Richie Benaud lookalikes at the SCG

Hail Grandpa: Benaud impersonators doff their caps to the doyen of cricket commentary

© Getty Images

The Jury's Out

The best commentator on TV

Cricket brings the drama through its narrators' soothing tones, trenchant observations, eloquence and opinions. Our panelists pick their favourite voices

Richie Benaud
By Russell Jackson

I've long held the theory that in all the years he's been beamed into our living rooms from the Channel Nine commentary box, Richie Benaud has become a wise, kindly grandfather to the entire cricket-loving nation of Australia. Rather than overselling what he means to me on a personal level, that possibly understates it; I've spent far more time in Richie's company than I ever did with my own grandfathers. Neither of them knew much about leggies either.

The point is that for a huge number of Australians, Richie has been a constant and unwavering presence amid rapid change in nearly every other part of our lives. Outside of people with whom I actually have personal relationships, Richie's is probably the voice I have listened to most. In his company my brothers and I learned the rules of the game, then some of its history, but mostly the fact that it is special and joyous and thus worthy of careful consideration when we discuss it. Without preaching, Richie always made cricket sound like the most important game on earth, and pretty soon I'd decided that it was.

It's not hugely controversial to say that he is the most accomplished and certainly the most universally loved of all Australia's TV commentators. His distinctive style is ripe for impersonation but also impossible to replicate (aside from the fictional Crocodile Dundee, has any Australian voice ever been mimicked so often and by so many?) and his analysis and views are beyond reproach. Can you ever remember disagreeing with something that Richie said?

I've spent far more time in Richie's company than I ever did with my own grandfathers

Richie's long-time adherence to the theory that you can add to the action unfolding on screen by saying nothing at all is famous, but I've also long admired his subtly different but equally enjoyable tendency to lead with a well-timed "Well, well… "

At their best his pauses provide the mind with a kind of imaginary antique frame around which we wrap the moment unfolding on screen. Sadly, this technique doesn't appear to have rubbed off on the newer breed of callers with whom he's been saddled over the last decade. "Viewers observe for themselves what has happened," he once said, "then, if necessary, have the commentator add something which will be of value." The key words there are "if necessary". Someone should tattoo that on the back of Michael Slater's microphone-holding hand.

Richie's absence from Channel Nine last season and inevitable full-time departure from our TVs, like that of the late Tony Greig and his calling partner Bill Lawry, will leave a hole that can never be filled. The recent suggestion of the channel's CEO, David Gyngell, that he'd like to have Richie phoning it in from his lounge this coming summer was taken in a lot of different ways; primarily as a huge compliment to Richie's standing, but it might also have given his younger colleagues a moment to consider the implied insult. In fairness, no one could possibly build or sustain the kind of gravitas Richie possesses, or imbue viewers with the same sense of trust.

Since he's a part of the furniture now and advancing in years, it's also easy to neglect that Richie was such a cricket revolutionary in the way he read the winds of change in the late '70s and, completely contrary to the prevailing opinions of his peers, hitched his wagon to Kerry Packer and revolutionised the way we watched and understood cricket. You can scarcely think of a time in the 37 years that have since passed when Richie's reputation or judgement could be questioned.

Richie has devoted enough of his heart and mind to cricket to know that it's more than merely a game for a lot of us, but he's never given the impression of overblowing his or its importance. "I thought I had seen just about everything in cricket," he once said of Sachin Tendulkar's batting, "but it is always unwise to think along those lines." We're so lucky to have seen it all through his eyes.

Russell Jackson writes about sport for the Guardian Australia. @rustyjacko

****

Tony Cozier is living proof that you need not have played the game at the highest level to commentate with distinction on it

Tony Cozier is living proof that you need not have played the game at the highest level to commentate with distinction on it © Getty Images

Tony Cozier
By Mike Coward

This is, of course, a subjective undertaking. There is no way around that. Perhaps egos will be bruised, noses put out of joint, larynxes struck dumb. Be that as it may, I agreed to the assignment as it is one of those that always engages and intrigues. And I should confess it is of personal interest. On a handful of occasions during a long career as a cricket writer, I dabbled in television commentary.

It has long been said there is no accounting for taste, and certainly television producers and directors must grow weary of second-guessing the moods, appetites and preferences of their viewers. It is one thing to provide brilliant images, another altogether to complement them with insightful and memorable commentary.

It is human nature to have a favourite commentator even if we cannot always say exactly what sets him apart from the rest. Perhaps it is knowledge or wisdom or the fluency of language or a sense of humour. Or could it simply be the timbre of the voice or a preparedness to remain silent to give greater power to the pictures? And it is also human nature to have a commentator we don't enjoy, and again we cannot always say exactly why we have taken this against him.

Television appreciation of cricket has changed dramatically since I was first on the Test match circuit in England in 1972. And while I accept the more sophisticated technology available to directors nowadays demands a more technical analysis of the game, I do not believe commentary boxes should be exclusively occupied by elite players of the past.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, they all too often provide a narrow and tiresome view of the small world they have always inhabited. As a card-carrying member of the fourth estate, I suppose I can be accused of some bias but I sincerely believe Tony Cozier has earned the distinction of being the foremost television commentator in the game.

Cozier, 74, the most self-effacing of men, has always brought a rare breadth and worldliness to his commentary. A native of Barbados, which has produced a disproportionate number of the game's greatest players, his background as a journalist and editor has provided him with an authoritative voice not only on cricket but on the game's personalities and politics, and on West Indian politics and current affairs. And the incisive thinking and powers of observation that he brought to his celebrated radio broadcasting held him in good stead in television.

Cozier's background as a journalist and editor has provided him with an authoritative voice not only on cricket but on the game's personalities and politics

And unlike many of his peers he travelled extensively, so gaining an insight into the moods and mores of societies wherever the game is played. For good measure he has a deep knowledge of cricket history and has earned the admiration and respect of cricket folk the world over for more than 50 years. Also blessed with an exceptional knowledge of the technical aspects of the game, he has mentored many outstanding commentators, including his good friend Michael Holding. And, of course, he brings to the microphone a most distinctive and silky, even exotic, voice.

As a consequence of his often trenchant views on the administration of the game in the Caribbean and the obsession of television executives with predominantly investing in the services of former players, Cozier is not often heard these days. Unquestionably the game is poorer for the voice of West Indian cricket falling silent. Thankfully his pen remains at his side.

Mike Coward is a journalist and interviewer for the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame

****

Velvet voice, iron beliefs: Holding has earned a reputation for being forthright

Velvet voice, iron beliefs: Holding has earned a reputation for being forthright © Getty Images

Michael Holding
By Fazeer Mohammed

"Whispering Death" with ball in hand. Opinionated and knowledgeable at the microphone. Dickie Bird said he couldn't hear the light-footed but lethal Michael Holding approach the crease at the end of that long, silky run-up. No one is left in any doubt, though, as to Holding's views on the cricket he's commentating on, or any broader issues in the sport, be they controversial, comical or downright ludicrous.

As a fixture on the Sky Sports commentary team for more than 15 years, he stands out for very obvious reasons. Let's acknowledge the two elephants in the room immediately, shall we? He isn't English and he isn't white. He isn't there as a token to variety either. You see, tokens don't make it their business to consistently contradict their colleagues or invariably come up with a different perspective.

Let me correct myself immediately. Holding doesn't make it his business to confront and confound. That's just the way he is: someone who holds firmly to his beliefs - on cricket and other things - whether he is in the minority or the majority.

In 2001 he refused to do commentary for West Indies' home series against South Africa because he disagreed with Carl Hooper being made captain immediately after being persuaded out of an almost two-year retirement. Everyone has dived headlong into the deep end of the T20 pool, yet Holding resists putting a toe in the water, even as someone who initially backed Allen Stanford's money-spinning escapades in the Caribbean before realising that it was all part of an elaborate charade.

Look, Mikey doesn't score points for lovable lunacy, like Bumble has, or encyclopaedic beyond-the-boundary knowledge like Tony Cozier's. His heavy Jamaican twang is apparently much loved in the United Kingdom and elsewhere outside the Caribbean, probably only because it sounds so very different from everyone else in the commentary box. With him it's not so much about style and flowery language but solid content and a willingness to take on issues that everyone else is tiptoeing around.

Michael Holding isn't English and he isn't white. He isn't there as a token to variety either

As a West Indian who rejoiced in the exploits of the four-prong pace attacks of which he was an integral part, it is especially satisfying for me to see Holding flourish in an environment that requires eloquence and articulation as much as it does an outstanding playing career or at least a working knowledge of the game.

To listen to and read English references to "savagery" and "brutality" when he and others were decimating their precious batting line-ups, you would think it inconceivable that any of those fearsome fast bowlers could be capable of constructing a coherent sentence, such was the one-dimensional manner in which they were often portrayed.

So it's especially satisfying to see Holding (and Ian Bishop as well, of course) excelling in an environment where we can appreciate the mental sharpness and perceptiveness that allowed him to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a batsman in a matter of minutes, long before the era of bowling coaches, Hawk-Eye and super slow-motion.

He isn't always right, of course, but at least he has an opinion that he's prepared to defend. In the first year of regular live television coverage from the Caribbean in 1990, Holding, then brand new to the world of TV commentary, clashed more than once on air with Geoffrey Boycott, as England saw a stunning 1-0 lead from the first match in Jamaica overturned to a 2-1 defeat by the end of the final, bruising Test in Antigua.

Almost a quarter of a century on, the emotions aren't nearly as raw, but they are still there, delivered now with a polish and finesse befitting someone who glides effortlessly through every 30-minute stint but has no qualms about delivering the occasional snorter that has his co-commentator calling for a helmet.

Fazeer Mohammed is a Trinidad-based broadcaster and journalist who has been covering West Indies cricket for 25 years

****

Nasser Hussain: perspective, wit, and takes no prisoners

Nasser Hussain: perspective, wit, and takes no prisoners © Getty Images

Nasser Hussain
By Suresh Menon

Our choice of favourite author, actor, musician, or indeed cricket commentator, probably says more about us than it does about the person chosen. If you say George Orwell is a favourite writer, for instance, and leave it at that, it does not add anything to our understanding of Orwell, but it does begin to hint at the kind of person you might be.

Favourite television commentators? It is difficult to think beyond Michael Holding, Nasser Hussain, Ian Chappell, Michael Atherton and Tony Cozier. That's remarkably few from the collection of ex-players, professional broadcasters, enthusiastic fans, public relations men and general all-round patriots who make up the list from across the world.

It might have something to do with growing up - or perhaps it is testimony to the differences in the two mediums - but I can reel off the names of more favourite radio commentators than those on television today. Listening in India to Alan McGilvray early in the morning and the likes of John Arlott and Trevor Bailey late at night (depending on whether the Test was in Australia or England) at an impressionable age ensures that the impressions remain. The best commentators - radio or television - leave something to your imagination; the worst are compelled to state the obvious repeatedly and seek refuge in clichés when something exciting happens.

Hussain has a quite wicked sense of humour and a remarkable mix of empathy towards and distance from the players. The result is a wonderful balance overall - serenity almost

We take for granted the features the best must have in common: knowledge of the game, love for its traditions, strong opinions, instant recall (which helps us see patterns we might otherwise have missed), a quirky perspective, all packaged in a voice and manner that is crisp, clear and a pleasure to the ears. All this might sound obvious, but you would be surprised how few actually have these assets. As is so often the case, some of the best lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

My favourite from the group above, Nasser Hussain, stands out for a few other qualities as well. Increasingly in an inter-connected world, those who explain an aspect of it have tended to take refuge in specialisation. Thus, cricket commentators stick to the cricket without attempting to place things in a larger political or cultural context. Hussain, born in India, brought up in England, married to an Englishwoman, captain of England, might be better equipped than most to see the big picture. And it is a joy to listen to him for the wider perspective he brings.

There is, too, his quite wicked sense of humour and a remarkable mix of empathy towards and distance from the players. The result is a wonderful balance overall - serenity almost - that is leavened by a terrific line in no-nonsense criticism. As he told Ravi Shastri on the 2011 Indian tour of England, "I have played 96 Tests, and I think that gives me the right to express my opinion, especially since that is what I am being paid for." This after he said that not using the DRS was a disgrace, and in another context said that among some excellent Indian fielders a few were "donkeys". He got the BCCI riled, which alone should qualify him as a commentator with a mind of his own.

Suresh Menon is the editor of Wisden India Almanack

****

The voice of 2005: Mark Nicholas' hyperbole is as vital to his appeal as his trenchant analysis

The voice of 2005: Mark Nicholas' hyperbole is as vital to his appeal as his trenchant analysis © Getty Images

Mark Nicholas
By Andrew Miller

"Mmm… ah. Um. Yah." That's the sound of a cover drive, quaffed as if it were a fine wine at a tasting. An initial appreciation of body, as the batsman shapes for his shot. The briefest pause for contemplation, as contact is made and a verdict is awaited. And then, moments later, that definitive, distinctive "yah" as the ball pierces the field, delivered with a satisfied smack of the lips that implies so much more than needs to be said.

Pretentious? Indubitably. But sometimes, as with Shaggy or Chaka Demus & Pliers, an artist or band will come up with the soundtrack of the summer and whatever your initial misgivings, you can't help but tap your feet to the beat. Welcome to the world of Mark Charles Jefford Nicholas, the voice of 2005, the greatest Test summer of all time.

For Nicholas to secure such an accolade was no mean feat given the competition he faced that year, for Channel 4 had assembled a phenomenal array of voices for their farewell season of Test cricket. There was the doyen, Richie Benaud, who scripted his own farewell at The Oval; there were the sirens, Geoff Boycott and Tony Greig, dishing out spleen and superlatives in equal measure; and the Michaels, Atherton and Slater, who quietly honed their craft at the feet of the masters.

But it was Nicholas who captured the national mood like no one else. Like Desmond Lynam in his pomp on football's Match of the Day on the BBC, he was the right voice for the right medium at the right time. There was gravitas and majesty in so much of what he described but also, crucially, a playful sense of belonging. After all, that summer's Ashes was a national event that required a compere as much as a commentator, and as anyone who has witnessed Nicholas take the mic at an awards do, he's pretty good at that too.

There was gravitas and majesty in so much of what Nicholas described but also, crucially, a playful sense of belonging

He could do a fine line in instant, trenchant analysis, not least in his live links to camera before the start of each day's play, but Nicholas' hyperbole was every bit as vital to his appeal. For fans of a certain vintage, the Flintoff-inspired cry, "Oh helloo… massive! Massive!" will remain an exclamation as masonic as an inverted handshake. And then there's his (frankly) nonsensical stream of consciousness on the penultimate evening of the vital Edgbaston Test, which deserves reproduction in full:

"Oh Stephen Harmison! With a slower ball, one of the great balls! Given the moment, given the batsman and given the match, that is a staggering gamble that's paid off for Harmison!"

It was, indeed, a beautiful delivery. But, for the record, the moment was the final over of the third day's play, arguably the perfect opportunity to throw in a variation. The batsman was Michael Clarke, a future great maybe, but still very much a rookie on that trip. And as for the match, well, it was bubbling along nicely at that stage, but with 107 still to win and two wickets left for England to claim, there was some way to go before it could be confirmed as a classic.

But he knew, you see. He just knew…

My personal favourite Nicholas-ism is the one that I replay - without fail - at least once a month, on a perpetual loop like a Vine video but with the soundtrack as obligatory as the one that accompanies that YouTube vid of the two-year-old Brummie doing the Ice Bucket Challenge.

It involves Simon Jones at Old Trafford, steaming in to that man Clarke once again. Prodigious reverse swing and what can only be described as a pornographic "splut" of off stump being ejaculated from turf.

"That. Is. Very. Good!" is Nicholas' instant intonation. Perfection for perfection.

And if only for one summer, then what a summer in which to produce your greatest work.

Andrew Miller is a former editor of the Cricketer. @miller_cricket

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Comments