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Part Two: How To Be A Commentator

Apart from playing, there can’t be many jobs better than sitting around chatting about cricket all day. Whether you fancy following Richie Benaud as a classily understated TV specialist, or joining Blowers and co on the wireless for some cake and a giggle, we’ve enlisted the help of a selection of commentators from a variety of styles and backgrounds to bring you the ultimate guide to ‘talking cricket’ like the pros.

Lesson 1: Start early

MCJ Nicholas, former Hampshire, England A and Suave XI captain, has gone on to commentate for Sky Sports and Channel 4, now operating as anchor-cum-commentator for Australia’s Channel Nine and the highlights on Five. It turns out he’d been practising since way before even his playing career took off. He told AOC: “I loved commentary even when I was a kid and could do an impression of the whole lot of them. I could do [John] Arlott, I could do [Richie] Benaud, I could do [Brian] Johnston, I could do [Denis] Compton… I was always able to do impressions and I used to play Test match cricket in the garden – I would start at 11.30 and my mother had to have lunch ready at 1.30, tea at 4.10, supper had to be ready at 6.30. And I frequently would commentate on those matches: I had a couple of mates who would come round to play the Test matches at the back of our garden. I used to mark it with white emulsion paint and then I would interview the captains; all my imagination went into creating Test match cricket. Down in the attic of my mother’s house in Wiltshire I’ve still got the scorebooks that I did.” Quite apart from being a key lesson in our commentators’ guide, this is just a brilliant story. Get to it, youngsters.

Lesson 2: If possible, be an ex-international cricketer

There’s no getting round it: if you happen to have played a few Tests for England, you’ve got a good head start in the commentary game. Mind you, it’s not essential: Henry Blofeld, Test Match Special’s legendary elder statesman and veteran of 42 years’ commentary but zero Test matches insists: “You’ll always need professional commentators on the radio to describe the action. There’s a difference between a commentator and a summariser.”  Even when you have played the game, it doesn’t mean your knowledge gets recognised. Phil Tufnell, another pro-turned-TMS pundit, tells us: “When the spinners are on I can say he’s doing this, he’s got that fielder there because he wants to do that, etc, and that’s where you can impart a little bit of your knowledge. Some people are a little bit shocked with what I come out with and they go: ‘Blimey Phil, that’s quite a good observation’ – I say: ‘Well I did play the f**king game for 20 years!’ You don’t get to play for England a few times without having a clue! Some people just think I was just permanently drunk! But I’ve actually got quite a good cricket brain.”

Lesson 3: No cuss words

You might be used to using and hearing a bit of colourful language in the changing rooms, on the boundary or from the sofa, but that won’t do in front of the mic.  As a commentator, you have to find words to describe the action that are suitable for the airwaves. Tuffers again: “I must admit at the beginning, it was difficult not to, but now I can mentally switch and I just don’t do it. The first time I did a bit of commentary for Sky Sports a guy played an off drive and I just said: ‘Oh, he’s twatted that through the off side!’ The producer came running and said: ‘Phil you can’t say that!’ and I was like: ‘What did I say?’  It hadn’t occurred to me as swearing because I just thought of it as a cricket term. You’d sit there in the dressing room and say: ‘He’s twatted that!’ It was quite a good early reminder though. That’s a crucial one.”

Lesson 4: Don’t take things too seriously

Be funny. And if you can’t think of anything much to say about the cricket, tell people what’s going on around the ground. Blowers, who famously likes to present a rounded picture of a day’s play, and still does theatre tours as a raconteur – both alone and with former TMS producer Peter Baxter – says: “Humour and laughter are so important, otherwise it’s frightfully dull. I wouldn’t want to listen to a non-stop diet of cricket for eight hours a day. When cricket is exciting, the cricket takes over and you don’t have to deviate, but cricket’s like a symphony concert: there are slow bits, the middle bits and the fast bits, and when you get to the slow and the middle bits you want to go over the boundary and talk about other things. I think that’s an important ingredient, honestly. A sense of humour is desperately important – and that can’t be taught, it’s something you’re either born with or you’re not. Even more than that, the important thing is being able to laugh at yourself. Funnily enough, the fame of Test Match Special – rather paradoxically – is as much to do with its non-cricketing content as with its cricketing content.”

Lesson 5: Be yourself

“There’s only one rule when it comes down to it: be yourself. Never try and be anyone else because it sounds contrived. Just be yourself and develop your own way of doing it. I suppose when I started I thought I was going to be a little bit different from simply: “A bowls to B and B hits it to C and C gives it back to A via D at mid off” – I wanted to do a bit more than that. That was my approach from jolly nearly the very start.”

Lesson 6: Be impartial

“The thing I find quite difficult when on TMS is not saying ‘we’ when talking about England,” says Tuffers. “I used to say ‘us’ and ‘we batted well there’. It’s not a hard and fast rule but the truth is I still sit there and get excited when I see England play and I want them to win. You’ve got to try and be balanced, which we are, and perhaps when we get a bit excited the producer will say: ‘Tuffers it’s not WE, it’s England’. It doesn’t happen often but it does sometimes, like during the Ashes at The Oval in 2009, when I was like: ‘Get in there!’” (pumping his fists). Nothing wrong with that Tuffers, we all were.

Lesson 7: Get the voice (but don’t try too hard)

Not a great deal you can do about this (unless, like Mark Nicholas, you’re a bit of an impressionist) but if you have a distinctive lilt of some kind, you’re certainly one step ahead. Blowers is a fine example. “The great figures in TMS have always had distinctive voices,” he says. “You know instantly you hear a syllable who it is. It’s important to have distinctive voices that resonate cricket for the listeners.” However true that is, it’s no good trying to talk artificially if you weren’t born with cricket in the vocal chords. As Tuffers says: “How can you change your voice? You are what you are. Sometimes I think I sound a bit common, but I don’t know what you can do. I think Peter Alliss, the golf commentator, has got a great voice and Aggers has got a great voice, but your voice is your voice, isn’t it?” True that, Tuffers.

Lesson 8: Have endurance

When you embark on your commentary career, you might not get into the Sky Sports or TMS box straight away. Take Mark Church, who has been county cricket’s ultimate one-man commentary band for the last 10 years, covering each and every minute of cricket played by Surrey for BBC London: setting up the kit, fielding the emails, tweeting the updates, and, most of all, talking all day, often from a rather makeshift commentary position. For him, the challenges of a day’s commentary are a little different. “TMS is the ultimate, but where we differ from them is that they have a whole team and they each commentate in 20 minute segments, whereas we are on air for all eight hours of the day.” This year Church lost his voice on air for the first time. “That was interesting. I kept going and basically whispered the end of the game. It was Surrey against Somerset, and I literally turned my microphone up full blast, and whispered the end of the game hoping that people might be able to hear.” At the very least, it would have given them a laugh.

Lesson 9: Beware the stat

There’s no doubting cricket’s a numbers game, and statisticians such as Bill Frindall, Malcolm Ashton and Sky Sports’ Benedict Bermange have been able to make a name for themselves by supplementing the headline acts with a few carefully selected morsels of data. But don’t overdo it. “I never use stats,” says Blowers. “Stats are boring. You’ve got a picture to describe. You don’t want statistics, they’re death on the Nile, good heavens! Who cares? Unless they’re sensational – then, by all means. Statistics are fine if they’re really, really important, but if they aren’t important they’re a waste of time, they just get in the way. Listeners want to smile, they want to hear description.” That’s told you. Church is also wary. “Don’t use all your stats up early,” he warns. “If you go headlong in with your stats and you’ve used them all up after half-an-hour you’ve got nowhere to go. You don’t need to go armed with them – these days if you need a stat you can just look it up online very quickly.” So there you are then. Don’t bother researching stats. Or anything, really. If it really comes down to it you can always cheat.

Words: Ed Kemp

Click here to read Part One of AOC’s Designs For Life: Being Funny About Cricket

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