The lost art of commentary

July 11 2005 / New Statesman

On the morning after England’s dramatic, tied, one-day international final against Australia at Lord’s, the Sunday Times published a list of the ten greatest sports broadcasters. Reading the list, with John Arlott at number one, you were reminded all over again of the calamity that has befallen sports broadcasting in this country, which has become little more than a reflection of our wider obsession with celebrity. This was never more apparent than during the closing overs of that absorbing final at Lord’s, when those distinguished journalists Nasser Hussain and Ian Botham were on commentary duty for Sky Sports.

To read the Sunday Times list was to recall an era when sports broadcasters combined journalistic acumen and expertise with, most importantly, true verbal felicity. Arlott was a reader, an essayist and a published poet; he had a near-perfect ear for the cadence of a spoken sentence, for rise and fall. He respected the English language and used it with care and precision. He disdained cliche and perfunctory, ready-made formulation. He told you what was happening on the field of play and much more besides: he knew so much about cricket, because cricket was not all he knew. He could be funny, and had a rich, suggestive voice redolent of the rural Hampshire of his boyhood.

Would there have been a place for Arlott - or indeed even Brian Johnston, whose high public-school campery was never to my taste - in today’s commentary boxes? It is unlikely. Sky Sports is in good company in preferring recently retired players as its cricket commentators. Like the BBC, it believes that only retired sports stars have the authority and expertise to analyse and comment on their chosen sport. This is what philosophers may call a category mistake, comparable to believing that only a published novelist has the authority to be a literary critic, or an actor the expertise to review theatre or film.

It was dismal to be in the company of Hussain and Botham for those closing overs - indeed, with the exception of Bob Willis, whose dourness and candour I rather like, to be in the company of the entire Sky team on that exciting Saturday. How little they told me about cricket and how inelegant and imprecise was their language. England, Hussain told us as the match was approaching its end, were entering “unchartered territory”. He went on: “What a cracking game. It’s been tense all day. No one has left. Two wonderful sides. They’ve played the best cricket in the tournament.” The tournament? I paused at that moment. There was only one other side in the “tournament” - lowly Bangladesh - and, apart from one glorious victory against Australia, they had been repeatedly thrashed. Some tournament.

“What a cracking finish we’ve got here at Lord’s,” Botham said, with surprising originality. “Tense, tense,” replied Hussain. “Tense dressing room. Tense crowd.” If England were to lose a wicket, Botham interjected, it “would be a huge blow”.

Later, he spoke of Australia “putting the cat among the pigeons”. He told us that bowling a yorker “was not the easiest skill in the world”. The Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath was, Botham said, “as cool as a cucumber”. Everyone was feeling the “pressure”, he said. “Tension,” Hussain agreed.

When Darren Gough came out to bat, Hussain said: “His little heart must be beating at 100mph.” There was an awkward silence. “I mean his big heart,” he corrected himself.

Neither Hussain nor Botham understands the value of silence, of allowing the pictures to dictate the rhythm of their commentary, in the style of a veteran such as Richie Benaud. Instead they talk too much, saying nothing. The most garrulous of all is David Lloyd, a career northerner who has become little more than a pantomime act.

The sole Australian expert on duty for Sky is Darren Lehmann, until recently a member of the Australia Test side. He is inarticulate, and has all the animation of an undertaker on his first visit to a newly bereaved family. Whenever he was in the box, I turned off the sound or switched over to watch the Live 8 concert. To think that from next summer Sky Sports will have “exclusive” broadcast rights to all England cricket matches!