Chocolate cake, pork pie and the greatest of cricketing contests
BBC Radio's 'Test Match Special' commentary box is a world unto itself. As hopes rise of an Ashes win, Ian Burrell meets the team
Monday 27 July 2009
To step into the Test Match Special box is to enter a space so other-worldly that it might have sprung from the imagination of a J K Rowling or Lewis Carroll. The names of those that reside within - "Blowers", "Aggers", "Tuffers", "CMJ" - are as familiar to us long-standing listeners as the dearest of elderly relatives.
Yet our relationship with these cricket commentators, summarisers and analysts is an aural one, at some times a means to a greater understanding of the most multi-layered of sports, and at others a source of comforting patter when the conversation turns to trivia as rain stops play. This is an institution of BBC radio and it is an experience altogether different to being stood in the box, where the audience's gifts of chocolate cake are piling up, beside a vast pork pie gilded green to replicate a cricket pitch and decorated with figurines of fielders, bowlers and batsmen. A rather vicious looking Swiss Army knife is at hand to divide up the rations.
It is perhaps the most important day in the English cricketing calendar, the Saturday of a Lord's test during an Ashes tour. Henry "Blowers" Blofeld is on air, dressed with appropriate formality for such an occasion. His early observations on the scene before him are unlikely to be of great help to those listeners seeking to decipher the complexities of the game. "It's a lovely morning," says Blowers. "The clouds are over the sun at the moment, a tiny little bit of a breeze, the flags just working a bit on top of the grandstand, the trees behind the stands not really very busy, the leaves just moving politely, as if to say hello rather than anything more than that… And here is Onions once more, up to Hilfenhaus and he bowls…"
He has already set about the chocolate cake, which arrived from a listener called Marlene, who implored the TMS team to share it with their television colleagues from Sky and Channel 4. "I've had an early morning dabble into one of them and it's absolutely delicious," Blowers informs the audience. "I don't think there's any way we are going to give it to anyone else in this media area, we are going to scoff the whole lot our
selves." Down on the grass below, the greatest contest in cricket continues to unfold. Most TMS listeners are entirely comfortable with this approach to a programme that has been on air since 1957.
The broadcasting mix has been carefully selected, the alternating commentators - Jonathan "Aggers" Agnew, Blofeld, and Christopher Martin-Jenkins - complementing such summarisers as the former Australian captain Ian Chappell, the former England spinner Phil "Tuffers" Tufnell and the notoriously grumpy Yorkshire icon Geoffrey Boycott (sadly not working today).
Sat on the end of the long desk is the former England scorer Malcolm "Ashtray" Ashton, sat behind a wall of cricketing almanacs, a laptop loaded with relevant data, and a set of coloured pens, ranging from red for wickets to green for the umpires use of a television replay.
At the back of the booth stands Adam Mountford, the TMS producer for the past two years, is sifting through emails and texts from listeners while uploading pictures on to a photostream on the website Flickr. The fascination with new media might jar with old school listeners, but not Blowers who, somewhat alarmingly, can be heard espousing the joys of instant messaging: "Twitterberry, it's terribly exciting, it really is."
Mountford inherited TMS from Peter Baxter, who ran the programme for 34 years. "It's exciting but also daunting, to take over from someone who took the programme through some great years, with John Arlott and Brian Johnston," he says, referring to the much-missed "Johnners", perhaps the most famous of all TMS commentators.
The new producer has attracted some criticism for his modernising, with one TMS presenter Mike Selvey leaving the show last summer after complaining about the "laddish" style of younger commentators such as Mark Pougatch and Arlo White, who Mountford has championed. He insists that he is not trying to change the formula. "I was inheriting a programme loved by millions of listeners of different generations and backgrounds," he says. "There's absolutely no need to change the
programme. I just felt there was a need for just a little refresh. So I've had one new summariser come in which is Phil Tufnell, other than that it's quite similar in terms of the personnel."
Perhaps he was stung by last year's criticisms. For the Lord's test he has his top team on duty. Certainly there is no doubting the love for the programme, with stars such as Russell Crowe, and today's guest David Mitchell, the Channel 4 comedian, agreeing to come on and talk cricket with Aggers. The guests have been booked by Shilpa Patel, the BBC's formidable cricket organiser, a hidden star of TMS and a ball of energy behind the scenes.
As Mountford points out, the half-hour View from the Boundary segment is one of the longest interviews on British radio. Aggers admits he has little time for preparation and relies on the easy conversational style that is the hallmark of his commentary. "I don't watch any television at all, so I've never seen him before," he says. "It's a challenge to talk to someone you've never met before for half an hour, live on the radio with nowhere else to go."
A former Leicestershire and England fast bowler, he says he understands the game better now than he ever did as a player. "You are looking at a game utterly objectively and you can see errors more easily." TMS commentary has taught him a "new way of appreciating cricket" and he says his job is made easier by his belief that the audience wishes him well. "There's no 'I hope he screws it up.' They have it on because they want to listen to you and that's a nice place to be because you are not trying to win anybody over."
Blowers, 69, has been on the team for 37 years. He makes no apology for his endless descriptions of "buses and pigeons and helicopters" whenever he diverts his gaze from the field of play. "If you look at a picture, a framed picture, you look mostly at the centre of the picture, but if it wasn't for what's
drawn at the edges and the mount and the frame it wouldn't be a composite picture."
A theatre performer who has performed his one-man show 100 times in the past year, few realise Blofeld (whose family name was used by Ian Fleming for the bad guy in the Bond movies) was once a talented young cricketer himself, scoring a first-class century at Lord's as a 16-year-old, before disaster struck. "In my last half at Eton I bicycled into a bus - bad odds - and spent 28 days unconscious. That really fucked my cricket." Blowers!
As for the new boy, Tuffers, he's just glad to be a part of it all. "I remember as a boy sitting in a traffic jam going down to Brighton in the summer with the radio on and the windows open and the likes of Holding and Marshall playing," recalls the irrepressible former star of I'm A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! "This is probably one of the main places that I learned me cricket. I'm honoured to be here." Aren't we all.
Test Match Special has ball by ball coverage of the Ashes series on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and Radio 4 LW continuing with the Third Test at Edgbaston on Thursday
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