In the summer of 2005 Cricinfo and the Wisden Cricketer held a poll asking cricket lovers to name their dream team of six TV commentators. This piece went with the results. Feature, The Wisden Cricketer, September 2005
In England, after this season, Channel 4 retires hurt, Sky cleans up, and there will be no international cricket shown live on terrestrial television for the first time since World War II. Sky should be able to assemble the strongest squad of commentators ever seen. So this magazine and Cricinfo held an opinion poll, asking readers to name their dream team. And the runaway first choice, at 74, was Richie Benaud.
An electorate of just under 12,000 makes this probably the largest poll Wisden has done: it is six times the size of the Wisden Cricket Monthly readers’ poll, which ran from 1996 to 2002 and always included a commentator category (no prizes for guessing who always won). This time, Richie received over 10,000 votes, which was 3,000 more than the next man. When he says “Morning everyone”, he is merely addressing his fan club. If the cricket world had a president, it would have to be him.
Benaud is the Bradman of the microphone, not just a master of his craft but its definitive exponent. He never forgets that the pictures are the thing and that his job is to add to them, not tell us what we can already see. He uses silence like a dot ball. Far from banging on about things being better in his day, he insists Test cricket has been more entertaining than ever in the past two years. And he should know: he has been part of the international scene since 1953, and has attended more Tests than anyone else, alive or dead.
Crisp, succinct and unobtrusive, he is proof that less is more even when it’s out of fashion. In a sports culture that increasingly runs on hype, Richie never gets overheated. The poll carries a clear message: we’re getting bored of more and saying yes to less.
It often seems that nobody has a bad word for Richie, but the poll asked for comments as well as votes, and there it was, in cold print: a bad word for him. “Richie… too old… sorry… time to retire,” wrote Josie Forrest, fearlessly. But she was instantly countered by another young female fan, Jansev Jemal: “Richie Benaud – he’s a legend, and I wish he was my grandad.” And the men piled in too: “I hope they legalise cloning,” wrote Neil Marshall. “I can’t watch cricket without him.”
Behind Richie, the other contenders came in clusters, like long-distance runners. Second was Michael Holding, a man whose voice, like his run-up, is a thing of beauty. “A voice like liquid chocolate,” said Geoff James, adding to Holding’s impressive collection of culinary similes. Chris Douglas, the creator of Pod, once likened his vocals to burnt molasses.
Holding’s content is not as distinctive as his sound, but this is television, where an affable presence in your living room counts for a lot, especially in a sport that goes on all day. Just behind him is the man who once faced a famously fearsome over of his, Geoff Boycott. Strange to think that he was almost unemployable a few years ago: that business in a French court has evidently been forgiven. Of all the ex-England players packing the commentary boxes, Boycott is the one whose opinion we most want to hear.
Next is David Gower, who is Boycott’s polar opposite, just as he always was: no strong views, but a lovely easy manner. Gower actually beat Boycott, and everyone except Benaud, among those voting by post, but strikingly, they made up only 1 per cent of the electorate. Cricket fans do love the web.
The next cluster consists of Mark Nicholas, Ian Botham, Atherton and David Lloyd. Only 370 votes separate them, but Nicholas and Botham make the dream team and the others miss out. Nicholas is a natural performer and a very polished broadcaster. Too polished for some: Giles Smith memorably wrote that he was “laminated in his own self-regard”. He is a bit apt to talk as if dictating a column to the Telegraph copytakers, and his penchant for 1950s exclamations (“Gee!” “Gosh!” “By heaven!”) can drive you screaming from the room, but he has been the hub of a superb operation at Channel 4. The only problem is that the dream team has two anchormen, him and Gower. They may have to do a double-act, like American newscasters.
The poll’s big surprise is Botham pipping Atherton, and easily beating Nasser Hussain and Simon Hughes. Perhaps it shouldn’t be: Botham is a national treasure, regularly named Favourite Player of the Past in the old WCM poll. But the paradox is that his commentary resembles his cricket hardly at all. On the field, he was magnetic, unpredictable, swashbuckling. In the box, he is none of the above. His commentary has become sharper and more professional, but there is a sourness about it, shared by Bob Willis and Paul Allott, which makes a day with Sky less fun than it should be.
Atherton, by contrast, has an affable presence, notices things you haven’t, and knows when to shut up. Hussain talks like a captain, offering more analysis in five minutes than Sky’s old pros manage in a day. And Hughes’s split-screen dissections are unmissable, an inspired use of the medium. Preferring Botham to those three looks like the worst piece of selection since England’s middle order to face Australia at Lord’s.
Still, the voters have picked a balanced side, half Sky, half Channel 4, part posh, part populist, two-thirds English but headed by an Australian and a Jamaican. Above all, they have voted Benaud. Sky’s instinct is to chase youth, but on the other hand it has a boss who is also still working at 74. Go on, Mr Murdoch. Sign him up.