Commentators in cricket history - 1: Alan McGilvray - Voice of the game in Australia

Alan McGilvray had been a good enough cricketer to lead New South Wales, and once added 177 with Bradman in a benefit match (his own share being 42)

On June 11, 1927, 28 days after an experiment by BBC featuring Reverend Frank Gillingham, Plum Warner made the first ball-by-ball radio broadcast from Lord’s on the first day of the match between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, perched next to the clock at the Nursery End. Since then, several relentless voices bringing us ball-by-ball updates have gone on to become much loved household names.

In this new series, Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to some of the greatest figures in the history of broadcasting. To start with, he tunes in to the voice of Australian cricket, Alan McGilvray.

It was a sleepless winter night in Australia, 1938. Across Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, houses were lit up and smoke issued from the chimney, as cricket sit-up parties went on.

From the wireless, Alan McGilvray s well known voice rung out: “It is brightening as the sun peeps through. In comes Fleetwood Smith, moves in to bowl and Hammond comes down the wicket, takes it on the full, and drives it beautifully past Hassett who moves around behind the ball and fields brilliantly. They ve run through for two.”

The rapt listeners could hear the crisp sound of the willow striking the leather, as also some scattered applause. Some of them kept their own scores, pencils jotting down numbers and facts with the commentary.

McGilvray s voice continued: “Hammond moves down the wicket and hits past the bowler. My word, that carried! That was almost in the hands of Fleetwood-Smith, but went just past him, although he put a hand out, he didn t get near it and it raced past him for four. But was certainly past him round about knee high.”

The clunk of the harder hit was heard on the radio, along with gasps from the crowd as the half-chance went abegging, followed by loud applause. Thousands of Australians around the land slapped their foreheads and cursed.

And all the while, McGilvray was crouched in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) studios in Market Street, Sydney. The two balls described had been results of a cable received from the Test Match ground of England. It ran: BRIGHTENING FLEETWOOD-SMITH HAMMOND FULL FIRSTLY TWO HASSETT SECONDLY FULL FOUR STRAIGHT UNCHANCE BOWLER THIRDLY NO BALL FULL TWO OFF-DRIVEN … and so on.

McGilvray recalls in his autobiography, The Game is Not the Same:[Eric] Sholl had been despatched to send cables according to an elaborate code. Outside our studio, a team of five or six decoders would put the cables into readable form from which the commentators would operate. The cables covered everything we would need to paint a word picture … Sholl would tell us about the weather, the crowd, even the traffic getting to the ground. Any time the field changed, he would fire a new cable and each over send a cable with a complete run down on every ball.

A collection of recordings of loud cheers, polite applause, crowd annoyance reaction and so on were used as applicable by a sound effects man. The sound of the bat striking the ball was generated by a pencil in the hands of the commentator tapping on a round piece of wood on the desk, the harder the stroke seemed on the cable, the more resounding the tap of the pencil!

This was the world of synthetic broadcasts, before shortwave radio stabilised to become a wonder of communication technology.

Gaps between the cables, especially when the over was run through too quickly by the ‘overseas commentators, were filled in by animated discussions. Vic Richardson, the expert, would perhaps say, “He really should be moving forward to those deliveries.” To which McGilvray would respond, “Well, I don t know about that Vic, the bowling s pretty tight and I think the batsmen are quite right in being cautious.” All the while, they would have no clue about what was actually going on.

Cricket from the Eiffel Tower

This was not the first instance of synthetic commentary. When Douglas Jardine s men toured Australia for the infamous 1932-33 series, Alan Fairfax, the former Australian cricketer, had been persuaded by Poste Parisien, a French commercial station, to sit in a studio in the Eiffel Tower and produce a detailed description of the games by being fed a continuous stream of cables.

These descriptions were broadcasted in England where they were followed with great interest. In Test Match Special (TMS), John Arlott says: “His [Fairfax s] background knowledge enabled him to put flesh on the hard facts and his use of the present tense and his strong Australian accent imparted an air of authenticity.”

By 1938, shortwave coverage was possible, but breakdowns were all too common, and hence McGilvray, Mel Norris, John Chance, Hal Hooker and the experts, Monty Noble and Vic Richardson, were set up by ABC s Charles Moses to field Sholl s cables and reverse-engineer the running commentary. To give them an additional impression of being there, they were given morning tea at 9.30 pm, and lunch at 10.30 pm.

McCabe returns to score 232 after being applauded back to the pavilion

Only once did an unsatisfactory cable lead to a disastrous error. The dispatch came through announcing MC was out. The two men at the crease at that point had been Stan McCabe and Ernie McCormick, resulting in severe confusion.

McGilvray had turned to Richardson and asked: “Who ll I give it to?”

And the former captain had replied: “Oh, give it to Stan. He s got his hundred and he ll be throwing his bat at anything.”

So, McGilvray s voice boomed into the households, “McCabe steps into the drive. He s lofted it … and he s out. And what a glorious innings it was.” He went on to launch into a graphic description of a standing ovation as the batsman walked back, clapped all the way to the pavilion. The sound effects guy had a field day.

The next cable announced that it had actually been McCormick. A good thing for Australian cricket too, for it was the innings in which McCabe got 232, prompting Don Bradman to call his team to watch it from the dressing room balcony. There was nothing for McGilvray to do but to explain the error honestly with profuse apologies.

Graduating into real commentary

However, McGilvray did show the world what he could do with synthetic broadcasts, and when Test cricket resumed after the war, he became the voice of Australian cricket, forming an immensely popular team with Vic Richardson and Arthur Gilligan.

McGilvray had been a good enough cricketer to lead New South Wales, and once added 177 with Bradman in a benefit match (his own share being 42). Although his pre-World War II voice sounds tinny on aged recordings, he now developed an impressive timbre and fluent delivery, and became the first choice cricket commentator in Australia, and went on to cover over 200 Test matches across the world.

Many decades later, ABC, competing with commercial television, would market him with a catchy jingle playing in the background, “The game is not the same without McGilvray.” The first part of this catchphrase became the title of his autobiography, one of several entertaining books on cricket that he penned in his later years.

Too serious for Arlott

A traditionalist, he never quite adapted to the loose, relaxed and often frivolous style of Test Match Special, and because of this some found him to be a rather difficult colleague. There was, for instance, little rapport between him and Arlott. As Trevor Bailey observed: “McGilvray was a very good commentator and a very good cricketer, and it jolted.”

However, that did not prevent TMS stalwarts from famously embarrassing him in characteristic light-hearted manner. Brian Johnston once timed his question perfectly, forcing the dignified Australian to try and answer with his mouth full of cake.

On another occasion, Johnston innocently asked him a question, when, off the air, McGilvray was fast asleep in his chair. Yet, generally, he did not stick around in the box when his stint was done, hastening for a drink or smoke or a chat with one of his many mates, always returning in good time for his immaculate twenty-minute periods.

Half a century of broadcasting

His one regret was perhaps when in Brisbane in December 1960, thinking Australia was sure to win the first Test against West Indies, he arranged the commentary periods so that he could catch an early flight back to Sydney. When he got there he learnt that the Test match had ended in the first-ever tie – a commentator`s dream that would have suited McGilvray to perfection.

As well as regular visits to England on Ashes tours, starting with accompanying Bradman s Invincibles in 1948, McGilvray also worked on tours of South Africa and the West Indies and was much loved in all the countries he visited.

After his final broadcast in 1985 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke made a farewell speech following which there was a standing ovation from the crowd.

When he passed away at the age of 86 in 1996, Wisden recalled: “Even in old age, he maintained an active interest in the game, and an abiding memory … is his performance at a pre-Test match dinner in Hobart in 1993, at the age of 84. With the formalities of the evening over, and armed with a scotch and a cigarette, he laughed and joked with the other diners until the wee small hours of the morning.”

(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:

2. Howard Marshall

3. Rex Alston