The BBC's cricket commentary can now be heard in America. David Thomson, a film writer and listener from day one, finds it takes him back ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Sometimes in the parks of Marin in northern California, I see some cricket being played. But virtually no one in North America knows the Test score.
I heard the very first "Test Match Special", home from school, in 1957, technically "ill", but hooked on this freakish new phenomenon that offered commentary on every moment of a five-day match. It was as if a single radio drama had been allowed to run for 30 hours. And cricket turned up a classic for the occasion.
Cricket was huge in the 1950s. The previous year, at Old Trafford, Jim Laker had taken 19 Australian wickets in a Test match, an astounding feat, still a world record today. Laker's county, Surrey, were in a great purple patch and crowds went to county matches—just as a kid could get into a Test by starting to queue at 8am.
The first "TMS" came from Edgbaston, Birmingham, which had just been restored as a Test ground. England won the toss and batted, only to be bamboozled by the Trinidadian spinner Sonny Ramadhin, who took seven wickets for 49. It was as if "that little pal of mine" from 1950 was still unplayable in English conditions. Then West Indies batted and they made 474. So England had to climb a mountain just to survive. When they lost their first three batsmen for 113, two of them to Ramadhin, the game was all but over.
That’s when ball-by-ball commentary came into its own. Peter May and Colin Cowdrey came together and they stayed. Dots became singles, twos and then fours. These two batsmen, usually so orthodox, so English, had worked out a radical new method, coming forward and stifling Ramadhin with their pads. He didn’t like it. He finished that innings with no more wickets: two for 179 from 98 overs, more than a whole team would now bowl in a day. May and Cowdrey put on a stand of 411, the highest ever for England, in a total of 583. Then, in the final innings, England had West Indies reeling at 72 for 7. They nearly won.
To the best of my memory, this commentary was delivered by Rex Alston, John Arlott and Jim Swanton (and was it Tony Cozier, still going today, at the visitors’ mike?). Those were voices for a great drama and endless national suspense. Arlott—poet, policeman, man of wine and the shires—was not just a sports journalist but someone who knew "Under Milk Wood", who relished cricket as a pastime and almost a stopping of time, when a cloud and a rainbow might coincide at Taunton on a listless Thursday and olde England was to be beheld. "Test Match Special" was sports reporting all right, but it was also a BBC attempt to hold on to a version of the nation that was fading away.
My close attention to cricket ended in 1975, with Lillee and Thomson and Tony Greig at Lord’s. I moved to America, and new sports came along to enthrall me. But I kept up with the outline of cricket and this summer I stumbled into the discovery that I could get "TMS" on my computer in San Francisco (I am slow at these things). There it was still! And if it lacked Arlott and Swanton, both long dead, still it was clearly the old idea being done in the same ways and often with the same daft, lyrical pursuits. When England played Sri Lanka in May, I switched on in the middle of a lugubrious but serene colloquy on collective nouns which I swear began in 1963, as Ted Dexter put Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and the West Indies to the sword for a glorious 90 minutes.
As a frequent and fond visitor to England, with many attachments there, I have learned how much the place has changed. Thus on certain days the "West End" of London seems to consist of nothing but short-lived ventures in food, clothes and electronics. Everyone in Britain—far more than in America—prowls around at a crouch, hooked in to some ultimate phone system. They are all chattering like madmen, but offended if you think they might be talking to you. It’s all so different.
Yet this delightful boys’ club persists, all day long, for days at a time, inhabited by people called "Aggers", "Blowers" (pictured above, left, with Geoffrey Boycott) and "Tuffers" (and many others). Pork pies are discussed at length. Anecdotage reigns. There is a surly, scolding stepfather in the woods named "Sir Geoffrey". No female voice is ever heard, as if to protect that ancient English attitude that women will only cause trouble if they’re allowed to talk. It’s sort of Tory. Just the other day, at Lord’s, the one called "Blowers" remarked on how there were "many Indians in the ground today and it’s lovely to see them". Now, I don’t want to cause trouble for Blowers because I’m as fond of his character as I was of the figures in "Winnie the Pooh". But isn’t that a line out of "Lives of a Bengal Lancer"?
I’m not complaining. I’ve rediscovered my childhood, and found that if you have a high enough fever then "TMS" slots into place pretty neatly. It is still great radio, even if the unfortunate influence of "Johnners" in the 1970s reduced the chances of poetry or stuff from real life—don’t we half-long for "Blowers" to sigh one day, "Look, chaps, I don’t know what it means but I’m told I’m under water, and that low blanket of cloud at the Nursery End—that isn’t weather, it’s the debt ceiling."
You see, "TMS" is a touch too literary to be true, and isn’t England too modern to actually play cricket? This is my theory. In his last years, Harold Pinter was approached by Lord’s and the BBC and asked to try a few "TMS" scripts. You know what a natural he was for having a few old boys scratching around for ever but never quite getting anything settled? Well, a few other writers may have been enlisted over the years and it’s become this great national show. Come to think of it, did "they" take the model further? I mean, consider the Commons—is that remotely plausible as anything other than a struggling sitcom? Which reminds me: in the early 1930s, in the rural Midwest, a young man received wire reports of baseball games. He had a noise machine for bat and ball and he used to do commentaries that brought the games to life. Fellow called Reagan? "Ronners".
David Thomson is the author of "The Whole Equation" and "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film". "The writing on the hill", his essay on the state of Hollywood, appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Intelligent Life.
Picture credit: PA