By Partab Ramchand
As a cricket fan growing up in the 60s I was lucky enough to learn the nuances of the game through the radio commentators over BBC, ABC and AIR. I am aware how much the likes of John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Jim Swanton, Alan McGilvray, Lindsay Hassett, Johnny Moyes, Michael Charlton, Devraj Puri, Berry Sarbhadhikary and Pearson Surita have touched my life. Through their rich voices, colourful descriptions of the game and the personalities and judicious use of cricketing terms I learnt so much about cricket and followed it keenly even though one could only hear and not see the action.
Not for nothing was Arlott universally acclaimed as the `Voice of Cricket.’’ The rich Hampshire burr came through the radio over some 5000 miles away as clear as crystal and how I looked forward to rushing back from school to hear the commentary on the pre-lunch session. Thereafter I alternated between my schoolwork and following the Test match on the radio abandoning the former if the game was going through an exciting phase. Nothing could keep me away from the radio till end of play at 11 pm IST whereupon I heard Swanton’s crisp summary of the day’s action before dozing off.
If the match was in Australia, the day could not get off to a better start than hearing McGilvray at 6.30 am before rushing off to school. On Saturdays I was glued to the radio till close of play at 1.30 pm and even today can remember some mellifluous phrases used to describe Ted Dexter’s batting at Brisbane and Melbourne in December 1962 and Doug Walters’ century on Test debut at Brisbane three years later. For matches in India we were glued to the transistor right through the game if we had the time or rushed home from school to catch the action in the last hour of play.
The love affair with radio commentary continued into the seventies and I well remember the impromptu celebrations that a few of us prepared as India were poised to win the Oval Test in August 1971. The celebrations started the moment the cheery voice of the commentator announced that Abid Ali had cut Brian Luckhurst to the boundary to complete India’s first victory in England that also heralded the clinching of the series. And I am sure the figures for the radio commentaries on the five Tests between India and England in 1972-73 must have broken all records what with interest in the game being at an all high after the twin triumphs in the Caribbean and England during the India Rubber Year of 1971.
It was in the mid 70s that television started making an impact and soon there was live telecast of Test matches in India and delayed coverage of Test matches that India played abroad. The 1978-79 series in Pakistan was a major turning point for it was for the first time viewers in India saw live coverage of Test matches outside this country. Still cricket followers in this country had to wait some more time for similar coverage. It wasn’t until the World Cup in England in 1983 when Indian fans were able to see the semifinals and final that live coverage really took off.
By now of course viewers in India were familiar with Channel 9 which had become famous following the formation of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the late 70s. The media coverage was largely hyped just as the game underwent a major change with the advent of night cricket, coloured clothing, white balls, black sightscreens et al. And in keeping with the jazzed up image glamour in the form of former Test players took over the commentary box. Hitherto a good voice, knowledge of the game, interesting tidbits and the ability to convey the action on the field in a suitably descriptive manner was all that mattered. But now the hype took over in a big way and the most necessary qualification for adorning the commentary box was that you should have represented the country and everything else came later. There was always a place however for someone like Harsha Bhogle to take over the role of anchor/moderator.
I have nothing against former international players turning commentators provided they also fulfill the other necessary qualifications required for the profession. While they are some who fit the bill there are many who are not able to present themselves suitably either through limited knowledge of English, their inability to express their views adequately or being distinctly uncomfortable before the camera. Not everyone can be a natural in anything they take up and having played the game at the highest level does not automatically qualify a Test cricketer to make a successful career in the commentary box. Also for someone of that stature you would expect something more than what you generally get. Except in a few cases there is nothing very profound that the `experts’ are able to put across. Having played international cricket means that he can bring some insight into the comments or relate some interesting dressing room anecdotes. But these are few and far between and in most cases except for adding name value there is nothing very insightful. Often the anchors/moderators have more interesting things to convey besides being more natural.
In the last few years TV coverage has been hyped up beyond all imagination thanks to aggressive marketing and assorted gimmicks with sponsors pumping in astronomical amounts of money. Glamour too has taken a new turn with the advent of attractive ladies – with or without a cricketing background - into the commentary box. How much all this has directly upped the programme ratings is debatable but then with plenty of money going around these are here to stay. That doesn’t mean that we have to listen to some inane comments by the experts.
I know of many people who turn the TV to mute mode and just catch the action. I don’t blame them!