Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Sports sound better on the radio

Radio commentators go the extra mile in vividly describing the sporting action, making it a memorable aural experience

While living in the US, I often listened to basketball games on the radio. It was a sport I loved and could never get enough of. So, on drives long or short, I would turn on my radio and follow whatever game—college or pro—I found floating on the airwaves.

At home, I had a TV with an excellent black-and-white picture, but no sound. So there too, the radio gave me the play-by-play—a good thing actually, because radio commentary was always more vivid and detailed than on TV.

With all this listening, I began catching the particular turns of phrase of the folks behind the mike, later looking forward to that almost as much as the game itself. This was no unusual thing: play-by-play men on the radio, in particular, often are stars in their own right, their words sometimes taking on an immortality of their own.

Take Johnny Most, the radio man for the Boston Celtics for most—forgive the pun—of four decades till 1990. His excited nasal croak underlined several memorable Celtics moments for his listeners.

Like in 1965, when the Celts fought off the Philadelphia 76ers in a tough seven-game play-off series. The last game went down to the wire. In the final seconds, Boston had a one-point lead, but the 76ers had possession of the ball, aiming to drive for a game- and series-winning basket.

But then the Celts’ star Johnny Havlicek… well, here are Most’s famous words: “…and Havlicek steals it!… Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over, it’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!"

(I didn’t hear it live, but I have read about it so often that it’s almost as if I did hear it).

Twenty-two years later, Most was there again as the Celtics duked it out with the Detroit Pistons over seven games. In the sixth, Detroit had a one-point lead and possession, with just five seconds left—nearly a sure win. But then Celtics star Larry Bird… well, here are Most’s almost-as-famous words: “…now there’s a steal by Bird!… right at one second left! What a play by Bird!… Oh my, this place is going crazy!"

(That one, I heard live).

But it doesn’t even have to be memorable moments. Sports journalism—print, radio, TV—inspires a lingo, a rhythm, a cachet, all its own.

Like the regular nouning of verbs for no reason. “Henderson defenced Magic pretty good on that last play," for example. Now, there is a perfectly adequate word available—“defended"—and so you might say the turn to “defenced" offenced stuffy purists like me. But really, why use it?

Apart from that, I would often hear that the team with the ball was “moving from left to right across your radio dial". I realize this is to give listeners a mental picture of the game. I also realize it’s language like this that makes radio commentary so colourful.

But still, every time I heard it, I couldn’t help a quick glance at my radio dial. Were there really 10 little figures running and dribbling, shooting and rebounding along the face of my radio?

Then there are the rationed-out encomiums. A given player is always “as good as anyone in the league"—never “better", nor “the best". That has to suffice as a marker of the player’s worth.

Still, it doesn’t snuff out the occasional poetic language, as when an announcer compared a certain college player’s movement on court to “a panther on the plains of the Serengeti".

Vivid, I did say.

And, of course, cricket broadcast journalism in India has produced its own characters and lingo too. Some of us remember radio stalwarts like Sushil Doshi, Dicky Rutnagur, Suresh Suraiya and Anant Setalvad.

They all had their own trademark flourishes, and I always thought Setalvad was the calmest of them. Of a bowler turning at the top of his run, he would say in an even tone: “And now we wait for Karsan Ghavri to come in to bowl."

Only when I watched a match at a stadium, and someone nearby had his radio blaring, did I realize that Setalvad was saying those words as the bowler was actually running in—over and over again. So, it’s not quite as if we were waiting. Hardly mattered, I suppose, but this was his own quirk.

For his part, I remember a delightfully telling Rutnagur put-down of Sunil Gavaskar. Gavaskar had just tried a wild shot in the first few balls of a Test and, if memory serves, was caught somewhere. In that butter-smooth voice, Rutnagar told us that this irresponsibility was as if “I had decided to dance on my boss’s desk simply because I wanted to." Maybe Gavaskar took that to heart. For, if memory serves again, he never repeated that irresponsibility.

And to compare with Johnny Most’s nasal croak, there’s once-cricketer Ravi Shastri, audible on TV sets whenever India plays these days. There’s an edge to his broadcast voice that many have ascribed to days of constipation. Certainly that’s unfair, but especially at critical moments in a game, his diction takes on a now-familiar tight tension. And it’s in that voice that he offers his innumerable celebrated clichés.

Of a firmly struck boundary, Shastri will say: “That’s speeding to the fence like a tracer bullet!"—unless it’s a six, in which case it’s “He’s chosen the aerial route!"

If there’s a catch to the wicketkeeper or first slip, more than likely we will hear: “Edged… and taken!" If there’s a player he thinks should have been in the team, it’s always: “India could really use the likes of Amit Mishra today"—well, is that Mishra or the likes of Mishra?

And then, there’s the evergreen line that could actually apply to anyone, any team, playing any sport anywhere on the planet, and to be fair, it is hardly just Shastri who uses it: “If <xyz> wants to win today, they will have to play well."

Right. And since at least that line is universal, one of my sporting fantasies is an exchange between the likes of Shastri and Most (well, whoever Most’s successor is, for he died in 1993).

How would Most have told us about a shot like a tracer bullet? How would Shastri describe Havlicek’s miracle steal? I don’t know, but the prospect is a delight.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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