Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Quote: A microphone will be installed in the pavilion at Leyton
By: Radio Times (BBC), May 14, 1927
The first English cricket team to Australia had left the British shores on October 21, 1861. To give an idea about how ill-communicated the world was at that time, the people in England were informed of the scores only in March when the team returned.
This obviously improved once the cables were laid a decade later. They would play an important role in, among other things, news transmission. The Bodyline cables became as much a part of controversy as the on-field action, but we shall leave that discussion for later.
In 1922, New South Wales Cricket Association arranged a benefit for Charles Bannerman. A testimonial match accounted for £140 18s. of the total amount of £392 19s. raised. Nothing earth-shattering about that, barring the fact that Len Watt, a Grade cricketer and reporter, was given a microphone and asked to talk on the proceedings at Sydney Cricket Ground. He is usually accepted as the first cricket commentator on radio.
The concept became standard practice, as is evident from this excerpt from The Forbes Advocate (NSW) of January 8, 1924: “The wireless set at Messrs John Meagher & Co’s premises was in touch with Farmer’s, Sydney, last night. Cricket scores … In the future, it should be possible to keep abreast with test match scores … as soon as they are made available by the counters, and in short be closely in touch with the great outside world.”
By 1924-25 cricket on the radio was already in vogue. Here is an excerpt from Weekly Times (Melbourne) of December 6, 1924: “‘Shine, Sir? With the cricket result thrown in!’ This is the cry of at least one bootblack who has installed a small headset for the benefit of his patrons.”
It was only inevitable that the Ashes that season would get radio coverage. Monty Noble and Watt were the commentators for 2BL (a Sydney radio station) in the first Test, at Sydney. Clem Hill and Hyram Marks (a Rugby Union international player) were subsequent additions to commentators narrating “occasional passages of continuous play”. The reception (pun intended) was excellent.
County Life Stock and Station Journal (Sydney) interviewed several people for opinions. One Mr McDonald of the Imperial Hotel provided some inputs about the frequency (pun not intended) of the updates: “He got the progressive results of the first and second Test cricket matches every half hour” on a “five-valve set, single wire aerial, 50 ft high running N. E. and S. W.”
Radio coverage of cricket became a rage in Australia, even across the Bass Strait. “All the scores of the Test Matches which begin in Sydney on Friday next will be posted at short intervals directly,” reported Circular Head Chronicle (Stanley, Tasmania) before the fifth Test.
Even the tour matches got covered. Here is the radio schedule for the match between MCC and NSW (just before the fifth Test) in Sydney:
12.55 to 1.30 – Cricket scores and sporting information and news services.
2.50 – Hotel Wentworth Cabarelobt, dance music, songs. During the afternoon cricket scores and sporting, information will be given out at intervals.
6.15 to 7.20 – Special cricket session.
This was a significant development, for no longer did people have to wait for next morning’s newspaper, or even the evening news. This was not a ball-by-ball commentary per se, but merely score updates.
A trial match between an Australian XI and The Rest started on December 4, 1925-26 (the next season), at SCG. This time Watt commentated for the Sydney-based 2FC “using a microphone suspended from the boundary fence” (No-Balls and Googlies: A Cricket Companion, Geoff Tibballs). The concept was advertised as “unique ball-by-ball commentary” (Frank Keating, The Guardian).
And then, in 1927, it came to England.
Seymour de Lotbiniere (‘Lobby’ to most) was the brain and driving force behind the origin of ball-by-ball cricket commentary in England. However, cricket was not the first sport they covered.
BBC started their sports telecast on January 15, 1927, with their coverage of an international rugby match between England and Wales at Twickenham. The match was covered by Captain Teddy Wakelam.
An Association Football match between Arsenal and Sheffield, played in Highbury on January 22 was next on their list. On March 25 they covered The Grand National from Aintree; on April 2, the Varsity Boat Race; and on April 23, the FA Cup final (Cardiff City vs Arsenal) from Wembley.
In between all this, on April 1, The Guardian informed its readers that BBC wanted to add cricket to their list. However, the newspaper did not sound too keen about the idea. Daily Herald was even more aggressive in their dismissal, cricket would be as boring as chess or billiards to cover live.
But BBC were not to be discouraged. They sought out Essex cricketer Frank Gillingham. A decent batsman, Gillingham had served as Temporary Chaplain during The Great War. Even at 52, he was an active cricketer who would play a Championship match the year after.
Part of Lionel Tennyson’s team that toured Jamaica earlier that year, Gillingham was an interesting choice for the job. Former teammate TN Pearce called him a “terrific preacher”. However, Pearce did not quite approve of BBC’s choice. This was, after all, something too worldly for someone as spiritual-minded…
Perhaps BBC went for his wit. “He was also an after-dinner speaker with a wonderful sense of humour; his supremely funny anecdotes, told without the vestige of a smile, frequently convulsed listeners,” was Wisden’s verdict on the subject.
On April 25, two days after the FA Cup final, BBC named Gillingham their first commentator. They also announced that the match between Essex and the touring New Zealanders at County Ground, Leyton would be their first venture. Gillingham would be on air from 2.10 PM to 2.20 PM; this would be followed by four other five-minute instalments, and he would round things up at 6.45.
The London Radio Dance Band would fill in the gaps. In a subsequent report, The Guardian added that match coverage would interrupt the band if anything of note took place.
The print media was not too enthusiastic about all this (we are being polite here). However, one cannot help but wonder how much of this scepticism was genuine. Radio coverage, after all, was bound to hamper newspaper sales.
Radio Times, BBC’s own publication, ran a report titled Cricket on the Hearth on the day of the match. Here is an excerpt: “Any listeners who wish may share in their feelings of those fortunate ones who are sitting on the Leyton ground. Broadcasting cricket is, of course, a new departure – an experiment, and something of an adventure. Cricket is one of the slowest games in the world; it spreads over three days the incidents that in a football match are crowded into an hour and a half.”
They explained the process: “A microphone will be installed in the pavilion at Leyton, and the B. B. C.’s narrator will watch the whole of Saturday’s play from there. At fixed times he will broadcast an account of state of the game, and after the close of play, he will give a general description of the match. At other times, if anything happens worthy of special notice his story will be ‘faded into’ the afternoon programme from the studio, that will be going on all the rest of the time.
“In this way, it is hoped, listeners will be given the gist – not to say the cream – of the match. They will not have to sit through descriptions of maiden overs and wait while the batsman sends to the pavilion for his cap, but they will be able to listen every hour and hear the very latest score and any notable incidents of the last hour’s play.”
The idea of “audio highlights” was novel. “Recognising that to attempt anything like a full description of play, as in a football match, as in a football match, would be boring in the extreme, the B. B. C. intend to deal with the event piecemeal,” commented Manchester Guardian.
“It is difficult to see how else such a broadcast could be made thoroughly interesting,” agreed The Telegraph.
But BBC need not have bothered. The telecast was a success, and Gillingham became their first ever cricket commentator – a remarkable CV entry for a Tokyo-born clergyman who would later die in Monaco!
On June 11, Plum Warner covered the first match at Lord’s, between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire. Martin Williamson mentioned in ESPNCricinfo that “rather than a spot in or near the pavilion, he was forced to perch on top of the Clerk of the Works office, just outside the main ground overlooking the third man.”
Warner quickly established himself as the first choice for matches played at Lord’s and The Oval. In fact, such was his demand that he faced a serious predicament on July 4, when he covered the third day’s play of Oxford vs Cambridge at Lord’s. A car waited for him outside: Warner had to rush to The Oval for Gentlemen vs Players as soon as the Varsity match got over.
CB Fry and Wakelam (who covered the rugby match mentioned above) also took turns at it. The Roses match at Headingley was covered. And by the end of the summer BBC’s local stations had also joined in.
However, following a day’s coverage at The Oval, Wakelam concluded that “ball-by-ball commentary on cricket was not possible” (Test Match Special – 50 Not Out, Peter Baxter). One can sense where he was coming from. Commentating on a fast-paced sport is one thing; in cricket, one also needs to ensure the audience got more than the live action.
Three years later anyone with access to a radio set could follow the advent of Don Bradman in Australia. By then the legendary Howard Marshall had arrived as the commentator. The instructions were simple: “Paint a picture and keep it the right way up.”
Radio coverage reached unprecedented levels during the Bodyline series. Poste Parisien, a French station, put up Australian cricketer Alan Fairfax in a studio in, of all places, the Eiffel Tower. Match updates were cabled to him. To quote Baxter, Fairfax “mounted a synthetic condensed ‘commentary’ on the day’s play, crammed in two hours,” starting at 6 AM.
Alan McGilvray, Vic Richardson, Hal Hooker, and Noble improved on Fairfax’s performance from a Sydney studio during Australia’s 1938 Ashes tour. Artificial crowd noises were played in the background, and a pencil was used to hit wood to imitate the sweet sound of a perfectly timed ball. As we know, this was also the first series to be televised.
When England toured South Africa in 1938-39, BBC broadcast the series in South Africa and England with EW Swanton as the commentator.
Then World War II intervened. And when entertainment was expensive during the rebuilding period in the early days after the War, fans often used to queue outside radio shops to catch live commentary.
And things changed drastically after BBC launched Test Match Special in 1957 to take coverage to the next level.
Postscript: What happened to Gillingham?
As Pearce had feared, Gillingham was not likely to understand the ways of the world. So, when rain once held up play at The Oval, he thought it would be an excellent idea to read out the advertisements around the ground.
Unfortunately, commercialism was probably the worst conceivable crime in the eyes of John Reith, BBC’s first Director-General. Gillingham was sacked with immediate effect. However, he later became Chaplain to the King in 1939.