Elite sportsmen live lives like stud stallions – their every need is managed, their condition monitored, their bodies their fortune. For, when the time comes, they must perform – all that money riding on the outcome you see.
So when these men (the masculine pronoun is used throughout this piece as the exceptions are dismally rare) step from the field one last time and walk straight into the commentary box, where is the hinterland on which they can draw? Or, to put it another way, what do they know of cricket…
The already infamous “pizza” conversation on the fifth day of the Third Test between Australia and India plumbed new depths for many viewers and set me thinking about my own practice as a talker and writer about the game. I set these thoughts down below not as a template for success (one of the essential points to accept about cricket is that templates are as rare off the field as on it) but as a personal reflection to which you may add (or subtract).
Commentating is a collective enterprise
The listener / viewer experiences commentary as a single construct, words toppling over each other. They can differentiate between voices, get to know personalities and filter what interests them from what does not, but they hear a single narrative. Repetition grates whether from one voice or many as does an overly dogmatic mindset. Like a good conversation, good cricket commentary should comprise responses and set-ups, not argument winning statements (satisfying though these may be) nor subject shifting “Moving on…”.
Commentary is not mere description
Commentary combinations draw on individual strengths, but it takes imagination to make the most of them. Recently, when a Test went into the final session with all four results possible, it was my good fortune to be on the mic with Iain O’Brien, former New Zealand bowler, so I asked him about what it feels like in the dressing room and in the middle with the tension rising. What followed was a typically honest, forthright, personal account of such a scoreboard’s impact on mind and body. My job was to describe the action as swiftly as possible and then prompt Iain’s reflections – though it was hardly necessary with so generous an interlocutor. It was a spell that did not just describe the play, but explained what goes through players’ minds – I’m surprised that such thrilling commentary is so rare a pleasure.
Work from the cricket out towards other subjects
The rhythm of a day of Test cricket is defined by tempos that can slow and quicken as the players draft their unscripted drama. There’s room, indeed a tradition and perhaps even an expectation, that subjects beyond the specific match at hand will suggest themselves for discussion. As far as possible (unless one is hosting a guest invited to talk on a subject) such digressions should begin with the cricket and meander outwards, the better to hold the attention of the listener and to speed a return to the match should a wicket fall. Shoehorning subjects into commentary (including sponsors’ messages) jars, as artifice so often does.
Interactivity must be genuine
If one opens the door to the listeners, one must show them due respect. Not only are they experienced observers of the game (and it’s long been my contention that the ex-players filling com boxes have not watched enough cricket, for watching and playing are very different activities), those at home have access to television playbacks, Cricinfo’s miraculous Statsguru and, yes, hinterlands of their own. Twitter may spend most of its time generating more heat than light, but it can do a lot more than massage egos with “Great show guys – keep it up” and “Happy Birthday to Jamie from Oldham”. If there’s a question that comes to mind when commentating, don’t go 50:50, ask the audience.
Writing must stand up as writing
I read the New Yorker’s theatre and restaurant reviews for years despite (still) never having visited the Big Apple – the writing alone was enough to warrant my attention. This happy eventuality isn’t always possible when acting as a journalist – you wouldn’t last long if you didn’t have plenty of quotes from MS Dhoni on his retirement and he would be breaking the habit of a lifetime if he said anything revelatory in a presser – but as soon as one has the opportunity, one should aim for the arresting metaphor, the amusing simile, the original perspective. The journalists writing to a brief have their job to do, but if you have a freer hand, be expansive. Readers have so many options online that those who appreciate your style will stay and those who don’t, won’t. The key, of course, is to have a style in the first place.
Write something new
Tougher and tougher this one. If requested, I could write 800 words on the retirement of MS Dhoni, but it’ll be done better (and worse) by hundreds of others, so I’ll keep stumm – for such is the blogger’s privilege.
So, in addition to finding one’s voice (which has always been a necessary condition for writing), one should find one’s subject too. Sometimes that will be a new angle on a familiar issue; sometimes it might be something very personal that resonates with others (Jarrod Kimber’s memories of going to The “G” is as fine an example of this approach as I read in 2014); and sometimes, most often probably, it’ll be something a bit different to what’s already out there.
Like this piece – I hope.