Growing up in England, you listened to the radio or, when you could, watched cricket on the TV. By today’s standards, some of this experience was, shall we say, amateurish. Camera angles were not quite where we wanted them to be, sound could veer in and out and, sometimes, one sensed that commentators were not quite sure what they were doing. Sometimes, though, they were brilliant. From John Arlott, I remember the silences on the TV. He was quite happy to allow the viewer to see what was happening and didn’t feel the need to comment on every ball or every movement of the batsmen. There was a presumption that his audience knew what was happening most of the time and he would elucidate now and again. Richie Benaud also adopted a similar technique. Now, watching broadcasts from all over the world, I sometimes yearn for just a little bit of silence. Admittedly, Arlott could be rather surreal on the radio. Events could be happening on the field and he would be chatting about the dappled sun down at long on or the flash of the seagull’s wing on the telephone wire. Pure poetry but…
I liked it that he and the others did not feel it was their job to entertain us. The listener and the viewer were more than passive entities waiting to be entertained. Somehow, we were part of it and didn’t need winding up into fits of frenzy when someone scored a “maximum”. The game was entertainment enough and he saw it as his job to elucidate what was happening in it for the listener or viewer. And this is where the modern idea of entertainment can lead this cricket lover into some dark places. The commentators desire to make every match a thriller, every match something special, can wear this viewer out and I am exhausted after the first over. Take it easy, I say. Lay off the hyperbole and drama and let us watch the cricket together. I’d much rather you helped me understand what’s going on during the game than listen to your opinion of a rule change. If you want to do that let’s have a pundit’s talk show every week. I’d watch. I’d probably throw the cat at the screen a few times but I’d watch.
With all that being said, two examples of TV commentary have really impressed me lately. In the Tri-Nations Twenty20 final, Mark Chapman took a wonderful catch over the boundary rope but still in the air. Before his feet touched the ground he had lobbed the ball to the fielder who was still in the field of play. The TV commentators were somewhat unsure what the ruling was on that play – and they admitted it. After scrambling around a little, Craig Cumming talked us through the rules as we watched Chapman’s catch in slow motion. Great commentary.
The second piece of commentary that really struck me was during the final of the WBBL where Mel Jones and Lisa Sthalekar were discussing the fact that a battter at the wicket had been sent in higher up the order than normal. The key word here is discussing. We weren’t subject to the quick value judgments that are so common among some commentators who feel that telling us their opinion constantly in an assertive tone is what they should be doing as they reply to judgments made by another commentator in the box in the same tone. I suppose disagreement in the commentary box do entertain us somewhat, but how refreshing to hear Jones and Sthalekar discuss why that particular player had come in to bat when they had. The discussion was thoughtful and interesting and covered all the possibilities. It was also educational for the viewers who, presented with these possibilities, were free to make up their own minds.
Commentators, wearing a ferret costume, bad music, and hype dancers are fun appendages to the game – but they aren’t the game. If they bring more people in, that’s all to the good I say and, if that becomes people’s experience of cricket, that’s fine too. All I ask is for is to remember that there are men and women on the field playing a game. It’s a complex game overflowing with all sorts of possibilities from the moment the ball leaves the bowler’s hands. It’s a lonely game for some who play. Hopes and dreams can be broken as individual faults are ruthlessly exposed by playback after playback. We shouldn’t forget that. Ten sauces on your pizza might be fun and make it tastier but it’s the pizza that’s still the most important
Twenty20 – and even One Day cricket – have allowed cricketers to express themselves on the pitch in ways that the old professionals of fifty years ago could not believe. Strange then how little character cricketers and coaches show in interviews. From Lords to The Basin, from Centurion to Adelaide, from Eden Gardens to Dubai, you put a microphone in front of them and no matter where you are you’ll hear the same Orwellian newspeak. “We need to get our structures right”; “We need to concentrate on our processes”; “We’ll learn from this…” ad infinitem. No joy, no emotion, just safe management phrases. Thought appears to have been replaced by a recitation of pre-prepared clichés. Is that all the game is then – a series of processes and structures? I’d rather watch four drawn matches in a row in a drizzle than believe that. Let’s have some emotion at least.
Now, that would be entertaining.
Cover photo: the zing bails flash as another wicket falls. Mike Lewis Pictures.