What was cricket’s finest television commentary team?
In the UK, Channel Four’s was pretty good, particularly when Richie Benaud, Ian Smith and Mike Atherton were together. Sky UK play at a decent level, with Atherton, Nassar Hussain, David Lloyd, Mikey Holding and the rest providing pleasing contrasts of attitude and accent. The BBC, often retrospectively maligned as stuffy and old-fashioned, were strong when Benaud, Tony Lewis, Jack Bannister and Ray Illingworth were together in the late eighties and early nineties.
Even Channel Nine has to be mentioned. Not the incumbent cheerleaders obviously, but in the days when Benaud and Ian Chappell led the team, and they were more willing to use overseas commentators, particularly Tony Cozier. I still rate Chappell with Ian Smith as the best contemporary commentators.
Our own Sky New Zealand panel takes a lot of beating, particularly when Grant Nisbitt takes a break from the rugby to join Ian Smith, Simon Doull, Mark Richardson et al. If Jeremy Coney were to re-enlist, they would be non-pareil.
But all these teams had weaknesses, commentators who were not necessarily bad—though sometimes they were—but who averaged in the mid-thirties rather than the high forties or above. Benaud or Atherton on one side of the scales, a tracer-bullet spotting Tony Greig or blustering Ian Botham on the other.
I know of only one team that was without imperfection, and it worked together on only two or three occasions on Sunday afternoons in the sixties, the first of which that I can trace was 3 September 1967, when the International Cavaliers (captained by Ted Dexter) played a Rest of the World XI (led by Garry Sobers). Other players included Kanhai, Barlow, Hunte, Gibbs and both Pollocks. A treat for those present, but more so for those who stayed at home to watch in grainy black-and-white.
For the commentators on BBC 2 that afternoon were Richie Benaud, John Arlott and Learie Constantine, three of cricket’s greatest men.
Constantine began life in a poor working family on a plantation in Trinidad and ended it as a member of the House of Lords (that was still to come, but in 1967 he was already a knight). He had been a pioneering professional in the Lancashire League for Nelson, him and his wife the only black people in the small northern mill town (until CLR James turned up to become a somewhat tiresome lodger, judging from his own account in Beyond a Boundary).
Constantine was an electrifying cricketer. He bowled with pace and aggression, delivering what was to become known as “bodyline” against the MCC tourists in 1930, which may have planted the germ of an idea. As a batsman an accurate modern parallel might be Shahid Afridi, and he was the best fielder that Bradman ever saw. Michael Parkinson tells how Constantine had the trick of having the ball thrown hard at him from behind as he walked back to his mark, only to catch it without looking at the last moment. Of course, he never captained the West Indies, as that privilege was reserved for white men. He spent the rest of his life fighting against discrimination of that kind.
I was too young to offer a critique of Constantine’s commentary, but remember a degree of wry humour. How could it have been anything other than wise?
No commentator has distilled cricket’s truth more purely than Arlott, nor had its perspective in better focus. However sumptuous the shots or brilliant the bowling, Arlott’s words would have been their equal.
And then there was Benaud. Cricket has never been as unified in mourning as it has been for him. When Dr Grace died in 1915, there were plenty left to step forward with tales of chicanery on the field of play and the lining of pockets with “expenses” off it. Fingleton and O’Reilly reached eternity before Bradman, but left enough negative stories behind them to ensure an element of rebuttal to the woe.
You would have to be pushing 70 to remember cricket without Benaud. He made us think that cricket had what he did: dignity, wisdom, wit, humanity. That it was civilised. He shared his experience with us, yet never said that the old days were better than the present (this he had in common with Arlott and Constantine). I never saw him play, but nobody did more to help me understand cricket; millions would say the same.
You will be wondering where a match with such a parade of talent was played. Lord’s probably, or the Oval, you will be thinking. A test match ground certainly. Not so. It was played at Ascott Park at Wing in Buckinghamshire (a minor county!). Aside from this match and the same fixture the year before, the ground’s claim to fame has consisted of staging the annual contest between the old boys of Eton and Harrow along with the odd minor counties match. Many of the Cavaliers games were played on small country grounds, for reasons that are no longer clear. Bigger grounds usually filled for Cavaliers games (Canterbury certainly did) but TV was the priority. The Cavaliers presaged World Series Cricket in that respect.
And you may also be surprised that there was such a thing as a Rest of the World XI in 1967. It was the summer of love, and those of us who were too young to get to San Francisco to wear flowers in our hair surely deserved some decent cricket as compensation. A Rest of the World XI appeared in the last couple of weeks of The English season for several years in the second half of the sixties. I saw them play a three-day game against Kent at St Lawrence in ’68. They played tournaments against England and the tourists of the year that there is a fair case for regarding as the first one-day internationals, but that is a discussion for another day.