Men behind the microphone

John Arlott, Brian Johnstone, Alan McGilvray and Don Mosey were serious men, giving cricket its worth, explaining the game to the uninitiated, and offering as fair a verdict on its rights and wrongs as is humanly possible, writes Ted Corbett.

One day — when dinosaurs roam the earth again or we witness the birth of an honest politician — cricket will acknowledge the role radio has played in its history.

I say so at the end of a rainy day spent listening to tales of long ago by former cricketers now past their sell-by date. I promise you I have not been bored for a minute.

Of course I was brought up in the era of John Arlott and Brian Johnstone, long before television took over with its cast of a thousand ex-players with their dictionary of cliches, their “hopefully” this and “hopefully” that, their “fantastic performances” and their feeble prejudices.

It was 1948, the year of a severe thrashing by one of the greatest Australian teams that I became fascinated by the descriptive power of the men without pictures, reporters who clearly loved every minute of what I realised must be an ideal life telling anyone who would listen just what was happening in the wonderful world of sport.

I can remember their phrases to this day. “His name is Fred Titmus and he is on his way to the wicket, marching like at a good pace like a light infantryman, which is only appropriate since he is on leave from his Army unit.” That is just one line from the Arlott book of thrilling words.

Johnstone delighted in the pre-planned pun. When Prince Charles married Princess Diana he accidentally — maybe — called St. Paul's Cathedral “the pavilion” and when the supporters of a wrongly-convicted man poured oil on the Headingley pitch he wondered if the ball might turn on such a surface.

In the main, Arlott, Johnstone, Alan McGilvray and Don Mosey were serious men, giving cricket its worth, explaining the game to the uninitiated, and offering as fair a verdict on its rights and wrongs as is humanly possible.

After Arlott retired at Lord's — without any fanfare even though play stopped when his final stint ended and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause — the BBC team, now broadcasting all day without let or hindrance, descended into a state between light comedy and farce.

Now they are back at their best, even though Jon Agnew, the lead commentator is too keen to point out the idiosyncrasies of foreigners and bemoan the fate that keeps him from his natural home in Middle England, and Christopher Martin Jenkins, too fond of “official” statements even though he delivers his verdicts in such careful English that there is something for a future commentator to learn in every sentence he speaks.

I suppose that is only to be expected of a man who has risen through the ranks to be president of MCC. At least he and Agnew can increase the excitement level at important moments and — unlike the latest bunch of football commentators — without screaming unintelligibly.

There has been a tendency in recent summers for the football men to take over a Test or two when they do no more than demonstrate that they cannot understand the subtle differences that has made cricket the best-loved game.

This trend underscores the point made by John Woodcock, the doyen of cricket writers, at a Cricket Writers Club dinner several years ago that in the present atmosphere it might be impossible for Arlott and Johnstone to find a place in the 21st century commentary team.

But back to today's commentary if that is the right word for the collection of anecdotes, jokes, casual reminiscences and reflections on cricket life that took the place of rained-off action.

There was more than enough for the youngster who hopes to grow into a full-time professional cricketer one day: from Phil Tufnell who explained how he planned the downfall of his victims and Alec Stewart who — surprisingly — described Tufnell as a deep thinker about the game.

That has become more evident since Tufnell retired and, with considerable success, turned to radio and television. Many sneered at his hopes of making his new life a new career but the longer I listen to Tufnell the more I think Stewart is right. For all his comic attitude he is a cricketer with a brain and that is more than can be said of the many sportsmen and women behind a microphone.

There was also an hour-long description of the birth of the Rose Bowl, the latest Test ground, from Mark Nicholas and his pals. “No one ever pushed a mike towards M. C. J. Nicholas and was greeted by silence,” a friend once said to me but that is a wonderful asset when there is time for a prolonged talk on a subject he knows better than anyone.

British radio and television and Australia's Channel Nine — run by men who will not tolerate fools — have all seen the value of Nicholas, captain of Hampshire, a candidate for the captaincy of England in the 1980s and now an estimable journalist who has, like our colleague Peter Roebuck, made one of the happier moves from the sports field to the writing and talking game.

Nicholas is now full time on TV — giving it 4-444 in Australia during the southern summer and 444-4 in England during the other six months — but radio has missed a great performer, with a gift of the gab, the voice of an actor and the timing of a stand-up comedian.

One day, although grass may be blue and birds fly backwards first, the Queen will be gracious enough to make one of these men a knight of the realm to mark their work for cricket.

Not before time.