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May 8, 1999


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"Calcutta is celebrating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi!"

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Little Masters.
Pic: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
Sunil Gavaskar, asked about the intricacies of commentary, once recounted this anecdote dating back to his early days as a broadcaster. Apparently he was sharing the hot seat with Richie Benaud -- arguably the best anchor/commentator in the business -- when a batsman played a shot that got him to his century.

Gavaskar promptly launched into rhapsodies -- only to feel a hand on his arm. It was Benaud, gesturing to him to shut up. After a bit, Benaud made another gesture with his hand, indicating that Gavaskar should now begin talking.

Rare shot of Benaud in action, against England at Birmingham, 1961.
Pic: Hulton Deutsch/Allsport
"I was intrigued," said Gavaskar. "So after my stint, I went to the production room and asked for that segment to be replayed. That was when I realised what it was all about: when the batsman got to his 100, Benaud told me to shut up because the visuals of the time were compelling: the batsman kissing his helmet, then waving his bat, the applause reaching a crescendo... That told the story better than I could. And as the applause began to die down, Benaud gestured to me to take over, to start talking again."

That, Gavaskar said at the time, was the key to television commentary -- let the visuals tell the words, talk only when you really need to.

Radio commentary was far easier -- since the audience couldn't see anything, you just talked on and on, describing every single thing in sight: the batsman taking guard, the bowler walking back to his mark, the fielding positions... you simply went on and on and on, being the eyes for your audience. (Come to think of it, internet commentary is a lot like this -- very descriptive, since your audience doesn't have anything other than your words to go by.)

Then came television, and commentators discovered they didn't have to go on and on, since the viewer could see it all happen in front of his eyes. Which came as a blessing -- commentators who switched from radio to television, in the early days, found they were saving a fortune in throat lozenges alone.

But television commentary also brought with it its due share of problems. Look at it this way: if the viewer can see it all anyway, then what does the high-priced commentator, usually a former star, do during his stint? He can't just sit there thinking heck, let the guy see it for himself, why should I talk, right?

So you find yourself in this trap. You can't describe what you see, you can't always find interesting off the ball stuff to talk about, and you can't keep quiet either. So what you get is a vacuum -- and it is always tempting to rush in and fill it with words. It's sort of like if you are writing a regular column. You wake up on a Thursday with this nagging feeling of unease, and suddenly it hits you -- damn, that column is due today. So you sit at your computer and there is this blank space you have to fill, and no ideas to fill it with, and that is when you blab, to the amusement of the more tolerant sections of your readership, and the irritation of the rest.

Master commentator Benaud
Pic: Ben Radford/Allsport
And no one -- repeat, no one -- is immune. Not even the great Benaud himself. Check out these lines, from the master himself:

"His throw went absolutely nowhere near where it was going"

"Even Downton couldnt get down high enough for that"

"That slow motion doesn't show how fast the ball was travelling."

"There were no scores below single figures"

If Benaud could nod, then what of lesser mortals? In course of my time as a confirmed couch potato, I got the following gems:

Ian Chappell with Hansie Cronje and Mark Taylor, Sydney Cricket Ground, January 1998
Pic: Ben Radford/Allsport
"Fast bowlers are quick. Just watch this -- admittedly it is in slow motion" -- this, from Ian Chappell.

"It is now possible they can get the impossible score they first thought possible", from Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Boycott with Gower, June 1992
Pic: Ben Radford/Allsport
"It would be unprintable on television" -- this, from the much-loved Geoffrey Boycott, who also came up, on one memorable occasion, with "If England lose now, they will be leaving the field with their heads between their legs!"

What seems the hardest task of them all, judging by the howlers, is description. How do you describe a well hit six, for instance? The great Freddie Trueman gave it his best shot, thus: "That was a tremendous six. The ball was still in the air as it went over the boundary."

Or take Trevor Bailey, who once bravely stepped into the vacuum with these words: "Then there was that dark horse with the golden arm, Mudassar Nazar." And Graham Dawson, who once did this startling pen portrait of an Aussie player: "David Boon is now completely clean-shaven, except for his moustache."

Or Raymond Illingworth, who once explained, with enviable clarity, an imminent change in the weather thus: "The black cloud is coming from the direction the wind is blowing. Now the wind is coming from where the black cloud is!"

Then there was England coach David Lloyd, who perfectly captured Chris Harris in the memorable line: "He is a very dangerous bowler. Innocuous, if you like."

And the voice of West Indies cricket, Tony Cozier, who produced this gem: "The Queen's Park Oval -- as its name suggests, absolutely round!"

Shastri, in Sharjah, 1987, with 'feet well away from body'
Pic: Allsport
Or our very own Ravi Shastri, who rewrote Gray's Anatomy with this classic: "His feet were a long way away from his body!"

In fact, describing a scene, in all its glory, is so difficult that on one occasion, former Aussie quick bowler Max Walker, doing a stint on radio, was moved to burst out: "One day there will be radio with pictures!" His colleagues, like Ian Chappell, would have tumbled out of their chairs, in the television commentary box, laughing at that one.

Brian Johnston
Pic: Adrian Murrell/Allsport
The trouble with words is, you know what you mean. But when you spit it out... ah, that is another story. Ask Brian Johnston, the master of the on-air boo-boo, the man who had an entire nation in splits when he famously said, once: "The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey!"

It was Johnston -- who mixed erudition, eloquence and hilarity all in one unforgettable mixture -- who once started a commentary, after a break, with the line: "You rejoin us at a very appropriate time -- Ray Illingworth has just relieved himself at the pavilion end!"

Henry 'Blowers' Blofeld
Pic: Clive Mason/Allsport
But the undisputed king of rib-tickling comedy -- unintentional, for the most part -- was Henry 'Blowers' Blofeld. Sample a few gems from the man who spends more time admiring ear-rings than describing the cricket:

"The lights are shining quite darkly" and again, "It is a catch he would have held 99 times out of one thousand."

But perhaps the gem to end all gems was the one Blowers produced in Calcutta. It was Martyr's Day, Eden Gardens was packed, Blowers was seeing that kind of crowd for the first time, and it moved him to unparalleled eloquence.

"It is a full house at the Eden Gardens," warbled Blofeld. "Today, Calcutta is celebrating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi!"

Postscript: This piece was inspired by a reader, who wrote in saying that there was far too much seriousness and not enough light relief, on our cricket site, and could I do a sequel of that earlier column on the funny side of cricket. Okay, mate, here you go.

And before you ask, I've made more boo-boos in three years of reporting on cricket (having started this gig for the first time during the 1996 World Cup) than all the above worthies put together. And in all probability, I will lower all previous records when I get back in that commentary box, starting May 14. Join me there, for the daily comedy show!

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