The Commentators, Old and New

Cricket commentators are a unique breed in broadcasting. They work in pairs and shifts in a game that could depend on the format last up to five days. It’s a sport that requires more explanation than most with its tactical complexity and arcane methods. Typically there is a paradox in the way cricket is presented on screen. Less is often more and plainly obvious when these particular broadcasters speak forth. The doyen of cricket commentators Richie Benaud once said ‘my mantra is: put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up. The key thing was to learn the value of economy with words and to never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see’. It’s an absolutely seminal statement and if there was a bible for sports commentators this would be lesson one.

Benaud played the game at the very highest level and captained Australia to three Ashes wins. So he commentated from a position of authority and credibility beyond question. There was no need to fill the air with endless chatter and irrelevant stats. When Benaud spoke you listened because something important was about to happen and our viewing experience would be enhanced. The earliest commentators I can remember date me pretty accurately and it was a dynamic duo that nurtured my love of cricket. Alongside Benaud was the redoubtable Jim Laker. Like his partner Laker enjoyed a fine playing career, starring for Surrey and England in the 1950s. He famously compiled match figures of 19-90 against the Australians in 1956; a match in which Benaud played and helped strengthen the on-air chemistry.

Laker had the same economical and relaxed approach but with a more earnest delivery. He was certainly less likely to display the dry humour of Benaud. But could be heard chuckling gently in the background as a comic aside wafted over. When Sachin Tendulkar was enduring a torrid time as India’s captain, Benaud wryly observed ‘sections of the Indian media are calling for Tendulkar’s head and other parts of his anatomy I shouldn’t wonder?!’ They essentially worked in shifts with guest summarisers on hand. Former England internationals Tom Graveney and Mike Smith were always welcome contributors; as was journalist Tony Cozier who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of West Indian cricket.

Everything was pinned down and anchored by Peter West. With such reverential tones he could easily have been presenting coverage of a royal wedding. Nevertheless, his cathedral mutterings were an essential part of the broadcast. I still remember his tear stained announcement during the Headingly test of the 1975 Ashes series. It had to be abandoned when vandals took knives and oil to the pitch. Test cricket took a breather on Sundays as Jim Laker joined John Arlott to commentate on the John Player League. Arlott was as English as a cup of tea served with a Huntley & Palmer’s biscuit. His true medium was radio, and he became synonymous with the peerless Test Match Special. But it was a joy to hear the first 20 overs called by Arlott followed by Laker’s equally measured observations in the second 20 overs.

Listening to sport on radio can be a frustrating and unnerving experience. But Test Match Special led by John Arlott provided a unique perspective and was a godsend before saturating live TV took hold. It was the only way of keeping tabs on England’s overseas tours. Arlott’s penchant for poetry came to the fore as he painted vivid pictures in the listener’s mind. The incident of a streaker once sent Arlott into literary overdrive ‘we’ve got a streaker down the wicket now, not very shapely and it’s masculine. And I would think that its seen the last of its cricket for the day’.

As the 1990s dawned, the Beeb’s stranglehold on cricket was broken by Sky as they broadcast live coverage of England’s tour of the West Indies. Exclusive rights to the World Cup were later awarded to Sky, leaving the Corporation with a limited package. After 1999 the Beeb will not broadcast live cricket for another 20 years. The times they were a’ changing; Jim Laker sadly died in 1986 and Richie Benaud moved onto Channel 4 who sensationally won joint broadcasting rights with Sky. A new breed of commentator was gradually emerging. Unlike football, former players would regularly make it past the pundits couch and into the commentary box.

David Gower was an outstanding batsman who scored over 8,000 runs in 117 test matches for England. Superlatives are in short supply when describing the left hander’s playing ability, but they carried over seamlessly into a broadcasting career. With natural self-effacing charm, Gower was an instant hit. He became a captain on the hugely successful They Think It’s All Over. He also cemented his status as the new voice of cricket on Sky. He formed a memorable partnership with Ian Botham as they became the new Benaud-Laker combo that had served the BBC so well. Both former England captains, they had the benefit of being recently retired so could offer real insight.

However, they had young pretenders to their title as Gower later observed, ‘It’s the old’uns versus the young’uns, Ian and myself versus Nasser and Mike. There’s a lot of cross-generational banter as well as pure dressing room banter’ . Nasser Hussain joined Sky Sports as his retirement took effect in 2004. Alongside Gower, Botham and the late Bob Willis, he became the fourth England captain to join the commentary team. Also in the mix was the irrepressible David Lloyd. Bumble was the eccentric but lovable uncle who brightened up the party. The fifth England captain to join was Mike Atherton. He quickly cut his teeth as a journalist following retirement but would make his greatest impact on TV. He signed with Sky in 2005 and became especially adroit as post-match emcee interviewing players and presenting man of the match awards

In 2019 Gower was released by Sky after the best part of 20 years heading their cricket coverage. He was typically philosophical but many were baffled by the decision. He later returned to front BT Sport’s coverage of the Ashes series in 2021-22. Alan Tyers of the Daily Telegraph welcomed the return of his ‘assured, amusing and urbane’ commentary. Ian Ward was effectively Gower’s replacement as lead presenter at Sky and has proved a likeable and able broadcaster. But with the greatest of respect I can barely remember him as a player. A solid county career mainly with Surrey was complemented by 5 test appearances in 2001. Unlike his predecessors, Ward was still a player when he first worked in the media, and has grown into a reassuring presence as both anchor and commentator

As the sport moves into an environment increasingly driven by TV money, there is a constant stream of new talent coming thorough. Ebony Rainford-Brent and Alison Mitchell represent the next wave of broadcasters who work for both Sky and Test Match Special. The latter is now 65 years old and still going strong, although Ebony and Alison don’t appear to have lost letters from their name yet; not like Aggers, Daggers and Tuffers. It’s a complicated business and we should perhaps leave the last word to John Arlott who once said ‘we take life too lightly and sport too seriously’.

Brian Penn

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