Icons of the British Sporting Landscape: Voices
Players come and go, teams rise and fall, even coaches fade at last into reluctant retirement, but some men with no power to influence events on the field of play stride on, decade after decade.
Commentators, pundits, writers paint pictures in our minds and mould our views, at their best offering insights, knowledge and verbal ingenuity beyond lesser mortals of sport.
The Bleacher Report's purported raison d’être is to give us the chance to rival the professionals, but there are some men and women so talented and dedicated, so consummately professional that no mere amateur, no college upstart could hope to match them.
This slideshow is a celebration of these icons of the British sporting landscape; journalists and broadcasters whose lucid pens and tongues are directly linked to the sharpest and most lovable sporting brains alive today.
Some are already legends in their own right, others are simply my personal favourites of today. All deserve recognition and, here on the Bleacher, the sincerest form of flattery in our attempts to emulate some small portion of their brilliance.
Test Match Special
Test Match Special has been the collective voice of cricket as long as I can remember, and lovers of the game four times my age could say the same. It is difficult to imagine cricket or even life itself without the avuncular tones of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Jonathan Agnew and cult hero Henry Blofeld.
By far the most erudite and thoughtful of sports commentators, these men use the gentle pace of a day's cricket to paint a thousand pictures in their listeners' minds. Each shot is succinctly described in real time, but between balls, overs and sessions of play across the seven hours, this bare framework is elaborated and adorned by a host of offerings.
It might be that Blowers has come up with a new and extravagant simile for a bowler's action; that Aggers has a fresh insight into the silent tactical battle being waged before him; or that CMJ is discussing the state of the game in general. Past, present and future are deliciously interwoven even in the course of an over.
Their analysis of the game is always sharp and thorough, with not a grimace, slip or flourish escaping their notice, and each day's play illuminated by a thousand more they bring to bear on the action.
Yet the real legend of TMS begins when we hear those fateful cricketing words: Rain Stops Play. The range and number of artfully told anecdotes among the team is a phenomenon of infinite variety.
These men—I have not named them all—are masters of every art of sports broadcasting. Thousands up and down the country are rapt even while Blowers counts double-decker buses passing the Oval or indulges in some impromptu bird-spotting.
If I could take one commentary team to my desert island, it would be the TMS team.
Jonathan Inverdale is a bundle of pure interest. His most prominent television role is perhaps as host of the BBC's rugby coverage, but from my experience he can and does cover almost anything going.
Inverdale manages to marry the enthusiasm of the fan with the wisdom of the expert under the auspices of his finely honed broadcasting class. His cup bubbles effervescently but never bubbles amateurishly over, and he never allows his knowledge and experience to ebb into the old pro's jaded cynicism.
If his punishment in Hell were to be force fed sport until Judgement Day, the Devil would soon be feeling distinctly chilly; this man's appetite for action is unparalleled.
A glance at Wikipedia to bolster my evidence only leaves me more in awe of Inverdale. Since working his way up from Lincolnshire local radio he has become probably the most prominent sports broadcaster in the United Kingdom.
Tennis, football, rugby, golf, horse racing, athletics, The London Marathon and World's Strongest Man have left his appetite unsatiated, for it is at the Olympics that Jonathan Inverdale's all-round talents come into their own.
He seems to be everywhere at once, yet in control, sure of his facts and passionately involved in events on the track, in the gym, hall, pool, regatta lake, sailing course, kayak run or shooting gallery.
Inverdale is a man after my own heart, and with the poise to do it all live and uninterrupted, for the BBC has no commercial breaks.
Geoffrey Boycott is one of English cricket's greatest ever batsmen, averaging over 47 in a career that coincided with the greatest fast bowlers ever: Dennis Lillee and a constant stream of West Indian quicks.
However, since retiring from the game he has established himself as an outspoken and gloriously honest analyst of the game.
The confidence and resolve that characterized his batting has carried over to his journalistic career, and he rarely lets an opportunity go by to remind his fellow commentators of his superior playing record.
Boycott's redeeming feature in all this is that he is very often right.
He regularly dissects players' techniques and captains' field placings with brutal candour and the abrasive scorn that only a Yorkshire accent can attain.
Whether brushing off the affable Mark Nicholas' more vacuous comments on Channel 4 or clashing with the TMS team, Boycott provides a sterling contrast to the smooth platitudes that characterize too much sports broadcasting.
His best moments are undoubtedly when he lays into a player with idiosyncratic idiom: "My grandmother coulda caught that in her pinny," he might say as a crucial catch is spilled; or "I could play that with a stick of celery; stick a celery".
Never before or since has a man's family or vegetable basket given so much to international sport.
I do not have Sky television, but I knew that in compiling this list I should not leave out one presenter from the Murdoch empire's UK pay-TV channels.
Jeff Stelling is best known as a football ("sarker" to you Americans) host, and with Sky's domination of British football coverage, he gets plenty of practice.
His Soccer Saturday show lasts up to six hours, including analysis, previews, chat and live updates from all the day's games.
Stelling's coverage of the World Darts Championship has helped to earn him a cult following, and more than half his Wikipedia entry is devoted to a loving list of his best one-liners and witticisms.
He has also won critical acclaim as four times winner of the Sports Journalists' Association's "Sports Broadcaster of the Year" award: he is in fact the only man to have won it so far!
Even the often acerbic Guardian newspaper praises his "exceptional professionalism and elan."
A man good enough to impinge on my sporting consciousness without ever having seen him!
Jonathan Overend is BBC radio's voice of tennis - and what a voice.
We have all heard the phrase "a face for radio", but Overend very definitely has a voice for radio—deep without growling, soft but crystal clear. As a partially deaf child listening through the crackles and hisses of medium wave (AM) radio, this has always made him a welcome aural presence.
His reports from the world of Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski and Andy Murray, Sampras, Federer and Nadal, are concise and poised, as well-constructed as a winning point.
However, Overend's crowning glory, and the reason I include him here, came last summer on holiday in Normandy (northern France, for the non-Europeans).
The French public's indifference to tennis that is not taking place at Roland Garros and being won by a Frenchman (very little indeed) reduced me to listening to perhaps the greatest tennis match of all time on a little portable radio tuned to BBC Radio Five Live from across the channel.
The reception was poor at best, cutting out repeatedly, crackling constantly and requiring me for no good reason to turn the radio ninety degrees clockwise every two minutes.
Yet I was spellbound.
Of course, the match itself was an epic battle between two of the game's greats, but few men could have done it such justice as the BBC's tennis correspondent did.
Every point, every shot, every scurrying retrieval and desperate lunge was conveyed with fierce urgency, as if his mouth and lungs were themselves contestants in the final.
Over five hours of unyielding endeavour and quality, Overend was equal to the task, the worn grass of SW19 hanging before my eyes as in a dream and Federer and Nadal hurtling to and fro across the scorched grass.
Sometimes all he could do was gasp and stammer, but even then he told a story. And in the end that is what the voice of sport should do.
He turned a missed moment into a special one, and for that I shall be grateful until I see another such final with my own eyes.
The relentlessly energetic and upbeat voice of Sport on Five, where he introduces and hosts a medley of Saturday afternoon sport on the radio.
His dynamic delivery and insightful questioning holds the programme together in fine style, whether on radio or television.
If only the BBC could secure enough live sport to make him a household name, Pougatch could be chasing Jonathan Inverdale in the race to succeed Des Lynam as the national sporting treasure of broadcasting.
Cover Your Ears (But could we do any better?)
Here are a few voices to avoid:
Cheeky chappy, good player, and housewives' favourite, but don't expect enthusiasm unless something really exciting has happened - really really exciting.
A barely tolerable interlude to the football, Lineker reached a new nadir when he turned his tongue to golf. The poor man sounds suicidal!
Lightning fast over the high hurdles, Jackson's analysis is consistently shown up by his neighbour on the studio sofa, Michael Johnson.
Jackson speaks too rapidly for genuine coherent insight, while Johnson's drawling baritone is also a welcome relief from the high-pitched squeaking noises that emanate from Jackson's mouth when he becomes overly excited—which is often.
At least he is less bland than Jonathan Edwards—so anodyne they had to move him from pundit to presenter, where his platitudes at least serve as a springboard for sharper minds.
As if covering football for Channel 5 were not bad enough (a role almost as redundant as their director for quality programming), the pioneering player and England winger appears to have a speech impediment.
Far be it from me to laugh at those with such difficulties, but this does seem a fairly fundamental consideration in choosing a presenter.
Could I do any better than these hapless souls?
Right now, no.
Stick most people in front of the camera and they will try to be funny, stutter, press their earpiece, frown and be lost for words within five minutes.
Just as when a top sportsman messes up, we have to put it in context: sports journalism is, as the Bleacher testifies to, a highly desirable and fiercely competitive profession, and few rise without talent. It is noticeable the worst are former players, whose touch and experience sadly fail them in new surroundings.