We sit and watch our cricket on television, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. And we listen to the expert commentators, former Test cricketers all of them, some with the suitable voice and style of delivery, some without. Irritating TV commentary can at least be turned down (whereas on the terraces, if you’re stuck near a spectator with a honking voice, there’s little you can do about it). Some people watch television with the sound turned down. But the risk here is that you might miss something of interest. So, you keep the volume fairly low, and concentrate on the moving picture.
It’s one of the great sadness of our time that starry-eyed producers have an obsession for employing men (at a rumoured salary of £600,000 per year for some of the Sky commentators), who once played international cricket, as if this achievement alone guarantees not only a suitable voice for long-term broadcasting but a good grasp of the language too. Occasionally, this is achieved.
But there are quite a few misfits. And I hear that commercialism has disfigured cricket further with commentators covering IPL matches being persuaded to describe a six as a “something-or-other maximum”.
There was a time when broadcasters had to be up to scratch in terms of certain basic requirements. In England, sport was fortunate to be brimming over with high-class commentators such as John Arlott (cricket), Kenneth Wolstenholme (football), Bill McLaren (rugby), Harry Carpenter (boxing), Dan Maskell (tennis), Peter O’Sullevan (horse racing) and Peter Alliss (golf).
They were all masters of their trade, mellifluous and also knowledgeable on a broad basis. It’s regrettable that very few of today’s cricket commentators meet those standards.
It used to be a golden rule of cricket commentary on television — utterly justified — that as a ball is bowled, silence must prevail. Nobody seems to have told Shane Warne. He nasalises at a furious rate, scarcely stopping for breath, pausing reluctantly for perhaps half-a-second while the ball travels the 22 yards. Tut-tut. Probably only Richie Benaud (a pioneer and 80-year-old dinosaur among today’s commentators) and Michael Atherton and a couple of others are aware of the value of the periods of silence. For the rest, it’s as if they’re being paid by the word.
Spoken words seldom add much to the excitement. It is essentially the visual of the cricket action itself backed by the crowd’s roar that makes up the drama. This is not radio we’re talking about. Radio commentary is based upon the old precept that the commentary should create a vivid image of the action for the benefit of a blind man, whereas television commentary demands that the picture should be enhanced by any useful information that the commentator may add. The occasional anecdote is also welcome.
Another shortcoming is the inability of these former Test cricketers to put matters into a solid historical perspective. The reason for this is simple enough: they seem to believe that cricket history began with their own entry into Test cricket. Thus you hear such myopic statements as “Way back in 1998...” Way back? Sachin Tendulkar was then already 25 years of age. Have they never heard of Grace and Hobbs, Merchant and Mankad, Trumper and O’Reilly? They can’t avoid having heard of Don Bradman, because each time run records are being discussed, he is on the list.
One other oddity about BSkyB UK’s presentation is that, rather like Channel 9 in Australia, no credits appear at the blunt conclusion of a day’s (or night’s) transmission. The cameramen, the director and other production people surely deserve on-screen acknowledgement? Perhaps, it’s because of people like me, who are not altogether happy with the finer points of commentary, that the producer has no wish to identify himself.