Knowing When To Quit Is Never Easy

TMS window at Lord’s

In the last few weeks two ‘legends’ of sport commentary have either retired or announced they’re about to; or as the journalist cliche goes, they are ‘hanging up their microphones’. So farewell it will be to John Motson, who’s leaving us at the end of this football season and there was a goodbye to Henry Blofeld at Lord’s in that final test against the West Indies.  I was touched by the reception Blowers got as he completed his last commentary slot, with the crowd at Lord’s breaking out into applause (to the confusion of the players on the field).

This reception says a lot about Blowers, the affection in which Test Match Special is held and also the nature of cricket fans. Supporters of cricket, and the test format in particular, are a unique brand of sports fans. They treasure everything that makes the long form of the sport great and that includes someone like Blofeld. His fascination with buses and birds was a part of the TMS fabric as much as the cricket itself. I know many listeners to TMS that don’t even like cricket. It is as quintessentially English as afternoon tea or rain on a summer’s day, and his chitter chatter was a special ingredient.

But I have a confession. In recent years, whenever Blofeld would take over the microphone, I would have to switch off. I became frustrated at the slightly bumbling nature of the commentary. Fielders and batsman would be mis-named and important moments would get lost. This brings me to fellow retiree John Motson. He too has been guilty in the latter years of his career of making a few mistakes and not being quite as ‘on it’. What has also happened in both cases is that they have become caricatures of themselves. Motson’s statistics would become what defined him, along with that weird chuckle. Blofeld’s watching of planes, trains and cranes began to dominate his commentary.

I have never been a huge fan of Motson, but he was undoubtedly groundbreaking with his research about teams, in the era before a quick Google would answer most questions. His passion for the game was also evident, as with Blofeld, and I think that’s why both have lasted so long. But when do you decide to quit? Blowers is nearing his 78th birthday, while Motson is 72; ages at which most of us will hope to have been long retired. I am not necessarily being ageist and saying they couldn’t do the job, but almost certainly younger people coming through can now do it better. TMS is littered with classy broadcasters who have moved commentary on from the era of Blowers.

Motson says he knew when to quit and I respect him for that but I felt he lost his mojo some years ago. He has sounded ‘old’ to me for sometime. On the other hand Sky Sports’ Martin Tyler is only a year younger but does not sound 71 years’ old. Soon though he may too decide that it’s time to go before he’s pushed. That’s where broadcasters need to be brave and make changes before the quality is lost. Peter Alliss still appears on the golf coverage on the BBC, in his mid 80s. But he sounds out of date and of a different era. No longer is his voice a soothing piece of nostalgia. He just sounds old.

All these voices have their time and we hold them in a special place, partly because of the moments they are fortunate to commentate on – pieces of history – but there is also a point when they begin to tire. Knowing when to quit is never easy and I respect Blofeld and Motson for their decisions to walk away when others would have carried on. But, my dear old friend, they have both had a good (career) innings.

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