Saturday, August 28, 2010

Good and bad at commentating

When I left the UK I said that I’d miss two things: Radio 4 and the cricket, especially county cricket. Thanks to the internet, Radio 4 is on tap (as I type I’m listening to the wonderful Dr Jonathan Miller reviewing archive recordings of his career), and ball-by-ball coverage and commentary of county and test cricket from the BBC and CricInfo means that cricket in England can be lived in every respect, except for the joy of eating Jaffa cakes and scotch eggs in the sun.

A far cry from my early visits to New Zealand, and the first two or three years of living here. Then, finding out the score was a question of locating a faint BBC World Service signal, or relying on two-day-old potted scores in the New Zealand Herald. I was even reduced to the weekly shame of skulking into McLeod’s Bookshop in Rotorua to buy a copy of the international edition of the Daily Express.

Now, it’s very different. Last weekend I watched the end of the third test at the Oval on television, listening to the Test Match Special commentary at the same time, while keeping in touch with Kent’s latest collapse, against Lancashire, on CricInfo.

Such reliance on the media means that the quality of the commentary is crucial. Fortunately, the BSkyB and Test Match Special teams have not let me down. On other occasions in the past few weeks I have not been so fortunate.

When BSkyB took over the exclusive contract for English cricket in 2006 some tough decisions were taken about the composition of the commentary team. Paul Allott and Bob Willis, both of whom had worked for BSkyB from its inception, were relegated to the highlights and county cricket. Allott is bland, and the absence of Willis takes the heat off the Samaritans, who would otherwise be stretched to breaking point with calls from the desperate, driven to the edge by Willis’ mournful commentary spells.

What remains is the strongest commentary line-up of any around the world, with Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton outstanding. Atherton came to BSkyB after four successful years with Channel 4, and he is a historian, so it is no surprise that he is good. But as a player and captain, Hussain came across as intense, prickly and humourless, so it is a pleasant surprise that he is an incisive, interesting commentator with dry humour and the ability to make an Essex accent sound intelligent.

And there’s Bumble, David Lloyd, who is both shrewd and funny, qualities that many commentators think they possess (see below) but few do. He provided the commentary box moment of the match at the Oval when talking passionately about Alistair Cook’s footwork having forgotten to pick up his microphone:

On the radio, Jonathan Agnew is completing twenty years as the BBC’s cricket correspondent. Agnew isn’t in the class of John Arlott or Alan Gibson as a wordsmith, but is good enough and gets the mix of analysis and humour just right. Though I’d stick with Arlott, Gibson and Mosey as my all-time line-up, I’d add Agnew as fourth commentator were I allowed one, just ahead of Brian Johnston.

Agnew’s pleasing line in self-depreciating anecdotes—there was a cracker at the Oval about how he hid in a cupboard on Test debut to avoid being sent out as night-watchman—probably leaves those who did not see him play with an unduly underwhelming idea of his ability as a player. In fact, he took more wickets than any other bowler in county cricket over several seasons in the 80s, and it is a minor scandal that he only played three Tests. In 1988 he took a stack of wickets early in the season, but was omitted from the first Test on the grounds that the pitches he had been bowling on were too bowler friendly, an argument undermined by the selection of his Leicestershire teammate Phil de Freitas instead. On the same pitches, de Freitas had taken half as many wickets as Agnew.

At the Oval, a listener emailed in a “Boycott bingo” card, consisting of a number of the great man’s most well-used phrases. Boycott was not a summariser for this match, so knew nothing about this when he arrived to record the daily podcast at the close of play. The idea had taken Agnew’s fancy, and he took the opportunity to extract as many of the phrases on the card as he could. Boycott fell for it every time, along these lines:

Agnew: Where should they bowled, Geoffrey?

Boycott: In the corridor of uncertainty...

Agnew: Different from the pitches in your day which were?

Boycott: Uncovered pitches...

Agnew: It was an easy chance. How would your Mum have caught it Geoffrey?

Boycott: In ‘er pinny...
And so it went on.

Unfortunately, Henry Blofeld has replaced the pleasant Bristolian Simon Mann in the radio team for the Lord’s Test. Blofeld would have us believe that he was created by PG Wodehouse, when really he is only one of Lord Snooty’s more irritating pals.

At the other end of the commentating spectrum, I give you Pete and Ed of Radio Bristol. I got up in time to hear last hour or so of the Radio 5 Live commentary on T20 finals day, but it cut off online a few overs from the end, so I found this pair instead. I know that T20 is supposed to attract people who have never been to the cricket before, but not to commentate, surely.

When I lived in Bristol, Radio Bristol’s cricket commentary often led me to put my head in my hands while muttering “please make it stop” and things have not improved. Neither Pete nor Ed appeared to be able to identify the type of shot played, were shaky on player identification, and didn’t know what the rule was to decide a tied game (which is how the final between Somerset and Hampshire ended). Worse, they didn’t have the vocabulary to sustain a cricket commentary. In the tense last over, the best Ed (or possibly Pete) could offer was “I shall need the toilet soon”.

And further down the food chain, there’s Danny Morrison, one of a five-man team covering the ODI tri-series between Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand in Sri Lanka. Morrison hung around the fringes of the commentary team in New Zealand for a decade or so, but was used for international games very rarely. Yet now he pops up all the time on international games from South Asia, and the IPL.

Employing a curious vocabulary of synonyms (the bat is the “willow” or “blade”, the stumps the “woodwork” and anybody over six feet is the “big fella”) and cliché, Morrison’s commentary consists of a disjointed stream of consciousness on which a Freudian analyst could base a career’s research if extracted from a patient under hypnosis. It never includes anything that is interesting, or not, in the immortal words of Basil Fawlty, “the bleeding obvious”. He pauses meaninglessly in mid-sentence, and plonks (to plonk: a verb coined by Clive James in his TV reviewing days, meaning to stress the most unimportant words in any sentence). His purpose here seems to be to make Tony Greig look literate.

He does not succeed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

At home at The Oval with Allen Hunt

Kent played a home T20 game against Essex at The Oval last month. They lost, as they usually have this season, but it was a decent contest, Essex passing Kent’s 171 for six with two balls to spare.

Playing a home game away like this has caused a good deal of grumbling among the faithful, and may not have been a success, with a crowd of only 7,000 attracted when many more were hoped for, though this is twice the average T20 crowd at Canterbury this season, apparently.

No doubt when the game was scheduled it was anticipated that Kent would be heading for the final stages of the competition for the fourth year in a row; instead, they began the match all but eliminated.

Playing a home game at The Oval is not a new idea. I recall it being mooted in the eighties. It made good sense then, and still does. With the disappearance from the county circuit of Blackheath, Dartford and Gravesend, a game a season near home for the county’s many London fringe supporters redresses the balance, and most train lines in Kent point to south London.

Anyway (and this will come as a surprise to most) Kent played a home game at The Oval in 1981, and I was there.

It was the Benson and Hedges quarter-final against Warwickshire, scheduled for Canterbury, but moved to the Oval on the morning of the scheduled third day after a deluge had prevented play on the first two days set aside for what was, in theory, a one-day game.

At 133 for two, Warwickshire appeared comfortable chasing Kent’s modest 193 from 50 overs. Then collapse, the remaining eight wickets falling for just 46 runs. My firmest memory of the play is of a splendid catch by Alan Ealham to dismiss “Yogi” Ferreira. I must write about Ealham, one of my favourite players.

As might be imagined in these circumstances, the crowd was sparse. Of the few present, only two were sufficiently intrepid, dedicated and lacking in perspective to watch from the top deck of the pavilion, a fine view, but grievously cold in the face of a scathing northerly. So it was that I made the acquaintance of Allen Hunt.

I was to spend a lot of time at the cricket with Allen over the years that followed, around Kent and, particularly, at away games. He cut a distinguished figure, slightly raffish even, with swept-back white hair and goatee beard; Allen would often sport a cravat, which made him stand out like a Zandra Rhodes model when compared with the sober suits favoured in the top deck of the pavilion at Canterbury. He would have been about seventy then, but could have passed for a man fifteen years younger. That remained the case for most of the time that I knew him.

Allen passed the CLR James test (“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?”) easily. A civil servant in the Ministry of Education, he had acquired an MA from the London School of Economics in middle age, and continued to teach adult education classes at City University into his eighties. It was just that he thought cricket more interesting and rewarding than anything else.

In 1968 he won a Kent Messenger competition to pick a greatest-ever Kent XI. The prize–very exotic for those days–was a trip to South Africa to watch part of the Test series between South Africa and England. When the tour was cancelled as a result of the South African Government’s shameful refusal to accept the Cape Coloured Basil d’Oliveira as part of the touring party, Allen handed the holiday on to his niece. “No use to me with no cricket to watch”, was his view.

He divided his time between his flat in Leyton, east London and his house in Halling, north of Maidstone. I never went to either, but those that had described a somewhat chaotic existence, particularly when it came to meal times, which would consist of a fusion of whatever tinned food was available. Corned beef would share a plate with rice pudding, to save washing up.

Allen was a wonderful person to watch cricket with, drawing upon seven decades of cricket watching to analyse the game with intelligence and wit. He was my window on to cricket’s past, describing, among many other things, watching Les Ames score a century in the first Test played by New Zealand in England at Lord’s in 1931, Frank Woolley batting, and Tich Freeman bowling.

An entourage collected around him. There was “Budgie” Burgess, Brian Cheal, exiled like me in Bristol, the two Rays, and his most regular associate, George Murrell. George was a little younger than Allen, and also retired. Slim, dapper (readers of a certain age should think of the keyboard player from Sparks) and possessed of a tinderbox wit, George was also excellent company. I was sitting next to him at the Oval in 1985 when Graham Dilley took a hat-trick. He claimed, somewhat improbably, never to have seen a hat-trick before and said, rather wistfully, “I had intended to have the words ‘He never saw a hat-trick’ on my gravestone”.

Winter days were always brighter for the appearance of a letter from Allen. They would never contain small talk, but would arrow straight in on the main point. Had I heard that a particular player was thinking of leaving, or that we had signed a talented young player? Occasionally he would stray on to the subject of the fortunes of Gillingham FC (he rarely missed a home game, unless it clashed with the cricket, obviously).

I last saw Allen at the Kent v the Australians game in 1997, the week before I left for New Zealand. His health had started to go downhill, and he couldn’t manage the train any more, but had got a lift from a neighbour. So much to talk about, so little time.

The letters continued to arrive over the next couple of years, with increasingly unsteady handwriting. They became irregular, and stopped coming as the century approached its end. For me, it is still a sign that a day’s play has been interesting if I think, as I leave the ground, that I’d like to write to Allen to tell him about it.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...