DON'T BLUSH, BABY, THIS IS CRICKET


 


Cyprian Fernandes: Don’t blush, baby, this is cricket!
 
Like many before me who smashed many a television set with the onset of pyjama cricket, aka limited overs one day cricket with coloured outfits replacing the time honoured traditional creams or whites and many were lost to cricket forever, I must confess that I watch the bazaar goings-on of T20 cricket under depressive sufferance. I don’t actually mind the quick-fix for cricket addicts or the fast food style delivery of the game or the wholesale departure in many ways from the traditional five day game, but there is a prostituting in many ways which I can’t stand.
 
For example, it is no longer a game for the people by the people. It has been high-jacked by corrupters, big business and broadcasters. The new gods are the media and TV is the biggest god, it seems. Even radio does not often get a look in. How quickly we forget that before television it was the sublime broadcasters on radio who brought the game to life for listeners many, many thousands of miles away. The commentators painted living, action pictures with their words and transported their avid following to Lords, the Oval, Nottingham, Leeds, Karachi, Lahore, Sydney, Melbourne, the WACA, Brisbane, Jamaica, Barbados, and a thousand other magical places wherever Test cricket was played. The craftiest or the cleverest amongst us listened until the early hours of the morning, undisturbed and undetected under bed sheets, on little crystal sets, an inexpensive radio receive contraption which brought us cricket heaven via the earphone, often rescued from World War II surplus scrap.
 
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, the humble crystal set was my transporter to live cricket or whatever else I could glean from the BBC World Service broadcasts. One lesson came banging into my brain every time I listened to the set: the English are a very genteel, calm, considered, sometimes even charming lot as well as having a tiny bit of humour. Cricket was devoid of ridiculous loud music, there was no clashing of the symbols, or the horrific banging of drums, or idiotic ground announcers making idiotic announcements or unnecessarily urging the crowds to “make some noise” as if noise was a pre-requisite of a good game of cricket. I have nothing against applause and appreciation of a good stroke or a wicket brilliantly earned but going to ridiculous lengths is just that ridiculous.
 
Look, I know the five-day cricket I have loved for 65 years will be dead one of these days. It the time, it is the era. People don’t go and watch five days cricket anymore. These days, you are lucky if life allows you to watch or two days. What is the point anyway? Television Test Cricket is generally good even though sometimes the antics of some commentators leave a lot to be desired. In fact, these days I am more prone to watch Test cricket on mute after recording an hour or so to fast forward the adverts out of my viewing life. Then I can watch my beloved game with the quiet solitude I have enjoyed at so many grounds.
 
India is always a brilliantly coloured country in all its spheres. More often than not you can find much of Indian life in any of the wonderful bazaars. There is the loud sound of joyous people, the billion colours of the women’s saris, salwar khameezes, the dresses and the more modern attire. There is the clatter, the clutter and cacophony of life, entertainment and commerce fusing in celebration of human enterprise. For many Indians it is a way of life, for visitors it is a spectacle.
 
The Indian IPL T20 competition which took this aspect of the noble game of cricket by the jugular and to placate the gods of television and marketing transported the Indian bazaar into the cricket arena. Now it is noise, noise, bizarre, bizarre all the time and in between there is also some brilliant cricket. There is no arguing T20 cricket has changed the game forever. These days Test cricketers often resort to the style of T20 cricket scoring to achieve big wins in very short spaces of time. Before T20 it would have been unthinkable. I can live with that. There is no Indian bazaar in Test cricket … yet.

Now at the World T20 you have the idiotic situation where irritatingly loud ground announcers provide score updates almost after every over. Every ground has great electronic scoreboards and for TV viewers with the luxury of electronic gadgetry at the finger tips and on screen the on-ground announcers are not doing anyone any favours. Idiotic to say the least me thinks.
 
Then of course there is the constant panning by the TV cameras of the crowds. There are several planets between the behaviour of crowds in the sub-continents and those with gentle smiles and sometimes soft embarrassment in the UK or other countries. What makes grown men and women become instant loony exhibitionists the moment they realise they are on camera?
 
I also don’t have a problem with one-day cricket per se. I watch the Australian one-day comp when it is on in Sydney. I enjoy it because it suits me. Sadly not enough people watch the one-day mid-week game and I am sickened by the waste. It deserves better respect from Aussies. I sit alone in the stands at these games. I watch as intently as I did as a child. Next year I will have to get a pair of binoculars, my eyes are catching up with my age. In Sydney, you can take your own lunch even though there is vendor selling fast food. You can also take a beer or two. As young man, it was a really pleasure down a couple of medicinals at cricket grounds in Australia or the UK. There were very few idiots and the large majority were pretty good.
The other thing about watching cricket live at the ground is that you made many friends, some became life-long friends, others you remember for the Ashes debates, fundamentalist beliefs in your own point of view defended with gentlemanly fashioned and when a draw was imminent you shook on it and moved on to the next point. By the end of the day, you and your new found friends had mostly solved most of cricket’s ills, agreed on a winning team and relaxed in the thought that you had done better job selectors of the definitive Australian or English team which would never see the light of day but you would forever be comforted by the thought that “if only the selectors seen it like we did.” When a draw in the argument was not forthcoming, it was easier to agree to disagree. You knew that the stalemate would be resurrected the next time you met at another Test.
 
And then, of course, there was that natural peacemaker. A glass of beer. At a centenary test in Sydney I got to watch very little actual cricket because I was with a gang of guys who came to the ground not for the cricket by the beer at the bar in the old Noble Stand. The next day I swore I would not be involved with any school. So I watched the morning’s play on my lonesome. Just after teams had come in for lunch, a chap approached me if I was on my own. Ummmmmm? Huh? Yes, I said. “We thought you were. “My friends and I wondered if you would like to join us?” Why not? And so I got into another session which I duly retired from at tea and went and sat in the stands and gave cricket its due attention.
 
Australia, which seems to be taking a lead from the Indian IPL in all things and attempts to set new boundaries in other aspects of the game, brought the game into somewhat disrepute during last year’s T20 Big Bash League. For one thing, I am sure sent many people reaching for the remote controls when in a moment of madness they foisted teams of three commentators on their innocent victims: the public. They could not see the sense in the traditional combination of commentator/analyst and foisted a third talking head. Worse, the trio involved themselves in their own private needle and niggle matches in the public eye and tried to take the proverbial “piss” and belittle each other. No everyone wanted to take part and looks on some faces and the body language magnified their embarrassment in being put in that disrespected position.
These attempts at spicing up the commentary were juvenile to say the least if not utterly embarrassing to a knowledgeable cricket community. It is a downright shame that quality knowledge and analysis from former Aussie skipper Ricky Pointing (he really does have a lot to offer the viewer or listener), Adam Gillespie, Mark Waugh and one or two others was forced to play second fiddle to television hoonery! Is it any wonder that “good fun” created the ugliest cricketing moment in recent memory when the cricketing superstar Chris Gayle appeared to proposition an on-ground interviewer with the line: Don’t blush, baby. Australians were divided almost equally between supporting Gayle’s “innocent comment” and those braying for his blood for being a hot-blooded idiot. I think the TV channel that presented the ingredients for such an outcome must take the blame: the interviews are ridiculous and do nothing except for the sight of a pretty girl not quite polished as other male interviewers and who was cutting her teeth in the game and should have been treated in “innocent” manner or the butt of a “joke”. However, I think Gayle is still chuckling at the silliness of it all, including his own part.
 
I am happy to see that in the current T20 World Cup the traditional commentator/analyst roles have been maintained. For the moment at least the commentators have improved. I am often reminded of the advice given by that legendary British editor, David English, when talking about the art of writing captions for photographs said the pre-requisite of writing a good caption was to tell the reader “what was not in the picture.” I think the same should be said for TV commentary. “Great shot. Four,” Why are you tell me this? I can see that for myself. Why aren’t you point out the deft skills in the precise, inch-perfect placement of the ball to beat the mid-wicket cordon of fielders and why it was such a difficult stroke. There is a lot that TV does not cover and it is incumbent upon commentators and analysts to enrich the view rather smash him with meaningless clichés and diatribe. Tell us about what we are not seeing. And do it with the decorum of David Gower, Michael Atherton, Richie Benaud, Allan McGillvray, the truly great Jim Laker, John Arlott or the punchiness of Michael Holding or the humour of Harsha Bhogle or the precision of Jonathan Agnew.
 
I have loved watching the game in the UK and Australia in the days when gentle men were gentlemen and the game was sometimes interrupted by the hi-jinx of the much hated streaker. Otherwise it was a celebration of batsmen, bowlers or the fielders and only if they deserved our appreciation. Otherwise, of course, we booed like hell and made sure that everyone appreciated that poor form does not ever provide value for the hard-earned money needed to pay for the price of a ticket. We drank the cup of national pride when our teams won or drowned our sorrows in a pint of ale while joining your mates in solving the problems which only the gathered “experts” could see so clearly and you went home thinking you might have salvaged something from the humiliation of defeat.
 
In those days manual scoreboards told the whole story and allowed your imagination to fill in the blanks. The game required your undivided attention and you kicked yourself if you missed something or the bloke next to you missed it too. There were instant replays or the radio in your year that is so commonplace these days (I would not be seen dead without one in my waning years).
 
Oh, BTW, I don’t mind the entre of women in the commentary box especially if they are of the calibre of the experienced Mel Jones or the budding Lis Sthalekar. I know that the argument for others to join their ranks is that “they have to start somewhere”. However, L-plates foisted on an unsuspecting public is never a great idea.
 
My four greatest all time commentators are: John Arlott, Jim Laker (English off-spinner who took 19 for 90 against Australia in 1956), Aussie icons the late Richie Benaud and Allan Mcgillvray and my first reserve is David Gower because his TV persona is as elegant as the rest of him and the manner in which he played the game.
 
In a piece entitled “The pride of a diffident hero: Jim Laker” By Allan Hill, Richie Benaud said of Laker's expertise as a commentator: "Jim was outstanding in the actual commentaries where the economy of words and the ability to fit the story into a space are so important. Jim had a wonderful knowledge of the game which he was able to impart in an interesting way, whether in conversation, or on the box." The disarming raconteur was, considered another broadcasting colleague Peter West, under-used. West remembered a "remarkably detailed memory" of the games in which Laker had played. "Jim, with his mentally wry and nimble humour, could produce an anecdote at the drop of a hat." Laker's friendship with John Arlott blossomed in their twin commentary duties on BBC 1 and 2, covering Test and one-day cricket. Arlott was coolly exact in his observations on Laker as a fellow broadcaster. "Jim has a deceptively fast reaction to any movement or action on the field," wrote Arlott. "Among long-distance  observers of a rapid incident, he is more likely than anyone to read it accurately."
 I spent many an afternoon in England watching and listening to the two masters of cricket commentary decorate an afternoon’s viewing with such bliss so that each time they were on the game and the match was better for it. Sublime. They were two men who painted with their words all that the radio listener or the TV viewer could not see or comprehend. The transported their audience to every ground they broadcast from. They did not need histrionics, the badgering to death of dying or limp clichés or the noise or hullabaloo of an Indian bazaar to be England’s commentary team, loved, appreciated and admired all over the world. RIP guys, gone but not forgotten. The same for Richie and Allan.