On this day 89 years ago, two people named Teddy Wakelam and C A Lewis gave the first ever football commentary on radio – the duo covered the Arsenal vs. Sheffield United game at Highbury, which the teams drew 1-1. This was the harbinger of all football commentaries both on radio as well as on television. It got me thinking about the pristine art of commentating – not just sports but commentaries on just about any broadcasted/televised event.
We have witnessed several memorable commentaries and seen some iconic commentators. Here’s a list of my favorite commentaries/commentators:
1. The maiden test series between India and South Africa in South Africa in 1992-93 was remarkably broadcast by AIR. I still remember that a dull first day’s play was much enlivened by Harsha Bhogle and Suresh Saraiya on AIR. The pinnacle of commentating during that series was Kapil Dev’s 129 at Port Elizabeth when India literally had their backs to the wall. Bhogle and Saraiya were at their animated best during that innings as they constantly made comparisons with another epic from Kapil Dev in the 1983 World Cup.
2. The advent of television muted the impact that AIR had on listeners like me. There was a novel excitement to the way events were commentated on television. Even in the good old days of Doordarshan, Indira Gandhi’s funeral in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in 1991 were classic cases of commentating on non-sporting events.
3. But with cable television, the eyes and ears were opened to a multitude of commentators from all over the world. Who can forget Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Lyse Doucet from BBC? During the 90s and early 2000s, they often commentated especially on the wars that the world witnessed. They also admirably brought a non-US perspective to the 9/11 episode. These were two ladies who lent some balance to the events of those years with their brilliant commentaries.
4. Manchester United’s Champions League win in 1999 – perhaps the best comeback wins of all time! As Teddy Sheringham equalized in injury time, the tension in the commentary box was palpable. When Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scored the winning goal barely minutes later, the commentators were as much on their feet as was a whole community of Manchester United followers including yours truly!
5. I just cannot forget this one – there was this classic football match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur in 2001 which was widely dubbed as the ‘Tale of Two Halves’ after United trailed 0-3 at half-time only to pump five goals after resumption to come up trumps with a resounding 5-3 victory. Again the commentary was electric, adrenaline-pumping stuff!
These two nearly made it to top five in my list:
1. The one and only Henry Blofeld – he had this booming voice when he said “Sit back and enjoy!” soon after the toss was over in those matches played at Sharjah. The level of his commentary would be at its peak during India-Pakistan clashes.
2. The two papal conclaves that happened within a gap of eight years (2005 and 2013) were made interesting by the commentary on BBC. A generation probably was excited as the commentators announced the white smoke coming out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel. It was an event unparalleled in the history of people born on or after 1979. The commentary made it all the more absorbing!
I think what makes good commentary great is the element of unbridled passion that the commentators display and an ability to create the right words for the occasion. Words weave magic and can strike an instant chord with the viewers/listeners. The moment Tony Greig said, ‘……in the air,’ we anticipated something to happen; that is what a commentator should do. He/She (speaking of which, we haven’t seen many female commentators on the sporting horizon; Mayanti Langer seems to be good though of late she seems to have moved into more of an anchor role) should create anticipation and excitement among the viewers.
There is a clear indication from over the last decade or so that the greatness in commentary is missing – perhaps they are tired of doing a job that demands as much physical endurance as athletes or sportsmen undergo what with year round matches and events or perhaps the spark created by a generation of illustrious commentators did not rub off on to the newer ones. I do hope this art form never dies and revives to bring to us some great commentaries over the next many decades.
Three cheers to great commentators!