For the new cricket fan a key element in learning the game is obviously watching and/or listening to matches. With the plethora of games available online, there are plenty of opportunities to watch highlights, watch matches and listen to matches.
As a former public radio journalist and radio guy in general, I have always been a fan of the art of audio coverage. It is through listening to online commentary that my love, enjoyment and knowledge of the game have grown. But if you are to listen to any commentator, it helps to listen to someone who knows what he or she is doing.
Growing up in east-central Indiana, I spent a lot of nights hiding beneath the covers of my bed, listening to live radio play-by-play of Cincinnati Reds baseball. I loved the Big Red Machine—my favorite player on a squad of stars like Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, David Concepcion, Tony Perez, George Foster and Ken Griffey was center fielder Cesar Geronimo (an early indicator of my penchant for taking an alternate path in everything). But what I really loved was hearing the play-by-play commentators, Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall. I especially loved Nuxhall, who always sounded sort of grandfatherly to me. I would listen intently to the games and the post game wrap-ups, right up until Nuxhall would give his trademark signoff, “This is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.” His laid-back “old-timer” approach was the perfect complement to Brennaman’s more classic AM radio delivery. Those voices, to a backdrop of window fans, crickets and distant traffic, provided the soundtrack to midsummer nights of my youth.
Later, when I headed off to college, I became a Chicago Cubs fan. This was in the early- and mid-80s, the days of Greg Luzinski, Ron Cey, Rick Sutcliffe, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg (and later Mark Grace, Greg Maddux, et. al.). Not even good players could bring World Series or much playoff success to Wrigley Field. The Cubs had little going for them, but I quickly became a fan because of the iconic play-by-play man on WGN-TV, Harry Caray, and his color analyst Steve Stone. Harry was a real character. He was often three sheets to the wind by the time the seventh inning rolled around, and his traditional singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” would often be nearly incomprehensible. Harry would sometimes call a home run that would immediately turn out to be a routine fly ball out to center field. But Harry was a man of the people. He and Steve drew you into the game—they made it OK to be a fan, without having to be some sort of uber stats machine. You could have fun, cheer and boo with little knowledge of the intricacies of the Infield Fly Rule, then slap the opponents on the bum and say “nice game, how about a drink” after the game.
It was also in my college years that I was exposed to Red Barber. Back in the golden age of American baseball, Red was the play-by-play man for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the 1980s, he did weekly guest interviews on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition with Bob Edwards. I loved his voice, his drawl, his verbal mannerisms and his elegant and unique descriptions (“he’s in the catbird seat,” and “he’s a dirt picker-upper” among them).
My final baseball voice of preference belonged to Vin Scully. It is Scully’s voice describing Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner allowing a routine grounder to go through his legs which is etched in the national baseball consciousness. It was also Scully who described Kirk Gibson’s iconic World Series home run: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Vin, like the others on my list of favorites, knew how to describe a scene and, just as important, he knew when to shut up and let the scene play without commentary.
One thing nearly all of the above people had in common is that they didn’t have what I call “radio chops.” At the times I was listening to them, anyway, they didn’t feel the need to grab hold of themselves and shout in their most masculine, serious and deep tones. They were artists and craftsmen. Like Eric Clapton, they knew when to soar, and when to let the space between the notes tell the story.
So, what does this have to do with cricket? As I mentioned very early on, when listening to cricket it is important to listen to someone who makes it easy for you to draw a mental picture, and understand what is going on. They draw you into the experience of being a fan at the game. The above examples from my baseball listening days will give you an idea of what I like to listen for in a commentator.
My favorite cricket commentator, hands down, is Mark Church. The commentary man and jack-of-all-media-trades for Surrey is friendly, knowledgeable, engaging and well-spoken. Back when I was first getting interested in cricket, and searching online for an England county to follow, I picked Surrey mostly because I liked the way Mark Church calls a game. Much like the best cricketers build an innings through the fluid use of skills, timing, momentum and intuition, Church takes his listeners through each day’s play with an aura of friendly self-assurance. He draws listeners into the seat next to him through the open friendliness of his approach, and his gentle humor and obvious love of the game make sitting there next to him a real pleasure. He isn’t overly technical—he does a nice job, in my opinion, of making his commentary accessible to all levels of cricket followers. And if, as a beginner, you need to ask a question, he is always there on Twitter or via e-mail to engage with the listener. I am also an admirer of Church’s chemistry with his analyst, Johnny Barran. They poke and prod one another gently like old friends who’ve been coming to the county ground since Prince Charles had ears smaller than the Hobbs Gate. Barran’s well-timed statistics and his now-famous Cricketing Question of the Day add to the overall ambience and help make Surrey’s matches a can’t miss audio experience for me.
I am also a huge admirer of Henry Blofeld, the man with the name and sartorial leanings of a Bond villain. Bloefeld is a long-time fixture of Test Match Special, BBC Radio’s program providing coverage of England’s international cricket. Listening to Bloefeld is a real pleasure. He is an elder statesman, so it is a bit like sitting at the feet of your grandfather, hearing stories of the great feats of history and giving relevance and context to what is happening out on the cricket pitch today. Bloefeld’s detractors take aim at his attention to details such as trains, buses and pigeons. What they miss is the importance of such details in delivering listeners to the cricket ground. Blofeld is a master of creating a picture in the mind’s eye. What does someone likely notice when they are at the cricket—or any other sporting event? Other than the sport, of course? They notice the pigeons swooping down onto the field; the wildly dressed fans; the traffic going past the ground; the smells and the sounds and the tastes in the air. These are the gifts Blofeld brings us as listeners—gifts that pick us up and place us bodily in the seats at Lord’s or the Oval or Trent Bridge. Some may be put off by Henry’s aging and crackly voice; I am not. Even though listening to archival footage of Blofeld is a sumptuous joy for the ears, I wouldn’t trade the wizened version for anything. Those cracks are like the shiny wear on a baseball glove—they bring comfort to the fit.
My other choice for a list of favorite cricket commentators may be seen by the establishment as a dark horse, while others may see him as the first choice to make sense. Daniel Norcross is the founder and head honcho of Test Match Sofa. Test Match Sofa is billed as an alternative cricket commentary. It was born from the need to get cricket match audio coverage to overseas fans because the BBC’s coverage of “away” matches is blocked from overseas listeners. Norcross and his compatriots literally sit on a sofa and watch cricket coverage on TV, with the sound turned down. They then commentate for a large and growing community of online followers. I like several of the sofa sitters, but Norcross to me is the pick of the lot. He could do this as a profession. He is a fan, and his encyclopedic knowledge, exuberance and love for the game help draw one into the match. If there is a weakness it would be that beginning listeners may get lost in the swell of cheers and guffaws at happenings on the pitch, but that is more than made up for by the technical knowledge displayed by Norcross and his colleagues. When you are listening to Test Match Sofa, you really are just another fan, hanging out with friends, watching the cricket—only this time it is from home, and not from the cricket ground. The sofa sitters—and Norcross in particular—have excellent, clear voices and are actually quite good at communicating what is happening at the match. And they have fun with it—something the more staid purveyors of commentary could learn and practice. They have funny jingles, they kid one another mercilessly but lovingly and they have created a soon-to-be classic lunch game, called the Birthday Game. You’ll need to tune in to learn more about that one. Norcross also has a pleasant voice with admirably fluid tones and clear delivery. Norcross makes much of being an alternative to Test Match Special, but I enjoy both versions of TMS. One needs a classic standard before one can be an alternative, after all!
So, there you have it, my list of favorite commentators. There are many, many fine BBC county cricket commentators and analysts out there, and my “favoriting” these particular folks in no way demeans the collective or individual appeal or ability of those I left out.
To check out Test Match Sofa, visit http://www.testmatchsofa.com/.
For Test Match Special, go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/cricket/tms.
For a list of matches with live audio commentary each day on the BBC, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cricket/13629853.
For an online archive of England county cricket commentaries from this season, available as MP3s for downloading or streaming any time, visit http://pupheadsoftware.com/ccc/lv/.