Gift of bringing games to life

2013-05-18 00:00

SPORT enthusiasts are too spoiled these days. Improving technology allows them access to events around the world at the touch of a button as pictures are beamed on televisions, computers, phones and iPads. It’s just too easy and takes away the poetic artistry of the great commentators from bygone years who painted pictures through words through the medium of radio.

Long before television demanded a place in homes and lounges, the radio provided entertainment, news and sports coverage. It was all there, especially on Saturday afternoons when cricket, rugby, horse racing, tennis, soccer, golf, hockey — whatever major event was on was covered, either by our own commentators or through overseas links.

It was a magical world, one of excitement and imagination. It was worth pausing to try and picture a rugby wing dashing down the touchline to score in the corner in a cloud of dust or a textbook cover drive as a batsman reached his century. Even horse racing sparked an interest, the man behind the microphone nearly hoarse with excitement.

Listening regularly to the radio, listeners became familiar with who reported on what. Each sport had it’s own expert and it was a highlight to hear their commentary and updates.

The legendary Ernie Duffield was the horse racing man, year after year, week after week rattling names and calling races faster than bullets coming from a machine gun; Chick Henderson was the rugby expert and cricket had commentators situated around the country bringing progress of Currie Cup games during the years of isolation.

It was cricket that captured the imagination most and the time it was given on the airwaves was minimal. Saturday mornings the clock was watched in eager anticipation until 10.45, when cricket was given a brief 15 minutes to the 11 o’clock news. If three matches were on, the time was shared between them and was never enough. It was like dangling a basket of food in front of a starving man. It was better than nothing though and was a brief update before connection was re-established later in the afternoon during the dedicated sports programme where again, time was of the essence.

Each centre had it’s own microphone master. Martin Young was at Newlands, Mike London at St George’s Park, Neil Adcock and Michael Toms at Kingsmead and the doyen of them all, Charles Fortune at his beloved Wanderers. Each was unique in his own way, describing the scene from the weather, to the toss, to the opening overs and the scoring rate.

These were the days of the Transvaal “Mean Machine” where Fortune spoke in glowing terms of Stephen James Cook and Henry Fotheringham opening the batting, Graeme Pollock’s succulent yet brutal batting, Rupert Hanley charging in and Ray Jennings’s antics behind the stumps. A listener could hear and feel the admiration in his voice for the players and then of course, he was a master at setting the scene, talking at great lengths about the children playing on the banks, the birds in the outfield and the person sleeping in the stands.

His greatest compliment was received from some blind listeners who said to him that when he commentated, they could see. That was the difference then. The mind was stimulated to process what the commentator was saying, to create the scene, much like reading a book.

These days it’s too easy to look at a picture and not really take much in. Even if you miss the moment, there is always a replay to help you along.

There is still radio commentary these days, but monitors and other gadgets make it relatively comfortable. It just seems to lack the warmth, the genuiness of what it used to be. A few stats and facts are thrown about, but it’s also a job now and has to be done.

Fortune in particular, commentated in between being a school teacher in his early days and had to keep applying for leave when asked to go on tour with the South Africans, English or Australian teams in the 1950s and 60s. He only gave up teaching when he was refused leave to cover a tour and he decided to take the plunge, going into it on a more full-time basis.

Today’s commentators report on a game that has changed. It’s professional, it’s tougher and sponsors want a good return. These guys and women have to be good but, regardless of the state of the game, a person’s character stays the same.

England’s Test Match Special team is a prime example. People treasure listening to their discussions, each member specialising in some aspect of the game. Jokes are shared, questions asked, criticism and viewpoints accepted.

There are the odd few who remain patriotic to the end, never finding fault with their teams, blaming officials and others for wrong results and decisions. These people have missed the essence of what they do. They have been given the gift of a great voice, yet misuse it in promoting their profession. There is always two sides in sport and invariably, one emerges better than the other. The trick is to not take sides, to appreciate good play from any quarter and be humble in defeat, sharing in the other side’s triumph even if it hurts or if a decision went against you.

It’s all about celebrating life and appreciating the people who have a gift for feeling comfortable behind the microphone. Although they cannot see who’s listening, they know their prowess and expertise is finely scrutinised by thousands at the other end of the line.

There’s good and bad in all walks of life and the commentary box is no exception. There are some who do it as a job and others who live the moment and the atmosphere. The legends are the ones who are remembered, people like the late Tony Greig whose antics and discussions with fellow commentator Bill Lawry is part of cricket folklore.

The trick is to be brave and bold.

Next time there’s an important match on televison, see if it’s on the radio and tune in, with the television switched off. It’s a challenge, but by the end of it, you will appreciate the unsung poets and artists who share their passion for the game with you, the humble listener.

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