Out of the Ashes: life is a talking man's game

BBC cricket commentator John Arlott.
BBC cricket commentator John Arlott.

I grew up listening at night to the Ashes Tests from England on ABC radio, which tapped into the BBC broadcast and featured the great English commentators of the age such as John Arlott, Trevor Bailey, Brian Johnston and Norman Yardley.

These men were more than good callers of the action, they were raconteurs and humorists of the first order.

When Lillee was bowling to Boycott it was riveting drama, but when the rain fell and the action came to a halt they were at their best, observers of the particular, turning the passing of the 3:10 mail train behind the old scoreboard on its way to Woking into an event of immense human interest.

"By the way, did you get your mail today John?"

"Indeed I did, and I got a lovely letter from Mavis Berryman of the Dorsetshire Women's Auxiliary asking me why umpire David Shepherd stands on one leg when the score reaches 111, and she's included a lovely pair of socks her sister Ida has knitted."

My mother likes to tell absolutely everybody that as a child I had a little invisible friend that I talked out loud to.

It was hard to explain that I had no such friend, but was, in fact, commentating my own life: "Bourke is turning towards the door, checking he has his lunch, before heading towards the bus stop under darkening skies. There could be a shower or two later this afternoon.

"Oh look, there's the boy next door, what's he saying?

"Stop talking to yourself, you idiot." Oh, I see.

Now, 40 odd years later, it's my partner who says, "Stop talking to yourself, you idiot".

But she understands. Not long after we met she became enthralled as Terry Alderman ripped through Graham Gooch's English team to win the Ashes.

A few years later, we went to the SCG to watch a Test, and soon after we took our seats, she turned and asked, "When do they turn the commentary on?". She was devastated when I told her no such thing would happen. She then insisted that I provide the commentary myself. After a few overs, she said, "that's good" and sat back to enjoy the next six hours.

And so it became a type of family tradition. Trying to organise a Test match in the yard with my sons, my youngest boy would refuse to play unless I did "The Talking Man", and during a change of overs, he would call out, "there goes the train, Dad".

"Ah yes, that would be the 3:10 mail train to Woking making its way into the gloom. There could be a shower this afternoon."

Simon Bourke is an ACM journalist