Last night, after a fairly busy day culminating in making myself an evening meal, I decided on a whim to retire to bed just after 8.30pm for no other reason that I was weary and felt like it.
It proved to be a happy move because, quite by chance, I had only just missed the beginning of what turned out to be a two-hour programme on Radio Five Live entitled Voices of Summer, whose sole purpose was to celebrate the cricket commentators who had served on Test Match Special and elsewhere seemingly since the end of the Second World War.
It featured Mark Pougatch as presenter, studio guests Jonathan Agnew and Vic Marks plus (as subsidiaries) Brian Johnston’s son and ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, the Radio 2 disc jockey … and an endless supply of favourite/typical commentator clips and/or interviews through the decades.
John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Don Mosley, Richie Benaud, Tony Cozier, Fred Trueman, Bill Frindall, Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Vaughan and Henry Blofeld were amongst those mentioned, discussed and fondly recalled, often illustrated as necessary by recording extracts of them at the mike.
It was one of the best radio programmes I’ve heard in years. Pougatch, Marks and Jonathan Agnew reviewed what qualities had made – and continues to make – Test Match Special so unique and distinctive in a relaxed, far-reaching conversation that covered all the bases that a listener would expect, plus then on top some that were innovative, surprising and unexpected. Aggers in particular impressed me. He seemed to have the knack of talking – often in tribute of one colleague or another – in paragraphs that were articulate, simple, insightful, fascinating, sometimes amusing, always humble and self-effacing … and all without hesitation, repetition or ‘umms and errs’.
Amongst the interesting advice given out to any aspiring cricket commentator (not that I ever was one) was to ‘be yourself’, aim your comments at an imaginary friend or aunt, and remember that the key task is to describe the action [a contrast with television commentating, where you don’t always need to, and where pauses and silences can be useful].
During the final hour of the programme – a strong indicator of its overall quality was the fact that by now I was wide awake and stayed thus to its conclusion – there were excellent celebratory segments on Brian Johnston and then John Arlott.
Inevitably the former’s legendary ‘Leg Over/Stop it Aggers!’ collapse into giggles during an ‘end of the day’ review of play featured as a highlight (it still ‘does it’ for me) and, for Arlott, they had chosen his poignant reaction to Don Bradman being bowled for a duck in 1948 by Eric Hollies in his last-ever Test innings when he needed to score just four run to finish with a batting average of 100.
They played Arlott’s commentary on the innings in full and unedited. After mentioning that Bradman had been bowled, Arlott did not utter another word for over thirty seconds as the crowd applauded the Australian captain all the way from the crease back to the pavilion.
It was noteworthy that afterwards those in the studio all agreed that a modern commentator would never get away with what Arlott did – they’d have had a producer screaming in their ear to say something (anything)!
This was 120 minutes of top quality radio broadcasting.
Not a description that could be applied to its earlier BBC2 television equivalent from 5.30pm, featuring live coverage of England’s Women’s World Cup opening match against France taking place in Monkton, Canada, which ended in a 1-0 victory for the latter.
The BBC – for reasons that have been discussed elsewhere on the Rust – had plainly thrown everything they could at it. Jonathan Pearce was the main commentator, aided by a former England women’s international. Before, at half-time and afterwards, back in the studio, they had a female presenter, two female former players and Danny Mills.
All of these did their best, but they had such poor fare to describe and discuss that huge passages of the coverage was spent clutching at straws, trying – without a great deal of success – to make hyperbole and stereotypical ‘footy tactical jargon and player descriptions’ justify all the expenditure and the supposed importance of the occasion.
Meanwhile the contrary evidence out on the pitch was all too clear to the viewers at home.
The England team was exhibiting all the various weaknesses of the England men’s team these past fifty years. Furthermore, though at least they ran hard and scored good marks for effort, their technique was limited, frequently resulting in the ball being hoofed to no purpose downfield, straight to the opposition, or simply sliced into touch.
This viewer regrets to admit that well before half-time he had been reduced to marking the players’ looks out of ten [the French team, inevitably, were also ahead in this department] and nipple-counting in the cold, blustery, wet local conditions.