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Has Test Match Special lost its wits?

The demotic decline of the most celebrated of all sports programmes

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

There’s a 13th man at the table at Lord’s this week as England resume the Ashes contest with Australia, which began so thrillingly at Trent Bridge, where England prevailed by 14 runs. For the first time in half a -century, -Christopher Martin-Jenkins is not present to renew one of the great rituals of the English summer.

‘CMJ’, who passed away on New Year’s Day at the less than grand age of 67, was always going to be missed and listeners to Test Match Special, the programme he adorned with his balanced commentaries, are cursing Time for being so vicious in his reaping. The graveyard, it is said, overflows with people once thought to be irreplaceable. Yet CMJ, for many years the BBC’s cricket correspondent and latterly its emeritus figure, cannot be replaced because the world of broadcasting no longer produces such men. At times it seems not even to value them.

To say that TMS, the most celebrated of all sports programmes, is not what it used to be is a commonplace. The question is: how can it live up to the standards set by men like CMJ and his predecessors John Arlott (surely the finest sports broadcaster of all) and Brian Johnston, who died in 1993? Resolving that matter goes to the heart of what the BBC is, and what it ought to be.

In tone and character TMS has always been a Radio 4 programme. Arlott was a poet, Johnston a boulevardier, CMJ a friendly housemaster, Henry Blofeld a gadfly. They all fitted in, because they knew the rules, which, as ever in England, were unwritten. Listeners understood them, too. The contract between the commentators and those who heard them has been one of the most encouraging stories in the history of our public service broadcasting. Indeed, it has defined public service broadcasting.

Over the past decade, though, there has been a shift towards the demotic style favoured by Radio 5 Live, or, should you prefer, Radio Halfwit. The familiar rhythms, cadences and pauses have, summer by summer, given way to a gobfest in which commentators and summarisers (often speaking across one another) must have their say, whether or not they have the slightest thing worth saying.

Where CMJ once told listeners that -Graham Gooch, as in Macbeth, ‘hath murdered Sleep’ (Peter Sleep was an Australian bowler), Michael Vaughan now rabbits on about the worst kind of telly trash, with wild guffaws. Whereas one man held the listener (yes, he spoke as if to one person) to be his intellectual equal, the other appears to have no hinterland at all.

Vaughan, a superb batsman in his time, and a very fine captain of England, is not stupid. But every time he talks about ‘ba’in’, instead of batting, he loses the programme a hundred listeners. Instead of speaking in such a relentlessly aggressive manner, as if he nurses a grudge against the world, why doesn’t he look up, as he used to do at the crease, and, metaphorically speaking, let the ball come to him?

For Phil ‘Tuffers’ Tufnell, however, we can’t hold much hope. There was a revealing moment at Trent Bridge when Jim -Maxwell, the excellent Australian commentator, speaking about the extraordinary performance of the Aussies’ No. 11 batsman, Ashton Agar, invoked the name of Wilfred Rhodes. Tufnell, clearly wrongfooted, offered a grunt.

Anybody with cricket in their blood knows about Rhodes, who, like Agar, bowled slow left-arm spinners and began his Test career as the last batsman on the card before moving up to open the innings. He took 4,204 wickets, made the little matter of 39,000 runs, and played Test cricket into his sixth decade. If there was a Mount Rushmore to commemorate England cricketers, Rhodes would be George Washington. Yet an expert on TMS, and a former England bowler to boot, appeared not to know anything about him. Radio Halfwit beckons.

Listeners to TMS value intelligence, mediated through a pleasing voice. Jonathan Agnew, the current correspondent, manages that trick, and so did the late, great broadcaster whose memory all cricketers of the heart should honour with a glass of something agreeable.

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