26 May 2007: Test Match Special is 50 this year. Rory Bremner presents the Archive Hour with excerpts from the commentary of John Arlott,
Brian Johnston, Trevor Bailey, Jonathan Agnew and others. Peter Baxter, the producer for about thirty years, is retiring at the end
of the current season and has written a book about his experiences. (this programme is in the VRPCC archive).
...more on Test Match Special (part of a much longer article by Martin Johnson)
You get more than just the cricket on TMS, and if there is a buzz around the ground, it may well be coming from thousands of transistor radios as spectators tune in not simply to be better informed about what's taking place in the middle, but how many red buses Henry Blofeld will observe proceeding down the Harleyford Road. Or indeed whether Blowers will fall victim to a Jonathan Agnew practical joke, and read out an e-mail purporting to come from a Mr Hugh Jarse.
Test Match Special has been in as rich a vein of form as the England team this summer, dispensing - to the delight of its army of dedicated listeners - equal measures of expert analysis and the kind of coffee-morning banter that makes the programme so popular both with cricket aficianados and people who wouldn't know whether an observation about Michael Vaughan being a little too square at mid-off was a reference to his fielding position or his dress sense.
The impression you get with TMS is that nothing changes, which is not strictly true, and it appeals ever more to the younger generation as well as the old duffers. In the last Test, Agnew received e-mails from some schoolgirls who were tuned in while revising for their A-levels, and also managed to get a scoop from his lunchtime chat with the retiring Chief Constable of the Met, who disclosed that his force had foiled no less than five terrorist plots to bomb London.
The younger element may have been attracted by the decision to get rid of one or two old stagers like Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman, although Fred's departure is a grievous loss to those of us who enjoy him being wound up by the likes of Agnew. "So, Fred. Would you say that all these injuries are the result of people bowling too much nowadays?" Cue noise of pipe stem being bitten in half, and half an ounce of smouldering old shag being splilt over Bill Frindall's scorebook.
"Bowling too much? In my day I got though 12 pairs of boots before t'end of May, and they were proper ruddy boots as well. And we bowled at proper batters 'n'all. 'Ave you seen that Trescothick? I'd 'ave 'ad 'im with me first outswinger. I were bowling at decent batsmen in my day. Take that Methuselah. Now 'e could bloody play."
TMS has a reputation for being even more entertaining during periods of no cricket at all, and during the Lord's Test there was a long discussion about unusual instances of play being halted. Someone recalled a dead mackerel (dropped by a passing seagull) landing in the batting crease, and another when play was delayed when the fielder at cover point exploded. Literally. It was a match in Afghanistan, and the poor chap had forgotten to take a hand grenade out of his trouser pocket.
At Edgbaston, what Blowers thought was "a hand grenade going off at the back of the box" was Agnew breaking into a pork pie, which in turn set off another great TMS tradition of plugging all the free goodies that get sent in. "Dickinson and Morris" said Agnew between mouthfuls. "Melton Mowbray. Lovely old shop."
During another tuck-shop moment, Agnew said he couldn't remember being sent a banana cake before. To which Frindall - who constantly conveys the impression that he's like a schoolteacher in charge of 4B - gruffly responded: "We had plenty in Brian Johnston's day."
The other great TMS tradition is nipping off for five minutes for the shipping forecast. But the mix of information and entertainment is rarely less than spot-on, and when the new contract bids are on the table sometime this autumn, let's hope the ECB heed the old warning about knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
2003... a tribute to TMS by the Radio Drama Dept. of the BBC
THE WIT AND WISDOM OF MARTIN TRUELOVE (R4, 1415, 1 Aug 03) was a very funny radio play set in the "Test Match Special" commentary box, written by Dan Sefton and featuring thinly disguised versions of Henry Blofeld, Fred Trueman, David Lloyd and Bill Frindall. A Test is in progress; everything is going smoothly; the Blofeld character is calmly talking about his colleagues' lack of sartorial elegance to three million people when an uninvited guest bursts in. The programme continues, but with move revelations than usual, including the information that a commentator's wife slept with the Glamorgan second XI, though not all at once. The TMS team was Jon Glover, Michael Maloney, Martin Hyder and Jonathan Keeble, and the outsiders Ewan Bailey, Alison Pettit, Stephen Critchlow and Liza Sadovy; Marc Beeby, who must be a TMS addict, directed.
It's worth saying at this point that the real TEST MATCH SPECIAL has been superb during the summer, with the guest South African commentators Barry Richards and Alan Donald entering into the spirit of fun which makes the programme so enjoyable. Another boost has been provided by email, which has given it more immediacy; there have been many interesting discussions between the commentators and listeners. On one occasion we had an exchange about the effect on the turf of magnesium and zinc levels, and for once Mr. Blofeld was rendered speechless.
..............Test Match Special has continued
to deliver good value. I have sometimes wondered why, during winter
tours, the cricket commentary from Australia, or India, or wherever,
seems so dull by comparison. Perhaps the foreign networks fail to
realise that they should employ raconteurs who can commentate rather
than cricket specialists unable to talk about anything else. Another
treat is "View from the Boundary"; on the Saturday of each Test Match,
where one of the commentators chats with a well-known personality
interested in cricket. The journalist and ex-Cabinet Minister Lord
Deedes was Henry Blofeld's guest (R4, 1315, 27 Jul 02) and he
reminisced about cricket between the wars and his early political and
journalistic career. Another high spot was the interviewing of
Stephen Fry by Jonathan Agnew (R4, 1315, 7 Sep 02); Fry is an
entertaining and thoughtful speaker, and the conversation ranged
from schoolboy cricket to Fry's appearances in "Blackadder". (VRPCC
newsletter, Sep 02)
..............Test Match Special has been with
us again, without Fred Trueman or Trevor Bailey, who for the duration
of the summer have been replaced by Graham Gooch, Donna Symonds, Tony
Cozier, and Sir Viv Richards. The team has offered its customary good
value, and by the end of the last test Match, even the new members
realised that discussing cricket is only part of the job. They are
paid to be raconteurs as well as commentators, and this is why they
are so entertaining, especially when rain stops play. It is worth
mentioning that Sir Robin Day, who died very recently, was the guest
in the TMS box on 20 May. (VRPCC newsletter, Sep. 01)
Nigel Deacon is amongst those members whose interests lie in the area of sports commentaries, more specifically cricket and he has written this short article on a programme which is surely quintessentially English and which has, of course, precipitated irate letters from listeners who fear/feared that it was to be lost for ever as various wavelength changes etc. were proposed and implemented. It is still with us, thankfully. Away we go, then.
Test Match Special....2000
has a special appeal to many radio listeners, and not just to those interested in cricket. It is a mildly inspired form of ad-libbing and chat interspersed with commentary which is one of the best-loved programmes of the English summer. It is not unusual to find listeners who prefer the coverage on rainy days, when commentary is replaced by anecdote and reminiscence - all unscripted and entertaining. And one can hear that the commentators enjoy every minute of it; from the barely-suppressed giggles almost off-mike to the expert comments on the match. 2.5 million of us tune in to TMS every day of each England series. The days are gone when the boys in the box could chat throughout the most prolonged rainy days (there is sometimes an enforced return to the studio when the BBC wants its wavelength back), but they still go on for an hour or so during rainy interludes. And they have interesting visitors. According to Jon Agnew - "we used to haul anyone up here and stick a microphone in front of them........we'd keep them chatting until it was time to start play or go home". Visitors like John Major, David Essex, Desmond Tutu, Dickie Bird, Dermot Reeve, Roy Hudd's wife, Jeffrey Archer - even Ben Travers on one occasion in pre-Agnew days.
Radio commentary on cricket began in 1946. TMS - ball-by-ball commentary - began in 1957, covering every minute of each Test Match in England. The earliest stars were Rex Alston, C.B. Fry and E.W. Swanton. John Arlott was the voice of English Summer from 1946 until he retired in 1980.. Brian Johnston was heard from 1966 until his death in early 1994. Now we are ably entertained by Henry Blofeld (1974 - ), Don Mosey (1974 - ), Christopher Martin-Jenkins (1974 - ), Peter Baxter (1973 - ), Jon Agnew (c.1990 - ), Fred Trueman (1974 - ), Vic Marks (c.1992 - ), Graham Fowler (c.1994 - ) and Trevor Bailey (1967 - ). There are a few personal idiosyncrasies - Henry Blofeld describes every passing train, aeroplane and bus; Jonathan Agnew hands faxes (some genuine, some not) to his colleagues to read out. Christopher Martin-Jenkins is so laid back that he has difficulty arriving on time (a young lady sent him an hour-glass during the 4th. Test at Headingley last year, which caused audible mirth in the commentary box). Trevor Bailey is the master of understatement; Fred Trueman talks endlessly of using a straight bat; Bill Frindall, the scorer, puts so much detail into his scorecard that he records the number of streakers interrupting play. Much of the fun comes from the bad behaviour of those who are off-duty, nearly out of range of the microphones.
Brian Johnston used to time questions to colleagues to coincide with mouthfuls of cake. Alan McGilvray, the Australian commentator who died recently, once fell asleep in his chair after lunch, at which point Johnston started to ask him questions. One one occasion, the audience was told that "Ray Illingworth has just relieved himself at the Pavilion End" and Jon Agnew startled listeners when he said "the truly marvellous thing about being up here in the commentary box is that you get a lovely view of Mushtaq's googlies". Don Mosey was congratulated in 1990 on reaching his 100th. Test in fewer tests than any other commentator. Agnew 'corpsed' badly a few years ago after reading a fax over the air purportedly from a "William Titt". And most of us have heard a recording of the occasion when he and Johnners corpsed simultaneously after an inadvertent remark about Botham being unable to get his leg over.
Henry Blofeld was delighted when 'Private Eye'
published a cartoon depicting a delirious patient lying in a
hospital bed rambling on in "Blowers" fashion. "Aggers, my dear
old thing........look, a double-decker bus going down the Ratcliffe
Road.......Wasim standing at cover point.......Atherton's on 39,
lovely chocolate cake, eh, Fred? -aye, 'appen me old mate Brian
could bat all day wi'out a break.......a rather soporific pigeon
has just flown past our window.......has he enjoyed his lunch I
wonder?........I'll just hand over to Aggers........Aggers, my
dear old thing"... And at the base of the cartoon, the doctor
is saying "First the good news, Mrs. Wimbrell. It's not BSE.
But the bad news is that your husband has TMS".
The Test Match Special team show that the old values
of skilful broadcasting and good manners can still work brilliantly
in this rushed and cynical age. Aggers, Blowers, Foxy Fowler, CMJ
et al are what good broadcasting is all about. They bring enjoyment
to millions simply by being themselves. Long may they continue.
(VRPCC newsletter, Sep 00)
......................Test Match Special
has been in good form throughout the summer. I have friends with no
interest in cricket who listen to Agnew, Blowfeld and Martin-Jenkins
for hours at a time. The commentators' friendly, good-mannered chat
and their occasional inability to resist acting like schoolboys
planning a raid on the tuckshop makes TMS a "must" during every Test
Match. A recent addition to the team is Graham Fowler, an expert in
the game and, like Agnew, a natural raconteur. The Australian guest
commentator Neville Oliver read an article published in the "Evening
Standard" on 26 July, quoting an anonymous source which had claimed
that TMS was under threat from the new Radio 4 Controller. Oliver
was most eloquent, and chose 1800 hrs., peak listening time, to speak
about it. A few minutes later, a BBC spokesman rang the programme to
deny the allegation. Hardly surprising. Watch this space.
(VRPCC newsletter, Sep 00)
As Radio 4 listeners settle down for "The World at One" with James Naughtie,
TMS - with Agnew dug in at the crease - belatedly goes out live on the
Welcome back to the Oval where it's a hive of activity, I'm pleased
to report. The covers have been taken away, the motorised squeegy mops
are trundling up and down, the sun has come out, and suddenly the whole
place has been transformed. So hopefully, play will begin at two-fifteen.
Agnew, who has written more weather updates than Ian McCaskill,
talks on for 43 minutes in the company of Mushtaq, the youngest player
in Test history when he made his debut for Pakistan in 1959 at the age of
15 years 124 days, and Bailey, scorer of cricket's slowest fifty (357
minutes against Australia in 1959), hence the soubriquet Barnacle.
On the one occasion Agnew was called upon to perform as a
barnacle in the service of England, he contributed a defiant two not out
batting at no. 11 against the mighty West Indies in the last Test of the
1984 series. "Unfortunately, Richard Ellison (out for a duck) and I
needed to put on 190 to save the match. I remember taking two for something
as the West Indies rattled up 500-odd. Still, they were two of the
best - Greenidge and Richards.
He hands over to Blofeld, for the start of play....Bright sunshine...scudding
clouds...a big red bus coming down the Harleyford Road...pigeons
strolling about the boundary rope...normal service is resumed.
For the next two hours we are in the company of the masters:
CMJ, as laid back as Roger Moore on valium and as modestly knowledgeable
as Mr. Chips...Aggers, humorously perspicacious...Blowers, poetic, romantic,
with an eye for the surrreal; the Bearded Wonder ("...that's the first time on
a wet thursday in August at the Oval before tea and with three spectators
wearing Arab costumes that an English batsman has run four to bring up his
century")...Mooshy, as elegant a wordsmith as he was a batsman...Barnacle, the
wise old owl...Foxy, the cheeky chappie with the encyclopaedic knowledge...
and the ever-present Backers, glass of chilled white wine to hand, lending
encouragement from the rear. "Far be it for me to cramp your style, chaps,
but it might be a nice idea to give them the score every two hours or so." short extract from an article by Robert Philip
part of an article written in 1993 There are a limited number of ways to describe another English
humiliation and remain cheerful at the same time. Yet Brian Johnston,
Jonathan Agnew, and Christopher Martin-Jenkins are still bubbling
away at The Oval. For the visiting Australian commentator Neville Oliver, sustaining
such good humour has not been a problem.
As a frequent visitor to the box I have lost any objectivity. I do
not know whether the outpourings are too frivolous or whether they enrich the
lives of the nation. I do know it's good fun. It must be; why else would
CMJ and Peter Baxter stay for more than two decades or Brian Johnston
continue at the age of 81.?
The atmosphere in the box is as relaxed as it sounds. The commentators genuinely
love the game and it shows. Baxter, who enlists the participants and
acquires enough kitchen rolls for the cakes that really do appear in
bulk, cannot be described as a rigid disciplinarian. Invitations to
appear are delivered courteously - 'would you care to join us...?' - not
does he offer newcomers heaps of indigestible advice.
When Sky began their coverage of the Caribbean tour four years ago
the TV commentators were issued with a five-page dossier of instructions
which began "OK guys...". The only advice I have ever received from
Baxter is "Do try not to talk when the bowler's running up to bowl".
The radio offers a matchless freedom to explore any tangents without
fear of being shackled by the camera. Baxter imposes no restrictions
and - usually- remains phlegmatic. Abroad, he has to. My first
appearance on TMS was on Gower's tour of India in 1984-5, when I
bumped into Baxter as he was searching for any stray Englishman since
his summariser, Mike Selvey, was suddenly indisposed, as Englishmen
sometimes are in Delhi. There I received a slightly more agitated
'Would you care to join us - now ?'
He has to be philosophical. Last winter, prior to the first one-day
international in Jaipur, I found the producer a trifle perplexed
when no equipment was evident half an hour before the start. Then
a battered suitcase appeared, containing a tangle of wires which
miraculously created a 'line' to England. In Calcutta the technicians
smiled a lot, but spoke not a word of English.
At home the technical problems are less acute. Will
CMJ arrive on time? Since John Arlott retired in 1980 with that famous
farewell - "after a few words from Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher
Martin-Jenkins" - Brian Johnston has been the lynchpin, controlling
The Bearded Wonder (Bill Frindall) like a masterful puppeteer, and
even managing to take the mickey out of Fred Trueman without provoking
a Yorkshire grimace.
Johnston is of the old school of commentators. During the
over he does not expect to be interrupted unless something significant
occurs. The summariser gathers his thoughts for the end of the over.
Jon Agnew, an ambitious appointment three years ago and now universally
regarded as an inspired one, conducts a conversation throughout.
CMJ is liable to toss out a question at any time, usually beyond the
boundaries of my knowledge, for example..."is that the lesser-spotted
warbler over there?"
On the field the Australians have humbled us; the Oval
excepted, the cricket has been too one-sided to provoke prolonged
excitement over the airwaves. Hence there have been more japes than
usual and we can takr solace in at least one minor English victory.
It took place at Edgbaston when Baxter passed a note to Neville
Oliver on air, which he dutifully read out - "There will be full
coverage of the NatWest semi-finals on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the
draw for the final will be made live on Radio 5".
(taken from an article written by Vic Marks in August 1993
for The Observer and reproduced with Vic's permission)
The playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a lifelong cricket enthusiast
and was interviewed by Brian Johnston in "A View from the Boundary"
on the Saturday of the Test Match at Headingley in 1992. Extracts
from this interview are here. (Brian also
interviwed Ben Travers, and when I have time parts of this interview will
also appear, including Ben's memories of watching the 1902 Jessop
When the light dimmed last Monday and the rain finally fell over Lord's,
miserably ending the Second test, Brian Johnston filled in the time by
reading from next year's first-class fixture list. Somehow, he made the
dates sound thrilling.
Chums in the commentary box, such as Christopher Martin-Jenkins, asked
obscure questions about old cricketers with unpronounceable names. Alec
Bedser looked in to reminisce, and then set about rubbishing the present
generation of selectors. The Bearded Wonder, Bill Frindall, got a mention, but
like Pru Forrest in "The Archers", he is never allowed to speak, only grunt
It was Johnners' birthday (vinitage 1912), and
congratulations were in order, though Bedser declined to call him Johnners, sticking
to the more proper "Brian". "That's quite all right", returned Johnners
amiably. Soon there would be a cake to share and a whiskey bottle to
Another wet English summer stretches ahead, made bearable only by this
priceless team of broadcasters. I've spent countless hours in their
delightful company. Nights have simply melted away as i hung on their every word
from Australia while matches twisted and turned, usually the wrong way.
Those Philistines who wanted to end ball-by-ball commentary are back sulking
in the pavilion. May the glorious commentary team live for ever.....
(summarised from part of an Observer article by Russell Twisk, Jun 1991)
Just after twenty past two on 2 September 1980 a remarkable event
occurred. Alan Curtis announced on the Lord's public address system
that the end of the previous over had seen the last of John Arlott's career
as a Test Match commentator. The Centenary Test crowd applauded warmly,
and the players on the field looked up at the commentary box and
applauded, too. It was a unique tribute to a member of the media.
John announced before the start of the 1980 season that
this would be his last, after thirty-four years in 'the box'. His voice, with
with its distinctive Hampshire burr, means cricket to listeners all
over the world.
(from a much longer article by Peter
Trevor Bailey was the all-rounder who was the vital
pivot of the England side of the fifties. He is just as valauble in
the commentary box in the eighties. Blessed with a great tactical
sense, he is never one to hesitate from sticking his neck out in giving an opinion. He has a neat way of summing things up - 'good ball, nice shot, good catch'. More often he is known as "The Boil" - which arose from his playing days, when he was once announced as "Boyley".
The first TMS phone-in idea came from him: "Cricket Clinic".
Tony Lewis was England captain in India and Pakistan, 1972-3. He went on to captain Glamorgan to the County Championship title. He has great interest in the techniques of commentary and is always eager to discuss some facet of the job which has just occurred to him. Tony joined the team as an expert summariser but was soon persuaded to try his hand at the ball-by-ball description. Peter Baxter
With 307 Test wickets behind him, Fred took his place in the commentary box as to the manner born. Brian Johnston calls him "Sir Frederick"...when sending out copies of his latest book, he inscribed it as such in the front of Fred's copy. The publishers duly addressed the envelope in the same style and Fred was surprised to find a deferential postman coming up the garden path with the package and profuse congratulations.
Fred's career as a commentator actually began in 1964 when Neil Hawke snicked a catch to Colin Cowdrey to become his 300th victim. Later Fred was welcomed in the commentary box the the Oval and invited to try his hand at the job. I wonder if the residents realised then that he would become a permanent fixture.
(from an article by Peter Baxter, 1980)
Many people ask Don Mosey how he earned the Johnsonian
nickname "The Alderman". He still looks puzzled, and refers all
inquiries to Brian who simply chuckles.
Don was BBC North Region's senior Radio Outside Broadcasts
producer, taking charge of the production side of a Test Match at
either Old Trafford or Headingley. Now the gamekeeper has turned
poacher and Don can indulge his relish for words in descriptive
He has been the victim of so many practical jokes
that he regards any card I hand him with the suspicion of a bobm
disposal man. There he may have a case - once we gave him the news that an unpronounceable - and entirely mythical- Pole had won
a race in the Moscow Olympics.
Only three players have scored a hundred for the Public Schools against the Combined Services - Peter May, Colin Cowdrey and...Henry Blofeld. Sadly, Henry's promising career as a cricketer was cut short by a bad road accident at Eton, but first-class cricket's loss was Test Match Special's gain, and his commentary style (described by Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph as "frenetic") provides another of the delightfully individual elements of TMS. 1980 provided him with two great moments to describe live. First, an exciting finish in the Benson and Hedges Cup final, and then, a couple of weeks later, a tie in the Gillette Cup quarter-final at Chelmsford. He rose to both occasions splendidly. Enjoyment is his great asset. Our programmw is based on the enjoyment our commentators have in it, and few manifest that as much as Henry. from an article by Peter Baxter
and finally - Bradman - a good sportsman? I was recently talking to a cricket enthusiast, now deceased, about
Don Bradman (whom I never saw, not being old enough) and his batting.
My friend took me aback when he said that Bradman was a bad sportsman, and I asked him to elaborate. His reply: "I wouldn't watch him even if I was paid. I remember all those big innings - and when he'd finished batting and it was his turn to field, he'd send out a substitute. Not surprising he did so well..."
Radio Plays involving Cricket
There are many excellent radio plays related to cricket - comedies,
biographies, flights of fancy - there are even plays where some of
the Test Match Special team have appeared as characters!
There's a very interesting play about the life of W.G.Grace and
his tour of Australia, another about the Bodyline tour by
Christopher Douglas; a treatment of the life of Harold Gimblett,
an extremely gifted player who appeared for Somerset at the turn of
the century; recently there was a play set in the Test Match Special
box......details are given on the "Cricket Plays" page; if
interested, click here for details.