June 2007 - Test Match Special turns 50

Let them eat cake

Test Match Special is 50 this summer but change looms. Paul Coupar reports

Test Match Special is 50 this summer but change looms

'From Arlott, his incomparable Hampshire accent eventually as thick as his favourite clarets, the programme gained its high regard for unconventional voices, capable of light and shade, and for commentators with hinterland' © Getty Images

Britons do not care for changes to national institutions. Whether it is a phone box that is not red, a funnyshaped Times or the rumoured demise of salad cream, there is an instinct to resist anything that upsets the old order. Which will make this an anxious summer for the three to four million listeners to the BBC's Test Match Special.

According to some sources close to the programme, TMS is in peril. Midway through this summer its producer and greatest champion leaves. Peter Baxter retires after 34 seasons under the headphones nurturing a unique family atmosphere. The word is of a change in "style and tone". TMS will survive. In fact, the BBC is investing more heavily than ever. Whether it does so in a familiar form is less certain.

It is mid-morning in Barbados. Far below the swanky airconditioned broadcasting box, perched above the redeveloped Kensington Oval, Ireland are edging forward against Bangladesh. It is not quite like watching Sir Viv in his pomp - not that you would guess it from the commentary.

Tony Cozier has just finished a vivid story about the terrifying Barbados club attacks. The man beside him, Jonathan Agnew, recalls visiting Cozier's "mansion" the night before. "Wooden bungalow," corrects Cozier. "Whatever," says Agnew, "it's certainly very hard to find." "Good," says Cozier, emphatically but with a grin, before breaking into a detailed analysis of West Indies' decline and fall. It is classic TMS - deep cricket knowledge worn lightly; no staleness, despite the low-key match; and the sense that the listener is just another of a bunch of friends.

This intimacy is broadcasting gold dust. Alistair Cooke managed it in his Letter From America, as did Radio 1's John Peel who, like TMS's Brian Johnston, was deeply mourned following his death. After that you start to run out of comparisons. The fear of some is that, with Baxter gone and new controllers at Five Live given a free hand, the sense of being part of a nationwide club will be sacrificed for newsdriven content and a shriller tone.

So does Agnew foresee big changes? "Errm, I don't know. Peter's leaving and he has obviously been a big influence on the programme for 40 years. So inevitably, when a new person comes in, there will be change to an extent. A new producer will want to look at things his or her way. But it's a hard programme to change because you can't say to me, 'Right Aggers, I don't like the way you commentate, go and do it that way today,' because you are what you are."

At the back of the box the assistant producer Shilpa Patel has a more pressing problem - waking one of that afternoon's summarisers. "You can't ring Viv Richards before midday," she says. It is 10.15am. "But he'll take it from me," she continues, punching numbers into her mobile. Unlike the famously technophobic CMJ on a recent tour she has not brought the remote control for her hotel telly by mistake. And, for a supposedly conservative institution, TMS has built a 50-year innings by breaking broadcasting rules. Born in 1957, the programme began quietly. "Worthy but dull," said a former head of BBC outside broadcasts. But by the 1970s it had taken the rigid world of BBC sports reporting, ruled by the twin gods of received pronunciation and formality, and blown it apart.

The fuse was lit by two unlikely revolutionaries - the consummate poet John Arlott, a former policeman who was there from the start until 1980, and the consummate professional Brian Johnston, a flamboyant old Etonian, who arrived after being sacked by BBC TV in 1970.

From Arlott, his incomparable Hampshire accent eventually as thick as his favourite clarets, the programme gained its high regard for unconventional voices, capable of light and shade, and for commentators with hinterland. ("Your voice is vulgar but you have an interesting mind," said the BBC's then head of outside broadcasts, Seymour de Lotbinière.)

'"Gathering from the emails," says Baxter, "a lot of our audience are not just cricket fans, not sports fans at all, just Test Match Special fans. That shows it is a slightly different kind of sports programme."' © Getty Images

From Johnston it took its ethos ("We're just a bunch of friends going to the Test match"), its revolutionary chattiness and its famous digressions, from how to tame wild horses to this winter's argument about how to study for university exams. ("No lad," Geoff Boycott told a student swotting late at night, "get thee head down and get up fresh in t' morning.") Above all, it took from Johnston a Military Cross-winner's deep conviction that to laugh at a game was no crime. Johnston provided the life, Arlott the soul.

The template they created has been remarkably successful. Up to four million people listen to a Test match. "Gathering from the emails," says Baxter, "a lot of our audience are not just cricket fans, not sports fans at all, just Test Match Special fans. That shows it is a slightly different kind of sports programme." It is certainly how your writer discovered cricket as a boy in Aberdeen. TMS has a strong case to be the greatest outreach scheme English cricket has known.

The most remarkable thing about the commentary box is that it is not remarkable. What you see is what you hear on the radio; it is just as chaotically friendly as it sounds. CMJ, resplendent in crushed-raspberry trousers ("I don't know how to begin to describe what's just sat down next to me," says Agnew to the world) is checking his son Robin's scores for Sussex. The summariser Mike Selvey is hunched in the corner, writing his piece for The Guardian. The interval programming is a scrawl on the back of a team-sheet. The assistant-producer-cum-super-mum Shilpa is booking dinner and clipping Simon Mann round the ear. The staff rota is on a giant piece of graph paper, not a spreadsheet.

The programme has usually trod the tightrope between professionalism and coldness beautifully. (Though Arlott did once pass out at the microphone after a good lunch.) Indeed the infamous 1991 "leg over" incident was seen at the time as a hideous blunder.

Having melted into uncontrollable laughter, Johnston and Agnew seldom worked together again. "It wasn't commentary. It was a cockup," recalls Agnew, who was in his first season and seriously worried for his future. It was not the only gaffe. Allan Lamb once used a piece of colourful Anglo-Saxon rhyming with 'duck' and followed up with "Shit, did I just say that?"

"People are always surprised," says Baxter when asked about the warmth in the box, "but what do you expect? If that's the way it sounds, that's probably the way it is." Agnew, about to be best man at Baxter's wedding, agrees: "If it sounds like you're having a good time, the odds are that you are having a good time."

The cover of The Radio Times announcing the launch of TMS © BBC

But the make-up of the team may soon change. "Personnel-wise a new producer might look to get one or two different people on," admits Agnew. "That's inevitable. Change is inevitable. As long as it's sensible, well-reasoned change, there's no reason it shouldn't be good." When asked about the secret of the programme, Baxter points to genuine friendships in the box. "We don't have a very fast turnover in commentators, so we all know each other very well and that probably helps. You are at home in the box because we all know each other." It wasn't always so. Johnston, the bubbly conservative, had a cool relationship with Arlott, a liberal who habitually wore a black tie as penance for buying his son the sports car he died in.

However, some sources close to the programme fear that the BBC Sport modernisers, who have already used the enthusiastic but lightweight Manish Bhasin on televised cricket, see intimacy as cloying chumminess and digressions as irrelevant to the news agenda.

Agnew is reassuring: "The core of the programme I assume will be the same. Just a little bit of tinkering here and there - I guess that's how a new person would look at it." And Adam Mountford, the Five Live producer likely to take over is a genuine cricket lover.

Some listeners would appreciate change, especially more diversity in voices and viewpoints. There is a feeling that TMS has become blander in recent years. It is something Baxter puts down to a relentless schedule, making it difficult to search for new talent in unexplored corners. And the BBC is also a victim of its own plenty. Arlott was discovered when the corporation, in extremis, was forced to take a gamble on an unknown. That no longer happens.

This could be a live issue for Baxter's successor. Two of the most distinctive voices in Henry Blofeld (67) and Christopher Martin- Jenkins (62) are approaching conventional retirement age, if not TMS retirement age; Johnston continued into his 80s.

So could a new commentator be another Arlott, a policeman and a poetry producer, or a new Johnners, an outside broadcasts man? "I am horribly afraid it would be more difficult," says Baxter. "There aren't too many poetry producers at the BBC now. And that is a sadness. The sports room is so vast they will always get people out of it who will manage. Whether they will get the broadcasting geniuses may be another issue."

'Change is inevitable. As long as it's sensible, well-reasoned change, there's no reason it shouldn't be good' © BBC

Of course nostalgia is a danger. For every Johnners there were five line-and-length men - TMS has used 18 commentators in home Tests. And sceptics should remember the derision heaped on the outstanding Channel 4 when it first broadcast Tests in 1999. The only true paradise is perhaps the one we have lost.

Equally, threats to the programme are nothing new. Hungry for airspace, TMS has over the years been shuffled between networks like the booby prize in pass the parcel. Radio 1 is the only BBC national network not to have hosted it. "A sword of Damocles seemed regularly to hang over us," says Baxter.

And Agnew insists the programme will not change beyond recognition and that he will resist any attempt to make it more 'yoof'. "As long as they are sensible, well-balanced, interesting ideas, then away we go and we see where it takes us," he says. "That's been the great thing about the programme, when the rain comes down, the covers come on, where are we going to go? I don't know, somehow it just happens. And usually we end up in a pretty decent direction." Millions of listeners - mums and granddads, van drivers and students, children under the duvet and cricket-lovers galore - will tune in as it happens, perhaps a little more anxiously than usual.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer