"it gets better, and better, and better"

the cricket commentary clip that's so good it should be sent into space

To BBC or not to BBC? That is the question every armchair fan faces on the first morning of a summer Test as the clock ticks towards 11am. Even for those who don’t fork out for a Sky Sports subscription, the tantalising carrot of watching the action is constantly dangled in front of us thanks to the magic of pay-per-view TV and – if you know where to look – nefarious, unlicensed internet streams. How does such a venerable institution as Test Match Special survive, let alone thrive, in this 21st century multimedia climate? If only we could catch a particle of the magic dust with which TMS sparkles and then examine it under the microscope.

Well, in the Ashes summer of 2015, I did. Like so many great discoveries, it happened entirely by accident: in a kitchen in the unlovely north London suburb of Wood Green, with a little help from perhaps the most remarkable stint of commentary in the programme’s six-decade life.

Dawn broke at Trent Bridge on Thursday, 6 August in unspectacular fashion. Indecisive clouds languished overhead, deliberating over whether to wash away the excitement of a sell-out crowd. In the half hour before battle commenced, TMS did what it always does – transmitting the undiluted tension to its millions of listeners the world over. The recipe rarely changes: Aggers ferrets about the outfield, reporting on the teams and toss before queuing to grab a gentlemanly interview with the two captains while TV has first dibs. The pundits on the rota unfailingly rib Aggers and each other from the off, and speculate like giddy schoolkids about the fresh pages of history about to be written over the next few days. It’s a perfectly spiced broth that bubbles up at 11am on the dot. (Or 11.05 this time, after the shortest of cameos by the Nottingham rain.)

Meanwhile, 150 miles away in Wood Green, I had taken a day off to fully luxuriate in the joys of a fresh chronicle in the Ashes saga. I was stuck in a quandary over how to follow it: the cosy, blanket-like feel of Aggers and co was enticing, yet I couldn’t escape the nagging thought that, without watching the action, I’d somehow be wasting the day. Frankly, it’s ludicrous that we should have to choose.

As recently as 2005 you could do both at once: the telly was free and the pictures were analogue, so it was perfectly possible to synchronise TMS with live television. You could have your cake and eat it. Instead, today the so-called advances in media technology have robbed us of this simple pleasure – in Britain’s digital paradise it is maddeningly difficult to synchronise the pictures with the words, thanks to DAB radio, satellite TV and online streams all being transmitted with different amounts of delay to real time. Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, needs to get off his hammock and sort this out pronto.

Until then, the next time you are faced with this crisis in cricket consumption, I suggest the temporary solution I stumbled on that fateful August morning. I based myself alongside my trusty DAB radio in the kitchen and switched on 5 Live Sports Extra. I also shelled out £10.99 for a week’s pass to Now TV in the living room. This created two separate time-zones in the house, with the delay between audio and video just long enough for me to be able to hear anything noteworthy first, then run around the corner to see what had happened on TV, before returning to the warm sanctuary of TMS for the next ball. I did a lot of running in the course of the next hour or so. It was a good work-out, but more importantly it enabled me to compare directly the merits of watching and listening to live cricket when at home, and that’s how I discovered the secret.

The choice of new-ball pairing to start a Test match is always a crucial decision – not just on the field but at the microphone too. That morning’s team selection blessed us with Henry Blofeld and Phil Tufnell: the most entertaining commentary-box duo of recent years. To steal a Blofeldism, they were both in mid-season form as they greeted us while the pre-match formalities frothed in the background. Above the wafting strains of “Jerusalem”, we learned that England’s songstress-du-jour, Laura Wright, was wearing a striking mauve dress which Stuart Broad’s sweater could beat in the length stakes. But the length of Broad’s sweater was no competition for Gary Ballance, who had “the longest jumper in the business”. Then, there was an eruption of cheers to greet the England fielders, and Blowers – fighting to be heard over the hubbub – conjured a succinct homily to Trent Bridge: “It’s a magic ground, small… and the most perfect cockpit for cricket.”

So far, so straightforward. A crescendo of cheering accompanied Broad’s charge towards the wicket for the opening delivery. Blowers took it in his stride just as Chris Rogers did – the batsman’s effortless defence mirrored by the commentator, who had the time not only to describe the ground’s geography but also point out his first butterfly of the match “flittering” past at a personal-best time of 33 seconds after the first ball was bowled. Tuffers gladly rose to this challenge. It was a Cabbage White, he added as Broad’s second ball erred down the leg side and was deflected away for four leg-byes. Australia 4 for 0. Again, standard stuff. Nothing to leap towards the living room for. But the thing about earthquakes is that they happen without warning.

First, there was the explosion of noise, followed instantaneously by the customary reflex of “he’s got him!” The commentators were enveloped by a Trent Bridge roar and for a moment there was nothing to hear but celebration, before Blowers unfurled a neat tribute to Broad for reaching 300 Test wickets. Three balls gone, Australia 4 for 1. It was a terrific start for England, but an early wicket is nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, Blowers’ antennae were up. As the next Australian batsman headed out to the crease, he said: “And of course Steve Smith, here he is, in the very first over, walking briskly to the wicket like a man who feels: ‘Well, I’ve got to get there and I’d better get there quickly and get it over with.’” Smith clipped two runs off his first ball, then cracked Broad to the boundary off the next.

The second explosion was more telling. “Can you believe it? You can’t believe it… It’s quite extraordinary!” Blowers’ voice quavered with surprise and wonderment at Smith’s demise, squared up and caught at third slip. Tuffers was so excited he got the giggles. Australia were 10 for 2 after one over.

In my living room, the Sky Sports coverage let the pictures do the talking and, remarkable as the footage was, it lacked the frisson that comes from truly great commentary. There is something about the nature of TMS that behoves its broadcasters to react more like fans and rely on their instinct. While television is unbeatable for presenting the physical reality of cricket, TMS is the most accurate transmitter of its emotional reality. As listeners on that August morning, we were living it just as Blowers and Tuffers were. It was aural magic.

Back in the kitchen, the maelstrom was already so massive that there was no time for Blowers to conduct his inventory of buses, cranes or Tina Turner lookalikes at the Radcliffe Road End. Instead, he commentated upon the batsman at the non-striker’s end – David Warner. “We’ve forgotten about him. He’s been at the other end watching the carnage… he must have thought he was in a butcher’s shop.” Ever the model of BBC politeness, Blowers even asked Australian listeners to forgive him for displaying his joy. “But we are English after all.”

After a change of end, Mark Wood was soon springing into his menacingly short run-up to deliver the second ball of his spell. A heartbeat and an inside edge later, Warner was being sent to the pavilion. Struggling to be heard over the crowd’s visceral roar, Blowers’ voice became a euphoric rasp: “Unbelievable! Both openers out for nought. We’ve had eight balls of this match and Australia are 10 for 3! No scriptwriter in the world… Sam Mendes, James Bond, all those James Bond movies… he couldn’t have written this!  No one would have believed it, would they? It is amazing, Tuffers!” It’s not so much the text as the tone that made it poetic. Blowers was almost self-combusting in paroxysms of delight and his voice was laced with genuine, gleeful surprise. He was a human lightning conductor for every England fan on the planet.  

This was Test Match Special at its best. After rushing to the living room to see the wicket of Warner, I was soon sprinting back to the radio to hear the drama that was fizzing over the wireless. Scarred as I am by growing up in the 1990s, the creeping sensation grew over me that England’s high water-mark of the day had been reached, but Tuffers was attuned to how near the batting side was to the precipice: “Australia need to find something here or this could get messy very, very quickly.” Meanwhile Blowers had zeroed in on the travails of the Australia captain: “Poor old Michael Clarke, who thought: ‘Going in at five, I’m going to be able to shelter myself a bit’… [he’s] coming in to face the ninth ball of the match!” Clarke reached the crease as the crowd chanted a delirious “cheerio” to the dearly departed Warner.

Then Shaun Marsh went for nought and Blowers went into overdrive. “He’s gone! It gets better, and better, and better for England, and worse, and worse, and worse for Australia… What an extraordinary morning’s cricket!” “Morning?” replied Tuffers.We’ve only had a couple of overs!” This was the fourth fulmination in 18 balls, and it capped a sequence of radio commentary that might never be eclipsed for its blend of surprise and elation. “Blowers was on fire there!” said Tuffers, as Jonathan Agnew picked up the mic to start his on-air stint. “I think we need a fire extinguisher to hose down his seat,” replied Aggers.

It took another hour for the innings to implode fully, Australia dismissed for 60. I shuttled between rooms so often, I must have run more singles than the entire Australian batting line-up. But that Blofeld/Tufnell four-wicket burst transcended mere commentary. It was 15 minutes of joy unparalleled by any live cricket I’ve heard. The TV coverage might have been seconds behind in real time, but it was light years behind in emotion. If a new Voyager probe was to be launched tomorrow complete with a gold disc of sounds from planet Earth, this radio clip should be on it.

When most people think of TMS they think of Johnners and his love of cake, or Blowers’ passion for cranes, or Geoffrey Boycott’s purely professional admiration for Katy Perry. But these celebrated facets are united by the strange fact that they do not directly involve the live sport itself. Even the “leg-over” moment happened during a review of the day’s play rather than the heat of the action.

Thursday, 6 August 2015 was different – it was all about the cricket. Eclipsing 1981, 2005, 2009, 2013, and dare I say it, even 2005, this was England destroying the Australians more unexpectedly and utterly than they ever have, and it was TMS that crystallised the passion of the moment, not television pictures. That morning I discovered that, in the strange world of cricket broadcasting, hearing is believing.

This piece was originally published in Wisden's cricket journal The Nightwatchman, in summer 2017.

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