Test Match Special has become a sporting institution over the last 60 years. But what, asks Chris Bond, is the secret of its enduring popularity?
The British summer, it has been said, consists of two fine days and a thunderstorm. It may be infuriatingly brief but perhaps that’s why we cherish those few long, hot days all the more. They conjure memories of trips to the seaside, ice cream and uninterrupted cricket – the welcome sound of leather on willow.
If cricket is the quintessential summer sport, then BBC Radio’s Test Match Special is its accompanying soundtrack. For generations of crickets fans Test Match Special, or TMS as it’s affectionately known, has been synonymous with family holidays and those arduous car journeys made palatable by the dulcet tones of the likes of John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld, whose mellifluous voices became the sound of summer.
The birth of this sporting phenomenon came in 1957 - when the BBC became the first broadcaster to cover every ball of a Test match. The slogan for the programme in the Radio Times was “Don’t miss a ball, we broadcast them all”.
During the intervening decades the programme has become a national sporting institution and is as important to cricket buffs as Match of the Day is to football fans. It has gathered a loyal following with listeners sending in cakes to the commentary team, while at one point the programme’s broadcasting wavelength even became the centre of a heated debate among MPs in the House of Commons.
To mark TMS’s 60th birthday a star-studded Twenty20 match is being held in Leeds today led by commentators Jonathan Agnew and Geoffrey Boycott. The game has been overshadowed by Boycott’s perceived racist comments made during a fundraising event in aid of Yorkshire Air Ambulance at the weekend for which he has, quite rightly, made an unreserved apology.
Boycott is one of TMS’s most famous names but the programme is about far more than one person. It has not only survived but flourished in the face of competition from the omnipresent Sky Sports and BT Sport.
Today, cricket fans can follow matches via their laptops and tablets and even on the hoof on their mobile phones, yet there’s a lyricism about cricket that lends itself to radio more than any other sport, which perhaps explains why there are still fans who watch matches on TV with the sound muted and the TMS team providing the commentary.
Former England and Yorkshire captain Michael Vaughan made his TMS debut in 2009. “I spent 20 years playing the game and now I get to talk about it,” he says. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m in the TMS commentary box because I feel privileged and lucky to be part of the team.”
Growing up he was an avid cricket fan and says the radio commentary was never far away. “It was always on in the car when I was going somewhere with my mum and dad, and when I was supposed to be doing my homework or asleep in bed instead I’d be listening to the Ashes series from Australia.”
He extols the commentary skills of Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Henry Blofeld and, in particular, Fred Trueman. “He brought such an insight. I loved his manner and his humour,” says Vaughan.
The beauty of TMS is the blend of live commentary, expert summaries and good banter which means that interspersed with the action out on the pitch are observations about everything from the truculent English weather to the shenanigans of our urban pigeons. “You don’t even need to be a cricket fan. There’s a little bit of humour and the odd gaffe but that’s all part and parcel of it,” says Vaughan.
“You’re painting the picture to whoever’s listening. A match can have moments when it’s dull and you can venture off and talk about other things and a conversation starts - that’s when TMS is at its best.”
Former England international Ebony Rainford-Brent is a relative newcomer to TMS and one of the first female summarisers to enter its hitherto male-dominated world. “It was massively nerve-wracking, I thought someone was going to drag me away,” she says, reflecting on the first time she picked up the mic in the commentary box. “I’m not saying they were mini gods, but I looked up to people like Aggers. I was a bit worried it would be a bit of an old boys network but it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone’s supportive and really engaged with the women’s game.”
Cricket has changed dramatically in recent years with the rise of women’s cricket and the T20 game and Rainford-Brent feels TMS has kept up with the pace of change. “It’s adapted to changes in the game and people still genuinely love the programme,” she says.
Former England bowler Graeme Swann has been a summariser for the last three years. “It’s part of the fabric of our country. So many people grew up listening to it and they still do. TMS is like a friend. You recognise the voices and even though you’ve probably never met them before the commentators feel like your friends. It’s like The Archers, you feel part of it.”
He remembers being a youngster furtively listening to the cricket commentary on his dad’s radio under his duvet when he should have been asleep. “I’d be listening to the magnificent voices of ‘Johnners’ and Christopher Martin-Jenkins and the way they described what was happening enraptured me.”
It’s something he missed once his playing career took off. “When you’re playing you don’t hear it because you’re out in the middle and I missed it. I had to ask my mum and dad what Phil Tufnell or Michael Vaughan had been saying about my bowling.”
So to become part of such a revered institution was never going to be a chore. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet. When I was growing up I only wanted to do one of two things - play cricket for England or talk about cricket for Test Match Special, and I’ve got to do both.”
Even so, being a former player who is sometimes has to criticise those he once sat next to in the dressing room can be tricky, as Swann discovered a few years ago in his spat with Alastair Cook – though he’s since “kissed and made up” with the former England captain. “It’s about finding a happy medium. You’re not trying to please your friends because they will like you no matter what you say.”
One of the greatest thrills, Swann says, of being part of the TMS team has been working with people he grew up listening to - people like Henry Blofeld, or Blowers. The TMS veteran is regarded by many as the doyen of cricket commentators, his distinctive, plummy voice the broadcasting equivalent of a fine claret. “He’s got this incredibly rich voice. He could read from the label of a baked beans can and it would sound good,” says Swann.
Blowers’ ripened delivery and eccentric vocabulary has been a feature of TMS for a record 45 seasons surpassing John Arlott (34 years) and even its original commentator, E W Swanton (37 years).
Next month he brings his innings to a close when England host the West Indies at Lord’s in what’s likely to be an emotional occasion. It will no do doubt feel like the end of an era but with the likes of Alison Mitchell and Aggers, whom Blowers nominated as “the best of the lot”, still in the commentary box its future is in safe hands.
“There’s something magical about listening to cricket on the radio. It’s comforting and entertaining... it’s like a good book,” says Swann.
Commentary of the Test Match Special Anniversary Match is on BBC Radio 5 live Sports Extra today, from 4pm to 7.30pm.
The funniest ever sporting blooper
There have been plenty of lighter moments on TMS down the years, but arguably the most famous is Jonathan Agnew’s famous “leg-over” comment at the Oval during the final Test of the 1991 series between England and West Indies.
With the legendary Brian Johnston sitting beside him, Aggers started to explain that the England all-rounder Ian Botham had been dismissed by hitting his own wicket because he ‘failed to get his leg over’.
The pair then dissolved into helpless laughter as Johnston, despite his best efforts, struggled to continue reading the scorecard, pleading: “Do stop it, Aggers.”
The clip was later voted the greatest sporting commentary of all time by listeners to Radio 5 Live.