Commentator Brian Johnston broadcasts from the bathtub

Jolly japes, chocolate cakes and broadcasting from the bath: Brian "Johnners" Johnston was a defining voice in cricket in the pre-television era

© Getty Images


The internet of my youth

The best radio commentators kindled the imagination. And some of their lines you never forgot

Jayaditya Gupta  |  

Sao Paulo's Museum of Football is a stunning tribute to Brazil's national passion. Set in the bowels of an art deco stadium, it has the usual museum fare of videos, jerseys, memorabilia, even a film of the 1950 World Cup final "disaster" on loop.

The museum's USP, though, is not the players. It's a set of nine booths that offer the chance to hear snatches of radio commentary from the country's 15 greatest match commentators, spanning all the way back to the 1930s. It's gold dust for fans of sporting history, the voices lending a different dimension to the museum's largely visual feast. The paraphernalia on display tell you how great the footballers were; the commentary clips show why we, the fans, revered them. There is in those snatches of breathless prose, ecstasy, jubilation, shock, hurt, relief, and a wealth of emotions that only true sporting drama can inspire.

What radio commentary did, and still does for those who listen, was to allow for reflection, for the listener to size up the play and come to his or her own conclusions

Those who became sports fans in the television era have obviously benefited from the moving image - what I would give to watch a television broadcast of West Indies at Sabina Park in the 1970s - but the saturation coverage, especially the overanalysis, dulls the senses. There is so much chatter - a surfeit, because the image tells much of the story - that the mind is battered into numbness. What radio commentary did, and still does for those who listen, was to allow for reflection, for the listener to size up the play and come to his or her own conclusions. It even allowed for imagination - building pictures in the mind's eye was part of the fun. I could imagine the scene as I heard Sunil Gavaskar reach his double-hundred at The Oval in 1979, or when, a couple of years later, at the MCG, he ordered Chetan Chauhan to leave the field with him.

The radio was the internet of my youth, its dial and tuning knob the web page and mouse to take you on a journey of discovery. It was on at most waking hours in our house, the programmes as eclectic as Alistair Cooke's Letter from America (a precursor to today's podcasts) or the Bournvita Quiz Contest.

You speak, I visualise

You speak, I visualise © AFP

But the week's highlight was the BBC's Saturday Special sports show. For two hours we would be exposed to more sport than we get in a week today, from horse-racing (flat and steeplechase) to tennis, cricket, rugby and, the icing on the cake, 45 minutes of live second-half football commentary. The next afternoon James Alexander Gordon would read the classified football results (always beginning with "League, Division One") in his soft Scottish burr and with inimitable delivery, often parodied but never matched. Gordon, who died in August last year, wasn't a commentator but his voice could paint pictures out of the most mundane scorelines.

It was a lush soundscape. From the Caribbean the lilt of Joseph "Reds" Perreira and Tony Cozier; from England the clipped notes of Bryon Butler and the "biscuit-in-the-throat" drawl of Brian Johnston; Pakistan gave us Omar Kureishi, astringent and astute; India yielded the emotional, irascible Lala Amarnath; while Australia had the one and only Richie Benaud. A treasure trove of accents, timbres and modulation that Henry Higgins would have given up his phonograph for.

Richie Benaud: insight and inside information

Richie Benaud: insight and inside information © PA Photos

The stories they told were of triumph and disaster. The BBC's Peter Jones had the misfortune of commentating on English football's greatest tragedy, the Hillsborough crush of 1989, in which 96 people died. The match was abandoned but he continued telling the story as it unfolded before his eyes. His final report that evening summarised the day's events in a flat monotone; there was a brief pause before he ended: "… And the sun shines now." A year before that, he had called one of football's greatest upsets, when the great Liverpool side were beaten by rank outsiders Wimbledon in the FA Cup final. I can hear his words even today as he gave in to a rare spot of emotion: "Amazing scenes at Wembley!"

They were simple phrases yet the simplicity is what connects; like with a fine book or play or film, you remember the lines years later. Indian commentary today is often seen as too corporate and bland, and errs on the side of overdone, but it wasn't always so. Lala Amarnath was his own man and he wasn't alone in that. I never heard Pearson Surita's colourful cricket commentary, but I heard him call a cycle-polo match (yes!) in the 1970s. One line sticks in the mind; it involved a fairly large player called Das. Surita's commentary went thus: "The ball goes to Das. Das… [pause] Arse." The unfortunate player had bungled and, with one well-timed word, was shamed for eternity.

Joseph "Reds" Perreira, Tony Cozier, Bryon Butler, Brian Johnston, Omar Kureishi, Lala Amarnath, Richie Benaud: a treasure trove of accents, timbres and modulation that Henry Higgins would have given up his phonograph for

From what I heard of the truly great commentators, and from what I have heard said about them, the difference between then and now is, first, their storytelling, and second, their striking lack of superlatives. Not all the wonderful feats they saw were termed "great" or, that detested word, "brilliant". How ever did they cope? And they had to put up with the same problems or worse - rain, bad connections, technical issues. One man and a microphone. No statistician, no expert. And at the other end thousands of people hanging on to every word. Live.

When the Empire Service (the BBC's predecessor) began live commentary, there were doubts over whether the slow pace of cricket made it a suitable candidate. The first sports they covered were football, racing, rowing, boxing and athletics. Cricket, though, came with several advantages and allowed commentators to turn the craft into an art through a narrative. The duration and tempo of play allow for reflection. Johnston wrote thus of the problems with tennis commentary: "It isn't too easy with tennis. What do you say? Well played, fine shot, beautiful stroke, and so on." Even the clay courts don't help; time simply seems to stretch awkwardly.

Radio, someone still loves you

Radio, someone still loves you © PA Photos

Today the craft is largely functional - the function being to convey as much information as possible. Facts and statistics are paramount; the migration of former players to the commentary box means the analysis is often richer and sharper - and more credible, I guess - than ever before. There is little room for the poetry of an Arlott or the wicked humour of Johnston; indeed the clubbiness of Test Match Special now belongs to another era. In an age of mega and monopolistic broadcasting corporations, there is often little - at least for the Indian television viewer - to differentiate between a Test played in Cape Town and one in Cardiff. The production will be largely the same, so will the commentary styles, and you can be sure that Danny Morrison will be lurking somewhere. In Taking Fresh Guard, Tony Lewis (not top of mind but up there with the best) skewers a current trend: "When commentators talk up some of the play to make the ordinary sound outstanding, they are dumbing down the game itself."

In an age of mega and monopolistic broadcasting corporations, there is often little to differentiate between a Test played in Cape Town and one in Cardiff

The talking up has come about despite the infusion of former players in the commentary box - a move intended to bring in expertise. It has made for more informed analysis but the close ties between broadcaster and cricket board have spawned a parallel trend of ex-cricketers as cheerleaders, big men with clipped wings forced to follow a list of prescribed and proscribed topics. It's at odds with the growing general democratisation in the world of opinion and commentary, where the independent blogger has liberty to take on all comers. Everyone has an opinion and technology has now ensured that everyone has a platform. Everyone also has access to roughly the same set of facts and statistics. So what sets a commentator apart? The answer: inside information. On a recent television programme on the evolution of broadcast commentary, Dean Jones spoke of the importance of Benaud - how below that style and sheen there was a sharp cricketing brain. "When Warney came along," said Jones, "it helped that Richie was on air to explain everything about the mysteries of legspin."

One of the most entertaining commentary exchanges in recent years was between Nasser Hussain and Ravi Shastri over the BCCI's stand against the Decision Review System. Hussain called it a "disgrace" and Shastri responded in a feisty manner. Hussain brought up the issue when the two were on air together, and tension crackled. "I just think I've earned the right, after 96 Test matches, to voice my opinion on the game of cricket," Hussain said, "and surely it's what ESPN have asked me to do." Sadly such candid opinion, and blunt delivery, are a rarity in much of Indian cricket commentary today.

Star power, but at a cost:

Star power, but at a cost: "guidelines" from cricket boards have often curbed independence in the commentary box © Getty Images

Which is one of the reasons why the two months in South America during the football World Cup were an exhilarating experience. The commentary was unscripted and manic, and unabashedly biased without any pretensions of neutrality. And it was extravagant. There are almost as many ways of saying "goal" as there are of scoring one. One of them is the famous "goooooaaal", patented by Rebelo Junior; another is "golgolgolgolgol". Yet another is the curt "goal", a throwaway phrase that you are likely to miss if you're not listening carefully; it's most often used when the opposition scores.

Those two months transported me to the radio days. I have now slipped into the lazy habit of a couch potato, receiving rather than participating. "Here we are now, entertain us," as Nirvana once sang. Television commentary tells me everything I need to know and much of what I don't. The heart soars with each wicket and goal; the mind, shackled and slothful, struggles to follow.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo in India