From the very dawn of broadcast journalism, much of cricket’s celebrated romanticism has had to do with the labours of invisible men in the commentary box, men with the rare gift of describing the great game, draped in all its finery, to listeners who had neither a front row seat at the stadium nor a television set in their drawing room. The advent of TV may have brought about revolutionary changes and helped popularise the game like never before, but no technological miracle can ever match the narrative genius and appeal of a great radio commentator. In the death of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who passed away this week after a battle with cancer, cricket has lost one of its last great ‘voices.’ CMJ, or “The Major,” to address him by his popular nickname, brought to the commentary booth all the qualities that turned a genuine cricket lover into one of its greatest broadcasters — in the timeless tradition of the incomparable John Arlott, Brian Johnston and a host of others in England and elsewhere. If many believe there is a real existential threat to such a passionate form of sports journalism — not least in India — they may not be far off the mark. Today, much of the commentary in India is unabashedly breathless and what one hears is often unalloyed hype that has nothing in common with the craft that men such as ‘Bobby’ Talyarkhan, Pearson Surita and V.M. Chakrapani carried out to perfection.
This decline may be the result of hyper-commercialisation in the game and the broadcast media’s need to sell it to a wider audience instead of concentrating on elegantly bringing out its nuances. If Arlott’s riveting, poetic descriptions captured the feverish atmosphere on the field, Johnston’s irrepressible enthusiasm and humour were a constant reminder that cricket was just a game. The vivacity of Henry Blofeld and the clarity and precision of CMJ made sure that listeners were urgently alive to the fluctuating fortunes of rivals. For their part, Indian commentators brought a desi flavour to the box. Unfortunately, radio and television cricket broadcasts today have lost their charm and appeal of old in India. For one, there are too many inarticulate ex-cricketers on air. This apart, One Day Internationals and Twenty20 cricket are played at such a feverish pace that commentators may have come to believe they must match their almost crazy onward rush. Amidst the constant bombardment of maximum hits, peppered with advertisements from sponsors, there is little time for commentators to reflect on the game and weave magic out of words for fans listening to the radio. Wallowing in nostalgia is surely a wasteful exercise but if cricket is indeed India’s national passion, the listener deserves a better narration of the game.