It was, rather pathetically, the first time I had watched Sky’s take on Test Cricket, and, completely against my prejudiced expectations, I was mightily impressed with their performance, particularly the commentators. It got me thinking about the part these guys play in putting sport over on TV.
The role of the commentator on television differs fundamentally from that of his radio colleague. On radio, the absolute cornerstone of the commentator’s job is to paint a continuous word picture of what is going on to the “blind” listener. Everything else is subservient to that – if there is time, but only if there is time, then comment and opinion can be added. Although it seems blindingly obvious, some television commentators seem unable to appreciate that the television picture really does allow the attentive viewer actually to see what is happening, and the need continuously to paint the word picture à la radio simply isn’t there. This puts fundamentally different demands on the man with the microphone. He has more time to add colour and shape to what is seen on the screen, and this means that different requirements exist for the commentator’s skills.
I have to declare here and now that my interest in sport is not universal – it is in fact very restricted. In fact, over the last 40 years, it has been severely limited to Golf, Cricket, a bit of Cycling, and Motor Racing. So, an expert I am not!
As an aside, I wonder what a psychologist would make of that list. All four sports have personal strategy high on the list of requirements, all are in the end individual rather than team sports, and three of them take place over a long period of time.
Answers on a postcard, please!
Within that narrow list, the TV commentator is an interesting beast. There is a fundamental divide at work in all of them – on one side, those who have “been there, done that”, and if they’ve had the sense to think ahead careerwise, have started the company that actually makes the T-Shirt, and, on the other side, those who come at the sport from outside. In all four disciplines, at least on TV, in my view, it is always the Man on the Inside who does the job best. The outsider can very often describe the action better and can perhaps put words together in a more seamless flow, but, to a large extent, the television image predominantly takes that skill over. It is the added thought provoking punditry which the ex-player can add and give something meaningful to the viewer, which makes all the difference.
This has been my view since the start of my sports viewing, and the constant thread of interest throughout the last 40 years has been to relish the insight and thought from the ex-player. They invariably say something that I hadn’t thought of which normally adds significantly to the pleasure of watching the various goings on. The list of those commentators who get a place in the list is not large – starting with Henry Longhurst, in my view the best ever Golf commentator, and ending yesterday with the immense pleasure I got from listening to the West Indian ex-Fast Bowler, Michael Holding.
Take Golf to start with.
Starting as far back as the start of TV Outside Broadcasts, Henry Longhurst was the absolute doyen of Golf commentators. He was a brilliant, brilliant writer, whose style could give P G Wodehouse a good run for his money. His back page Sunday Times Column was the first thing many people, including me, turned to when the paper arrived. Longhurst’s golfing credentials included winning the German Amateur Golf Championship just before World War II – not up with the Open, but it did mean that he really knew how to play, and more importantly, what went on in a player’s mind – the key to the inside track of adding to any Golf tournament on television, where mindgames are so crucial to success at the highest level.
Ever a stickler for etiquette, even on television, he would never talk when a player was putting, a situation which, when he started to commentate on the Major tournaments in America, had the TV companies over there frantically checking their wiring lines for breakages whenever he had the microphone in his hand.
To demonstrate how only a couple of words from him could get over so many subtle messages, I remember to this day listening to his commentary at the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews. Getting the words and the emotions exactly right, he gasped a heartfelt comment when Doug Sanders, with Jack Nicklaus in extremely hot pursuit, missed a 3 foot putt to win the tournament on the last hole. You just knew that Longhurst, who knew the line of the putt himself because he had probably missed it as well, knew that Sanders was going to miss. He kept absolutely silent until the ball slid past the cup. Longhurst gasped and simply, resignedly and worldly wisely just said “Oh… dear.” He knew what that miss meant to Sanders, and such a simple comment said it all. No histrionics, just the recognition of the frailty of a man under immense individual pressure, but Longhurst got it just right – you could hear him thinking “There but for the grace of God ….”.
Sanders never won another major tournament.
Longhurst’s comments were a model of tightness, precision and knowing accuracy, combined with a beautiful use of language – but underpinning it all was the absolute knowledge and certainty in the listener’s mind that his opinion actually meant something - he had actually felt what the hapless player on the screen was also feeling at that moment, and he had the verbal skills to put those thoughts into exquisite English.
He was followed by Peter Alliss, Ken Brown, Sam Torrance, Mark James and the like, all of whom could play a bit, and learned to put their inner thoughts into words for the benefit of the viewer. All were good, but although they understood the mindgame issues, they lacked Longhurst’s beautiful skill with words, which were similar (better in my opinion) in a way to those of John Arlott. Contrast individuals such as Steve Ryder, who is probably the best of the “all-round” presenters, but lacks the “I’ve been there” factor common to the ex-players. And Goodness knows whose idea it was to parachute Garry Lineker into Golf - he looks to be so embarrassingly lightweight and in the wrong sport. Football’s loss is not Golf’s gain!
As far as Motor Racing is concerned, you might think that Murray Walker was THE Commentator, having been there for what seems to be an eternity, and seeming to be the voice of the sport for as long as you can recall. There have been others, almost exclusively ex-racers, most of whom have actually filled in the detail which Murray Walker missed. He provided the emotion, the adrenalin, the buzz, and usually the mistakes. It was down to people like James Hunt (mercurial, but on his day, hugely perceptive), Jonathan Palmer (a bit distant, but very analytical), Mark Blundell (not the greatest intellect, but a grafter who knows all about driving racing cars), and, by a country mile, the best of the lot - Martin Brundle.
Martin is utterly perfect for his role. He is a very bright individual – he acts as Manager for people like David Coulthard, and is a grande fromage in the British Racing Drivers Club, so the seething snake-like issues of motor racing strategy and politics are second nature to him. He has the trust of all the big players in the sport and can talk to them on their level. He can sum up a highly technical situation simply and eloquently, with words that get across memorably to his audience. His use of language is exciting, apt, sharp, always robust and highly to the point.
Oh, and he’s an absolutely top class driver. You could not imagine a better commentator in any sport – he’s got the lot.
It is difficult to make a meaningful judgement on other sports which have lesser personal appeal, but it is quite clear that the pre-eminence of ex-players is almost a must for excellence in this other sports as well. Not all ex-players have it, and you can see there are more that don’t make it than do, but it is also clear that to make it to the Top of Division 1 in this area you must have been there – think Brendan Foster, John McEnroe, Jackie Charlton (now his brother didn’t make it, did he?)
Lastly however, Cricket, and back to the beginning of this piece. There I am, sitting watching the Test, and listening to a great commentary team, adding tremendously to the enjoyment of the action. Almost all the ex-players Sky use add real colour and shape to the pictures – Mike Atherton, David Lloyd, David Gower, Nasser Hussain and Ian Botham all do well, but for me, the star among them all is Michael Holding.
You simply don’t expect a West Indian ex-Fast Bowler to be as shrewd, enthusiastic, perceptive, accurate and on occasions extremely witty as he is. It was an absolute pleasure to sit and listen to his train of thought, completely different from mine. I lost count of the number of times over the match when I said “Bloody right, mate! I hadn’t thought of it like that” – and if that’s not the point of him being there, I don’t know what is. He talks well in a slow, considered mahogany West Indian drawl that is a total pleasure to listen to - a bit like an enthusiastic Richie Benaud, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.