When the pandemic began gathering pace in April, there were fears that this would be the first summer in England since the end of the Second World War in which no cricket would be played. Fortunately, it has turned out otherwise. Conditions improved enough for there to be six Test matches, three against the West Indies and three against Pakistan, played in oddly empty stadiums but telecast live around the world.
With millions of other cricket fans, I partook of an intense spell of binge-watching in this time of panic and suffering, seeking refuge and consolation in my favourite sport. Although in the end, England won both series comfortably, the matches were not without competitive interest. And the summer ended, cricketing-wise, on the happiest of notes, with the great Jimmy Anderson getting his six hundredth Test wicket, the first new-ball bowler to join a club hitherto reserved for spinners alone.
Among the joys of following Test cricket in England is that one can do so without guilt. I am a morning person anyway, so can get in several hours of focused reading or writing before the cricket begins at 3.30 pm. The 40-minute lunch break can be used for work as well, and so too the sometimes extended breaks for rain that pepper a match in England. Unlike in India, where Test cricket clashes directly with my hours of work, or in Australia, where it clashes with my hours of sleep as well as of work, here I can combine professional obligation and the pursuit of passion with painless ease.
I now watch Tests in England on the telly, but when I was young I had to hear rather than see them “live”. I belong to the ever diminishing number of Indian fans whose cricketing education was shaped and nurtured by the radio. The first series I have aural memories of was played in the summer of 1966, when I was eight. The West Indies comfortably beat England 3-1, powered along by the batting, bowling, and fielding of their captain, the greatest cricketer who ever lived, Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers. I have followed cricket in England every summer since, via radio or on the television. The only exception was 1986, a year I spent in the United States of America with no access to radio or TV, and thus missed listening to or viewing Kapil’s Devils hand England a comprehensive two-nil defeat in a three-Test series.
It is always nice watching Test cricket in England, and even nicer when India are not playing. For then one can be strictly non-partisan, watching the cricket for purely aesthetic reasons, devoid of the poisonous feelings of national pride. That there are no Indian commentators adds to the pleasure even more. It may be that Hindi or Tamil or Marathi commentators are exciting to listen to, but those Indians working in the English language lack subtlety and discrimination, adding little value to what one is seeing anyway. They talk too much and talk over the action, all the while making it shamelessly obvious that all they want from a Test match is that their side should win.
My favourite commentators on television come from three different countries. They are (in alphabetical order) Michael Atherton of England, Michael Holding of the West Indies, and Shane Warne of Australia. They were all present in the box this summer, Atherton and Holding from the beginning, with Warne joining halfway. Atherton was an outstanding Test cricketer, Holding even better, and Warne the best of all. Yet Atherton never speaks of his own playing days, while Holding does so rarely. His endearingly open character and staggering feats with the cricket ball mean that Warne is occasionally self-referential, but not in a crude or boastful way.
This trio beautifully complement one another. They come from different countries and did different things on the cricket field. So Atherton can speak most knowledgeably about batting, Holding about fast bowling, and Warne about spin bowling. Holding made his Test debut in 1975;Four Warne was playing in the Indian Premier League as late as 2011, so they collectively bring to the table almost four decades of playing experience. Holding and Warne both played in world-beating sides, and can thus speak with a well merited (if usually understated) pride about their time at the top. Atherton’s England never dominated the game when he played; fortunately, this lack of collective achievement suits the self-deprecatory character of the man himself.
Their personalities are also quite dissimilar, with Warne’s exuberance a contrast both to Holding’s quiet intensity and Atherton’s laconic matter-of-factness. And yet, for all their differences in character and cultural background, these three commentators share two qualities; a profound understanding of the game’s history and techniques, and the ability (as well as desire) to transcend national partisanship.
When I shared this list of three personal favourites with my friend and fellow cricket nut, Rajdeep Sardesai, he said that, on his part, he would make it a quartet by adding Nasser Hussain. I like Hussain too, for his blunt and forthright manner. Besides, like Atherton, he is absolutely without a trace of parochialism, whether racial or national or religious or any other.
Such was not always the case with English cricket commentators. Consider Brian Johnston, a fixture in BBC’s Test Match Special when I was growing up, and the most popular radio commentator with British audiences themselves. I have vivid memories of hearing “Johnners” during the 1976 West Indies tour of England, when a short ball from Wayne Daniel or Andy Roberts would be described disparagingly as “a nasty one, a really nasty one”, while one from Bob Willis or Chris Old was spoken admiringly of as “a splendid bouncer”. The impression sought to be conveyed was that the vicious West Indians bounced in order to hurt and injure the batsman, whereas the sporting Englishmen did so merely to get him out.
The previous year, when Javed Miandad toured England as part of the Pakistani squad for the inaugural World Cup, Johnston only referred to him as “Mum and I” (as distinct from Me-and-Dad), a joke which he (and many of his home listeners) found uproariously funny, but even back then grated on my teenage ears for its crudity and its ethnocentrism. India’s captain in the World Cup that year was S Venkataraghavan, whom this Englishman thought fit to call “Rent-A-Caravan”, chuckling to himself as he did, and doubtless prompting even louder chuckles in his British listeners.
While not as crudely chauvinist as Johnston, the other members of the Test Match Special commentary team in the 1970s were Little Englanders as well. The one exception was John Arlott, a man of culture and cosmopolitanism and a lifelong opponent of racism on and off the field. Atherton and Hussain are both a decade younger than me. I don’t know whether they heard Johnston when they were growing up or what they thought of him. Fortunately, their own character and life experience have oriented them towards the legacy of Arlott rather than that of Johnston. That one has married a West Indian and that the other’s father is a native of Madras has surely shaped how they think in this regard. Meanwhile British society itself has become far more heterogeneous and accommodative of cultural difference than it once was.
I much enjoyed these past weeks of cricket watching, which I did not (given the pandemic) expect to experience. The cricket notwithstanding, the highlight of the commentary this summer was moral and political rather than sporting. The Black Lives Matter movement prompted a white anchor to ask Michael Holding about his own experiences with racial discrimination, which he recounted with both passion and eloquence. The videos of his moving testimonies will last forever, longer even than the replays of Anderson’s six hundredth Test wicket.
Postscript: In a rain-break during one of the Tests, I went to YouTube and chanced upon a fabulous one-hour conversation between Michael Atherton and Shane Warne. In this conversation, Atherton comfortably held his own, which he so rarely did in their playing days, when he had the bat and Warne had the ball.
Ramachandra Guha is the author most recently of Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World.
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