by Niall Gooch
Wednesday, 18
August 2021
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16:05

Test Match Special is no longer the sound of summer

Beloved old eccentrics are being replaced with bland reporters
by Niall Gooch
Pports commentators Bill Frindall, Jonathan Agnew and Brian Johnston. Credit: Getty

“Aggers, for goodness’ sake, stop it!”

Last Monday marked exactly thirty years since the “legover” incident, one of the best-loved moments in English sports commentary. Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew, summarising a day’s play in a 1991 Test Match, were nearly incapacitated by giggles after the latter had dropped a schoolboy innuendo.

It sums up the traditional image of Test Match Special, now 63 years old: light-hearted, digressive, rather old-fashioned, with more than a hint of the public school sixth-form common room. Johnston, who died in 1994 aged 81, must have been one of the last people in British public life to speak with traditional received pronunciation, precise and mellifluous, immediately redolent of the pre-war upper class from which he came.

The TMS that I grew with up in the 1990s and the early 2000s had a distinctly patrician air. The Eton and Oxford-educated Johnston commentated alongside Henry Blofeld (Eton and Cambridge) and “CMJ”, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Marlborough and Cambridge), surely the last person in the world to refer to cricket whites as “flannels”.

These upper-class types were complemented by others, notably the plain-speaking Yorkshiremen Fred Trueman and Sir Geoffrey Boycott. For more than two decades up to 1980, TMS featured the fascinating John Arlott, a sometime police officer, published poet and accomplished autodidact who described cricket in the distinctive and beautiful accent of his native Hampshire.

By contrast, it seems that over the last decade the Test Match Special has lost something of its old magic. Sceptics will say that I’m a nostalgist: that I just miss the voices of my youth and the cosy coterie of middle-class white men. Maybe; but I honestly think that there has been a distinct change in the mood and atmosphere.

The glory of TMS was always the fruitful interplay of two different types. On the one hand, men who — while they may have played the game, at amateur or even professional level —  were above all wordsmiths and cultural observers, with a keen sense of the game’s history, and of its place in the broader life of England. On the other, there were the ex-pros, less eloquent and romantic, but bringing well-informed, trenchant analysis, entertainingly expressed.

This dynamic has broken down considerably. Several deaths, including “CMJ” and Bill Frindall, as well as retirements —  both voluntary and the perhaps-not-quite-so-voluntary  — have removed the old guard. TMS commentary is now heavily dominated by ex-pros, who are good fun in their way but lack the breadth of perspective and reference that was noticeable in earlier generations.

Similarly, their journalistic counterparts are often generic sports reporters, rather than cricket specialists, and seem to lack any kind of poetic or dramatic sensibility. The old TMS hands were distinct personalities. They had lived remarkable lives and as a result had interesting things to say. Trueman worked at a colliery, and both he and Boycott started their playing days at a time when professional cricketers were only modestly paid and expected to find other work in of the off-season.

Why has this blandness taken hold? There are a few trends in play: the general flattening out of local accents and traditions; the decay of a distinct English identity and the accompanying loss of historical memory; an increasingly conformist and cautious broadcasting environment, with less room for eccentrics and characters. Nowadays, the most beautifully spoken and thoughtful voices on TMS belong not to the English but to the guest summarisers from abroad.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago

“Why has this blandness taken hold?”

Because the Liberal/Left elites who run the MSM, Entertainment, Education, and BBC hate the Traditional West? It really is that simple, not merely some neglecting or reduced budget, but done to undermine what was part of the once Great Britain, same as is done to the National Trust and how it presents the historical places it manages.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Somehow I guessed that someonewould immediately leap in with “Liberal/Left elites. it is the go-to insult.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

He’s best ignored when he goes off on one.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

It is also true, alas

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The same is true of the Saturday afternoon Sky football coverage.
The fun banter between the presenters (who are largely white males representative of a certain era) is no longer considered acceptable – despite it being the main attraction of the programme.
Diversity quotas seem to be more important than the content itself.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ian Barton
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

….

Last edited 9 months ago by Ian Barton
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Last edited 9 months ago by Ian Barton
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

….

Last edited 9 months ago by Ian Barton
Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
9 months ago

Old white men certainly, but that is no reason to reject them. The old men of cricket had a hinterland and humanity.They probably drifted into broadcasting and thought it a bit of an odd career. I remember Johnners doing “down your way”, on the wireless, talking to people in their villages, small towns. He was utterly natural and charming in a way that had no artifice.Broadcasters are all technique now, performing without engaging,but eager for advantage.
The slowness of TMS was so captivating, something we seem incapable of appreciating.Our culture has become so irritated and impatient with tradition, weded to constant change, progress is pursued with haste and desperation.

David B
David B
9 months ago

“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” (C.L.R. James)

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
9 months ago

It’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey and the people you meet on the way.

James Finnemore
James Finnemore
9 months ago

All the current commentators are interested in is who is going to win… dull!

Peter Steven
Peter Steven
9 months ago

As someone who has loved TMS since the 1970s, I share the writer’s sadness that so many of the old guard have died / retired. But the programme will retain my interest so long as the younger generation of presenters continue to work humour, life experience and double entendre into their commentary.

Arlott and Johnston were unique characters – irreplaceable – but some of the current crop, such as Dan Norcross and Isa Guha have potential – the latter’s comment at the recent Lord’s Test about the popping of corks reminded me of the legover incident.

I feel that there are too many different presenters involved – I wonder if they feel as if they are on trial, worried about being dropped after a bad game/ inappropriate comment (a fate that could not befall a guest overseas commentator)?

Nostalgia for the presenters of one’s youth is inevitable but it takes a while to create a broadcasting style. Arlott did 34 years. Johnston 27. CMJ 39. Of the current commentators, Jonathan Agnew, who started in 1991, has extraordinary service. But most of the others have only done a few years, and that without consistency.

In recent years, the BBC’s loss of broadcasting rights for overseas tours has weakened TMS but I still enjoy it hugely. Oddly, the BBC’s television highlights package for test matches, with many of the same presenters, makes me squirm. It’s as if they have been told to make cricket groovy by adding music and fast moving graphics. It doesn’t work for me.

trevor walters
trevor walters
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Steven

Hooray Peter Steven, spot on. Do you recall the Bobby guarding the stumps, being taken strawberries and cream etc when everyone was indulging having gone to tea – or the discussion concerning the number of pigeons landing on the pitch. Maybe not cricket but it added to the atmosphere. Very British, like closing a major waterway to race rowing boats.

Peter Steven
Peter Steven
9 months ago
Reply to  trevor walters

Thank you, Trevor, for your kind words (on my first Unherd comment).
Henry Blofeld’s comments about pigeons, or red buses on the Wellington Road, became something of a caricature and I suppose he had to retire when his eyesight became a problem. But, as others have written, the test of good TMS commentators is how well they deal with a day when rain stops play.
I felt a particular affinity for CMJ – we both studied History at Cambridge. I just hope that the BBC continue to make space for enthusiasts and quirky people, amongst the pros, which was one of the writer’s points.
When Talksport took the rights last winter, they marketed their product as “More cricket. Less cake”. This was not progress in my book!

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
9 months ago

Sky have still got Bumble. Praise be.

Peter Harris
Peter Harris
9 months ago

I wrote to the BBC on this very point years ago. No reply. The joy of TMS was the mix of former players and cricket writers and journalists. Now it’s dominated by former players the wider joys and as you say cricket’s hinterland is lost. It’s become monocultural. Perhaps Atherton on Sky is the last the breed? Manchester Grammar School, Cambridge, Lancashire, England captain and a great writer on cricket as well as commentator. Test Match cricket has to be more for the audience than the narrative of the dressing room from old pros?

Don Holden
Don Holden
9 months ago

“Rain stops play “, heaven for TMS fans of old !

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
9 months ago

All I can say is “it’s just not cricket”.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
9 months ago

I belonged to a cricket talk board many moons ago and TMS was central to a lot of discussion. Nostalgia!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
9 months ago

This is about old men who fear change. Cricket, like a lot of things, is a part of the past. Accept it.

Al M
Al M
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

If it’s still being played, how is it part of the past?

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
9 months ago
Reply to  Al M

One might peruse the Wikipedia page on cricket in Afghanistan. Perhap apposite at this time.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I’m sorry Chris, but that comment is among the least enlightened contributions I have ever seen …
There are loads of things in life that don’t match the current zeitgeist of broadcasting, but are valuable nevertheless.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ian Barton