40 not out for the cricketing team that stood test of time

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The Independent Online
The late Brian Johnston - patrician cricket commentator and lover of home-made cakes supplied by a devoted listening public - once described the Test Match Special commentary style as the outpourings of a group of friends who had come along to watch the cricket and enjoy themselves.

And with that combination of amateurism and eccentricity that once so suited both the BBC and English cricket, TMS will celebrate its 40th anniversary next week.

Like an old couple who don't talk any more, celebrating their wedding anniversary with politely exchanged cards but no party, the BBC and TMS are making the celebrations discreet.

A book, From Arlott to Aggers, has been published, there will be a series of Best of Views From the Boundary broadcast on Radio 4, and during the tea intervals in the Test against Australia next week TMS will play recordings of presenters from the 40 years of the programme.

But compared with the prolonged celebrations for Woman's Hour's 50th birthday last year, it is all very muted.

This is due to sensitivity about TMS's current position on the long wave of Radio 4 where those who do not like cricket find it interrupting their favourite programmes throughout the summer. TMS, for its part, objects to having to miss cricket action to go to Radio 4's Shipping Forecast.

When it started in 1957, with a broadcast by John Arlott on the England- West Indies Test at Edgbaston, it was all so different.

The Third Programme, precursor to the "new-fangled" Radio 3, had nothing to broadcast during the day and TMS, with its slogan "Don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all", was a way of filling up airtime.

Arlott was the master broadcaster, his wrinkled voice painting verbal pictures of the action, but it was Brian Johnston, or "Johnners" as he became known, who turned the commentary box into a cosy club of chums and made TMS a radio institution to rival Desert Island Discs and The Archers.

With nicknames for each commentator - "Bloers" for Henry Blofeld, "The Boil" for Trevor Bailey, "Aggers" for Jonathan Agnew, and even "Baccers" for the producer, Peter Baxter - plus cakes sent in by the dozen from lady listeners and a penchant for practical jokes - TMS's team evoke a nostalgic England of end-of-term schooldays far better than John Major's allusions to warm beer, and cycling spinsters.

Although Johnston's comment - "the batsman's Holding, the bowler's Willey" - is thought to be apocryphal, TMS with its hours to fill provided plenty of malapropisms.

In 1991, Agnew's assertion that Ian Botham "just didn't quite get his leg over" provoked such a gale of giggles from first Johnston and then Agnew that motorists listening to the broadcast were reported to be pulling over to stop their laughter causing an accident.

Even without Johnston, who died in 1994, aged 81, the show's frivolity continues. Agnew sends faxes to other commentators to get them to wave to fictitious office workers from the Lord's commentary box - one colleague claimed to see the fictional office worker waving back.

In the current world of frenzied media competition and high demand for limited airwaves, the frankly bizarre concept of commentating on every ball in a game that can last five days and at which England is no longer very good, should seem ridiculous.

But in fact it is the brave new world of digital broadcasting that TMS sees as its saviour from its itinerant existence on the airwaves.

Senior producers on the show are pushing for a dedicated "Test Match Channel" to help establish digital audio broadcasting (DAB).

The channel could broadcast matches from around the world that do not involve England and again, in a new broadcasting world, "fill up airtime" with the melodious voice of summer schooldays.

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