The Time Press

When sports fans created a world only from the radio commentators’ words

Away in New York on holiday, I followed the fortunes of Arsenal, the Premier League team I support, largely through the audio commentary on the club’s official website. It was a delightful experience, redolent of, to borrow from TS Eliot, ‘the pastness of the past but also of its presence’.

I first fell in love with sport through radio commentary. There was no TV, there was no internet. There were only disembodied, often sonorous, voices that conjured for me the action on a faraway, foreign field or in cities closer to home. I had not been to a game yet.

I listened to commentary on a Grundig radio my parents had received as a wedding present and carried around with them through my peripatetic childhood.

There was BBC, Short Wave 2. Test Match Special. Fred Trueman, Henry Blofeld, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Brian Johnston, Don Mosey: I knew their names and their voices by heart. I often did not understand the reasons for their sudden, raucous laughter, nor the jokes that led up to it. But the bewildered humour of ‘Richards, believe it or not, nought’ was not beyond me.

There was All India Radio too. I recall sitting up in the dead of the night, listening to (I think) Dicky Rutnagur and Sushil Doshi bring alive India’s historic 1976 run chase at Port of Spain, cavalier Brijesh Patel finishing off what Sunil Gavaskar and GR Vishwanath had started.

Closer home, there was the football league in Kolkata. My grandfather, who probably took an interest in football merely for my sake, yelling from the sitting room, ‘What’s the score? What’s the score?’ as, in the bedroom, I sat with my ear to the very same Grundig when Mohun Bagan played.

It was the BBC’s Short Wave 2 again that made me a devotee of tennis. The Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981. Agony for McEnroe in the first, and then ecstasy — for him and for me — in the second. SW19 brought home on SW2.

Radio commentary engaged the fan — especially the fan who has not been to a stadium or been able to watch the sport on TV – in a special way. The power of the imagination was the key. From the narration, the fan pieced together moving pictures. He imagined the action in a certain way. (When I first visited Lord’s, I found it to be vastly different from the construct I had of it in my imagination.) The fan created, from the commentators’ words, a world.

Nowadays, when you can stream or watch live on TV almost any game being played anywhere in the world, it is hard to remember how central radio commentary once was to our lives. Listening to it again, I recalled its vanished charm.

But a crucial inversion has occurred. While I, as a small boy, had to imagine the action on the field, my 20-year-old daughter, my fellow listener on this trip, was having her mental picture of the action corroborated by the commentary. A sport fanatic, she has grown up on a staple of televised or streamed sport. The commentary had helped me build images in my head as a boy. For her, as a young woman, the commentary confirmed images she possessed in the hard drive of her memory.

So, when Liverpool’s Minamino slashed wide from six yards out in the 90th minute of the Carabao Cup semifinal against Arsenal, she said she could see the look of anguish on the Liverpool player’s face, she could picture vividly Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta behaving like a marionette on amphetamine. What she was visualising was the real thing, the actual stuff. Imagination plays a part in this instance too, but it is imagination of a different kind. How far we have come in a generation.

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