The TWC interview: Jonathan Agnew

In the latest of thewisdencricketer.com’s weekly interview feature, Sam Collins speaks to Jonathan Agnew.

‘Aggers’ was a fast-bowler who enjoyed a successful first-class career with Leicestershire and played three Tests for England. He joined the Test Match Special team in 1990, and was appointed the BBC’s cricket correspondent the following year.

Was it sad turning up to the Caribbean without Bill Frindall in the TMS box?
Bill wasn’t coming to the Caribbean, but he was in India. He will be missed in so many ways. He wasn’t just a great scorer, he was one of our team, one member of our little soap opera. I loved working with him. I don’t think it will hit me until the first day of the Lord’s Test in the summer, when we turn up for a home Test match and he’s not there. Whoever does take over, it’s a very difficult job. You can’t copy him, or take his place – you have to take things off in a very different direction.

The current trend for back-to-back Tests is gruelling for players, but how does it affect your job?

I find Test matches a pretty exhausting business these days. I work for the local radio networks here as well, so I am commentating for virtually all but 10 minutes every hour, and of course there is lunch and tea, and the work at the end of the day so I am a bit talked out by the end of a day. They are hard work, especially back-to-back. I try and go and hideaway and clear the head, and think of new things to talk about, read lots of papers. You cannot simply turn up and churn things out, you have to think of interesting topics to talk about that you can toss into the cricket. Straight cricket commentary can be pretty dull sometimes.

Is it important to vary the summarisers between Tests to help the commentators?

In a way, although I could carry Vic Marks around to every Test match. But the listeners need a change as well. There is a debate as to whether TMS is stronger as a small team, like it used to be, or whether it is better with lots. I think the answer is somewhere down the middle. You don’t want too many voices, but it is good to have different attitudes, thoughts and approaches to the game.

Is there room at TMS for some more voices that aren’t ex-players?
I think it’s different on TV, where you have to have played cricket to a pretty decent standard, because you cannot hide a lack of knowledge on TV. You can bring other things to radio commentary – colour, description – really powerful vivid description, and you don’t have to have that essential playing background. Obviously your expert summarisers need to have played at Test level, but John Arlott and Brian Johnston never played for England – in fact I am the only one who has, and I don’t consider myself now to have been a player anyway.

Arlo White and Mark Pougatch attracted some criticism for their commentary efforts on TMS last summer. Is it difficult for new blood to come into the box?
The problem is now that there is nowhere for people to learn how to commentate. I think I commentated on two games before my first Test match. Now there is nowhere, even a lot of the local radio stations are not commentating on cricket. Quite how people are going to learn I don’t know. I think cricket commentary is a natural skill, you can either do it or you can’t. I don’t think you can teach people how to do it. I can weigh up somebody’s abilities as a cricket commentator pretty quickly having worked with a lot of people. It’s sad and unfair that people’s first run-out as a cricket commentator is on TMS.

We have got to find some way of getting more radio commentary done, whether it is broadcast or not. The BBC has to be on the ball if it is going to have succession planning, and keep looking after cricket commentary in the future. Otherwise it’s going to be a real problem, when the next wave of CMJ, and me and Blowers go shuffling off, our replacements are going to have had no training at all.

What difficulties does Adam Mountford face as TMS producer?
Adam must find a way of developing new commentators, and the answer is not always to stick them straight on TMS. For two reasons: firstly, because there you are very exposed if you haven’t done it much and secondly because it is supposed to be the pinnacle of commentary – you should only get there because you are good enough. Adam knows that his biggest responsibility is discovering a way of finding and developing new commentators.

You retired at 30, do you think you would have lasted longer in the current game?
I think so. I try desperately hard not to compare eras and generations, but I believe I am genuinely lucky to have played when I did – I don’t think county cricket has ever been stronger before or since the 1980s. The wonderful, world-class overseas players, often two per county, England’s players playing county cricket, it was a really tough tournament, all those fast bowlers. The game has since developed sciences, techniques, coaching.

I needed a plan when I was 18 really – fitness, coaching, rest – which would have helped me become a good fast bowler. And there wasn’t a plan. You were released in September and not seen again until April. I drove a lorry one winter and made windows another. There was no structure, so that is where this generation of cricketers have a huge advantage, and should be developing their skills a lot more quickly, and far beyond those we had.

I don’t think people are bowling quicker these days, I spoke to Kevin Pietersen on the plane and said “Sorry mate, go and get a DVD of the 1980’s and see for yourself, they’re not bowling faster”. But in terms of fitness and development they have certainly moved on now.

The Guardian yesterday described you as a ‘True Custodian of Cricket’, would you ever be tempted to run for chairman of the ECB?
I couldn’t afford it – It is an unpaid job! I am very flattered by what Michael Henderson has said. It is very easy to moralise when you are not the one who has to make the decisions. I do hope though that I am a custodian of cricket, I think it is very important that the BBC’s correspondent is. I have always believed that you must look at things carefully, make a judgement, and once you are happy with that judgement you must stick to it. I hate journalists who just wave in the wind. If you can’t reach your judgement correctly to start with you shouldn’t be making the judgement at all.

I take my job very seriously, and I do very firmly try and put cricket first and foremost. It’s worth protecting and fighting for.

Has Giles Clarke ever asked for your advice?
Yes. I have a very good dialogue with the ECB on a number of issues, which is good. He does ask my advice and I freely give it. He must make sure he has people with good cricket knowledge around him who are brave enough to stand up and say that something is wrong, it is not good for the game. That’s what someone needed to say last year about the Stanford situation.

TWC assistant editor Daniel Brigham is a fervent Essex fan, and still smarts at the role you played when you came out of retirement for Leicestershire’s victory over Essex in the 1992 Nat West semi-final. What do you remember about the day?
I was press ganged into playing by (Leicestershire captain) Nigel Briers. He said, “Look if you get nought for 100 and drop two catches I still want you to have played”. I couldn’t really say no. I was only 32, but at the time you don’t feel that, and I hadn’t bowled for two years. Graham Gooch happily was out before I came on which was a bonus, and Nasser Hussain was absolutely terrified of getting out to me so he blocked it. I bowled 12 overs straight through and took one for 31.

I am glad I played, there were other times in my career when I could have done with a bit of luck and it didn’t go for me, but that day someone was looking out for me. They had an injury crisis on the day of the final and asked me to play, but I knew I wouldn’t get away with it again and said no.

What is your favourite moment from your time in commentary?
In terms of professionalism, Steve Waugh’s hundred at Sydney off the last ball of the day two tours ago was probably my best bit of commentary. I really finished that with the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. It was one of the most wonderful sporting experiences I have witnessed.

Who was your biggest influence?
I am lucky to have worked with the people I have worked with. Without Brian Johnston’s influence on me I don’t think I would be lying on this bed looking at the rain in Barbados at the moment. In those four years he taught me a huge amount about broadcasting without trying, because looking at the way he went about his work, that was what made a really lasting impact on me at what was a very impressionable age (30) to come into the job. He’s the person I owe it to, and will say thank you to one of these days.

Sam Collins is website editor of thewisdencricketer.com

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