It’s Not Always Good To Talk

Having written recently about the skills required for good sports commentary and the value it can add to a sporting occasion I feel it necessary to show the other side of the coin. Due to the extensive coverage given to sports in a multi-platform and subscription television based world there will inevitably be bad commentators. The word ‘bad’ is perhaps misused here though as judgement of commentary is not an objective matter, it is very much a matter of opinion, what may annoy someone may be exactly what others desire from a commentator.

There must be some things that annoy a majority of viewers though, below are a few of my pet hates that can guarantee a cringe every time I hear or read them, I suspect I’m not alone with some of them;

Nicolas Anelka in action for Chelsea

Nicolas Anelka - He may be French but he's definitely a man. Photo: americanistadechiapas

Mispronunciation: I fully admit that as more foreign players have found their way into British sport and more international sport is broadcast that there will inevitably be names that are difficult to pronounce. What annoys me is when names we all know how to pronounce are mispronounced by those who should know better. A perfect example of this to have recently annoyed me is ITV4’s cycling commentator Phil Liggett calling the French rider Thomas Voeckler, Thomas Voikla. Liggett is a veteran of countless Tours, he commentates on cycling for a living and will have been to France more times than most so how on earth does he get it wrong? It should be pronounced something like Vercklair but a widely heard and acceptable pronunciation is Verckla. Another example that gets up my nose is David Pleat’s (he is a serial offender) pronunciation of the French footballer Nicolas Anelka, Pleat insists on calling him Nicola. I know in French the ‘s’ is not pronounced but he calls him Nicola in an English accent, by all means call him Nicola but if so don’t make him a girl and so do it in a French accent, if you’re intent on using an English accent then do as most do and simply call him Nicolas.

Over familiarity: Steven Gerrard should be called Steven Gerrard, John Terry should be called John Terry, no Stevie Gs, no JTs. A commentator is there to inform and describe, if a teammate wants to refer to them in that way in a post match interview then so be it, a commentator can call them by their nickname in pub conversation just as you and I would but please not in a commentary. This is one criticism I have of Tom Fordyce, he has a habit of creating new names for sportspeople that often have little relation to their actual name. His current favourite seems to be referring to Tim Bresnan as Brezucio, I don’t know why this annoys me but it does.

David Coulthard in a Red Bull

David Coulthard's helmet meant he was easily identifiable. Photo: :: De todos los Colores ::

Missing action: In my opinion a cardinal sin of a commentator; so caught up in finishing what they are saying that they miss something. It may only be the beginning of something happening but I like my commentators to react to things as they’re happening, not with a few seconds delay. It can often feel like the commentators are actually at a disadvantage being at the event because for television commentary they aren’t necessarily seeing what the viewers are and as such may not react to something on our screens due to them not looking at their monitor at the time. A culprit of this particular pitfall was Jonathan Legard, the 5Live turned BBC1 Formula 1 commentator, he didn’t seem to manage his move from radio to television too well and was often found to be still talking as Martin Brundle interrupted him to update the viewers with something happening out on the track.

Referee Howard Webb

Referees such as Howard Webb rarely escape the wrath of Alan Green. Photo: thetelf

Know your stuff: This may be the most important part of preparation for a commentator, if your job is solely to commentate on one sport all year round then I expect you to be able to identify the main protagonists. In many sports and for most commentators this will come naturally just through being a fan and recognising the way somebody kicks a ball or runs a bend or pedals a bicycle. Kits, numbers, car bodywork, haircuts and tattoos all help in this respect yet commentators still get it wrong, unfortunately Legard falls foul of this as well. Most Formula 1 teams are kind to the commentators and make some distinction between their two cars, be it the colour of the nose or the camera on the top of the air inlet, not forgetting that each driver likes to make their helmet very distinctive, yet Legard still seemed to have trouble identifying drivers. I say seemed as he was booted off the Formula 1 coverage and back to football league commentary after two years of complaints from F1 fans and was replaced by the very knowledgeable David Coulthard. Henry Blofeld is another prime suspect for this one, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been listening to Test Match Special and he’s called Stuart Broad, Chris. Stuart has been playing international cricket for nearly five years now and Blowers still gets it wrong at least once a day.

Alan Green: There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being opinionated and sharing your opinions with the audience, in fact I’d say that I probably prefer commentators and summarisers to have opinions. However Green angers me with his opinions as he more often than not assumes everyone shares his and dismisses those who don’t. I also find that he is far too quick to criticise and pass judgement, whether it be the performance of a player, the referee or the standard of a game in general. If he commentates on a poor quality game, and with the amount of games he covers that is inevitable every now and again, then he appears to take it as a personal slap in the face from all the players on the pitch that they can’t put on a performance worthy of his presence. He seems incapable of accepting then not every game will be Arsenal v. Barcelona, not every pass will find it’s target and not every referee will go through their career without making a mistake.

Right that’s a few things off my chest! Feel free to comment if you agree with my criticisms or defend a guilty party if you feel they’ve been harshly treated or simply to add to the list and vent some frustration of your own.

Photos: Anelka – americanistadechiapas, Coulthard – De Todos Los Colores, Webb – thetelf

Talking A Good Game

Some of us ignore it, some of us can’t do without it, and some of us use modern technology to choose an alternative. Sports commentary can be an incredibly powerful medium, it can inform, provoke, illustrate and enrage in equal measures but when a commentator gets it right they can leave their mark on an event such that it cannot be thought of without the accompanying commentary. Imagine the final goal of the 1966 football world cup final without Kenneth Wolstenholme’s immortal words, Johnny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the 2003 rugby world cup without Ian Robertson’s unforgettable radio commentary or Damon Hill’s F1 championship winning moment without Murray Walker having to stop because he had a ‘lump in his throat’? These are words that will live with sports fans forever, they are synonymous with the sporting action and help us recall the emotion coursing through us at the precise moment it was taking place.

Microphones

The tools of the trade for commentators. Photo: Roadside Guitars

Commentary is an art-form, and much like painting there are several different styles. First came radio, the realism of the painting world; the artist must capture every nuance of the scene and convey it to their audience as if they were standing next to them. Next came television, this can be equated to impressionism; full of bold colours, the commentator can be less detailed, only needing to highlight the key aspects of the action and provide some context to the proceedings. Then there’s the new-boy, the precocious youngster most akin to graffiti; online text commentary is no more than ten years old but has already created a niche for itself, anyone can contribute to it, it takes its influences from a myriad of sources and is constantly evolving.

Each branch of commentary requires a different set of skills, radio commentators must be able to accurately describe the action taking place but do so very concisely so as to keep up with play and not miss anything. These skills are more vital than ever in sports such as tennis and horse racing, the situation to be described is constantly changing and doing so at such a pace that one word out of place can distract the listeners or result in you the commentator lagging behind the action and in turn the reaction of the crowd. Television commentary doesn’t require you to keep up with the action and describe every moment blow-by-blow as the pictures are there to do that for you but you still have to add something to the viewers experience. On television there is more scope to divert away from the action and have a discussion with the analyst beside you about tactics or the atmosphere around the venue, something that the viewer won’t garner from the images on their screen. Text commentary is a balancing act between accurately describing enough of the action to the readers who very often have no pictures or sounds to work with, whilst ensuring that the content isn’t so dry as to turn readers away. The simple facts of text commentary are that people can’t type, publish and read as fast as we can speak, broadcast and listen so it is impossible to describe every moment to the readers, who in turn don’t actually want to read a written account of the action down to the minutest detail. The art of a text commentator is to pick out the key moments, concisely recount them and add your own flourish to them that will engage the reader and prompt them to contribute to the dialogue themselves via email, text, Facebook, Twitter or any other social media outlet the commentators may use.

Computer keyboard

The tools or the trade are gradually evolving though as text commentary continues to prove popular. Photo cheetah100

It is often the way, much as with referees, that a good commentator will go unnoticed as they don’t interfere with what’s going on and don’t do anything that takes your attention away from the match. There are some though who are a joy to listen to and whose words will always add something memorable to a sporting occasion;

*This is not meant to be a definitive list of the best commentators of all time, simply the ones who have stuck in my head in recent times*

John Hunt: I’m not a fan of horse racing in the slightest, I can’t see beyond the gambling aspect to it and my opinion is that a sport that revolves around and relies on gambling to maintain itself isn’t a particularly good thing – plus I just don’t find it that exciting. All that being said I think John Hunt is a fantastic radio commentator for horse racing, he manages to describe exactly what is going on whilst conveying the excitement of a race and somehow still remain eloquent.

Jonathan Overend: Much like John Hunt, Overend has the capability to maintain a level of eloquence and calmness whilst still describing and reflecting the action and emotion of a tennis match. Tennis isn’t often heard on the radio in Britain, primarily just for the eight weeks a year during which the grand slams occur but when it is it requires a special commentator to give you a real feel for what’s happening during a rally.

Andrew Cotter: A relative newcomer but is making his mark in the world of sports broadcasting, he is equally at ease calling the closing stages of the Open Championship as he is at the Wimbledon final or the Calcutta Cup. His gentle Scottish tone is easy to listen to but with enough intonation to keep you hooked on the action and his thorough background research never leaves him wanting for a stat. He rarely comments on the state of the play, despite possessing the knowledge and insight to do so, preferring rather to simply call it how he sees it and leaves the analysis to the ‘experts’.

Tom Fordyce: The jewel in the crown of the BBC’s online text commentators, tennis and cricket fans will know and love him from the marathon days he puts in behind the keyboard at Wimbledon and across the country covering Strauss and his men. His ability to keep an audience glued to their computer monitors for an entire summer of test cricket is admirable, never lost for an obscure reference to throw into the commentary early in the morning he will often manage to spin a whole day’s worth of discussion from the thinnest of threads. Honourable mentions must also go to Fordyce’s partner in crime, the comically named Ben Dirs, with whom Fordyce traipsed around France in the ‘bloggernaut’ reporting on the lighter side to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Jonathan Stevenson and Caroline Cheese, both having departed the BBC now, also kept the masses entertained with their tales of outside court ding-dongs at Wimbledon and last-minute football transfers on deadline day.

Test Match Special: Not so much a specific commentator but a collective of ex-players and broadcasters that bring a joy to cricket on the radio that doesn’t seem to be matched on the television. Jonathan Agnew leads the ever-changing cast of commentators who rotate throughout a days play and always add something to the play, whether it be Geoffrey Boycott’s opinionated but heartfelt  claims that he could still bat with a stick of rhubarb or more insightful comments from Simon ‘The Analyst’ Hughes. You never get bored listening to a day of TMS and from a personal view it makes cricket one of the few sports that I would prefer to listen to on the radio than watch on television.

Murray Walker with microphone.

Murray Walker may have retired but he's still never far from a microphone. Photo: enormospenner

Inevitably there is the other side to good commentary, there are things that commentators do as well as specific commentators that provide little to the match, they in fact detract from the coverage because you spend more time picking up on things that annoy you in the commentary than concentrating on the action. That can be left for another time though, the art of commentary is a very difficult thing to get right and those that do should be respected and acknowledged for doing so.

As I mentioned above, my list is by no means intended to be a who’s who of great commentators, so who do you enjoy listening to and what makes them so special? Also feel free to share any specific moments of commentary that will live long with you.

Finally, the second of the Boston Globe’s galleries from the Tour de France – another collection of stunning sports photography: Tour de France Gallery 2

Photos: Microphones – Roadside Guitar, Keyboard – cheetah100, Murray Walker – enormospenner