On the ball

Pic by Ishara S. Kodikara
With cricket fever back in town, Esther Williams and Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne speak to the men behind the voices that bring life and excitement to the game-the commentators

Ravi Shastri in the commentary box with a colleague.

You are glued to your TV or radio, oblivious to the world outside. The batsman takes his guard. The bowler begins his run-up and your heart begins to pound. Can he score that vital run to win the match or will your team prevail? And....... he's out! You jump for joy as the commentator's voice describes the excitement on the field.

Yes, peace talks apart, cricket can bring us to fever pitch. It is an integral part of every Sri Lankan's life. And with the ICC Championship Trophy bringing the cricketing world's greatest names to our doorstep, the excitement is hard to match. A fortunate few have been able to "go watch the match" but the majority has to be satisfied with catching the action on the radio and the TV.

So where would we be without those voices behind the microphones? The ones that give us ball-by-ball updates of the action as it happens as well as a constant enlivening debate on the players and their doings? If you really consider it - we'd be nowhere without them.

How did they get involved in the profession and make it to the top where they are as much household names as the cricketers' themselves? "You've got to be really lucky," says Tony Cozier. The son of a well-known Barbados journalist Jimmy Cozier, Tony has been commentating and writing on West Indian cricket since 1958. "If you really look at it, there are very few cricket commentators in the world today. You've simply got to get lucky." This modest West Indian is amongst the only two cricket commentators who is not a former international cricketer, the other being that cheery Indian Harsha Bogle.

"At the time when I first began, the commentators were not necessarily Test players. The players would give the expert comments and the commentators would describe the game ball-by-ball. That was what the great commentators of the time did. Now you find that on television, the former players do all the work. I believe that a need for well-known names in the field has arisen," comments Cozier.

A journalist by profession, Cozier went through both print and radio journalism before finally settling down to commentating. "I sometimes come across old and grey cricket fans, who say they have heard me since they were in school. I tell them that it was probably my father," Cozier laughs. But he is not altogether alien to the cricket field, for he played for two Barbados clubs - Wanderers and Carlton.

What is the transition from being a Test player to a cricket commentator like? "For a cricket lover, commentating is just fantastic. You've got everything going on in front of you. The players are on the field. Box television sets provide instant replays. It's the perfect scenario. But when you think of being a commentator it's a bit different in the sense that you've got to do your homework. You've got to concentrate and watch ball by ball. But it's a great method of staying in touch with old friends," says Tony Greig, a firm favourite with Sri Lankan fans. A versatile cricketer, Tony Greig captained his adopted country England before leading international players into the Kerry Packer fold.

Born in South Africa of a Scottish father, he moved to England at the age of 20 and began playing county cricket with Sussex, going on to captain England. He retired young and emigrated to Australia where he has had a successful career as a TV commentator.

"As for the transition it is difficult initially, since you do miss the game. And you realize that you are somewhat a critic. When I first began, it was quite difficult being critical. But that happens in every walk of life. The cricketers themselves should understand that they are not playing for us. It is the game that counts and not the comment."

The transition from player to commentator came so quickly for former Indian star cricketer Ravi Shastri that he had to learn fast. "The fact that I was a radio buff who listened to lots of cricket commentary certainly helped," he says.

To be a commentator, he thinks, "requires fierce concentration and work ethics as it is a discipline that you need to understand quickly".

"The attitudes of cricketers were slightly different when I first began. They were of my generation. And I could comment on anything but it would not affect our personal relationship at all. We'd still be on first name basis after the game," says Tony Cozier when asked of the players' attitudes to the commentators. "A lot of money has now come into the game. And you've got to be very careful." "When I say good morning and a player does not respond, the morning after a match, I can tell he is upset," says Cozier.

Shastri says that he interacts with players quite often. Any comments made, if not very complimentary have to be taken as constructive criticism. There are times when he points out to them how to avoid a certain mistake.

"When good players like Sanath come in to bat, there is a kind of expectation, among the spectators as well as the commentators," says Shastri. "It just so happens that he might get bowled out immediately. Things like that are bound to happen."

"Whenever players asks me why I said something not so favourable about them, I always ask them to remember the nice things I have said about them. It's not those comments that they remember," says Tony Greig. "At the end of the day, you are not playing for the commentators or the newspaper man. You are playing for your country." Is it difficult to remain unbiased even when your own country, which you might have represented earlier, is on the field? "You don't have to play for your country for there to be a bias. It is quite natural. And if you did play for your country, the people will naturally expect a certain amount of bias. It would be incongruous if the player turned commentator did not feel with a passion as to whether his country won or lost," comments Cozier.

Greig agrees. "I don't believe that you can be an unbiased commentator. It is natural to wish one's country the best." But how would you then remain objective? "As you grow older, you learn to be objective. But I mix being objective with being emotional. The listener appreciates it all the more if he knows that I truly feel what I say."

And as Cozier points out, "The public will always know whether you are being objective or whether you are being unfair. There will always be a certain amount of bias. The public will know that, expect that and will put up with it. But if you go too far - they will get agitated. Then you know you've crossed the line."

Ravi Shastri emphatically states that he only tells it as he sees it, regardless of whether it is his countryman or someone from his hometown Mumbai who is playing.

As viewers and listeners we tend to sometimes believe in the superstition that the minute the commentator says something complimentary of the player, he immediately messes up. "It's only a perception. When something happens five or six times, you naturally assume that, that is the way it's all going to be. But that's really not true. It has happened only on a very few occasions," smiles Cozier. "I don't believe in that superstition."

With new technology slowly entering the cricket field one cannot but wonder what will become of the solitary figure at the end of the crease. "I think technology is not being used effectively. The umpire should be given the job. Never overrule an umpire. An umpire should be given the benefit of the doubt just as the umpire would give the batsman the benefit of the doubt," says Greig. Cozier finds the situation much the same.

But what of the divergence of views between the commentators and the umpire? "Even the viewers watching at home will naturally come to a conclusion. But it's the umpire's decision that finally comes through. The television is after all a two dimensional media. And the cameras are zooming in from many yards away. There can still be mistakes," says Cozier.

"I don't believe that there ever has or ever will be a rift between a good umpire and a commentator. When an umpire passes judgement it is based on the human eye, which watches the ball at its natural speed. So there can be mistakes. A good umpire though will never take offence," adds Greig. "The job of the umpire is the toughest in the world," remarks Ravi Shastri. "I would rather have as many decisions as possible made in the centre because I like to respect the skill of the umpires, knowing full well that they are human and they make mistakes at times. This is preferable to referring to the Third Umpire at every stage. The bottom line here is that Umpires who make the fewest errors automatically get rated. We should respect his skill, rather than referring to the third umpire all the time."

As the players walk on the field, viewers back home are presented with their entire career statistics. Does that mean that the commentators have a lot of homework? "Well, I've been in the field for many years now. And it is my job. Those days we'd have a lot of books available for reference. But now everything is at your fingertips on the computer. And since I also write a column for a newspaper back in the West Indies I have the statistics available with me at any given time," explains Cozier.

Speaking of the preparation prior to a game, Shastri says that being able to make it real and exciting for all those out there comes from knowing the background of the player, conditions and knowledge that comes from being a cricketeer. "It is our job to make a game sound interesting," he asserts.

Speaking on the issue of private sponsorship for Indian cricketers, Shastri who enlisted strong support says, "It was for a cause - it was a prior contract that had to be honoured and respected."

With so much international cricket being played, the schedule of an international commentator can become as gruelling as that of any player. "Oh, yes, it is. But I try to take my family along whenever I can. For instance my wife is down with me at the moment and my elder daughter too is to join us. But you do miss your family very much," says Greig. Greig is currently working for Kerry Packer's outfit in Australia and that is why we don't hear his voice on the local airwaves.

"I never saw my son until he was three months old," smiles Cozier. "There was a tournament going on in Australia when he was born and I could not get back until very much later. I missed the late night feeds though!"

Commentating is a hard job that Shastri nevertheless says he enjoys thoroughly. He usually takes his wife everywhere he goes. As for playing cricket, he can never be seen holding a bat these days.

One last question. Any predictions as to who will lift the Champions Trophy in the final next Sunday? "Australia," both the Tonys agree. "They are playing very well at the moment. They are the one team that has beaten South Africa on home soil." Shastri predicts that for this series the competition is going to be tight. "Australia stands a good chance but it has to put up a good fight against Sri Lanka, India and England."

Another match has begun. These gentlemen have to go back to doing what they do best. Commenting on cricket and loving every minute of it.

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