The pleasure outweighs the pain, 1981

Radio reflections

owed something to my having blazed the trial the preceding winter in South Africa, where I toured with Walter Hammond's MCC side. This was the first time cricket had been broadcast in South Africa. Nor had anyone previously gone out from England to broadcast cricket home. The first reward was, in the very first Test, to find myself with a hat-trick to describe; the second was to report the longest of all Test matches. It was Tom Goddard who woke up a few at home, dozing after their Christmas dinners, by achieving the second of only three Test hat-tricks by an Englishman in this century. As to that dreary ten-day marathon at Durban, I have a memento in the form of a letter from the BBC, saying that the great Corporation had been considering the question of some further remuneration, seeing that the match fee had been based on a duration of four days, and that they thought an extra payment of 25 guineas would be a fair arrangement. In case anyone should think this an odd computation, they pointed out that there had been no play on one of the days because of rain. Careful were the BBC in those days: my first post-war contracts offered matche fees plus railway vouchers (first-class) plus expenses at the rate of one pound for each night necessarily spent away from home.

But to less frivolous matters, and the great surge of interest in cricket after the war which broadcasting of all first-class cricket on a wide scale did so much to stimulate. Where hitherto cricket had strained to keep up in the broadcast race, now it set the pace. Rex Alston had abandoned schoolmastering at Bedford in favour of the BBC, where his first-hand sporting experience of athletics, cricket and rugby football were at once utilised. In all three activities he was a key member of the broadcast team for twenty years or more. At first Alston, Standing and I formed the Test panel, and divided between ourselves - without benefit of scorer - the lengthy coverage of many county matches as well as the Lord's classics of University Match and Gentlemen and Players.

There came, too, a fresh figure on the scene, a member of the BBC staff seconded to follow the 1946 Indian team, John Arlott. It is no stretching of the truth to compare the impact made on listeners by him with that which had been made by Neville Cardus of the Manchester Guardian ( Cricketer) on the cricket world a quarter of a century earlier.

With both, perhaps, the facts and the technicalities of the game sometimes ran second to the characters involved and the context of the occasion, the places and the people. John Arlott, his Hampshire tones distinctly lighter than in his later days, like Cardus, had imagination, keen powers of observation and not least the gift of words. There was an element of chance in the binding of both to cricket, Cardus being sent out for a summer's fresh air after illness, and Arlott having joined the BBC the previous year not on the sports staff but as a talks and poetry producer.

In the emergence of these two at moments when interest was booming anyway, Cardus after the first war, Arlott after the second, the game had two rare strokes of luck, for each man developed his own new following. Not least, each put across a wit and humour, which helped persuade readers and audiences that cricket was a game played by flesh-and-blood characters, to be savoured and enjoyed. For 35 years until his retirement at the end of last summer John kept at it, for much of the period doubling broadcasting and journalism. Having worked alongside him for most of that time, it is for me a pleasure to add, in cricket's official chronicle, this appreciation to the many others he has received.

Marshall pursued other interests after the war, and though sometimes to be heard on major occasions - notably from Westminster Abbey at the Coronation - he did no more cricket broadcasting. Yet the technique which he had evolved, with the ever-present advice of de Lotbinière, was aimed at by us all in our own individual ways. Howard's running commentary leading up to Len Hutton's breaking of Don Bradman's record score of 334, in The Oval Test of 1938, which is re-broadcast on nostalgic occasions, may seem a stately period-piece to some of the modern school, but most of them could profit by noting how scrupulously he observed the ground-rules.

The general picture of the occasion - the field, the weather, the crowd, the personalities and attitudes of the players, the position of the game, tactical appreciations and the options open to the captains - all these and maybe other aspects less immediate invite a wide variety of comment. By the time de Lotbinière gave his celebrated teach-in to the foremost outside-broadcasters in 1951, all this was called associative material. To a large degree it makes or mars the whole performance. Yet in cricket, as in all games, the focal point is the ball, and all must be subsidiary to the bowler's approach and delivery and the batsman's reaction to it. In other words, timing is all-important in commentary, and it is a cardinal sin to be late on the stroke. The golden pause was, I believe, first commended as one of the many attributes of the late Henry Longhurst as a television commentator on golf ( If you've nothing to say, don't say it!); but I have always thought it also applicable to the break of a couple of seconds or more immediately before the bowler's arm comes over in the last stride and the man at the mike, having drawn breath, reflects the speed of the ball and the nature of the stroke as he describes it all at an increased tempo to his listeners.

Nowadays, of course, the commentator of the moment has not only a statistician, perhaps Bill Frindall, on one side of him but one of the regular summarisers, Trevor Bailey, Fred Trueman or Tony Lewis maybe, on the other. If the ball bowled has had some dramatic effect, whether to the batsman's advantage or otherwise, the commentator will probably bring in one of these for his opinion, or the scorer will chip in with a relevant fact or two. Yet the man at the controls, so to speak, is still the commentator.

Marshall, as long ago as 1934, was the first man to use a scorer. At his request Lancashire lent him a young groundstaff cricketer named Arthur Wrigley for the England- Australia Test at Old Trafford- which, as England declared at 627 for nine, was a prescient move on his part. It was not, however, immediately followed up. Not until after the war (according to my memory and Michael Standing's) were scorers used, and then for a further while only for Test matches.

One important advantage the older generation of commentators had over those of today was the regular training and practice they received from broadcasting county cricket. What was then the major part of the over-all coverage of cricket gave the BBC in addition the chance of trying out new material. The modern instant reports, lasting a minute or two from county grounds, demand little knowledge of the game, and one wonders how the gaps will be filled when Brian Johnston, seemingly perennial and in his particular jovial way still a highly popular element in the team, eventually follows Arlott into retirement. Though others have made acceptable contributions - and Henry Blofeld chalked up a marked success in Australia- the only other notable addition among the younger generation who comes across as combining close knowledge of the game with facility of expression is Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Many overseas broadcasters accompanying the touring teams have added flavour to the over-all performance, notably a succession of West Indians from Learie Constantine to the present explicit, conspicuously fair-minded Tony Cozier. But for both quality and length of service, Alan McGilvray's career at the microphone stands alone. To the listeners of every Test-playing country he stands for generous-minded, unbiased, factual common sense. At any crucial moment of an England- Australia Test, the ideal recipe, for me, is to turn on the television picture, turn off the sound, and listen to Alan.

Naturally, as an old hand, one cocks a friendly yet critical ear to the Radio 3 Test programmes, and in the most important thing of all they earn surely very high marks. For they convey the feeling that they are enjoying what they are doing, and also, in so far as they conscientiously can, that this is a game played by men who, however great the financial rewards, have still for the most part some respect, diluted maybe in certain cases, for the traditional spirit of cricket. This being so, it is a valuable if tacit sanction that the cricketers know that, if they overstep the mark, commentators and critics in whom the public have confidence will not fail to say so. To this extent, apart from all else, the broadcasters fulfil an important function. It would be an evil day for cricket if its reporting over the air were to fall into prejudiced, over-sensational hands.

One feels now and then that there is so much free, uninhibited talk that one cannot see the wood for the trees, and also that we are getting a slight overdose of statistical material. But, comparing the present with the past, consider how much has to be said about so little. Thirty or forty years ago one had to describe 120 balls an hour, sometimes more. There was little time for reminiscence and chit-chat when Ramadhin and Valentine were spinning England into knots at Lord's in 1950. Nowadays, fast bowlers are allowed to wander back interminable distances, and the ration can be 72 balls an hour, sometimes even less. No wonder Bill Frindall - a formidable repository of fact as were his forerunners, Arthur Wrigley and Roy Webber - is an essential member of the team. Too much dressing-room jargon for the ordinary listener? On the whole, yes. And there is one perpetual irritant, the regular use of the utterly superfluous word on before a score. This was never, until comparatively recently, part of the language of cricket. Yet on the whole, surely, the pleasure far outweighs the pain.

© John Wisden & Co