Com­men­ta­tor’s wicket, wicket ways

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Cricket has been a vale of tears re­cently, and news renowned ABC sports com­men­ta­tor Jim Maxwell fell ill while call­ing the Rio Olympic Games had hearts lodged in mouths. As he re­cov­ers for the com­ing sum­mer, which has one of its high­lights next week with the Box­ing Day Test, his mem­oir of a life on the air is a timely re­minder of his in­de­fati­ga­ble pas­sion for the game he has en­riched.

Who can claim to be the sound of a sea­son? Per­haps the Beach Boys? But for any­one whose sum­mer of Test cricket means turn­ing the ra­dio up and the TV down, Maxwell’s voice has been the rhythm of leather on wil­low for four decades, the echo of heat sim­mer­ing on the grass.

In a sport where num­bers count, no one can match him. At the ABC mi­cro­phone for 285 Test matches, he has spanned World Se­ries Cricket to Twenty20. Through­out, he has been the metronome: re­li­able, straight­for­ward and sec­ond to none in his ar­tic­u­la­tion of the val­ues and com­plex­i­ties of the great game. In cricket par­lance, if he went out to open on a seam­ing green­top, he wouldn’t walk back un­til lunch.

This sport-ob­sessed lad from Syd­ney’s lush north saw his des­tiny as a sports caller be­fore he was in long pants — de­spite dab­bling as a school­boy book­maker — and he re­lates his cap­ti­va­tion with the wire­less rhap­sod­i­cally. Has the magic of ra­dio died? Well, here Maxwell makes it breathe again and hiss with the in­ten­sity of re­dis­cov­ered won­der.

By the time he fi­nally landed a job with the ABC in 1973 — third time lucky — call­ers no longer com­pen­sated for the de­lays and dodgy lines of his youth by re-cre­at­ing tele­gram dis­patches with sound ef­fects (of­ten a match­box and a tin).

It wasn’t just new tech­nol­ogy he was in­her­it­ing. Alan McGil­vray, then the doyen of ABC cricket, had pi­o­neered an Aus­tralian ap­proach to com­men­tary as Maxwell’s pre­de­ces­sor. By roundly dis­dain­ing waf­fling English col­leagues — all fra­grant roses and the sound of mag­pies in the dis­tance — McGil­vray pi­o­neered a sto­ical min­i­mal­ism, with cricket al­ways the fo­cus.

Maxwell main­tained that ap­proach through the years of tu­mult, through player strikes, rebel tours and the pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion of the game, aware that the com­men­ta­tor was also a care­taker, re­spon­si­ble not only for mak­ing images of the play but re­spect­ing the play­ers and the game, weigh­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of mo­ments more than their colour.

Maxwell un­der­stands in­ti­mately the art of com­men­tary. It’s res­o­nant in his anal­y­sis of the inim­itable (and much-missed) Richie Be­naud, his aware­ness of his own craft, and his re­spect for the styles of the lu­mi­nar­ies with whom he has shared the box, from the livewire high jinks of Kerry O’Keefe (who con­trib­utes a lov­ing fore­word to this book) to the re­laxed In­dian mae­stro Harsha Bhogle.

There’s fun here be­hind the scenes: Maxwell sticks to “what hap­pens on tour” for others but

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