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

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On Best Behaviour

Sportsmen and women are human. They will make mistakes in their lives just as the general public do, the difference being that because of our nation’s obsession with our sports stars and their lives away from the pitch (can’t really call it private anymore), any minor  indiscretion will be seized upon and reported to the world. The British public are generally intelligent enough to realise when a story has been blown out of proportion though, on the whole they will appreciate that everyone makes mistakes and that  public figures should be allowed to do so without being vilified by the press. However when an indiscretion becomes more than minor it should come as no surprise that it will be splashed across the papers and one’s judgement will be called into question.

*The aim of this post is not to discuss the rights of the press or an individual, it is to highlight the carefree attitude some take to their career choice as a professional athlete and the responsibilities that come with it.*

Jonny Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson focuses on the matter in hand. Photo: Taneroa

Like it or not, high-profile professional sport now comes with a price. Yes you get to do something which you love and get paid handsomely in return, but if you choose to make the most of this fame then you have to be prepared to tolerate the media intrusion that will inevitably follow. There are of course those who shy away from the spotlight, who simply go about a normal life as you and I would, just with considerably more money than we could ever dream of. This results in journalists and paparazzi ignoring them as they go about their lives, deeming the holiday photos of a happy family to be of far less interest than those of Cristiano Ronaldo lying on a boat surrounded by girls in bikinis. People such as Paul Scholes spring to mind, Jonny Wilkinson is another, these are athletes who at their peak were unquestionably the best in the country at what they do, if not the world. They could have cashed-in on their talents and lived the lives of playboys, instead they shunned the publicity. Both of them still look ill at ease when being interviewed and the fact that their Wikipedia pages struggle to muster even a paragraph for a ‘Personal Life’ section speaks volumes of their modest lifestyles.

In fact it should be noted that this type of athlete is actually the norm. There are thousands of professional footballers, rugby players, cricketers and other sportspeople, the vast majority of whom live event-free lives. They occupy the back pages of the newspapers but never trouble the front, just as their managers and coaches prefer it to be.

Cristiano Ronaldo poses for an Armani underwear poster.

Ronaldo doesn't exactly shun the limelight. Photo: chris.huggins

Then there is the other type of athlete, the one who thinks nothing of going out and getting drunk just days before an important fixture, or thinks the best way to settle a disagreement with a rival fan is to resort to violence. In every walk of life there are a small minority who spoil things for the majority and professional sport is no different. The trials and tribulations of a select few seem to have tarred everyone with the same discoloured brush, particularly when it comes to footballers, and Premier League footballers more specifically. Ask a person in the street for their opinion on top-level footballers and it will invariably be negative. Phrases such as ‘overpaid prima donna’, ‘egotistical playboy’ and ‘lacking morals’ will be trotted out before even a thought is given to those hardworking professionals who make plenty of personal sacrifices and do lots of good work for charities.

You can forgive people for falling back on the media depiction of the irresponsible pro though when you recall some of the incidents to have made the front and back pages in recent years. Gavin Henson, Andrew Flintoff, Joey Barton, Craig Bellamy, Danny Cipriani, just some of the names to have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Offences have included breaking club’s discipline rules, drinking heavily during a vital training period, stubbing out a cigarette in a teammate’s eye, attacking a teammate with a golf club and going to a night club in preparation for an international fixture. It beggars belief that these supposed professionals would  jeopardise not only their own performance levels, but the performance and health of teammates so willingly. Successful performance in any aspect of life will always require an element of sacrifice, yet these sportsmen seem determined to have their cake and eat it too. They seem cavalier in their attitude towards their job, their reputation, their club’s reputation and the reputation of their sport. Sportspeople may not have asked to be ambassadors for their club or their sport but it comes with the territory. It’s not even as if people are asking them to be saints and live a monastic lifestyle, all it takes is a little common sense; if you’ve got a big game coming up at the weekend then don’t go out to a club in the build up, if you have a disagreement with a teammate then leave it as a disagreement without reaching for the 9-iron, and if you go to a club party then watch where you put your cigarette.

Unfortunately the list of idiotic acts committed by professional athletes doesn’t end there. Below are a select few of the most ridiculous stories you will ever read, if they weren’t true then they’d be funny – unfortunately they’re all true:

Plaxico Burress (NFL wide receiver): Sentenced to two years in prison for shooting himself in the leg with a pistol he had tucked down his trousers in a nightclub.

Andy Powell (Welsh rugby union flanker): Arrested for drunkenly stealing and driving a golf buggy 3.5 miles away from the team hotel towards the M4 motorway following a narrow victory over Scotland.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England left-back): Shot a work placement student with his .22 calibre air rifle at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground.

Delonte West (NBA point guard): Having been pulled over for a traffic violation whilst driving a three-wheeled motorcycle police found him to be in possession of a pistol, he was also carrying a pump-action shot-gun in a guitar case on his back. Also reported to have had an affair with Gloria James, mother of teammate LeBron James.

Freddie Flintoff celebrates ENgland winning the 2005 Ashes.

'Freddie' Flintoff chooses a more appropriate time to indulge a little celebration. Photo: Ben Sutherland

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool and England midfielder): Arrested and charged, but later cleared, for assaulting a DJ at a night club for not allowing him control of the sound system.

Michael Vick (NFL quarterback): Served 21 months in prison for his part in an illegal dog fighting ring that operated for five years.

So it seems that if you can think of it, a professional athlete somewhere has done it and put their career in jeopardy as a result. The combination of phenomenally high salaries and lots of spare time to fill could be used to do so much good, and in the majority of cases it is – even if that good is just living a happy life away from the cameras. Unfortunately there are a select few who drag everyone else down around them, of course there will always be the odd few in any population that cannot be controlled but you can’t help but think that with the correct guidance and advice that the vast majority of ill-discipline issues could be eradicated.

One final point; I’m not advocating a world full of Paul Scholes’ and Jonny Wilkinsons, that may tire somewhat, but individuals such as Ian Holloway demonstrate that it is possible to have a character, entertain people and still do a sterling job at the same time.