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.

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