'The art of commentary isn't telling people what they are seeing'

Ian Chappell talks about jingoism in the box, technology in coverage, and what he thought of the underarm incident and Lillee's run-in with Miandad

Interview by Gaurav Kalra  |  

Play 23:46

Watch and read part one of the interview here

Let's talk about the other aspects of broadcasting that are important. One of them - neutrality. Was that something you had to cultivate within your work simply because you are this iconic Australian captain? You were identified as an Australian, you are in the box for Test matches involving Australia all the time?
I found it pretty easy. I mean, I think you should - it should say "impartial broadcast" on your CV. It came pretty easy to me because I remember being in England in 1972 for the Ashes series - the first time I captained overseas. And the Olympics were on right near the end of that tour, in Munich. We had the Olympics on television quite a bit and we were getting the English commentators. They were barracking rather than commentating and that annoyed the hell out of me. I thought, "Jesus, I don't like blokes who start barracking and I'm not gonna do it."

But I think also it's part of your job. If I'm listening to cricket commentary and I can hear certain blokes - particularly a couple of Englishmen I'm thinking of - barrack for England, and as England start to go down the mine, their commentary goes down the mine. You can hear from their voice: "This is not going too well."

If Australia have a good victory, you run into somebody the next day or a couple of days later and they will say, "Oh, you must have had a great party after that Australian victory." I'll say, "No, mate, I was on the first plane out of there, as quick as I could. And I always say, I stopped worrying about winning and losing cricket matches in March 1980 and there is a simple reason for that. Before March 1980, I could do something about it. Now I can't do anything about it.

There were a couple of incidents that were quite prominent, that still get talked about: the underarm incident involving your brothers, and the incident between Javed Miandad and Dennis Lillee, where you were quite critical of Dennis Lillee, weren't you? Do you remember those broadcast moments? And was there ever a thought in the back of your mind, "These are my brothers", or "This is my leading fast bowler"?
I don't think I was actually commentator. I was in the commentary box, but I wrote a column. I was writing for the Sydney Sun in those days and you know, I was quite categorically against what he did.

"If the broadcasters don't like what I am saying, just sack me. I understand that, but don't tell me what I can and can't say"

Richie actually made [the remarks] and Greg [Chappell] was pretty annoyed with Richie's comments. I think he said it was a "gutless decision by a gutless captain". I think Greg accepted my criticism but he was very annoyed about the "gutless" comment. I knew what I was going to write, but before I wrote, I thought I might just do a bit of a tester here, so I rang Jeanne, my mother, and I said, "Oh, what did you think about…?" And Jeanne always said to me, and I think she said it to the other two brothers, "Look, if you committed a murder, I'd still support you." And I said, "Well, hope to hell you never have to do in those circumstances, Jeanne."

But anyhow Jeanne was very supportive and I thought, this is going to be difficult to write, but I felt that I had to write and I wrote it.

Very funny, because I don't see Greg after the underarm. That was in Melbourne, the next game was in Sydney, and I am living in Sydney, so I drive to the ground. We used to park in those days on the SCG Number 2 ground. As I parked there, a big bus pulls up right next to me and the band who are going to play before play get off the bus. The Australians are practising down the end of the Number 2 ground. I haven't seen Greg since the underarm. I thought, right, now is the time. So I'm walking past the nets and Greg is bowling and I go, "Good day mate, how are you?" He looks around, there is no hello or anything. He says, "Thought you would have come on the bus." And I said, "Mate, you know I live in Sydney, I've got my own car, why would I come on the bus?" "On the bloody bandwagon like the rest of those bastards." I said, "Well, mate, if you don't like what I write, then perhaps you should not read the newspapers." He paused for a moment and said, "Probably just as well you disagreed with it," he said, "because I ordered it, Trevor bowled it, and if you'd agreed with it they would have thought we're all bloody mad." So that sort of cut the ice and everything was fine from that time on.

And the Lillee thing, yeah. In fact, David Hill, our producer, said after the day's play, "Get down there and interview Dennis about the incident with Javed." That did create a bit of a dilemma because I didn't think Dennis should be saying anything about it. At that stage I doubt that he'd had the hearing to decide what his punishment would be, and just as a mate I thought he's probably better if he didn't say anything.

So I went to him and I said, "Mate, David Hill wants me to do an interview with you about the incident, but as a friend I am suggesting that you don't do it." He said, "Okay, I won't do it then." So I went back and told Hilly, "No, he hasn't agreed to it." But I've never had a problem with Dennis. You know, Dennis knows how I feel about it. We had that relationship. One of the things I always felt as a captain was important was honesty. The players needed honesty from you and whether they liked me or they didn't like me very much, they always knew they were getting honesty from me.

Ian Chappell (in jacket) shoots a television commercial with (clockwise from left) Greg Chappell, Jeff Thomson and Richie Robinson in 1975

Ian Chappell (in jacket) shoots a television commercial with (clockwise from left) Greg Chappell, Jeff Thomson and Richie Robinson in 1975 © Fairfax Media via Getty Images

You continue to be part of the Channel Nine coverage. There are a lot of recent Australian players coming into the commentary box who are openly biased and sound like they are supportive of the Australian team rather than objective commentators. Is that a fair assessment?
It does annoy me a bit when it's a bit jingoistic. See, I was very lucky again. I said to you originally that I drove to Sydney chasing Barbara Ann, and I was lucky that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Sydney was the right place, but also, we were just starting out. I mean, the cricket coverage had been going for three seasons, but also Wide World of Sports, the Saturday afternoon show, was starting up and I got a gig there.

But the main reason why I was lucky was because both David Hill and Brian Morelli - David was the producer, Brian the director - were very, very brilliant at their job, and they had time to help you learn from them. After cricket, let's say a five-day Test match, I reckon two of the five days we would be up in Brian's room or David's room. All the commentators would sit around, have a drink - "That was rubbish", "What was that all about today?" I remember Hilly one day saying to Richie, "Now, Richie, just go through that business about legspin bowling again, will you?" and so Richie explained it and Hilly said, "Ha, now I can see, and I see how we can use that on television." So we kicked all these things around and they had time to tell you things about commentary - don't do this, do this.

Now, I get the feeling that, you know, with the ex-player who comes into the commentary box, it's: "Right, that's your microphone, here's your earpiece, good luck, that's your training now." I had much better training than that and I feel very fortunate that I did.

Have you ever sat down with a few of the guys who come in? Do you ever feel as a senior broadcaster that you've noticed something, or they are wandering off into areas that you feel are troublesome? Do you see that as part of your mandate or do you stay away from that?
It goes back to the days when I was a player. I didn't like old players coming up to me and saying, "Oh son, your grip is wrong, you know, you should be doing this, you should be doing that." If I had a problem with cricket in some form, I'd ring Richie or talk to Keith Miller and Lindsay Hassett a bit over a drink. So if somebody comes to me and asks for my advice, I'll give it, but I don't like to start foisting my advice on people. If I feel there's something that I should say, I'll say to the guy, "Mate, do you want to hear my opinion?" and if he says, "No, I don't", well, he don't want to hear it.

"I stopped worrying about winning and losing cricket matches in March 1980. Before March 1980, I could do something about it. Now I can't do anything about it"

Is it starting to become a real trend now? That you're almost seeing cheerleaders as commentators.
I think only in certain parts of the world. Quite often when I am at home and I say to Barb, come and watch whatever sporting event it is, she will say, "Are we going to have their commentary or are we going to have your commentary, because if it's yours, I'm not coming down." I did get very irate, but as I said before, how I learnt a lot about commentary was from listening to other commentators. Again, I worked on the same basis I did with my captaincy - the things that I liked about a certain commentator, I try to do, things I don't like about it, I try not to do. But I do get a bit irate with commentary from certain parts of the world.

We're seeing increasingly home boards now being producers of the coverage. It's not just an Indian phenomenon, we've seen it in South Africa as well. Is that also something that worries you? Because at the end of the day then, is your independence compromised?
Well, to me, it's very simple. If they employ whoever it is as a commentator, if they don't like what the guy is saying, they just sack him. If they don't like what I am saying, just sack me. I understand that, but don't tell me what I can and can't say.

And the other area where I have a real problem with the ICC is the DRS. The DRS should have nothing to do with television, and television people will tell you that. It's an entertainment part of the telecast. Some of that technology came about to enhance the television coverage but not to be involved in the decision-making process. That, in my opinion, should be totally ICC. They should pay for all the equipment. I would love to ask someone from the ICC to explain to me the logic or the fairness of the fact that Test matches are played under different laws in different parts of the world, because obviously the boards who can't afford the greater technology don't use it. So those players are hampered because they're not playing under the same laws as, say, England and Australia. That's ridiculous. So if the ICC want to charge extra for the rights to pay for all the equipment they've got to have and all the technology, that's fine - I have no problem with that. But they not only should provide all the equipment, it should be under their auspices as well. It should be the umpires running it, not the television director.

There's almost an image of Ian Chappell being slightly anti-establishment. I think you carry that almost as a badge sometimes.
I'm anti-stupidity, that's what I'm anti.

"Mark Nicholas [first from left] was captain of the Hampshire is a damn good presenter. I'd put him in the same category as Richie. He is a very good salesman for the game" © Getty Images

Do you feel that the modern commentator is under pressure because of this landscape? Because of having to be almost politically correct about things he wants to openly express but doesn't know how the authorities are going to see it?
One problem I see for cricket administrators is, they're charging so much for the rights now that the television companies are having to do so many things to try and recoup their costs. That involves things during the over, so there's a lot of commercial things that you've got to play to recoup your money. I mean, you can be talking about something as a commentator and suddenly you hear from the director, oh, we got to do such and such. It's not relating to what you're talking about. I find that can be at times quite annoying. I understand they've got their money and that's why I think that there's got to be a happy balance between what you charge for the rights, so that you don't compromise the telecast, because eventually if the telecast becomes unwatchable because it is so commercialised that kids aren't watching it, well, they are your future. They're not only your future cricketers, but they are your future cricket watchers. So I think you need to be careful and hit that right balance. Sure, you need a lot of money to run the game, but don't go so far that you make it unwatchable.

Then there's the other area that has changed a hell of a lot and that is the technology and the graphics. These are pretty expensive things and the television company goes, oh this is good, we're going to buy that and we buy something else. Now, you have to use it, and again, sometimes it's not used in the flow of the game. It's just, boom, suddenly it appears there out of the blue. To me, it's not relating to either what the commentators are talking about or what's happening in the flow of the game. So there are all those sorts of things impinging on commentary, making it different from when I first started. But if you're a commentator, you just got to try and work around them.

Is there a place for the non-cricketer in cricket commentary? Is there no place at all for a guy in the box who may not have played the game at the highest level to come in and be a part of the system?
I think there's definitely a place for guys who are good broadcasters. I'll give you two examples. Mark Nicholas played at a pretty high level - he was captain of Hampshire - but he's a damn good presenter. I'd put him in the same category as Richie. He is a very good salesman for the game. Another good pal of mine, Alan Wilkins - played decent cricket, played at first-class, county level in England, but he's a good broadcaster. Now these people have something to offer and they've got an opinion that is going to be different from a guy who's played at Test level. And sometimes a guy who's just come off the field and into the commentary box needs to have this information drawn from him. And a good broadcaster can do that. You can do it also as an ex-Test cricketer. But yes I'd say: definitely. It's like picking a cricket team.

Go back to what David Hill said about that original quartet of commentators - they were all different and you don't want everybody having the same opinion, same sort of voice. You want a mixture. And that mixture definitely includes guys who haven't played Test cricket.

"I get the feeling that with the ex-player who comes into the commentary box, it's: 'Right, that's your microphone, here's your earpiece, good luck, that's your training now'"

Are there two or three guys that you like listening to today from the modern generation of commentators?
Of the guys from other countries, I like listening to Nasser Hussain, because I think Nasser looks at the game as a captain - captain of both teams. And I think that's how you got to do it. And I am surprised that more blokes who were captain don't look at it that way. But I think Nasser is very good at looking at why is this team on top, what's that team got to do to get back into the game. He's got ideas and he's got opinions and he's quite prepared to state them. I think that's good.

One of the greatest compliments I was ever paid was from a guy called Pat Murphy. Works in radio for the BBC, also does a bit of writing. I had done an Ashes series in Australia with BBC radio as well Channel Nine. At the end of the series Pat came out to me and he said, "I've worked with you before," he said, "but I really enjoyed this summer. You know the reason why I enjoy working with you?" I said, "No, why is that Pat?" and he said, "Because you tell us what might be about to happen rather than what has happened."

And that's one thing that really annoys me. Every time I hear it on television I can hear Brian Morelli in my ear, saying, "Last ball, last ball, last ball." What he's meaning by that is all you're talking about is the replay and I can hear some commentators actually waiting for the replay to come up before they say something. Now, if you've played ten or 15 years of international cricket and something's just happened on the field, you should not have to wait for a replay before you say something. You should be able to make some comment. What if something goes wrong with the machine downstairs and the replay doesn't come up? You're just going to sit there with nothing? It's very boring television when all you hear is just the last ball, the guy talking about the replay. It will be mostly because he's just talking about what you're seeing. And that's not the art of commentary - telling people what they are seeing.

Forty-odd years of doing this - you're still having fun?
Thank you for reminding me, Gaurav.

From your vantage point, where is the game right now?
I think there was an ideal time for cricket to sit down and work out a blueprint for going forward. And, to me, the ideal time was when the ICL started, and then you sort of had the genesis of IPL. To me that was the time for cricket to sit down - administration, umpires, players, sponsors, media, even representatives of the fans - sit around the table and say, right, where are we going with this game? Where is this game going to be in the next ten years?

First question, do we need three forms of the game? Okay, if the answer to that is yes, how do we go forward with all three games complementing each other, not one cannibalising another? If the answer is no, we don't need three forms - all right, which one are we going to eradicate here and how do we go forward?

But I've never seen any blueprint for cricket going forward. To me, cricket has evolved as a whole lot of knee-jerk reactions. If you think about it, Test cricket was perceived as boring, so along came limited-overs cricket. Then I started to hear people saying, oh, limited-overs cricket is boring, the middle 20 overs nothing happens, it might as well just go from the first 15 overs into the last ten and forget the middle bit. Out of that we got T20 cricket.

So my question, which is a pretty logical question, is: what happens when people get bored with T20 cricket? Are we going to have a five-over game? Well, hopefully I won't be around when that happens because I don't really want to be. I certainly don't want to be working on it and I certainly don't want to be watching it.

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Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75