Jonathan Agnew: ‘The life I chose has come at a cost’

Commentator Jonathan Agnew at the Oval Cricket Ground in London
Commentator Jonathan Agnew at the Oval Cricket Ground in London - Heathcliff O'Malley

This article was originally published on June 10, 2023

It’s strange meeting a voice. Usually, you spend a lot of time during interviews focusing on verbal cues and body language. But this is different. I am up in the stands of the Oval cricket ground with the commentator Jonathan Agnew as the crowds file in to watch India and Australia do battle on the third day of the World Test Championship final. I am, of course, listening to what the doyen of Test Match Special has to say. But I’m also thinking about describing how he says it.

It is easier to get a handle on previous voices of cricket. There was, for example, John Arlott’s claret-soused Hampshire burr. A published poet, he once described a shot by Clive Lloyd as “the stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick”.

Or Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld, with their cut-glass received pronunciation (often trying to identify the genus of butterfly that was floating past their commentary box or describe the audacity of a pigeon alighting on the wicket at Lord’s). On television, there was Tony Grieg’s South African drawl and Richie Benaud’s quirky Aussie twang (“the score is chew-hundred and twenty-chew for chew”).

Agnew’s background as the son of a farmer and a product of Uppingham School means he has the kind of English accent that is easier to place in the social strata – slap bang in the middle class – than geographically (he was born in Cheshire and played most of his first class career for Leicestershire). But really the truest description of his voice is “familiar” (although “avuncular” probably comes a close second).

“It is astonishing how many people recognise my voice and often don’t know who I am,” he says. “And they’ll say: ‘Come on, tell me, who are you?’ That’s nice. It means they listen.”

Agnew in action during his time at Leicestershire CCC
Agnew in action during his time at Leicestershire CCC - Getty

Test Match Special, the BBC radio programme that provides ball-by-ball coverage of cricket, has – like a far-off lawn mower – been the background sound to many of our summers since it first aired in 1957. Agnew – known by all as “Aggers” – puts that down to the medium. “The thing I love about radio is that listeners have to do a bit of work. They’re not staring at a screen blankly. The radio listener has to engage their brain, come up with the image that you’re talking about and is therefore much more absorbed.”

In the past, cricket aficionados would mute their televisions and listen to the TMS commentary. That has become tricky with the advent of digital media: delays mean they are often badly out of sync and you end up seeing a wicket long before you hear it.

“I think most people would put a radio moment ahead of a TV one,” says Agnew as a boisterous crowd of mostly India supporters take their seats. “You get to really live the moment on radio. If you’re sitting in your car and listening to Headingley 2019, or the World Cup final, or whatever, you can hear the crowd, you can conjure up the images, you can feel it and you’re taking yourself there.”

How right. As it happens I was sitting in my car for the final moments of the epic Ashes Test at Headingley in 2019 that Agnew is referring to, when a miraculous innings by England’s Ben Stokes single-handedly won the match. We were driving back from France and had gone into the Channel Tunnel assuming all was lost only to emerge to find hope was still alive.

We were approaching our house as the game reached its barely believable climax. Knowing there was a radio blackspot in our village, I deliberately didn’t take the necessary turning. I therefore have an indelible memory of Agnew describing the winning shot – “And in comes Pat Cummins from the far end. He bowls to Stokes… who HAMMERS IT. Four!” – as I banged the steering wheel in delight while my children asked what was wrong and why we weren’t going home.

Members of the BBC Radio Test Match Special team including Henry Blofeld to the left of Agnew
Members of the BBC Radio Test Match Special team including Henry Blofeld to the left of Agnew - PA

“That half hour was the favourite thing in my life,” says Agnew. “There was the drama of the situation, of course. It was the Ashes. So much was at stake. If England had lost, it would have been gone. The way Ben played…

“But I was on form that day too. I couldn’t have done it any better. I nailed it. And that’s a good feeling.” All the better, one would imagine, because Agnew had just experienced the lowest point of his career and was, as he later tells me, on antidepressants at the time.

On the train to the Oval I watch a clip of him in the commentary box with former England captain Sir Alastair Cook and distraught former Australian bowler Glenn McGrath. I am struck by how little they actually say amid the pandemonium. “That’s what it’s all about,” says Agnew. “Because you’ve got the crowd, you’ve got that noise. And so you use it. One of things I tell people when they are new to the commentary box is: don’t talk too much.”

His pride in a job well done goes hand in hand with self-criticism. He listens back to all his broadcasts – even now after a 32-year career – and asks himself what he could do better. He is still irked that the defining commentary for the moment England only just pipped New Zealand to win the one-day World Cup final at Lord’s in 2019 was uttered not on radio but on television by Ian Smith, the former New Zealand player, who described how England had won by “the barest of all margins”.

You can’t plan for such moments but cricket fans will be hoping for more this summer when the historic rivalry with Australia – one of the oldest in all sport – is revived with the latest Ashes series, which starts on Friday. Just over a year ago, such a prospect would have filled most England fans with dread. They had been thrashed by the Aussies down under and then lost in the West Indies.

But then Stokes, the hero of Headingley, was made captain and the Kiwi Brendon “Baz” McCullum was brought in to coach the side. Stokes and McCullum have taken more or less the same bunch of players, imbued them with self-confidence and taken the cricket world by storm, winning ten of their last 12 Tests playing in an ultra-aggressive style that has been branded “Bazball”.

Expectations are high. But so are the stakes. Indeed, many are hoping a blockbuster series will revive interest in cricket’s longer format, which is getting crowded out by the shorter forms played in constantly proliferating tournaments around the world.

“I know that’s where the money is but I think it’s just lazy setting up yet another series,” says Agnew. “I get bored when I turn on the TV and I see the same cricketers playing in the same way just in different coloured strips. What really upsets me is the prospect of the next generation growing up thinking cricket is T20. That would be a heinous crime.”

He also thinks the premise of the endeavour is misconceived. First came T20, in which each side bats for up to a maximum of 20 overs, each consisting of six deliveries, and now the Hundred, where there are 20 deliveries fewer in each innings. This was supposed to attract new fans to the sport. “You’re basically saying the younger generation has a shorter attention span and I think that’s pretty patronising. Look at our mailbag. Most of the letters are from students who listen to TMS while they’re revising.”

Cricket’s administrators should be trying to appeal to 30-something parents who will then pass on their love of the sport to their children, argues Agnew. His own earliest memories of hearing leather on willow came from the radio his father carried around the farm.

This is what led in time to him becoming a first-class cricketer for Leicestershire. He played only a handful of times for England, but was dropped before he reached his peak. A measure of bitterness about this led him to write a somewhat acerbic book about life as a cricket pro called Eight Days A Week, which provided an opening into sports journalism. A stint as a sports producer on BBC Radio Leicester followed before he was approached by Peter Baxter, the producer on Test Match Special.

“What Peter did, of course, was put me beside Brian [Johnston – the cricket commentator who died in 1994]. And he and I just clicked. We were so similar. The same silly sense of humour. And I just learned how to do the job from sitting next to him.”

Johnston was responsible for many of TMS’s most beloved traditions, including the so-called Oxford “-er” nicknames (he was known as Johnners). He once complained on air that he had missed his cake at tea leading to the programme being inundated with baked goods sent in by listeners. Are they still coming in? “Yes. Numbers tend to vary depending on how much we mention them. But it’s still very much part of the day.”

Why was Johnston so good? “It was the way he talked to people. It didn’t matter how many millions of people were listening, it was as if he was talking to you individually. That’s what really good broadcasters do. He was so relaxed too.”

Agnew and fellow England player Norman Cowans celebrate a 2-1 series win against India in 1985
Agnew and fellow England player Norman Cowans celebrate a 2-1 series win against India in 1985 - Getty

Johnston and Agnew were jointly responsible for what is still frequently voted the best ever moment of sports commentary. During a Test match at the Oval in 1991, Agnew suggested Ian Botham was out hit wicket, trying to hurdle the stumps, because he had failed to “get his leg over”. The pair then get the giggles so badly you can hear them struggling to breathe.

“He so nearly got away with it but if you listen carefully there’s a dreadful snort from Bill Frindall [TMS’s then statistician universally known as the “Bearded Wonder”] and that was it, he was gone.” At one point, Johnston can be heard almost squeaking: “Aggers, for goodness sake, stop it!” The convulsive laughers while on air – “corpsing” in broadcasting lingo – is highly contagious; if you can listen to it and not crack up you should check your pulse.

Was it intentional? “No, no, no, no, I wasn’t brave enough for that yet,” says Agnew – it was his first season working on TMS. “It was actually quite a scary moment because the programme did collapse. Brian really wasn’t happy. He said it was a terrible mistake and stomped off into the night. I came in early the next day and Garry Richardson and John Humphrys were playing it on the Today programme and roaring with laughter and I figured we’d probably got away with it.

“Brian taught me that radio is fun. It was the best lesson. People are always surprised when they go in that box by how relaxed it is. There’s no sense of people actually being on air. And that’s Brian’s legacy.”

I point out that there are fewer practical jokes these days, less giggling and the programme is a bit more structured. “Yeah, but I’ve grown up. And the world kind of changes. It’s much easier now to make a mistake – especially at my age – to do something that doesn’t quite work and is going to offend a lot of people.”

Is he on guard against that danger? “I am. Social media has made things difficult. You’re a live broadcaster with no script, trying to entertain. And you can, if you’re not careful, find yourself going down a bit of a blind alley. That’s not somewhere you want to be these days. Inevitably therefore you are a little bit more restrained. You see what happens if people get it wrong. Or even wrong in some people’s minds and not others. It’s a bit of a minefield out there to be honest.”

Agnew may be tiptoeing through it but he has not been unscathed. There is an edge to him, as you might expect from someone who used to be a fast bowler. There are a number of stories of him having lost his temper both in his playing days and as a commentator. He has also talked about how he struggled when his wife Emma, a BBC producer, 57, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer (from which she has now recovered). In the past she has said: “He cried over the chemotherapy nurse, he cried to my specialist and he cried in front of my closest girlfriends. I’ve always known he was emotional, but it was a surprise.”

Agnew and his wife Emma at his investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, when he received his MBE in 2017
Agnew and his wife Emma at his investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, when he received his MBE in 2017 - Getty

But wearing his heart on his sleeve has caused problems, too. In 2019, The Guardian journalist Jonathan Liew wrote an article about some of the language used in the media to describe Jofra Archer’s selection for England. Aggers took this to imply he had been racist and sent furious messages to Liew, which Liew made public, resulting in Agnew being reprimanded by the BBC.

“Yeah, it was bad. Really bad. My Dad was crushed. During the 2019 Ashes I was on antidepressants. But I still produced some of my best work. So, for anyone thinking about the impact of taking them, it got me through.”

What particularly aggrieved Agnew was that his own career at Surrey was cut short before it even started in 1977 when as a 17-year-old he stood up to Fred Titmus, an influential former England player who was a coach at Surrey. Titmus, Angew said, was racially abusing Lonsdale Skinner. The story only came out after his bust-up with Liew. Agnew and Liew have since made up.

“And actually, I’ll always be grateful because it got me off social media and life without that is so much easier. I occasionally dip into the reaction to something, like Michael [Vaughan] coming back [to TMS] for example. And some of the stuff on there is just wretched.”

It is one of Agnew’s favourite elements of his job that can, at times, generate the most ire: View from the Boundary, where he quizzes celebrity cricket fans during the lunch break of a Test. It is now the longest interview slot on British radio.

“People are queuing up to come on but they can become quite nervous. Roger Lloyd Pack once came on, absolutely lovely bloke, he’s done Shakespeare all over the place, Only Fools and Horses [in which he played Trigger]. But one o’clock comes around and he’s shaking like a leaf.”

Agnew and Henry Moeran of BBC Test Match Special during the Specsavers Test Match between England and India at Trent Bridge in 2018
Agnew and Henry Moeran of BBC Test Match Special during the Specsavers Test Match between England and India at Trent Bridge in 2018 - Getty

Does he do a lot of research? “Loads. You can’t mess up with those.” Who was his favourite interviewee? “Got to be Elton John. He’s a real cricket fan. We’ve got quite a good record for getting Prime Ministers on and, I think at Lord’s this year, we’ll continue that tradition.”

I realise that he has bowled me a tempting half volley on leg stump: does that mean he’s snaffled an interview with Rishi Sunak? But now he’s bowling a tighter line again and refuses to confirm it.

He regrets not getting Tony Blair or Gordon Brown on. He tried for three years to get Jeremy Corbyn, with the then-Labour leader pulling out the day before. David Cameron’s team asked to come on soon after the London riots.

“They probably thought: ‘Good old Aggers. It’ll be a nice easy ride.’ Well, I don’t work like that.” He phoned up Nick Robinson and asked him what he should ask. The result was a series of rip-snorting questions. “Cameron was a bit taken aback. We finished and he said: ‘You did a Paxman on me!’”

Our time is nearly up, Agnew has to shoot off to start commentating. He sits down seconds before going live. When I peer into the box, he’s sitting next to Andy Zaltzman, the TMS statistician, gazing down on the game and talking into the red microphone. When he finishes, he comes out again after doing his stint on air. I mention this well-known superstition. “I know, how stupid does this sound? I actually do literally fight over getting the red microphone.”

Agnew lives just outside Melton Mowbray: “I love village life.” Time off revolves “almost entirely” around his three dogs – Bumble (named after fellow commentator David Lloyd), Woody (named after the England bowler Mark Wood – “He’s a Springer. Emma asked: Who’s the maddest member of the England team?”), and Bracken. (“Emma said: ‘No more cricketers’. Two days later I was commentating on Nathan Bracken playing for Australia!”)

Jonathan Agnew
Agnew: 'I love village life' - Heathcliff O'Malley

He has a pilot’s licence and his ideal day off is loading the dogs into the back of the plane, flying up to Skegness, spending an hour on the beach, having a coffee and heading back again. When he’s away following tours, most of his colleagues will play golf when off duty but he’ll head off to find an airfield and instructor. “It’s the one time when you’re totally by yourself.”

TMS covers fewer overseas tours these days because of greater competition from other broadcasters for the rights. Nevertheless, the cricketer’s life of constant travel and long periods away from home has extracted its toll on Agnew, as it does many who play the sport.

His first marriage to Beverley and relationship with his two girls broke down. “Yes. That has unfortunately been the price of the life I chose. That said, there’s nothing else I could have done. I’m not qualified for anything.” Has he been able to make up for lost time with his children – now 37 and 34? He gives me the shortest answer of the interview: “No, not really.”

Although it sounds like a dream job, Agnew is clear there is a cost to commentary and the lifestyle it requires. “It’s always the same. You see young people come in, they do the job, they do the touring, they love it. The girlfriend or boyfriend comes out, they get to show them Australia or wherever. Two years have passed. The girlfriend becomes a wife, she still comes out. Then she has a baby and… boom: it becomes really, really hard to fly families out. You miss birthdays and every other Christmas. It’s one of the unseen stresses of the job.”

But for all of that, Agnew says he would still cover every Test if he could. While he doesn’t want to keep “ploughing on indefinitely”, he’s not ready to hang up the red microphone yet. “I’m only 63, I love doing this.”