Howzat for humour!

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on July 31, 2020

Stalwart at work: UK’s John Arlott evoked the best of broadcasting skills to describe the presence of a streaker at an Ashes Test in 1975   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The radio commentator’s ability to amuse the listener often saved the day for cricket

Cricket is no child’s play. There’s a lot riding on the action between the wickets. But it wasn’t all business many years ago, when the sport still had a touch of romance and playfulness about it. It was fun and far more entertaining than the contrived version we now have. The radio broadcast was the window to matches, with commentators relaying every movement from venues across the world. In the absence of accompanying visuals, the words of the person at the mike filled an empty canvas with little details — such as average run rates or a team’s batting line-up — that we have been taking for granted over time.

Just like the narrator of an action-packed film or novel, the commentator’s performance depended heavily on personality and domain knowledge. While some shone through the dullest moments of the game, some others failed to capture the excitement of the most thrilling parts.

The commentator’s box had its share of serious men who would not digress from the proceedings. This was particularly true of matches relayed on All India Radio (AIR). “It used to be stifling at times because we just could not crack a joke,” recalls Narottam Puri, a doyen among cricket commentators.

In contrast, the audience were treated to anecdotes on the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Thanks to stalwarts such as John Arlott and Brian Johnston, listeners developed an appetite for the humour that punctuated live commentary on runs, wickets, weather conditions, mood of the umpire and so on. The three cornerstones of British humour — sarcasm, self-deprecation and deadpan delivery — defined the duo’s style.

Lead by example: Brian Johnston’s witty remarks set a standard in cricket commentary   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


An anecdote one remembers hearing on the circuit was from a 1969 Test match at Lord’s. England fast bowler Alan Ward struck New Zealand opener Glenn Turner on his ‘box’ off the fifth ball of the over. The batsman took a while to recover from the pain and resume play. On air was Johnston, who reportedly said, “Turner has now got up off the ground and, looking pale and shaken, is obviously going to resume batting; a very brave effort. One ball left!” It went down well with the listeners and set a trend in cricket commentary.

Arlott was considered a master of witticisms. On one occasion, he evoked the best of broadcasting skills to describe the presence of a streaker at an Ashes Test in 1975: “We have got a freaker down the wicket now. Not very shapely, and it is masculine, and I would think he has seen the last of his cricket for the day... he is being embraced by a blonde policeman and this may well be his last public appearance — but what a splendid one!” This in fact was a maiden appearance by a streaker at an international cricket match.

In comparison, AIR preferred a staid approach. But the exceptional Lala Amarnath sneaked humour into the commentator’s box. Amarnath was once “verbally” invited to Kanpur for a Test match between India and Australia in 1979. On the morning of the match, he found out that he was not scheduled to go on air that day. As luck would have it, Amarnath ended up doing the job when one of the commentators did not show up. He exacted sweet revenge towards the end of the match — by maintaining cheeky silence when his fellow at the box asked him for comments. He finally chose to answer the query in these words: “You treated me like a 12th man. Not anymore. I have got my cheque.” The laughter that followed was indeed a departure from the AIR norm.

Another instance that comes to mind in this context is also an Amarnath classic. This, too, was in response to a question from a colleague who described a situation thus: “This ball the batsman played back, was hit on the pad, right in front of the wicket. No chance of escaping the appeal. I thought he was plumb. What is your opinion, Lalaji?” True to his style, Amarnath replied, “What is there for me to say? You have left nothing for me to add.” There was laughter again, and some red faces at the AIR end.

Some commentators were known to indulge in quips. Once, when India batsman Yashpal Sharma asked for a new helmet after he hit a century, Puri remarked, “Swollen head”. “I knew Yashpal very well and made the remark in a light vein. It was misconstrued as if I was mocking him.”

Former India captain Vijay Merchant, known for his wit and one-liners, gave Indian commentary one of its best moments during a Test match played at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium in 1960. When a young girl jumped the fence in order to enter the field and kiss Abbas Ali Baig, Merchant complained in a serious tone, “I wonder where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring 100s and 200s!”

Vijay Lokapally is a Delhi-based sports journalist

Published on July 31, 2020

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