On May 14, 1927, a Reverend was called away from his church pulpit and asked to broadcast cricket live on BBC. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the birth of ball-by-ball cricket commentary in England.
It was the first day of a low-key match between the visiting New Zealanders and the Johnny Douglas led Essex at Leyton. Helped along by the slow spinners of Jack O’Connor, the home team restricted the Kiwi batsmen to 289 and then reached 57 for 2 by close of play.
The highlight of the day, though, was the sight of a former county cricketer, Frank Gillingham, speaking off and on into his microphone, perching next to the secretary's office on the pavilion balcony in a deliberate attempt to catch some of the noises of the crowd.
It was the first time a cricket match was being broadcast live on BBC. That day, Gillingham spoke through four stints, totalling 25 minutes.
The former batsman of Essex was not chosen just because of his background as a decent enough cricketer. He was also a Reverend, known to be a fantastic preacher, who filled his churches to overflowing. According to Wisden, he was also “an after-dinner speaker with a wonderful sense of humour; his supremely funny anecdotes, told without the vestige of a smile, frequently convulsed listeners”.
The country, which was soon to graduate to the heady ritual of Test Match Special, was strangely less than lukewarm when the initiative was announced.
On April 1, The Guardian announced that the BBC had proposed adding cricket to its list of radio sports. The report was quite dismissive and the Daily Herald took it a step further by frivolously wondering whether chess and billiards would not be more exciting to broadcast on the wireless.
On April 25, it was revealed that the Reverend Frank Gillingham would deliver the first cricket commentary from Leyton. He would broadcast from 2.10 pm until 2.20 pm, and during four further five-minute bursts on the hour with a general summary at 6.45 pm. In between, the London Radio Dance Band would keep listeners entertained.
The Daily Telegraph justified the limited period of coverage writing it is difficult to see how else such a broadcast could be made thoroughly interesting. A few days later, The Guardian reported that there were plans to punctuate the band music with commentary at any period when play is specially interesting.
The indifferent reaction was perhaps to be expected. The press of the time regarded radio as a direct competitor and for a long time refused to publish programme schedules.
BBC not optimistic
However, the BBC themselves were not too optimistic. Radio Times, their own publication, did mention that the venture was a new departure, an experiment, and something of an adventure but at the same time conceded that cricket was one of the slowest games in the world, not exactly what people would want to listen to for long. They will have to sit through descriptions of maiden overs and wait while the batsman sends to the pavilion for his cap.
However, in Australia, airing cricket matches on radio was already popular, with former greats like Clem Hill playing the role of summarisers. The first Test match coverage had already taken place during the Sydney Test of 1924-25.
Besides, Lance Sieveking, the visionary BBC producer, had recently been extremely impressed by the live baseball commentary in the USA. Baseball had beaten cricket to the wireless, with the first major league game broadcast on August 5, 1921, when Pittsburgh Pirates played Philadelphia Phillies.
Hence, BBC went ahead with the trial. Whether Gillingham used his oratory skills to the optimum is left to conjecture as no record of the broadcast survives. Newspaper reaction was quite expectedly disparaging. The Western Daily Press termed it deadly dull. The Edinburgh Evening News, however, was more positive calling it a partial success.
Thankfully it was encouraging enough for BBC, and soon county matches, Eton-Harrow and Gentlemen-Players encounters were being broadcast from the Lord’s and The Oval, and Pelham Warner was becoming a recognisable voice to cricket lovers. The regional stations picked up the trend quite soon, with BBC’s Belfast and Cardiff services joining in. Although there continued to be barbs from the press, radio commentary was there to stay.
In 1930, Don Bradman’s first Ashes series in England was broadcast live, and cabled reports were used to cover the matches in Australia.
Sadly, the Reverend Gillingham fell from grace and was banished forever from the commentary box. During a rain delay at The Oval, he filled in time by innocently reading out the advertisements around the ground. He thus incurred the ire of Lord Reith, overlord of BBC and a stickler for a complete absence of the commercial angle.
However, it seems that the royalty was not too scandalised by his minor misdemeanour. In 1939, the Reverend Frank Gillingham was appointed Chaplain to the King.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)