Yahoo’s special Voices of Sport series from May 2016 to March 2017 featured 40 of the most celebrated sports broadcasters ever. Now we’re returning for this special look back at famous commentary moments in Ashes history, as those old rivals Australia and England prepare to do battle once more Down Under.
1) JOHNNERS DELIGHT AS ENGLAND END LONG WAIT FOR GLORY
Cricket has been blessed with many voices that lasted for decades. Characters that stayed with us for so long, it became impossible to remember the game without them. Brian Johnston was one of those.
For nearly half a century, he was totally synonymous with the game, and to hear his voice now is just delightful nostalgia. He was a BBC man to his boots – indeed, he’s one of only three men to be cricket correspondent since the early 1960s, the other two being Christoper Martin-Jenkins and current incumbent Jonathan Agnew.
While he will be mostly remembered for his time in radio, particularly as a commentator on Test Match Special, he spent nearly 20 years working on the BBC’s cricket coverage on television.
Johnston gave us many memorable moments behind the microphone. There were descriptions of famous moments and matches of course, along with many comedic broadcasts – none more special than the infamous “leg over” episode with Agnew in 1991.
However, Johnston’s most famous words of surely came in the summer of 1953. After a wait of nearly 19 years to pick up the famous urn, England delighted the nation by finally beating Australia again. The last match of the series at The Oval is still one of those that older generations talk about in hushed tones.
Chasing 132 to win the match and series, the hosts were never really in trouble, and when Denis Compton hit the winning runs, Johnston produced a memorably lyrical line. He almost sang it.
“Is it the Ashes… yes, England have won the Ashes.”
Johnston captured the excitement of the moment perfectly. Like all the best broadcasters, he had a way of instantly translating the emotions that fans were feeling. Is this really the moment? After all this time? Yes it is.
There was an innocence about it too. Johnston had something of the eternal schoolboy about him. If you’re a time-served cricket fan, you’ll hear that voice in your head now. You might even do an impression. Actually, you’re doing it now, aren’t you?
Dear old Jonners. He wasn’t just a commentator in a way, was he? More like a benevolent old uncle. Well, maybe not even that. More like a friend. A friend that was always there, nattering away in the background. Lovely memories.
2) CMJ DESCRIBES SPECIAL MOMENT FOR BOYCOTT
I’m not sure there’s ever been a more precise sporting commentator than Christopher Martin-Jenkins. His voice was always one of supreme clarity.
Everyone in cricket has a nickname of course, and Martin-Jenkins was simply ‘CMJ’ to colleagues, players and fans alike.
When I profiled Martin-Jenkins in my Voices of Sport series in July 2016, I finished by quoting former MCC President John Barclay. I still don’t think any line could better sum up how it was to spend all those summers (and winters – waking up to listen to TMS in the early hours is a seminal rite of passage for all cricket lovers) with Martin-Jenkins. I make no apologies for repeating it here.
“When CMJ appears on the radio, he makes you feel that all is right with the world.”
Martin-Jenkins produced many memorable Ashes commentaries over the years. Although associated more with radio, he also spent many years with the BBC TV team and his voice accompanied much of a certain Ian Botham innings you may have heard about at Headingley. More of that a little later. He was also behind the microphone on Test Match Special when England clinched the 2009 Ashes series, memorably calling it “a golden evening at The Oval”.
But the Martin-Jenkins commentary moment that makes it into this selection came in 1977. The setting and stage was perfect for Geoffrey Boycott to write his name into the record books with his 100th first-class century. The proud Yorkshireman playing at his home ground, Headingley, in an Ashes Test.
It was just before 6pm on the first day of the fourth Test in Leeds when Boycott reached that special landmark. And Martin-Jenkins produced a fabulously evocative piece of commentary.
“Chappell turns, goes in again. Boycott 96 not out. He bowls to him, it’s a half volley, drives it down the ground and there it is, he’s done it. He lifts both hands in the air. Geoff Boycott has got his one hundredth hundred. And the crowd cannot resist coming onto the pitch any longer.”
Martin-Jenkins was one of those people that lived and breathed cricket. His love for the game shone through every time he spoke.
It was a terribly sad moment for the sport when he died at the age of 67 in 2013. The game goes on of course. There are new voices, new moments. But the great ones stay with us somehow. We can still hear them. Think of CMJ now. Try and tell me it doesn’t make you feel warm inside. Special commentators can do that.
3) BENAUD’S FAMOUS HEADINGLEY LINE STANDS TEST OF TIME
Perhaps the most revered of all Ashes Test matches, certainly from an England perspective, came at Headingley in 1981. England’s situation couldn’t even be described as forlorn. It was frankly hopeless. Already 1-0 behind in the series, England were following on in Leeds, and had subsided to 135 for seven in their second innings, still 92 runs behind a dominant Australia.
Australians Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh may have placed a bet on England at outlandish odds of 500/1 but in truth, nobody gave them a prayer. Then one IT Botham took over, producing a truly magical episode of sport that came straight from the comic books. Botham smashed the Australian bowlers to all parts of the famous old ground on his way to an unbeaten 149, giving England a sliver of hope, one they eventually turned into an extraordinary victory.
It was during that innings that the great Richie Benaud uttered words that would echo through the generations. I profiled Benaud in the second feature of my Voices of Sport series in May 2016. The Australian had turned brilliance on the cricket field into excellence with a microphone. All lovers of the sport know that Benaud was never one to waste his words. Quite the opposite. When he spoke, you knew it was worth you listening.
It was when Botham launched a huge straight drive for six off Terry Alderman that Benaud uttered a phrase that would resonate through the generations.
“Don’t bother looking for that, let alone chasing it… (cheers from the crowd)… that’s gone straight into the confectionary stall and out again.”
It’s a pretty simple set of words in a way. You get the feeling that had a less celebrated broadcaster said it, the effect wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic. But that was Benaud. He had a way with everything. Intonation. Speed. And mostly timing. He just said everything at precisely the appropriate time. The wobbling camera only adds to the moment. The cameraman may not have been exactly sure where the ball went, but don’t worry, Richie was. He kept his eyes fixed on everything that mattered.
Anyone could have shouted and hollered about Botham smashing it out of the ground, Australia being on the run, what an incredible thing we’re seeing. Not Benaud. He simply informed us in a matter of fact way that the ball had crashed into the confectionary stall and out again. Trust Benaud to go with the word confectionary by the way, and not refreshments.
I would happily wager a small bet that for those of you reading this old enough to remember that wondrous Test, you’ll not just recall Botham’s heroics with the bat, or Bob Willis sealing victory with the ball, but also remember that Benaud line. Oh Richie. You were so special. Thankfully, I think you knew what we thought of you.
4) BENAUD FINDS RIGHT WORDS AS ENGLAND WIN EDGBASTON THRILLER
Cricket’s most celebrated Ashes series of all came in 2005. What a summer that was. It’s not often that you witness sport and know straight away you’re seeing the stuff of folklore. But we all knew it in 2005.
As it happens, there wasn’t much hint of the theatre to come when Australia mercilessly coasted to a first Test victory at Lord’s. But then funny things started happening. Glenn McGrath injured himself practicing with a rugby ball an hour before the start of the second Test at Edgbaston. England scored more than 400 runs on the first day. Australia started to look rattled.
England were always just about in charge of the game in Birmingham. And when the fourth morning arrived, Australia needed 107 runs for victory, but had already lost eight wickets in their second innings. The hosts were big favourites. Only one winner surely.
Things often don’t quite work out as planned in Ashes Tests though, and England looked like they might fluff their lines. Shane Warne and Brett Lee edged Australia closer to their target.
When Warne was eventually out, the Australians still required 62 more runs. They hadn’t given up though, far from it, and in unbearably tense circumstances, Lee and Michael Kasprowicz cleverly guided Australia to the verge of victory.
Just three to win. The nation watched from behind sofas and through their hands. All things considered, it was lucky that Steve Harmison kept his head. He got a delivery to lift a little more than usual, it surprised Kasprowicz and he edged the ball behind towards the wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, who snaffled the catch.
It was a special moment. And guess who had the quickness of mind to find the right words again? Yes, our Richie. (I think we all thought of him as ours, didn’t we?) This time it started with just names. But they chimed brilliantly with the pictures.
Actually, the timing was perfect to the millisecond. Benaud simply followed the pictures. There was real drama in that voice. A sense of urgency. Naturally, Richie knew instinctively how to reflect the importance of the moment. Another reason why he was so treasured. I don’t recall him using voices quite like that unless the moment was huge. He left himself somewhere to go, saving that voice for the classics.
“Kasprowicz the man to go and Harrison has done it. Despair on the faces of the batsmen and joy for every England player on the field.”
I think we needed Benaud for that fabled summer. Free to air coverage of Test cricket, which for years had been in BBC hands, was with Channel Four from 1999 until that Ashes series to end all series. We never heard Benaud during an English summer again. What a way to go out though. Even his last stint as a commentator here had its theatre, with Kevin Pietersen dismissed at The Oval just as he was preparing to put down his microphone.
“t’s been a great deal for the fun… but not so for the batsmen. McGrath has picked him up, late in the day he’s got a beauty through Kevin Pietersen.”
5) AGNEW’S RELIEF AS ENGLAND FINALLY END YEARS OF MISERY
Edgbaston was only the start of the intense dramas 2005 had to offer. At Old Trafford, Australia’s final pair of Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath survived the last 24 balls to save the Test. Then at Trent Bridge, England only needed 129 to win but kept losing wickets and only scrambled home with three to spare.
England were 2-1 up, with one match to play. The final day of the series at The Oval was like a microcosm of the whole summer. Every result was possible, but Australia looked favourites when the hosts were only 133 runs in front when their fifth second innings wicket fell.
Kevin Pietersen, who was crucially dropped by Warne early in his innings, then went on to produce the performance of his life, a 158 that took the game away from Australia.
England were home and dry, but the denouement was threatening to be an anticlimactic one, with Australia coming out to bat despite their target of 341 being a long out of their reach. They were quickly offered the light and took it. The match was basically over, but in classic cricket fashion couldn’t officially be called, and confusion reigned.
Eventually the umpires came on the pitch to bring a tumultuous series to a close. It was a climax that threw up another memorable piece of commentary from Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special.
“They are inspecting for light. They’re really just going through the motions here. The umpires are going to their respective ends. And in the most extraordinary manner, the bails are removed by umpire Bowden, who throws one in the air, and England have won the Ashes. Finally! In the most bizarre ending. I’ll let the crowd speak for themselves.”
I think it was the relief in his voice that did it. A kind of pained relief. I love the emphasis he puts on the word Ashes. There’s so much in that expression. The end of a long journey.
Quickly, some context. England actually hadn’t clinched victory in as Ashes series since the Boxing Day Test of 1986. Remember, Mike Gatting’s team that was told they couldn’t bat, bowl or field? It was nearly 20 years, but felt more like 40 for long-suffering lovers of English cricket.
A succession of Australian teams hadn’t just beaten England, they usually embarrassed them. It didn’t even matter if the series were in England, the scorelines tended to be decisive.
Little wonder that Agnew, who had to endure nearly all these humiliations from the commentary box, spoke for all of us supporting England with his ‘hallelujah’ moment. The great thing is he was describing something so simple too – an umpire flicking the bails into the air. Agnew turned it into something approaching poetry for listeners.
That special moment feels like a good place to end this Voices of Sport feature. Time for us to sit back and watch, or listen, to another series unfold. The next great commentary moment may be upon us sooner than we think.