Radio times

Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Henry Blofeld were the apprentices of such greats as John Arlott, Don Mosey, Alan McGilvray and Brian Johnston and the only link now with those great days, writes TED CORBETT.

Once, so long ago that it might have been in dreamtime, you could turn the switch on your radio and poetry emerged. Those were the days and now they seem to have gone forever.

John Arlott was the finest of the commentators in that almost forgotten era but that was only to be expected. He wrote poetry and at one time he had been a poetry producer with BBC where he handled the words coming from other poets like Dylan Thomas, the Welsh wordsmith, whose Under Milk Wood is one of the finest plays in the English language.

Soon after the Second World War, Arlott tried his hand at cricket commentary and by 1948 he was so famous that, at the end of a long summer of defeat at the hands of the Australians led by Don Bradman, he could refuse to talk about the way England were being bowled out for 52 at the Oval.

Instead he talked — lovingly, with style, poetically of course — of the sights around the ground, of the old pavilion that had seen so many great batsmen emerge since it staged the first Test in England in 1880, and even the gas holders away on the midwicket boundary.

Arlott made the gas holders the best known objects within cricket. He went on to talk and write about the game until 1981 and when he finished his final stint the crowd at the Centenary Test at Lord's rose to thank him for his years behind the microphone.

I wrote to thank him for my career. He was the inspiration for hundreds of young journalists taking to writing or broadcasting and if there was any justice in this cynical world we would all say a prayer of thanks to him every day.

His Hampshire burr had become compulsory material for every mimic good or bad and round the world — in those days BBC could be heard everywhere — those in love with cricket arranged their lives around their need to hear him speak.

In Madras schoolboys hurried home from school to listen to his commentary; in England teenagers took their radios to bed with them and spent half the night absorbing his words from Australia.

I remember cycling home furiously from grammar school to listen to him and how cross I was when I found the battery — one of those old acid-filled ones that were such a pain to carry from the shop after they had been recharged — had run down.

Yet within a few years of his retirement to the Channel Island of Alderney — I have so far not had to consult a book of reference because the facts of Arlott's life are so deeply imprinted on my mind since he was as well-known as any cricketer — I had another bad experience.

An after-dinner speaker based his whole speech on an Arlott imitation and — good as he was — did not get more than polite applause. The Arlott days were over and he was no longer in the public mind.

I have used Arlott as an example yet there were plenty of other poets broadcasting. My own favourite was Don Mosey, sports writer turned BBC producer, who valued words above everything else in life and, incidentally, wrote five books with the late Fred Trueman.

Robert Hudson, Rex Alston, Alan Gibson, Alan McGilvray, Brian Johnston and the rest all had other radio work; Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Henry Blofeld were their apprentices and the only link now with those great days. Jon Agnew, who combines what he learned as a cricketer with a natural enthusiasm, is their grandchild but he lacks the old guys' respect for the laws of grammar. Still, language changes and why should he not use it in a modern way?

No young radio person in this country and few anywhere seem to know the difference between "less" and "fewer" but that may be another sign of the changing times and surely it is better that language has a life rather than that it should lose all movement. Instead, both on radio and television, we are now in the era of the expert, the former cricketer; the poetry has been turned off.

Now that Richie Benaud has left the gantry, the commentary boxes are filled with men who seem to think all words mean the same, who rely on the clich�s of the dressing room to express their thoughts and who turn the most banal idea into a diminutive.

They use the expression "bit of a" so often that I began to think it was perhaps an old Russian republic called Bitova. But no. What these buffoons are trying to describe is something more serious.

A bit of a broken leg means a badly damaged limb; a bit of a collapse often indicates all out 46; a bit of a problem is a grave moment in the history of the game.

Of course, there are moments when they lighten the scene by explaining how reverse swing works, why second slip is missing, when the declaration will come; but that is within the orbit of any competent reporter.

What none of these experts can do — besides use the English language as well as Arlott, Mosey and Gibson did — is to tell a tale. There is an exception. The great West Indies commentator Tony Cozier is worth listening to any day of the week, in Barbados, England, Peshawar or Mumbai. He descends from a journalist and, besides, in the Caribbean there are any number of journalists, broadcasters, calypso singers, rap artists and others with the gift of the gab. The use of lingo is loved with the same passion that flowed though the veins of the men who dominated the golden age of radio.

Can we ever go back to those diamond days? I think not.

Just as the lack of music halls means there is no place for the entertainers to learn their trade, so the BBC decision to drop commentary of county matches, means there is no place for a young cricket commentator to have a net.

But there is hope. During recent winters BBC, using their digital radio channel, have sent their young men from Radio Five Live abroad to help cover England's overseas tours.

Last winter I came home early from trips to Pakistan and India and listened to the commentary on radio while I watched the television coverage with the sound muted. (How television people hate it when you say that!)

The likes of Martin-Jenkins and Agnew came home too so that the work was left with Arlo White, Simon Mann and Johnny Saunders, Arlotts in embryo perhaps.

We will see how they develop but the first sounds were attractive and it may be that before long schoolboys will also be cycling home furiously to hear what they have to say about tomorrow's Tests.