The Art Of Sports Commentary
‘And Dhoni finishes off in style!!’
These are the words that echoed in every cricket lover’s house when MS Dhoni hit the legendary winning shot in the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup. Ravi Shashtri’s words evoked goosebumps and were a cherry on top of the thrill and joy experienced by millions. Even now, years down the line, fans remember these words as a fond reminder of the historical moment in Indian Cricket. Ravi Shastri created a memory, forever etched in the hearts of cricket fans.
Sports commentary has evolved to be an essential part of the sporting experience. It can be called an art form, for it is no lesser than the art of storytelling. Sports commentators seem to possess a childlike excitement and a deep knowledge of the game. They have a knack for making sports lovers see beyond what their eyes can see. They are raconteurs and anecdotists, able to convey the intensity and drama of the game that unfolds in front of their eyes to the audience.
Commentary on sports has now been a staple of the sporting world for over a century. Its history can be traced back to the late 19th century, with the emergence of radio broadcasting. One of the earliest recorded instances of sports commentary was in 1921 when the KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcasted the first live sporting event on the radio, a boxing match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee. The year 1937 saw the introduction of the feature of live commentary of sports for the first time on television for a boxing match between England and Ireland. This development in television broadcasting further increased the popularity of sports commentary, with sports becoming accessible and enjoyable even at home.
The beauty of sports commentary lies in its ability to transport the audience to the heart of the action, regardless of whether they are watching the game live or listening to it on the radio. It is imperative for radio commentators to paint a vivid picture of the action for their listeners, with words, pairing them with the appropriate tone and mood to present the game and brighten the sporting experience even without any visual representation. Television commentators too, are expected to provide insightful analysis of the game, offering viewers a deeper understanding of the strategies and tactics at play while making use of the advanced technology at hand. They offer the viewers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes action, the background of the players, anecdotes from training, and playing conditions to create a bigger picture for the ultimate sporting experience.
The job not only entails the delivery of a play-by-play account of the game It’s also about creating a narrative. It’s about telling a story that captivates the audience and brings the game to life. A football game (say) that ends in a 0-0 tie does not have to be a boring game. Commentators can turn even such games into thrilling adventures. Being masters of language and excellent storytellers, commentators turn even the most mundane of games into riveting and captivating experiences. They have the skills to create tension, build drama, and deliver the perfect punchline, all while keeping their audience engaged from start to finish.
A new breed of commentators have got the opportunity to shine, with the rise of commentary in regional languages. Broadcasts of live commentaries in many different local languages are available nowadays which gives an opportunity to regional commentators to bring their own unique style and personality into the art form. This is a step towards an inclusive sporting experience, with people being able to enjoy the thrill of the sport in their own language, making games more accessible in the different parts of the world and our country.
Harsha Bhogale, Gillian Clark and Charles Barkley (clockwise)
Many times, it is the former players of the sport who run commentary for the sport. Their on-field personality and energy come to be reflected in the way they commentate. Be it cricket’s Harsha Bhogle with his wit and intelligence, Ravi Shastri with his humour and confidence, Tennis’s John McEnroe with his colourful and opinionated commentary, Martina Hingis with her calm deliveries and concise information, Badminton’s Gillian Clark with her excitement and energy or Basketball’s Charles Barkley with his direct, no-nonsense approach and humour. These commentators have become synonymous with their sports.
While on the topic of the personality of a commentator, I cannot pass on without talking about my experience of meeting an international Table Tennis commentator, Adam Bobrow. Adam is known in the Table Tennis community for his humorous and enthusiastic commentary, large reactions, and his colourful interactions with the players. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Pune at a competition in 2018. I was surprised to see that his personality on the job complemented his personality off the job perfectly. He was full of enthusiasm and cracked jokes with the people who waited to see him. His love for the sport, excitement and passion seeped into the job he did, becoming a known name among Table Tennis players.
A commentator’s ardour and passion can turn a good game into a great one and a mundane match into an extraordinary one! They express the feelings and emotions of millions who unite for the purpose of sport. They transport fans into a realm of spirit, herded by eloquent words and the religion of sportsmanship. Their infectious energy creates a sense of anticipation, bringing life to what could be a monotonous experience. Sports commentary does to sports what music does to movies. An article by Ignigo Russell captures the skills of commentators perfectly. “These are the great redeemers in our techno-bureaucratic age of tedium. They elevate the mundane and transmogrify the dull.”
Appreciation for this art form is limited. Yet it continues to be vital for any kind of sporting event to be successful. It is a window to a deeper understanding of sports and elevates its entertainment value by painting a vibrant picture. In the words of the French impressionist Edgar Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
And sports commentary? It makes us see very well.