Cricket: Kings of the commentary box

CHANNEL 4, it is generally agreed, have made a fine job of their inaugural Test match. Some of us were a bit alarmed by all their bold talk of dragging cricket into the 21st century. Tampering with the ball we can accept. It is, after all, a venerable practice. But tampering with our TV coverage is a different matter entirely. They inferred that they planned to make it younger and sexier, to the point where it seemed a cert that Eddie Izzard would join the commentary team. "Errrr... nice outswinger. Errrr... nice eyebrows too. And now, taking you up to the tea interval, I'll hand over to Lily Savage." We should have had more faith. Actually, our fears began to subside as soon as we found out that they had hired Richie Benaud. For if the prospect of a BBC without Test cricket was mildly depressing, it was nowhere near as unsettling as the prospect of Test cricket without Benaud. In Friday's Independent, Stan Hey described Benaud as the best cricket commentator of all time, with John Arlott a close second. In fact, there are some who would reverse this order. It is certainly undeniable that Arlott, not only blessed with one of broadcasting's most beguiling voices, was also cricket's supreme wordsmith.

My favourite Arlottism is his description of Ernie Toshack, who batted "like an old lady poking with her umbrella at a wasp's nest." The line frequently recalled is his description of a bowler's crouching run-up - "like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress." But he was capable, too, of poking gentle fun at the game he adored. "What I really want to know, Bill," he once growled, "is if England bowl their overs at the same rate as Australia did, and Brearley and Boycott survive the opening spell, and that the number of no-balls is limited to 10 in the innings, and assuming my car does 33.8 miles per gallon and my home is 67.3 miles from the ground, what time does my wife have to put the casserole in?" Priceless.

The cricketing purist, however, contemplating the top commentator of all time, would have to go along with Stan Hey's assessment - Benaud, followed by Arlott. As Stan wrote, Benaud is not only a great commentator, but "also the best analyst in any sports coverage." That is unquestionably true. As a brilliant captain of Australia, he could often anticipate what was going to happen next, and he does it still. I have lost count of the number of times that Benaud, after watching a couple of fierce bouncers, has mused that the next ball "might just be a slower yorker." And so it has proved.

Benaud, then, for the purists. But for the traditionalist - the kind of person who thinks the height of innovation is watching the telly with the sound turned down, while listening to Test Match Special on the radio - the greatest commentator has to be Arlott, then Benaud. As for cricket's sentimentalists, it is neither Arlott nor Benaud but the late Brian Johnston.

I first met Johnners in 1987 and we established a friendship of sorts - the first time he called me "Viners" was a proud moment indeed. I once took him for lunch at his favourite restaurant, the River Room at the Savoy. After the spotted dick (which, needless to say, prompted a huge Johnners giggle) I asked him a favour. Would he record a message for my telephone answering machine? I had written some spoof commentary, which he rehearsed a couple of times, then embarked upon with convincing gusto in that unforgettable plummy voice: "And here we are at Lord's, with Brian Viner 99 not out for England against Australia. It's been an absolutely marvellous innings... and here comes Alderman from the Nursery End, lovely smooth action, he bowls, it's short-pitched, Viner hooks, he hasn't quite middled it, Border's running round from deep square... and he takes a magnificent catch. It's very bad news for England, but Viner is out... so at the tone please leave a message, and he'll get back to you." This appealed hugely to Johnners' famously puerile sense of humour, as it did to mine, and I later persuaded Richie Benaud, Peter Alliss, Bill McLaren, John Motson, Barry Davies, Des Lynam and Peter O'Sullevan to follow suit. They have all generously recorded messages for me, snatches of mock commentary or punditry ending with "Viner is out," except for O'Sullevan's, a frantic commentary on the closing stages of the Grand National which ends with: "Viner's three furlongs from home... so leave a message and when he does get home he'll call you back." You'll understand then, why I have a soft spot for commentators. And why I'm so relieved that Channel 4 have snapped up one of the finest - perhaps the finest - of them all.

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