When we view international cricket on television, whose are the voices with which we are most familiar? Bob Willis, Michael Atherton, Ian Botham, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell, Michael Slater, Ian Bishop, Danny Morrison. In rugby it is Joel Stransky, Bobby Skinstad, Robbie Kempson, Jeff Wilson, Justin Marshall, Phil Kearns.
What do these names have in common? They are all ex-internationals, most of whom have received no training whatsoever in the task of sports commentary. This is the modern world, utilizing celebrities to pander to the masses, the mostly naïve public, ignorant of the finer aspects of commentary on sport. Would many of them recognize intelligent, subtle, thought provoking commentary if they heard it? It is doubtful. Expose people to mediocrity for long enough and they come to expect it, accept it.
How the genuine cricket or rugby aficionado and radio listener must long for times past, for the gentle tones of a Charles Fortune, wandering occasionally from the cricket to paint dreamy and evocative word pictures of another world, or the wonderful Hampshire burr of John Arlott, the entertaining, highly amusing effervescence of the hugely likable Brian Johnston, the expertise of gravel voiced Alan McGilvray. In rugby it is the crystal clarity of the voice of that Prince of commentators, Bill McLaren which springs immediately to mind.
These are commentators remembered with fondness by all fortunate enough to have listened to them describing their sport. These are also men with a special talent for their work, honed to a high standard through hard work, experience and training. They are also men who did not play sport at the highest level. Why should they have? Their job is commentary, not participation.
Yet two or three decades ago it seems that sports broadcasting companies all around the world decided that the best people to present sports commentary would be international sportsmen. It remains a decision that is both irrational and illogical. How does the playing of sport qualify anyone to deliver commentary on it, write about it or even coach it? They are completely different skills. Many of these commentators lack intelligence, insight or even a clear understanding of what is happening on the field. It is a scarcely credible fact that many of them are plunged straight into commentary without a single training session. What attitude by the television company to the art of sport commentary is conveyed by such action?
Potentially talented sports writers, commentators and perhaps even coaches are deterred, held back by the knowledge that they will inevitably be in a queue behind some who may possess far less talent and be far less suited to the job. It is discrimination against those with real talent who happen not to be top class sportsmen or women and it is insulting to all those passionate sport followers who have a real understanding of their sport.
Just occasionally, in a Richie Benaud (also a trained journalist) or a Robin Jackman, we are lucky enough to have a former test player who is also a good commentator but that is the exception to the rule. I fear that we are doomed for the most part to experience sport commentary as a detraction from our enjoyment of sport rather than what it once was, an enrichment of it.