It’s difficult to believe anyone listens to television commentary.
TELFORD VICE in Cape Town
SO, what’s it like to be a sportswriter? There are as many answers to the question as, you would think, there are sportswriters.
Here’s this sportswriter’s standard response, which he has had many more occasions than he could count to trot out in the past 26 years — it’s much better than a real job.
After those 26 years, which were preceded by several all too real jobs and interrupted by a sorry segue into the degrading unreality that is television, easily the worst job he’s ever had, it remains true.
At least it does for this sportswriter. As long, that is, as we’re not talking about making money, of which there is ever less in an industry eager to publish bloggy crap in lieu of journalism as long as it’s offered for free.
But there’s another answer to the question that’s right up there with the original — as a sportswriter, you don’t have to hear the television commentators.
Mind the difference between hear — which is often beyond our control, as in hearing traffic — and listen — a choice we make to lend someone our something our ears.
Put up in the pressbox, where televisions are either muted or at the lowest volume, or snug with the sideline, where the surround sound commentary would be too blue for television, sportswriters are embalmed against this irritating irrelevance.
So much so that it’s difficult to believe anyone listens to commentary. They might have to hear it, not least because watching a game on a mute television evokes the weirdness of sensory deprivation. And, yes, this sportswriter has tried that; more than once.
But listen to it? Why? The only possible reason is if the commentator is going to tell you something you can’t see for yourself.
In this sportswriter’s experience, which stretches back thousands of television hours and more than 40 years, that happy state has been achieved in a meaningful sense only once.
The broadcast of a Currie Cup match at Ellis Park was graced by the presence in the commentary box of James Small, who solved the mystery of an especially odd bounce of the ball by explaining that that spot of turf dipped below the level of the rest of the field, who told of which shards of wind blew through which gaps in the stands and did what to the airborne ball, who made it all wonderfully real for the viewer.
He spoke in words of high definition picture quality, using language that helped you smell the Deep Heat in the dressingroom itself.
Alas, Small’s commentary career, if it was ever that, was never cleared for take-off. It wouldn’t be a struggle to believe he was doomed by his own excellence, which put the mediocrities ranged around him in a poor light.
There have been other, less striking but more enduring examples of the holy grail Small found with little apparent effort.
Bill McLaren would come up with gems like, “And the father of four from Pontypool goes crashing into the loose scrum …”
But by the time he ventured into a commentary box McLaren had fought a war — he never shook the memory of happening on a heap of 1 500 corpses in Italy — and been denied his own international career by tuberculosis, which almost killed him.
He added richly to the experience of watching a rugby match because he knew the game itself mattered little, that it was something to be celebrated and not a lot else, that he was part of a grand carnival. He knew, and appreciated, that he didn’t have a real job.
Richie Benaud was dispassionate reason itself. So much so that he was what every other television type tries, and fails, to be: a journalist.
Thing is, Benaud was indeed a journalist — a police reporter and sport columnist — before he retired as a player. He was the real thing amid fakery, and that helped him tell his stories arrow straight. When Benaud spoke, you believed.
For McLaren and Benaud life beyond the boundary was more important than what happened within it, just like it is to the rest of us. James small, too, had his run-ins with reality.
Michael Holding merits an honourable exception. Regardless of whether you agreed with his assessment of the Wanderers surface for the third test against India as a “shit pitch”, you knew what the man thought.
But Holding went from a stellar career as a fast bowler, which ended at international level in 1987, to owning a petrol station in downtown Kingston, Jamaica until 1996.
The station was pointed out by a taxi driver to this sportswriter as we rattled past it in 1992, when it was abundantly obvious that it took a strong person to own anything in downtown Kingston.
But what is life to a generation of commentators who have gone from elite schools to illustrious playing careers to television studios? How do they relate their reality to that of their audiences’?
They don’t. Instead they prattle on anodynely, making sure not to say anything that would endanger their bosses’ status as rightsholders.
Controversy is not allowed. And controversy is what the suits say it is.
HD Ackerman and Danny Morrison were sacked as Indian Premier League commentators for daring to describe Virat Kohli as “a captain in waiting” during MS Dhoni’s tenure at India’s helm.
Daryll Cullinan was fired for saying South Africa had delivered “the worst fielding performance I’ve ever seen”.
Remember, gentle reader and viewer, that sport in the television age is bought and paid for like any other consumer product in deals that stretch beyond the limits of the field of play. There are no honest brokers in commentary boxes.
High time, isn’t it, that how much broadcasters pay for rights is revealed in the same way that we know how much a football club pays for its stars? Then we’ll know how much it’s worth to their commentators to toe the line.
Let’s hear them put their mouths where their money is.