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.

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all