An international treasure

TED CORBETT

BILL LAWRY, the Australian dour left-handed opening batsman, their captain for 25 Tests, and now the high-pitched voice of their Channel Nine commentary team, is not everyone's hero.

It is easy to mock his 65-year-old squeakiness, his appreciation of Shane Warne because "he's Australian, he's Victorian and I love him" coming, as it does, from a 6 ft 2 in and almost impossibly scrawny body.

How can anyone love a man with a nose that a Roman centurion might have envied, the nickname of "Phanta", the vocal range of a screaming parrot. No wonder he has lagged some distance behind Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell in the popularity stakes.

But he's my hero and I don't care what anyone else says. I think he is the finest television cricket commentator the world has ever known. But then I never did pick the same heroes as everyone else.

I realise that, like Lawry, I have the world against me; but when I set out to prove my case it took me no more than 10 minutes of his stint during the New Zealand v South Africa one-day international at Adelaide Oval in the recent tri-series to find the evidence.

Right on top of the previous dismissal of Stephen Fleming, as the New Zealand tail struggled to match the South African score, Lawry and Benaud were still discussing Fleming's departure when Allan Donald ran in and bowled an outswinger which Adam Parore edged low to Shaun Pollock at slip.

Lawry takes up the story immediately with the most vivid and comprehensive description.

"It's got him! It has him! Has it? I think he's got it. I think it was a clean catch. It was a very good catch. He's on a hat-trick, Allan Donald. Here's the catch. (Replay begins of Pollock taking the ball in front of his right boot). Coming forward is never easy at first slip. The umpires are conferring. The batsman's not moving." (Channel Nine begin to show replays of the Fleming dismissal and the Parore edge). "The first one is certainly out. What about the second? The batsman is not moving. The umpires are conferring. The South African fielders thought it was a clean catch. Watch the replay. There's the nick. The ball goes to slip." (He leaves a long pause while the replays flicker across the screen again showing that the ball either hit the ground or the tips of Pollock's fingers before it was secured in the palms of his hand). "Oh, wow that is a tough one."

The whole story told in fewer than 100 words in half a minute. It spurts through the microphone and into the satellite system as if Lawry's voice were driven by a machine gun on steroids, yet every word is clear; and if you take the trouble to re-run the tape as often as I did, you can hear the tale grow and develop as one of the finest cricket brains explains his own thought processes.

For all his self-taught background in the classics, the writer Neville Cardus could not improve on Lawry's description; and the radio commentator John Arlott never caught the moment with greater clarity.

That burst of words is typical of the best of Lawry. And, as with the rest of life, the art is in the detail.

We can all fall in love with the terse knowledge of Benaud - and the best of cricketers think no-one else ought to be mentioned alongside this maestro - the gruff and blunt words of Chappell and Greig's relentless positive, upbeat message; but if a wicket falls while Lawry is talking you get the whole story so quickly and thoroughly. I needed half an hour to transcribe those words from video to lap top.

The longer I worked at the project the more I realised that here was an instinctive, natural story teller, employing the modern idiom to paint a picture as vividly as anything that has ever described sport on the hoof.

Note that the first two sentences of this sequence tell you what Lawry still believed at the end of the third umpire's long review: that Parore was out. But after only six words he realises there's a doubt.

I guess it flashed from his memory - because at this point there was not yet time for a replay - and he knew he was right. "It is a very good catch," he says and although I cannot give you the emphasis in print those six words summed up the whole, evolving snatch of sporting action.

The instinctive cricketer inside Bill Lawry knew that catch was properly held whatever camera science said later.

Lawry continues to add to the drama. He is already summing up the consequences: New Zealand in trouble, Donald on a hat-trick. Then he paints the picture of the batsman waiting and the umpires asking for a replay verdict. And talks the viewer through the pictures that he is seeing for the second time.

In less time than it takes your family saloon to go from nought to 60 he is also telling his audience that this decision is going to be difficult.

To prove that point the third umpire lingers two minutes watching half a dozen replays before he reaches the conclusion that Lawry brings home to the viewer in a single mouthful.

It was a tough call; too tough to call and, for the moment, Parore is given the green light to remain at the crease.

There is more to the Lawry half-hour commentary stint than his description of a batsman's departure. Throughout, he leaves no-one in any doubt that he loves cricket and cricketers, that he would rather be on TV talking about his game than anything else on earth.

He will die happy, make no mistake about that, if he was behind a microphone at a World Cup final in his especially beloved MCG with Australia claiming victory.

I know, since there was a time 10 years ago when I was a regular visitor to the Channel Nine commentary box, that he is the most intense of commentators, that he will sit and stare at the field for 30 minutes before the day begins, that he never leaves the box while the cricket is in progress.

All these habits were learnt in his Test days when his opening partnership with Bob Simpson was the finest in any arena. He was never popular then. Simpson had style and flourish; Lawry ground out his runs about as attractively as a pneumatic drill digs up the road.

The reason he is no hero except to me is that it is so easy for his critics to mimic his voice. The microphone loves Arlott's Hampshire burr or the easy-listening timbre of Jon Agnew, the Welsh lilt of Tony Lewis or even the rough Yorkshire vowels of Fred Trueman; it cannot do anything to enhance the Lawry cackle.

He does not provide a smooth, effortless voice-over like those baritones who sing the song of the animals and the forest on the Discovery Channel; and he will never have Mark Nicholas's urbane and fluent vocals.

I guess, by the way, that Nicholas will be the new Arlott, the new Agnew, the new Lewis, soon after he takes the lead place on Channel Four's cricket commentary team when Benaud bids us all a final adieu and retires to France for good.

Nicholas will, just mark my words, one day be called better than Arlott. His mother is an actress and it shows in every gesture and intonation. Some mock his love of a good mirror. I suggest he is simply a performer determined to get his act together.

Long before Nicholas reaches perfection, Lawry will wonder if he ought to step down and tend the pigeons he has kept all his life and forget the high pressures that come from working for a national network TV station.

When he does - and those excellent new boys Mark Taylor and Ian Healy step up to take his place - we will miss him, and his "it's all happening at the MCG." Because no-one calls the cricket like Bill Lawry. Bless him, he is an international treasure.