! After all, the viewers see pretty much what you are seeing and we can, and do, our own internal commentary. The real skill is to provide the picture for the sightless and in this respect there was none better than John Arlott. No one in the current crop of TMS commentators, pleasant and interesting as they seem to be (though Blowers is frequently and irritatingly inaccurate), comes anywhere near him, but his was a special talent, a poet on the instant with a feel for the character and the presence of the players who were rolling out the unscripted drama in front of him - and, moreover, a dark, rich voice that carried more 'feel' than the words he so memorably uttered.

  • Dummy4 on August 15, 2011, 11:57 GMT

    vey nice article, It s surprisingly articulate on an unexpetcted suject like test match commentary. One would not think about writing an aricle like this. It shows how Harsha is committed and involved on the subject. This further justfied my following of Harsha as not only as a commentator but also as a good writer with so much of ease. above all, a nice recipe of differentiating from T20 too.

  • Steve on August 15, 2011, 11:08 GMT

    There are some very good commentators on Test Match Special. Vic Marks is very funny, Boycott always worth listening to for his hilarious insensitivity, and sometimes for his analysis too. CMJ is part of the furntiure now, and worth a place.

    I agree Arlott was irreplacable, but for me the Johnners / Blowers / Aggers bunch are annoying and tiresome to listen to.

    I do think though that while ex-players have a place in the commentary box, you also need journalists and other non-professionals. Because as well as technical explanations and analyses, you also need commentators who can capture the moment in a sentence - something that ex-players are not necessarily equipped to do. The same goes for the print journalists. Just because someone played Test cricket for 10 years doesnt mean that they can speak entertainingly or write well.

    Liked this article though.

  • Salim on August 15, 2011, 9:47 GMT

    Hi Harsha, Nice article. Commentary is quiute essential to the game of cricket and you've captured that wonderfully above. The lads at Cricinfo do a grand job as well. As for your point above, so long as the experts are the ones chatting in the group, I'll always eavesdrop. Also, as a suggestion, can the commentary pairing be an expert and a media person. When I say expert, I mean ex-player and when I say media person, I mean a Harsha Bhogle or an Alan Wilkins. I think it's the best way to inform and entertain. To give you an example, Harsha Bhogle - Sunny Gavaskar and Alan Wilkins-Ian Chappell are far better pairs than Sanjay Manjrekar and Wasim Akram as two "experts". Thanks

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