Commentator’s wicket, wicket ways
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