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.
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.
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 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