Six of the Best British Sports Commentators

We all have our own ideas of who has been the very best of sports commentators over the years but we all must also admit that the standards set in those early years of sports coverage on TV produced the present day precedents.

The reason to say that is the uniqueness of the job; TV only really came into being in the 1950’s and sports coverage, particularly live events did not really keep us glued to our TV sets until the early 60’s. This meant that those early commentators were ‘guinea pigs’ and to survive originality and a certain uniqueness had to prevail.

It should also be remembered that sports commentators in those early years did not have anything like the technical assistance of today, nor did they have the facility of a sporting expert alongside them in the commentary box. They also had a different set of rules to conform too, particularly regarding impartiality and/or personal opinion. Just to make sure that they delivered the goods, they also had omnipresent TV producers insisting on them having the ability to know their sports inside out and to have a comprehensive understanding of the rules as well as comprehensive background knowledge of the sport.

Additionally many commentators were required to carry out personal research on the protagonists, the history of the said sport and the current trends; but most importantly they were required to deliver the commentary with an eloquence that the listener could relate to and which included the ability to raise the levels of excitement as and when necessary. Six commentators that this author feels fitted those early requirements the best are:

  1. Bill McLaren – Rugby Union:- Bill died just about a year ago in January 2010 and he took to his grave the ‘voice of rugby union’, not just in a domestic sense but also in an international sense. Bill brought exuberance to rugby union commentary that the listener never tired of listening to. He had perfect timing, knew when to get excited and despite his Scottish roots was always impartial whether it be a Calcutta Cup match or England v France.
  2. Dan Maskell – Tennis:- If Bill McLaren was the voice of rugby union, Dan Maskell was most certainly the ‘voice of tennis’. His commentaries at Wimbledon throughout the 60s, 70s and the 80’s and retired after commentating on the all German Wimbledon final of 1991 between Michael Stich and Boris Becker. Often understated Dan’s adjectives are still very much in evidence today; phrases such as ” a truly wonderful shot” and “Oh I Say” are still in common use with the modern day commentators.
  3. Sir Peter O’Sullivan– Horse Racing:- There is still a great reverence surrounding the ‘Voice of horse racing’ that everyone involved with the sport still respects. He is the man who made the Grand National the race it is today and the man, through his profound knowledge, brought new meaning to the abilities of the race horses, trainers and jockeys themselves. He was a very difficult man to follow, ask Jim McGrath of the BBC!
  4. Harry Carpenter– Boxing:- “Know what I mean Arry” in the words of former heavyweight champion, Frank Bruno, summed up in many ways of ‘Harry’s’ standing in the world of boxing. Commentating on which has to be regarded as the most brutal of all televised sports requires, huge tact and sensitivity which Harry had in abundance. He was a man who always knew where to draw the line but he never failed to deliver knock out lines, who could ever forget this “Oh, he’s got him with a right hand! He’s got him! Oh, you can’t believe it. And I don’t think Foreman’s going to get up. He’s trying to beat the count. And he’s out! Oh my God, he’s won the title back at 32! said at the end of the ‘rumble in the Jungle’ heavyweight title clash between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.
  5. Richie Benaud– Cricket:- Regarded by many as one of the most influential personalities of world and particularly Ashes cricket, Richie Benaud became even more influential as a BBC commentator after he retired from cricket in the mid-60’s. Brutally honest, with a cynicism that brought new dimensions to sports commentary, Benaud was a man who knew what the cricket listener wanted to hear often introducing new ‘one liners’ such as “The hallmark of a great captain is the ability to win the toss at the right time” that have not just become synonymous with him but also cricket in general.
  6. Kenneth Wolstenholme– Football:- “Some people are on the pitch….they think it’s all over…..It is now!” the immortal one liner uttered as Sir Geoff Hurst netted the fourth and final goal to seal an England victory in the 1966 World Cup will never be forgotten. Ken was the lead commentator for the BBC in the 50’s and 60’s and as such set the standard that only few have reached since. His impeccable timing was his great hallmark and the fact that his voice was all that was ever necessary during any match he commentated on.

Nicole Thomas

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