Has Test Match Special lost its wits?

The demotic decline of the most celebrated of all sports programmes

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

There’s a 13th man at the table at Lord’s this week as England resume the Ashes contest with Australia, which began so thrillingly at Trent Bridge, where England prevailed by 14 runs. For the first time in half a -century, -Christopher Martin-Jenkins is not present to renew one of the great rituals of the English summer.

‘CMJ’, who passed away on New Year’s Day at the less than grand age of 67, was always going to be missed and listeners to Test Match Special, the programme he adorned with his balanced commentaries, are cursing Time for being so vicious in his reaping. The graveyard, it is said, overflows with people once thought to be irreplaceable. Yet CMJ, for many years the BBC’s cricket correspondent and latterly its emeritus figure, cannot be replaced because the world of broadcasting no longer produces such men. At times it seems not even to value them.

To say that TMS, the most celebrated of all sports programmes, is not what it used to be is a commonplace. The question is: how can it live up to the standards set by men like CMJ and his predecessors John Arlott (surely the finest sports broadcaster of all) and Brian Johnston, who died in 1993? Resolving that matter goes to the heart of what the BBC is, and what it ought to be.

In tone and character TMS has always been a Radio 4 programme. Arlott was a poet, Johnston a boulevardier, CMJ a friendly housemaster, Henry Blofeld a gadfly. They all fitted in, because they knew the rules, which, as ever in England, were unwritten. Listeners understood them, too. The contract between the commentators and those who heard them has been one of the most encouraging stories in the history of our public service broadcasting. Indeed, it has defined public service broadcasting.

Over the past decade, though, there has been a shift towards the demotic style favoured by Radio 5 Live, or, should you prefer, Radio Halfwit. The familiar rhythms, cadences and pauses have, summer by summer, given way to a gobfest in which commentators and summarisers (often speaking across one another) must have their say, whether or not they have the slightest thing worth saying.

Where CMJ once told listeners that -Graham Gooch, as in Macbeth, ‘hath murdered Sleep’ (Peter Sleep was an Australian bowler), Michael Vaughan now rabbits on about the worst kind of telly trash, with wild guffaws. Whereas one man held the listener (yes, he spoke as if to one person) to be his intellectual equal, the other appears to have no hinterland at all.

Vaughan, a superb batsman in his time, and a very fine captain of England, is not stupid. But every time he talks about ‘ba’in’, instead of batting, he loses the programme a hundred listeners. Instead of speaking in such a relentlessly aggressive manner, as if he nurses a grudge against the world, why doesn’t he look up, as he used to do at the crease, and, metaphorically speaking, let the ball come to him?

For Phil ‘Tuffers’ Tufnell, however, we can’t hold much hope. There was a revealing moment at Trent Bridge when Jim -Maxwell, the excellent Australian commentator, speaking about the extraordinary performance of the Aussies’ No. 11 batsman, Ashton Agar, invoked the name of Wilfred Rhodes. Tufnell, clearly wrongfooted, offered a grunt.

Anybody with cricket in their blood knows about Rhodes, who, like Agar, bowled slow left-arm spinners and began his Test career as the last batsman on the card before moving up to open the innings. He took 4,204 wickets, made the little matter of 39,000 runs, and played Test cricket into his sixth decade. If there was a Mount Rushmore to commemorate England cricketers, Rhodes would be George Washington. Yet an expert on TMS, and a former England bowler to boot, appeared not to know anything about him. Radio Halfwit beckons.

Listeners to TMS value intelligence, mediated through a pleasing voice. Jonathan Agnew, the current correspondent, manages that trick, and so did the late, great broadcaster whose memory all cricketers of the heart should honour with a glass of something agreeable.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • The Red Bladder

    I find myself agreeing with just about all of this and yet, and yet is this just an old man harking back to a long-gone youth? The booming of EW Swanton speaking to the nation with all the authority of an Old Testament prophet forged my ideas of the game and for ‘Jim’ hell had a special corner waiting for any person daring to introduce even a hint of humour to something as solemn as the game of cricket. Times changed and so they continue to do and they have now left me behind. Just what will be the golden memories of todays young be when they look back at TMS from their dotage? Chat about soap operas, popular music or a ‘reality’ television programme, I hope not.

    • D B

      Very sagacious.

      • The Red Bladder

        A kind choice of words for the semi-coherent and often drink-befuddled ramblings of an old man!

    • Fergus Pickering

      Swanton was a pompous ass and a snob to boot. I’ll take Michael Vaughan any day.

      • The Red Bladder

        Indeed he was, as well as being totally humourless. His was the voice of authority, “sit up and pay attention now, I’m speaking”. It was as though he was going to ask questions at the end and heaven help the boy who got any answers wrong. Things change and by golly since the BBC introduced the concept of the ball-by-ball commentary they have changed beyond all recognition. We all have our own particular ‘Golden Age’, which probably never really was that, for me I suppose that it would be on the 80s and 90s. Whatever our own view of things I’m sure we would all agree that long may it remain!

    • Sanctimony

      EW Swanton was indeed a pompous overbearing bore and I never missed his departure.

      He married late and there were a couple of skeletons in his cupboard, as revealed in the biography by David Rayvern Allen.

      • The Red Bladder

        Not a man many of us would have chosen as a companion for the evening in the local pub. Now Fred Truman…..

  • Muggy Dog

    I find Tuffers pretty insightful, more so than the horrifically anodyne David
    Gower over at the Sky sausage factory. Vaughn is a better analyst than
    commentator. Contrary to your headline, they do both have the attribute essential to any cricket commentator- a sense of humour. Guest analysts without this attribute, such as Glenn McGrath, will always struggle to keep up.

  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised at Tufnell’s knowledge of the history of the game since he took over. I wouldn’t take his “grunt” at the mention of Rhodes as a sign of ignorance. Good summarisers know when to talk and when to shut up and let the lead commentator do his job, but very few do (especially in televised football). Tuffers knows rather more about batting technique than I would have expected having watched him waft and flail in his playing days. The point about the general “Radio 5” tone is valid, but however much I enjoyed CMJ’s commentary over many years, his wit often fell as flat as an Aussie felled by a Larwood bouncer.

    • Treebrain

      Well said Lord P!

      When people look behind the bluff exterior of Phil Tufnell he actually talks a great deal of sense.

      Of course people may not agree with him but he does indeed provide an educated, erudite, insightful point of view that lends itself very well to understand what is actually taking place on the field of play.

      • elsmallo

        Atherton wrote interestingly about Tufnell, whose media personality he initially found amusingly at odds with the nervy, aprroval-seeking chancer he remembered from their playing days. One anecdote runs that on Atherton’s final day of Test cricket, against Aus in 2001, Athers shook hands with everyone in the dressing room, who offered him words of farewell, etc. Then he came to Tuffers, whose only words were (having been belted around the park earlier in the day by Hayden et al) something like ‘I bowled alright, Ath, didn’t I?’

  • Adam Spokes

    I think this review attempts to bunch all of us listeners in together – which I fundamentally disagree with.

    Vaughan fits in perfectly with TMS, and brings it an up-to-date analysis that I think the listeners are lucky to have. Tufnell brings a bit of light heartedness but also (to me at least) a surprising amount of knowledge on the history of the game – so what that he didn’t get one reference?

    The current TMS team has a good mix of commentators and analysts, and yes they may be missing the likes of CMJ and Arlott, but what use is there in bemoaning the current team when there is no way to bring such people back? I think TMS has done very well to bring in people like Vaughan, and it is still head and shoulders above any drivel coming out of Sky’s commentating mouth.

    I also do not pronounce my t’s all the time. And I’m okay with that.

    • MartinWW

      I agree with this post, except for your approval of Vaughan. To my mind, he is totally unsuitable for TMS. Michael Henderson’s summation of Vaughan is spot on. His slovenly diction is nothing to do with his northern origins (as one commenter here suggests), but simply indicates laziness. His comments on cricket are aggressively put, and often are just verbal diarrhoea, and on other topics are extremely low grade. His use of Henry’s own phrase “my dear old thing” is outrageous – no other commentator would dream of usurping Henry’s own phrase, understanding that it should be in his sole ownership. Vaughan has little understanding of what is expected of a commentator. He is socially ignorant and boorish. In contrast, Phil Tufnell is a great asset, and a wondrous addition to TMS. He knows when to talk (and sparingly), is constantly amusing, and sympathetic to the listeners and his fellow commentators alike. He is very knowledgeable on cricket, but less so on other things, but this should in no way be held against him.

      • Adam Spokes

        I suppose my like for him perhaps extends for the respect I have for him as a player (not that that should really reflect my thoughts on him as a commentator). Perhaps I’ve missed a few of his more useless contributions, but certainly as a batsmen, they have no finer expert on the matter, and I do have a feeling that he is sort of dragging TMS into the modern era, albeit slowly and not to every bodies tastes.

  • DrCrackles

    I prefer the ‘g’ to be silent every time in gerunds. The ‘t’ however is a regional thing. In fact the Yorskshire ‘t’ can sound very hard.

    • DrCoxon

      ‘I prefer the ‘g’ to be silent every time in gerunds.’

      So how do you pronounce ‘grafting’, ‘googling’, ‘golfing’ …?

  • DrIpresume

    As a Canadian who fell in love with cricket while listening to TMS, I disagree wholeheartedly with this piece. We shall all miss CMJ and his special ability the game to describe with intelligence and warmth, but the programme is evolving gently and, in my opinion well. Not all things in the past on the programme were wonderful. I for one don’t miss the “when I was a player” type commentary which was so common when Truman and Bailey were in their later years. Boycott is heading in the same direction and I have to confess I often turn off the radio during his stints. I find Tufnell both knowledgable and charming and he often has a unique take on issues. Ed Smith is a great addition and the quality of the visiting commentators remains high. The ‘old timers’ such as Vic Marks bring a long term view to commentary and most manage to avoid too much nostalgia. I suspect like most people who hark back to a golden era, the writer has selective memory, remembering only the good things about the time beings described.

  • Chris Lewis

    Things move on. Jon Agnew is very good as are the foreign commentators such as Jim Maxwell. Vic Marks is a great and knowledgeable summariser. Blofeld and Boycott bring some old school fun. Vaughan is good some of the time but he does go off on one now and again and finds himself more funny than he is.

    I really like Phil Tufnell. He continues to surprise me; knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, knows when to talk and when to listen. Fits the TMS mould.

    I think you are seeing TMS of yesteryear through rose tinted specs. John Arlott’s style would seem very pedestrian to modern day ears notwithstanding the gems sprinkled therein.

  • Bartleby

    Can’t agree. As one of many returning to the game having given up in the 90s, I find that TMS has moved with the times and with Aggers’ gentle hand on the tiller, the new voices and perspectives entertain and inform in equal measure.

    • John Thompson

      As a Yorkshireman who applauded Boycott as a batsman of the highest order whilst he was batting, I find his contribution to TMS to be annoying in the extreme. He goes on and on about the same point in question seemingly forever in such an aggressive way that gives me some understanding of the reason why some people in the past have suggested that he wasn’t popular back in the players dressing room. I’ve asked my family to warn me if ever I go rabbiting on to tell me that I am Boycotting. Great batman that you were Mr B, zip it for a while. Please don’t think that we are all like Boycott, some of us know that now and again we can be wrong, not very often mind.

  • Maxi Lopez

    I’m glad to hear this article getting roundly panned, TMS is evolving that is for sure, but at its heart remains the charm it always had. Lets hope Blowers has some more miles left in him, he will be a hard act to replace, Him and Tuffers are turning into a really amusing combination.

  • Chris Duckett

    Don’t agree.Well done TMS.In tune with the public .Keep it up

  • kle4

    Nothing wrong with TMS right now, it’s just evolving slightly as time goes on, perfectly naturally and inoffensively.
    I think the author of this atrticle is also firmly attached to his nostalgia goggles, as it comes across as a moan at something’s precipitous decline with the barest of evidence of that so called decline, which to put it mildly is highly subjective.
    Sorry TMS no longer appears to be for you, but as with most things I think it more likely the past was not as magnificent as you imagine (if still magnificent), nor recent change as disastrous. Cheer up.

  • El_Sid

    Am I back in the 1950s, with people still debating the Gentlemen vs Players thing?

    Would Henderson have bemoaned Fuller Pilch joining the commentary team, one of our greatest ever batsman who was also born elsewhere but learnt his cricket in Sheffield? The point is that cricket isn’t a Radio 4 sport – it’s as much about the horny-handed sons of Yorkshire and Lancashire as it is tea with the vicar in the Weald. If you want a programme that is staffed solely by those who grew up within 30 miles of Guildford then fine, the internet allows you to do it very cheaply – just don’t expect to be funded by a state-owned broadcaster.

    The real problem is that the editorial confidence of the BBC has sunk so low that it has almost given up on employing journalists in sports journalism. So many of the great sports broadcasters had at best a minor role in the sports they commentated on, but their love and enthusiasm for the sport more than made up for it – Murray Walker, Harry Carpenter, John Arlott, John Motson to name but a few. The modern BBC eschews that kind of person in favour of a blind assumption that someone who is good at the sport will make a good broadcaster, and it’s just not true. There’s a few exceptions like Richie Benaud, but you only have to look at Match of the Day to see how bad things can get when you give leading sportsmen too much screentime; conversely the big star of the Olympics coverage was a journo, Clare Balding.

    In fact 5Live has perhaps the best example of a modern Arlott or Carpenter, but typically for the modern BBC he’s tucked away in the middle of the night with a presenter who’s a bit too keen on the sound of his own voice. But Tim Vickery on 5Live’s World Football Phone-in is up there with the all-time greats IMO – he’s so completely immersed in his subject that he draws you in even if you don’t have a particular interest in it, and is equally happy talking about the 1958 Brazil team as public transport in Rio or social progress in 1920s Uruguay. He completely and utterly shows up the MOTD goons for what they are, I just hope he gets a starring role in their coverage of upcoming events in Rio.

    Back on topic – FWIW I like Vaughan, you just knew from his analytical approach to captaincy that he’d be good on radio. It doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t feel the need to discuss the finer points of Plato – I’d suggest his interests are pretty typical of a 38-year old, his cricket insights make up for it. Which is after all the point.

    Tuffers I can take or leave, I’m not a great fan of his gooning around but he’s getting better and he is good when he gets to talk spin bowling (there’s just less requirement for that compared to batting). Personally I don’t much miss CMJ on the radio, although his family were quite good friends of mine back in the day, so you might suppose I should have been in tune with where he was coming from.

    • David Prentice

      Quite right about Vickipedia, El Sid. A genius. Witty, informed, erudite. You hint at the shortcomings of Dotun Adebayo, the host of the World Football Phone-in, but I’ll go further. If BBC 5Live advertised for a buffoon and a clown when they were filling this post, they got their man. Adebayo speaks with the smug relish of a man who knows he cannot lose his job, for he is a). black and b). a BBC broadcaster, and, therefore, unsackable. I won’t labour the point, but if 5Live produced a world football podcast that had Adebayo’s “contributions” edited out, they might be surprised at the number of downloads it gets.

  • redrose54

    I’m so glad this opinion by Mr Henderson is being so widely disagreed with. I’ve been a regular TMS listener since sneaking a radio into school to listen to Ian Chappell’s 1972 Ashes series, and I find the current crop of commentators to generally be on a par with any. I agree that CMJ’s paternal tones will be sadly missed, but, with the possible exception of Simon Mann, his replacements carry the torch of evolution creditably. I also recall reading similar articles 10, 15 and 20 years ago from so-called journalists bemoaning Bryan Johnston’s giggling, Don Mosey’s grumpiness, and Henry Blofeld’s all-round scattiness, so given that the programme has survived all that, and its listener numbers apparently stay steady at worst, I suspect the producers at the BBC are doing something right.

  • Linda Cass

    Michael Henderson may be surprised to hear that not all TMS listeners are classicists. In these days when our national sporting treasures are being stolen by the pay channels it remains the only way we ‘ordinary’ crickets fans can follow the test matches. TMS remains entertaining, knowledgeable and fair. MH’s cursory praise of Jonathon Agnew is egregious and as for Michael Vaughan’s regional accent – even yorkshire insults fail me!

    Linda Cass

  • Aldo

    I must add in praise for Ed Smith who adds an educated viewpoint along with an excellent knowledge of all sports.

    His commentary on the last session with Tuffers was insightful as they tried to explain the almost slapdash affair of England’s second innings.

  • Thus Spake Zarathustra

    I, too, miss the halcyon days of TMS commentaries past. However, the current batch of commentators and pontificators are a sign of the times I suppose and by and large I can tolerate most of them – Vaughan bein’ th’exception – he sounds like a matey second-hand car salesman (he’s also a Lancastrian who sold his birthright – unforgivable).

    What are particularly missed are the witticisms, erudite comments, and truly memorable utterances than once liberally littered the airwaves. My favourite is one by Alan Gibson who, talking about the former NZ test bowler Bob Cunis, provided the line, “Strange sort of name, Cunis, neither one thing nor the other.”

  • Glenn Ludlow

    Vaughan really is a miserable man. Never a positive word to say. The rest, are, in my opinion, absolutely fine.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Could someone please explain why the BBC fails to cover the Test on TV? The national broadcaster regales us with golf, womens football and tiddlywinks but neglects to cover the national team engaged in a historical match of significant interest throughout the country – does the fault lie with them or with cricket? Have they explained this rather incredible omission?

    • El_Sid

      Nothing to do with the BBC, other than they offered (much) less money than Murdoch. It’s mostly the fault of the ECB, up until the 2005 Ashes home Test matches were a Category A listed event, which meant they had to be on free-to-air TV per Part IV of the Broadcasting Act 1996.

      The ECB wanted Sky’s money, so they persuaded Tessa Jowell to drop Test matches down to Category B, which only protects the highlights package. There’s been talk of abolishing the distinction between A and B, and just having home Ashes matches (fully) protected, but that would require Maria Miller to make a decision, so don’t hold your breath.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Thank you for that. Another New Labour crime against the English for me to notch on my tally stick.

  • DrCoxon

    TMS now offers Boycott + politicians.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Do you really suppose that Tuffers has never heard of Wilfred Rhodes. Everybody who has ever held a bat has heard of Wilfred Rhodes.Twit!

  • Pam Nash

    ‘Has Test Match Special lost its wits?’

    No Michael, it most certainly hasn’t – but it seems that you have.

  • Roy Allen

    This is pure, nasty snobbery, sneering at the current commentators for their accents or for having the temerity not to be their dead predecessors. It’s one of those desperately sad, spiteful articles that says more about the writer than it does about his targets.

  • Chris Phillips

    Of course any discussion of moronic content on TMS cannot be considered credible without heavy criticism of Henry Blofeld, whose inability to accurately convey to the listener even the most elementary details of what is taking place on the field ought really to bar him from a commentator’s berth. None of the arguments presented here against Vaughan and Tufnell can be taken seriously until equivalent criticism is levelled at Blofeld.

  • Sanctimony

    I am totally chilled about the TMS format and contents. It’s such a relief listening to it after all the endless wittering and flatulence excreted by SKY.

    With one exception: Michael Holding.

    His knowledge of the game, his wit and observations about all the nuances and, not least, the delight of listening to that wonderful Jamaican accent.

    In action and delivery, when playing, he had the most beautiful bowling action of any bowler I have watched.

  • Sam Davidson

    My dear old thing, even you must be aware that this is facetious nonsense. If you wanted to complain about dear Michael Vaughan, you ought to have made the effort to find greater evidence of his incapacity than his use of a glottal stop. Some Cricketers come from Yorkshire, y’know. I’ll daresay he and Tuffers know and care at least as much about Cricket as you do. I know the grass was alway greener fifty years ago, but I invite you to find a more deserving target for your angsty chronological snobbery than TMS, or at least to back up the points you make with evidence. You say TMS was always a Radio 4 show, but have you listened to Radio 4 lately? The rot has set in far quicker there than on TMS as far as I can tell.

  • Matt Smith

    Disagree (as many seem to) with virtually everything you write that is critical of the current line-up.

    I must also say that I’m surprised you rate Jim Max well as a great broadcaster, who comes across as so partisan I have to turn the radio off every time he comes on. He seems incapable of commentating from an impartial viewpoint and would rather gargle broken glass than appreciate good play by any side other than Australia.

  • elsmallo

    I don’t dispute the general suggestion that ‘things are not as they were’ in regard to TMS – for how could they be? Like most critics here however I’d defend the programme against much of your polemic. As Blofeld points out in his book, even in the ‘good old days’ of TMS every listener invariably had a commentator or summariser who made him/her want to switch off. In my case that is certainly currently Vaughan, whose on-mic personality I never really liked as captain, and who I suspect only went near TMS in the first place because his odd eyebrow raising tic (literally, not figuratively – one eyebrow raises when he speaks) makes him unsuitable for television. He is brash and a boor and rather sneers at the programme, and I only persevere when he is on with Blofeld, who I adore. Tuffers I would roundly defend; when he is on air with Blowers I find their combined sniggering irresistible. CMJ will never be replaced, but neither were Johnston or Arlott. We can only hope for someone new and interesting. I have high hopes for Ed Smith. As ever, TMS continues to trounce Sky, who are only worth listening to for Atherton and Hussain, and, when they let him out of the TV van, the excellent Charles Colvile, a rare genuine screen journalist.

  • Amberx

    There is a certain kind of blandness that only people like Ed Smith and Simon Mann can bring – TMS would indeed be in a pretty fix if that were the calibre of commentator and/or summariser we can look forward to.

    Michael Vaughan can indeed be boorish sometimes, and is shaping up to be Boycott MkII – but the fact that Tuffers has Muffers is a sign that he should be excused everything, in true TMS style – it’s a sign that an Aggers/Blowers-level symbiosis with the programme is there.

    Alison Mitchell. 1) It’s time, and 2) She does as well as Smith/Mann, and shows signs of developing a sense of humour superior to the po-faced Edmeister. She may not have the wit and brilliance of the old school (by which I mean the present seniors) but she shows promise, and where she goes, hopefully other, wittier women will follow. If Sandi Toksvig liked cricket, she would be a shoe-in for TMS.

    Uniquely amongst sport broadcasts, TMS is aware of its own cultural status – a culturally vital frippery – and therefore practices a slyly ironic decorum that is totally lacking in most other sport commentary (at least anything involving Sky – try ‘The Adventure Show’ on BBC Scotland for similar lack of pretension and good humour).

    As far as I can see, the tradition of being as naughty as one can get away with, whilst metaphorically whistling innocence, is going strong.

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