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Samir Chopra

Turn down the telly, turn up the radio

There was a time when cricket fans felt TV commentary wasn't descriptive enough. Now its verbosity makes us turn back to the radio

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra
There's something comforting about radio commentary  •  Narinder Nanu/AFP

There's something comforting about radio commentary  •  Narinder Nanu/AFP

In September 2000, a couple of months after I had moved to Sydney, I travelled to Melbourne, ostensibly for travelling to an academic conference, but I had other motivations for making that trip: I had friends in the city with whom I looked forward to following that year's AFL Grand Final - to be played between Essendon and Melbourne. (My friends were Essendon fans and were understandably delighted about their team's presence in the final.)
On the day of the Grand Final, we gathered to watch the telecast of the game at a friend's place. As we sat down in front of the TV, our host turned down the volume, walked over to his radio and began fiddling with it. "Screw the television. Roy and HG are doing a simulcast commentary, that'll be way more fun than the crap they'll have on the telly," he said.
And it was. That irrepressible comedic pair, whom I would soon see* in action during the Sydney Olympics on a nightly basis, engaging - on their show, The Dream - in one piss-take after the other on the day's sporting action, was back at it again, the pompous, cliché-ridden television commentary replaced by their irreverence. On the television screen it was marks, screamers, brawls, goals, behinds; on the radio, it was Roy and HG's distinctive, hilarious lensing of the same action.
As I watched, I was reminded of another occasion on which I had witnessed a similar replacement of television commentary, albeit in a more serious fashion. On November 1, 1978, as Pakistan chased the 126 runs needed for victory against India in the Lahore Test, I was listening to the radio commentary with my uncles at my grandfather's home. We had been forced off the television for the most obvious of reasons: Delhi's power supply was playing truant. When it returned, we ran back to the living room to resume watching the telecast. On that occasion too, my uncle declined to turn up the television. Instead, he said, we would listen to the radio commentary. Why?
His answer was particularly memorable: "The television commentary is so boring. They hardly say anything."
And so we watched the conclusion to that Test with the television sans volume plus radio turned up. Sometimes the action on the screen was out of sync with the radio commentary but no matter, we persisted. Cricket just sounded more dramatic on the radio; the television merely supplied us with the images but not the rich descriptions we had come to associate with the game. It still remained an inferior medium for experiencing cricket. My uncles had been brought up on a diet of radio commentary; even with a live telecast on, they preferred the radio.
My uncle's remark sounds strange today, in a context when we can all agree that less is more on television. We are reminded again and again of that cardinal rule of television commentary - not that anyone actually on television cares to listen - so memorably promulgated by the late, great Richie Benaud: don't say something unless you absolutely have to.
But folks like my uncles, and indeed myself, who had just started to discover live cricket on television, could not, I think, relate to cricket action unless it was accompanied by cricket commentary. The images on the television only made adequate sense, became entertaining and edifying in ways familiar to them, when it was filtered through the distinctive aural lens of the radio. They didn't care that the commentary's descriptions were often redundant, that they didn't need to be told the bowler was running in, bowling, that the batsman had played a cover drive, and that the ball had crossed the fence. They would not be content if they were merely treated to a simple: "And that has been dispatched rather effectively…"
Then, the terseness of the television commentator, turned into a virtue by Benaud, was considered a vice by those who liked their descriptions of cricket thick and rich. Perhaps it was only the pop and crackle of the static, the radio commentators' stylistic flourishes, which could serve as an appropriate framing for the action.
I discovered later that my uncle's fondness for watching cricket on the television with the volume turned down and the radio turned up was not a novelty among cricket fans in the late seventies. Indeed, many fans liked, as some do now when radio commentary is available, to listen to their radios even at the stadium, when the live action was out there, in the middle of the ground, less than a hundred yards away from the spectators. Some fans sat with earphones on, others - most notably in the Caribbean - would bring the classic hand-held or arm-cradled radio sets.
In the 1980s the roar of the amplified feedback from hundreds of radios in Caribbean stands would sometimes grow so loud that umpires would send out a message to the radio commentary box, asking for a request to be broadcast to the spectators to turn down the volume on their radios; apparently the cricketers in the middle were disconcerted by being able to hear the commentary describing their actions in the middle. I heard one such request while listening to commentary of India's tour of the West Indies in 1983 and instinctively turned down my radio, even though I was thousands of miles away from the action.
So voluble have television commentators become over the years, so inane their interactions in the commentary box, and so clichéd their descriptions, that some of us now seek the other spectrum: cricket action on the television with the commentary turned down, period. The wheel has indeed come full circle.
But I must admit, I wouldn't mind replacing most television commentator crews operating today with Roy and HG. Piss-takes over clichés any day.
*The text was edited to reflect that the AFL Grand Final took place before the Sydney Olympics

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch