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Brian Johnston: Tickled with Cricket

Trevor Bailey and Brian Johnston

French historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote that to understand America, one must understand baseball. Perhaps to understand the English, he should have tuned in to Test Match Special.

There aren’t that many benefits that come with being an Englishman. The weather’s terrible, it costs more to fill up your car here than anywhere else in the world, and the national anthem’s a dirge about some decaying old crone. Think about how we’re portrayed abroad and it’s even worse. If you believe what you see on American TV we’re all either beer-swilling soccer hooligans or upper class, barely-closeted homosexuals. And that’s just on ‘sophisticated’ shows like Frasier.

For the English sports fan, it doesn’t get much better. We play virtually every sport going and we’re pretty ordinary at almost all of them. It doesn’t help that every international team on earth raises its game for the grudge match against the old colonial bosses. We invented most of these sports. And the rest of the world loves nothing better than teaching their one-time masters how it should be done.

There is however, one silver lining for long-suffering Englishmen that lets us forget our cultural and sporting woes every summer: a radio institution by the name of Test Match Special.

On the surface, Test Match Special (TMS to its aficionados) appears to be an anachronism from a non-existent golden age of Englishness. A daylong radio show from the BBC providing ball-by-ball commentary from cricket test matches as the English national team plays one of the other cricketing nations (Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. New Zealand, the West Indies, Bangladesh and occasionally Zimbabwe). On paper it seems hopelessly tedious. Cricket test matches can last up to five days and will routinely contain long periods when nothing happens – especially when it’s raining, which automatically sends both teams to the changing room.

But Test Match Special is more than play-by-play commentary on cricket matches. It’s a bunch of friends getting together to watch some top level sport and have some fun. The French historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote that to understand America, one must understand baseball. Perhaps to understand the English, he should have tuned in to Test Match Special.

For those broadcasters lucky enough to be deemed worthy of joining the TMS team, personality is everything. Due to the lengthy nature of the game, TMS requires and employs numerous commentators and summarisers. Even so, listeners look forward to hearing from their personal favourites.

There’s Yorkshire’s grumpiest Yorkshireman, Geoff Boycott, supreme batsman of the 1970s and merciless critic of poor batting technique. Henry Blofield, ultra-posh public schoolboy, can never resist describing the comings and goings of pigeons and busses outside the ground.

The newest member of the team is roguish bon vivant and ex-England spin bowler Phil Tufnell, who emerged as a natural charmer when winning TV’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. It’s not a boys’ clu,b either. When England tour the West Indies, silken-voiced Barbadian commentator Donna Symmonds becomes a star performer.

Whether Oxbridge establishment, working class hero or international guest, every single broadcaster begins their first stint on the mic each day by greeting their co-commentator and the listeners, “Good morning Henry. Good morning everybody.” Anything less than impeccable manners wouldn’t do at all.

Although TMS is primarily aimed at English listeners it never wears its support for the England team on its sleeve. Cricket is unique in international sport in that competing nations will regularly have broadcasters from both countries in the commentary booth. On TMS especially, the guest commentators are honoured guests.

No matter how fierce the game’s action becomes (despite cricket’s genteel reputation, it’s perfectly legal for bowlers to regularly aim 90mph balls at batters’ heads), the commentary booth remains a haven of sportsmanship. The rivalries are always friendly. The reminiscences always fond. And there’s always plenty of cake.

The cake is one of many traditions unique to TMS. Following an off-hand comment by commentator Brian Johnston that he missed his cake at tea, for the best part of 30 years the commentary booth has been inundated with cakes from loyal listeners. In every instance, the sender of the cake will be gratefully acknowledged, before its enthusiastic consumption is discussed in the same detail as the game going on in front of them.

The program is perfect company on long solitary drives, when the game’s slow pace and the gentle conversations soothe away tedious miles of English motorways. For those at home, it’s common practice to watch cricket on TV with the sound muted and the radio on, using TMS as the preferred commentary. The crowd at the actual test match are inevitably tuning in too, creating ripples of laughter through the ground that are utterly incomprehensible for those not in on the joke.

You don’t even have to be in the UK to join in with the fun. Test Match Special is available free of charge around the world through the BBC website.

If Test Match Special has reached iconic status, it’s because it’s stood on the shoulders of broadcasting giants. The late John Arlott is still generally agreed to be the greatest cricket commentator of all time. Able to talk spellbindingly at will, Arlott could make the driest game appear to be a cauldron of tension. A noted liberal and a fierce opponent of Apartheid, as he ended his last ever stint on the TMS microphone in 1980, not only did the crowd give him a standing ovation, the English and Australian players on the field stopped the game to give the great man a round of applause.

But for pure entertainment value however, it’s unlikely whether TMS or any other sports broadcast will ever reach the highs that regularly accompanied Brian (Johnners) Johnston, the man who turned generations of Englishmen onto the joys of cricket. An Eton and Oxford man with a warm manner and naughty sense of humour, ‘Johnners’ gave every member of the TMS team his own nickname, usually their surname with the suffix ‘ers’ on the end; the exception being hirsute statistician Bill Frindall, who became ‘The Bearded Wonder’.

Photo from Johnners.com

Johnston was the ultimate public schoolboy; educated, charming, cheeky and full of anecdotes. When he passed away in 1994, Prime Minister John Major remarked that summers would never be the same. He was right. Although Major probably took the loss harder than most. He allegedly used to conduct cabinet meetings with TMS on in the background.

Johnston's finest moment, seared forever into English popular culture, came at the end of a day’s play against the West Indies in 1992. Recapping the day’s play alongside Jonathan Agnew (‘Aggers’, naturally), Johnston’s colleague reflected back to the moment when English batsman Ian Botham took a wild swing, lost his balance and, despite trying to hop over, knocked into his wicket.

“He couldn’t quite get his leg over,” explained Aggers, who instantly started giggling off-mic at his accidental use of one of Britain’s older sexual euphemisms. Johnners, initially undaunted, gradually collapsed into a laughing fit of his own while vainly attempting to continue summarising the England scorecard. I strongly suggest you listen to the funniest piece of sports broadcasting, here, at once. No matter how many times you hear it, it remains physically impossible to do so without smiling. It’s not just me that thinks so -- in 2005 BBC radio listeners rightfully voted this the greatest piece of sports commentary of all time.

That recognition was about more than one comedy moment. It’s a reflection of the affection that Test Match Special still holds in England’s collective heart. It’s the sound of a time when men of all nationalities could sit and chat with good humour, mutual respect and civility. It’s a continual reminder that although international sport can captivate and inspire entire countries, it’s still only a game. It’s a reminder that those much-mocked middle class English traits of hospitality, politeness, schoolboy humour and the love of chocolate cake might not be so bad, after all.

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