Transcript: Couch Talk with Tony Cozier

Couch Talk 96 (Play)

Guest: Tony Cozier

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)- Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the voice of West Indian cricket and a broadcasting legend Tony Cozier. He talks about his beginnings, the art of TV and radio commentary, cricket’s role in the west indian struggle for self-governance, his favorite commentary stint amongst other things. Welcome to the show, Mr. Cozier!

Tony Cozier (TC)– Thank You!

SJ– It is my pleasure having you on, a broadcasting legend.

You had an early start to your career in media and journalism at the age of 15 since your father was already in the business, wasn’t it?

TC– Yes. My father edited 3 papers in the West Indies, in fact 4 of them. The Voice of St. Lucia, Trinidad Guardian, Barbados Advocate and The Barbados Daily News which he started himself in 1960. He had also covered the West Indies cricket tour to England in 1950 for West Indian newspapers. So, he was very much into journalism. He didn’t continue in cricket journalism because he became an editor of the papers I mentioned so he didn’t have time for that. But he did do the 1950 tour of England.

SJ– So, you just happened to be around and you wanted to give a shot or did he ask you to take part in it?

TC– No. I suppose being from Barbados and being male, everyone here at that time played cricket up to some level and was interested in cricket. In addition, my father was a devotee of the game. My present from him on my eighth birthday was a copy of Wisden. We did have a great legacy in cricket in Barbados going all the way back. My interest was from the time I was at The Lodge School in Barbados. We had had a few students who represented the West Indies in earlier times, in fact John Goddard was West indies captain for 22 Tests. We listened to the commentaries from England when they came in on the Rediffusion sets, that was the radio we had then. That stirred my interest. Also, the reporting of international cricket and West Indies cricket. I read a lot of people like E. W. Swanton, for instance, when I was at school.

I played for the school. At that time, the three major grammar schools in Barbados played in our first grade competition against the top clubs. I know I would have played against clubs which included Test and first class players. In fact, the first match I played for the school at that level was against Spartan Club which included Wes Hall and at least 2 or 3 players who had represented Barbados. Cammie Smith, who represented West Indies, was also playing in that team. We had that kind of a background. They felt the boys would develop faster if in they were matched up against the men from an early age.

SJ– You have been around for more than 5 decades covering cricket, cutting across several generations of players and fans. Firstly, I want to know what you consider to be your role and position as a white man during the struggle for self governance and independence for the Caribbean nations in the 1960s?

TC– Well, I never even thought of it like that. In fact, when I started in journalism it was all sport, not just cricket, although cricket was naturally the major sport.  Between 1960 and 1968, when the paper was taken over by the Thomson Group, I did everything on the Barbados Daily News as you have to on such a paper with a circulation of around 10,000 on an island with a population of 250,000 at the time. When the Daily News closed, I had to find something to do. I then became the East Caribbean correspondent for several overseas publications – the London Financial Times, Copley News Service, Gemini News Service, Associated Press – and I would go around the Caribbean doing radio commentary on regional cricket while using the opportunity to interview ministers and various officials outside of cricket or following up current affairs stories for the various overseas agencies I worked for.

I did a lot of that until cricket became too much and I started to travel outside the Caribbean covering various tours to add to those at home. Therefore I lost contact with West Indian current affairs and concentrated on cricket. As far as being a white man, my father was white and he was the editor of the newspapers in three different islands. For many years, up until a few months before his death, he wrote a daily column on a wide range of topics. That he was white was something which he never really thought about and neither did I. Like he was, I was West Indian, full stop.

When I was touring in my earlier days, a lot of the players were people I had played cricket against at club level in Barbados, those who I had known for a long time who became friends and are still personal friends. I never felt at any stage that my race made a difference. The West Indies is a very cosmopolitan part of the world and the team reflected that. The Europeans were the colonisers and then came the African slave trade and then came the Indian indentured labour. You had players of all sorts of background in the West Indies team.

I give the example of when West Indies were playing in Trinidad against New Zealand in 1971. New Zealand were bowling so there were only 4 West Indians on the field – the two batsmen and the two umpires. The batsmen were Roy Fredericks, a left handed opening batsman of African descent; and Geoffrey Greenidge (not to be confused with Gordon Greenidge), a white West Indian from Barbados. The two umpires were Ralph Gosein, a West Indian of Indian descent, and Douglas Sang Hue, a Jamaican/Chinese. So, one black player and one white player batting, one Indian umpire and one Chinese umpire. That encapsulated how cosmopolitan West Indies were at that time. So it has been until this day. The mix on the field is now between Afro and Indo West Indians but all races are represented in other areas such as administration.

SJ– That is fair. But, cricket itself was used as a vehicle of realising self power and governance and transformation.

TC– Very much so. That went all the way back to the first West Indies tour of England in 1900. Britain was the colonial power and held the political and financial control. It meant a hell of a lot for the confidence of the West Indies people that cricket was the one endeavour in which they could prove themselves the equal of the British who, after all, invented the game. We took a long time before we won a match in England but the team kept improving with experience. We got Test status in 1928 and 1931 was when West Indies first won a Test match over England. The real watershed came in 1950 when West Indies went to England and won the series there 3-1. They won very comfortably with the 3 Ws, Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, coming into their own, along with the spinners, (Sonny) Ramadhin and (Alf) Valentine, the two little pals of mine, and (Jeffrey) Stollmeyer and (Allan) Rae the opening pair.

It was a time as well, when the West Indian immigration to England had started to peak. Thousands of West Indians went to Britain at that time and settled there. They went expecting the streets to flow with milk and honey but it was quite the opposite. In fact, they were discriminated against. When the West Indies team, their team, came to England and beat England, it gave them a tremendous lift, it meant a lot to their self esteem. Also, it inspired a lot of their politicians who had already been pushing on to full independence from Britain. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say cricket was definitely a factor in that.

SJ– You covered for so long that I want to follow up with the tour to England in 1976. Especially, we all know what Tony Greig said and supposed outcome of what he said and all that. But, I want to ask a specific thing, and this comes from a listener, Sriram – what did you think at that time, and what is your take on it now, almost 40 years since, about the allegations of “sinister” bowling, by some English journalists, peers of yours?

TC– It was, of course, a silly thing for Tony Greig, a white South African, even if playing for England, to have said, in relation to a virtually all-black West Indies team. especially at time when global opposition to apartheid in South Africa was at its height. That certainly fired them up. It was a fast bowling attack. You had Roberts, you had (Michael) Holding, you had Wayne Daniel at that time. Holder wasn’t as fast as they were but he wasn’t slow either. But as far as so-called sinister bowling was concerned, that wasn’t confined to England alone. It wasn’t that the West Indies were specifically taking their own back on the old colonial power. If that was the case, what about India? They weren’t our one-time colonial power. Or Pakistan or Australia? They beat them pretty handily as well and the fast bowlers were equally as menacing as they were against England.

The West Indies were the best and were just out there to win and maintain their standards. That is what they did. There was no ulterior motive but the pride in winning and proving that they were the best.

SJ– True!

I want to talk a bit about cricket commentary these days, and how it has evolved from the time you started. First of all, these days, we have almost all of them except for a very few like you, Faz(eer) Mohammed, Harsha Bhogle and Chishti Mujahid from Paksitan, there are very few that don’t come from the international cricket background. Right now pretty much all the commentary boxes around the world are staffed with ex-international cricketers. Is that a good thing, where you don’t have a play-by-play commentator coming from a media trained journalism background and you have a colour guy from a cricket background? Right now, an ex-cricketer is doing all these jobs?

TC– I really couldn’t comment on that. Except to say that you are referring solely to television commentary. The late Brian Johnston and John Arlott are two of the finest examples of those who didn’t play cricket at any standard but were outstanding commentators. I don’t think you have to have been an international player to understand the game, to be passionate about the game and to be able to describe it. Other things are required as far as commentary is concerned, both radio and TV. I’ve just re-reading something which Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote under the heading “Do you want to be a commentator?”. He, of course, was one of the best on radio before his untimely death earlier this year. He said all sorts of things in there which remain applicable today. One of them, which a lot of people need, he says, and is easily overlooked, is the most important of all necessities for cricket commentators –to have a voice that is pleasing to listen to.

A commentary stint is about 20 minutes’ duration. The voice needs to command and hold the listener’s attention, which doesn’t necessarily mean turning the volume down. Commentators need to be easy to listen to over a long period. That is not always the case as far as some of the ex-players who have come in. The ex-players can certainly speak knowledgably from personal experience but I don’t think most know as much of cricket history and detail as those who are involved in it on a day-to-day basis. That is what I do and have done for more years than I care to remember. That is my job. I do cricket every day. Day by day. Which is the same thing in the case of most of the other commentators like Harsha, Faz, Jim Maxwell and so on.

SJ– Which makes it all the more necessary that you have a team of ex-players plus people from background like yours, and Bhogle’s. I have spoken to Harsha Bhogle on this as well, and he considers himself as one of the last few of the dying breed of people coming from the journalism background into TV commentary.

TC– Yes. I have read what he has written.

SJ– I want to bring out an example of the bottle throwing incident in Barbados in 1999, when Australia were touring. It was you on the air explaining the situation and I quote from the Daily Mail the great job that you did at that time, “Condemnatory without being portentous.”

TC– Yes.  I have that clipping, written by Ian Woolridge.

SJ– Exactly. I am trying to make a case, I suppose, that TV producers and TV companies need to have a team of not only ex-cricketers – we see David Gower hosting everything, or a Sanjay Manjrekar or Ian Bishop doing it all, to name a few – but you need to have play-by-play plus a colour commentator who is an ex-cricketer. It would be a shame if it doesn’t continue to be that way.

TC– Possibly, yes. But I cite the case of Richie Benaud who is probably the game’s most universally respected tv commentator. He was captain of Australia in the 1960s, a top Test player yet the last generation of viewers, probably even two generations, have come up knowing Richie Benaud only as a great cricket commentator. For instance, tell most 30-year-olds of his cricket career and I reckon they would say “What? We didn’t know he was a cricketer!”. He has made a reputation as a commentator because he was good at it and the public likes his work. If there are more like that, that’s great!

SJ– There are a couple of listeners – Bharathram and Rizwan Patel – the question in essence is this – can an average common man/woman aspire to be a cricket commentator in this modern era? If you haven’t been already established, is there a window for them to come into the game?

TC– No. There isn’t. Unless, first of all, they are in newspaper work, their work is seen and they then graduate to radio. Fazeer Mohammed, myself, Harsha have all done that – writing in newspapers and magazines, doing radio and finally into television. You need to be in the game and be known to be in the game by those who select. Sadly, radio now seems to be more and more completely overtaken by television. Of course, all the criteria mentioned by Martin-Jenkins apply. I wouldn’t expect someone like a doctor, for instance, or a bank clerk to come in simply as a sideline.

SJ– How do you think in your view, the art of cricket commentary has evolved during your tenure as TV commentator? Now, we have all these new technologies, with all the statistics, wagon wheels, this and that – how was it in the more stripped down version to where it is now? How has your job changed?

TC– I did television long after I was on radio. Brian Johnston, with whom I did Test Match Special in England, was very influential with a simple piece of advice. The first thing he said was that you’ve got to have fun. You are on the air, you have to enjoy it. If you are not enjoying it, then the listener won’t enjoy it. So, you enjoy it. Then, I came in to television commentary at the start of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket on Channel Nine in Australia. David Hill was the producer then – he has gone on to head Fox Sports in the United States where he had taken several brilliant innovations in other sports. He also emphasised what Johnston said – enjoy yourself, have fun, you are free to do what you want to do, make your jokes, you can do nonsense once you keep on the cricket.

The television once went to the full moon in Sydney. Because I had the backing of David Hill, I just sang “Blue Moon” on the TV. I mean, things like that. You know people are going to be entertained once you accept that the cricket is first and foremost. Now, with T20 cricket, we hear Danny Morrison. He is completely…well, I was going to say “completely off his rocker” but that’s a really good way of saying it. He is ideal for T20 cricket. He is not perhaps ideal for Test cricket but he is ideally suited to T20 cricket because of his style.

Once you have your fun, once you know the game, once you are passionate about it, all those factors come into it and as Martin Jenkins said, once you have to voice which is easy to listen to, not high-pitched, not monotonous or boring, then you’re on the right track.

SJ– It is interesting that you brought up the commentary in T20 tournaments. You once had a stint in IPL. Basically, T20 leagues have made cricket into a product, rather than a sport and a convenient vehicle for product placement. You said you weren’t comfortable with some of the things that you were asked to say as a commentator.

TC– That was initially. Of course, at that point, I didn’t know what to expect. It was the first time T20 had gone franchise. When I went to the IPL, I just didn’t know what it was all about. We got there and there were all these product placements that you had to do. I wasn’t comfortable with that. I didn’t understand at that time but now I understand it. It is a new form of the game that you have to adapt to. You had to adapt to 50s-over cricket from Test cricket. When you do T20, you are not doing Tests. When you are doing 50s-over cricket, you are not doing Tests. Similarly, when you are doing Tests, you are not doing Twenty-Twenty. You have to adapt to all of them, I suppose, like a player. If he has to be good in all the three formats, he has to adapt.

SJ– A couple of listeners, Shoaib and Mohit ask – what is it that you had to do different in adapting to, perhaps, commentating during the CPL recently?

TC– Of course, T20 is a lot faster than Tests, even 50-overs. There are a lot more sixes, a lot more fours than you would get in Tests where you hardly get any sixes and 50-overs where you would get a few but not nearly as many as in T20. A six is big excitement. You get a big crowd. Fireworks, dancing cheerleaders. The lot. The commentary should reflect that.

As far as the radio was concerned, the top Australian commentator at the time, Alan McGilvray, said to me from the time I did my first Test match commentary with him in the series against Australia in the West Indies in 1965 – “Always beat the crowd. Don’t let a wicket fall and people are reacting with the usual noise and the listener at home is saying ‘What? What is going on?’ You have to beat the crowd.” His technique as a radio commentator was that, when the bowler ran in, he would turn his attention from the bowler two paces before he was about to deliver, and shift to the batsman. For instance, “In comes Dennis Lillee to bowl and (two paces from his delivery, you go to the batsman), Vic Richards is… forward, drives, cuts, hooks, pulls, is BOWLED, or whatever.” He was there, with the batsman, ready to describe what he does with the ball when it reaches him. The English commentators’ technique – and they are comfortable with it – is to wait on the bowler to deliver and then say, “he bowls”. It means they lose a split second by the time the ball gets to the batsman. If he is out, they tend to be just that little bit late on a dismissal or a four or a six and the listener at home is wondering, “What is going on.”

SJ– Fantastic. This question comes from another listener, Dilip. Do you remember any particular commentary stint due to a particular knock or bowling spell?

TC– Well, I suppose there would be several. It was just one over but certainly, there was Devon Malcolm to Vivian Richards in Barbados in the Test match 1990 when Malcolm was, as he could do, bowling very fast and Richards typically took him on. In that particular over, Richards top-edged over the keeper’s head and hooked him for 6 and then cut him for 4 and then one flew past his nose. The over cost 18 but the crowd at Kensington Oval in Barbados, which has produced so many great fast bowlers, absolutely loved it. They were in a frenzy and I was caught up with it. As a commentator, these are the moments you live for, a one-and-one confrontation, with the tension very high, between a very fast bowler – not a great fast bowler but on his day very fast – and a great aggressive batsman who was always going to take him on. The next over, the captain of the time, Alan Lamb, who had taken over from Graham Gooch because Gooch was injured, took Malcolm off. That just punctured the balloon just when everyone was waiting for more. A friend of mine keeps a lot of old videos and when I went to meet him in London when we were there for the Champions Trophy, he put this on said, “Do you remember this?”. He said he played it regularly.

There were so many more. Jeff Thomson bowling in Barbados, again to Richards, and to Greenidge and (Alvin) Kallicharan, an hour and a half of sheer magic. It was lightning fast hostility, Richards taking him on, and eventually Thomson getting him. That was the kind of thing that really lifts your commentary, gives you a thrill, an adrenaline rush, I suppose.

SJ– Alright!

Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Mr. Cozier. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

TC– Not at all!

SJ– Cheers!

TC– Cheers! Bye!

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Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman