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Commentators in cricket history – 2: BBC’s Howard Marshall

Commentators in cricket history - 2: BBC s Howard Marshall

Len Hutton (left) broke Don Bradman’s highest individual Test score in the Ashes Test at The Oval in 1953. According to many it is not an exaggeration to say that without the voice of Howard Marshall (inset), Hutton’s 364 could never have become so famous. The entire nation was hooked on to Howard’s baritone voice when Hutton got to the magical mark © Getty Images

Howard Marshall, along with BBC director Seymour de Lotbinière, formed the equivalent of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe in the art of cricket commentary, setting the tone and benchmarks that would be followed by BBC and Test Match Special for years to come. In the second part of the series on broadcasters, Arunabha Sengupta replays the first popular English voice of ball by ball commentary.

The full score – cricket versus piano

There was a time when Howard Marshall, and the engineers with their paraphernalia, were not allowed inside the hallowed precincts of the Lord’s cricket ground. But, radio bordered on the entertainment industry, and as per the old tenet, the show had to go on. So, they used to go around the corner to a house in Grove End Road, belonging to pianist Harold Craxton. Boasting a musicians’ gallery, the house was perhaps chosen jointly by Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a suitable point for summarising the action at Lord’s.

However, it led to offbeat conflicts as well. In Radio Times, Marshall recalls, “Stumps had just been drawn at the end of a Test match and I rushed to (the house) to give an account of the play. A microphone had been installed there in the window of a semi-basement room, and just as the red light was about to come on, we heard, with startling clarity, the tinkle of a piano in the room above. Someone was practising scales with the utmost vigour, and essential though scales may be in a musical education, they form an odd background to a cricket commentary. It was zero hour, though, and I had to begin my talk while one of the engineers went upstairs to silence the piano. I must admit that the scales were a little distracting. “La-la-la-la-la-la-LA!” they went, with a triumphant thump on the last note, but suddenly, abruptly, they ceased. …The engineer had done his job, either by peaceful persuasion or by a show of force. Anyway, I could now concentrate on cricket.”

Howard and Lobby

It took another couple of years, but by 1934, Marshall was back inside the ground, in a room at the top of the old Tavern, with Wendell Bill at his side to send back his cables to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for their synthetic broadcasts.

His minor brush with trouble came when he went overboard describing the skill of Bill O’Reilly during the Lord’s Test of 1934, parodying the old song, “As for O’Reilly you value so highly, Gorblimey O’Reilly, you are bowling well.”

BBC received some 300 letters complaining against the use of the word ‘Gorblimey’, but it just went on to show how popular his broadcasts had become.

Marshall’s job was mostly to give ten minute summaries and some rare running commentaries when the phases of games turned extremely interesting.  Till then, it was a widely held belief in England that ball-by-ball commentary would never work for a game as slow as cricket. It was left to a visionary to prove otherwise.

Six foot eight inch Seymour de Lotbinière, Lobby to his friends, took over as the Head of BBC Outside Broadcasts in 1935. A qualified solicitor, he turned his analytical mind and energies to making BBC an even more enjoyable experience for a public who relished a sporting life.

Within a year, he pioneered an Isle wide coverage of sports, including soccer, rugby, tennis, golf, horse and greyhound racing as well as cricket. And to give his vision shape, he chose Howard Marshall as his instrument, changing the habits of the cricket-lovers forever.

Marshall had been a club level cricketer and a rugby Blue at Oxford who had also trained as a journalist. In him Lotbinière had detected the great asset of a conversational style of broadcasting during an era when even interviews ran to prepared script. Soon, Marshall became the first choice for ball by ball commentary, covering cricket matches across the length and breadth of the country.

For a long time, Marshall operated alone, with just an engineer in tow, without even a scorer to back him up. No Test cricketer hovered around him, pitching in with their insights. Hence in the surviving tapes we hear the score somewhat seldom; often one is not informed that Hedley Verity bowled left arm slow; and can find out how much the ball was turning only from the old newspaper reports.

However, where the commentary succeeded was in the general mien. Throughout there was an air of expectation and the drama of a great cricket match. The style was pleasant, like a friend speaking to a friend, and the voice, a truly mellifluous one.

The acid test of his genius was his ability to maintain interest of listeners irrespective of how exciting the cricket was in the middle.

Describing history

By the late 1930s, Lotbinière, in collaboration with Marshall, had worked out a technique for radio commentary which has been diligently followed by all the later luminaries of Test Match Special. Marshall, in fact, introduced the standard trick of the trade of being just ahead of the stroke.

Breaking off to broadcast the coronation of King George VI in 1937, he returned to the box for the 1938 Ashes series, perhaps the highlight of his career of commentating on cricket.

His voice rang far and wide, winning thousands of admirers in Australia. There were letters from Down Under in which fans described how much they missed his voice when the Manchester Test was washed out.

The poise and neutrality of his broadcasts were a marvel to many. When he showed a minute bit of emotion at the dismissal of Stan McCabe, Glasgow Herald wrote, “Mr Howard Marshall very successfully dispelled one false impression … that if Bradman himself dropped dead at the wicket, (he) would  not allow even such a shocking happening as this to betray him into raising his voice or indicating anything untoward has happened. When Mr. Marshall came on at 2.20 on Saturday he was describing an over by Farnes to McCabe, and the beautiful voice went easily on, soothing as sunshine to a holidaymaker taking it easy in a deck chair after a good lunch. And then there was a fearful shout as if Mr. Marshall had swallowed his tonsils. ‘He’s out.’”

At the decider at Oval, the nation and the Empire tuned in to Marshall’s commentary. According to many it is not an exaggeration to say that without the voice, Len Hutton’s 364 could never have become so famous.

This is how the first master of cricket commentary described Hutton’s world record: “Here’s Fleetwood-Smith again. Ah, there we are, there’s the record. Round the corner, and it’s going for four down here, I don’t think Hassett can possibly cut it off. Ah well, that’s gone for four. And that is the record. The highest score ever made by an individual in any kind of Test match. It’s beaten Bradman’s record in England/Australia series, he’s beaten Hammond’s record in all kinds of Test matches and, there we are, he’s on top of the world and the heartiest possible congratulations to him.”

Hanging up his microphone

Marshall went on to become the Director of War Reporting during the Second World War and a war correspondent. He famously broadcast from a Normandy beach immediately after the D-Day landings. He resumed cricket commentary for the victory Tests of 1945, but by the time real Test cricket had resumed, he had moved on to grander things, culminating perhaps in collaboration with John Arlott during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

He worked as a Director of Personnel and Public Relations in the steel industry, wrote several books on sport, housing and exploration, and also co-found the fishing magazines Angling Times and Trout and Salmon. Yet, his lasting fame remains as the pioneering cricket commentator.

Of him, Arlott later said, “He was eminently suited to cricket: he had a deep, warm, unhurried voice, a respect for the hard news of event, and a friendly feeling towards the men who played the game.”

Brian Johnston recalled in It’s Been a lot of Fun, “His slow, deep, burbling voice came through loud and clear… I think it’s fair to say that of all the pre-war commentators, he would be the only one totally acceptable today, so good was his technique and his knowledge of cricket.”

The most fitting tribute perhaps came from poet Edmund Blunden:  “And then on the air, Mr Howard Marshall makes every ball bowled, every shifting of a fieldsman so fertile with meaning that any wireless set may make a subtle cricket student of anybody.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

More Parts:

1. Alan McGilvray

2. Howard Marshall

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