Daniel Norcross is about to upset the loyal listeners of Test Match Special. “I’m not really a cake man, I’m more of a savouries person. I wish they’d send more samosas.”
In the land of the lovingly-baked Victoria Sponge, delivered in person to the commentary box, this is sacrilege, a betrayal of tradition. Then again, these are standard accusations for TMS, a BBC institution whose most vocal – and frequent – critics are also those who love the programme the most.
Norcross, a relative newcomer to its commentary team, created upstart internet rival Test Match Sofa in 2009. Shortly after graduating to TMS Snr in 2016 he read a complaint letter about himself which claimed that he had “destroyed” the programme. “There is so much emotion attached – people feel a sense of ownership,” he says.
But like other BBC Radio institutions which elicit strong reactions – think Desert Island Discs, Today and The Archers – TMS now faces an urgent question: who, exactly, is it for? Seemingly irreconcilable forces are at work – the BBC’s relentless desire to modernise and diversify, and TMS’s traditional familiarity, which underpins its appeal to many of its listeners. Throw in the perpetual worries about the future of Test cricket itself, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a moment of existential crisis.
‘It was then I realised I had to stop’
You can’t help but smile when hearing Henry Blofeld’s voice again. It is through a telephone line now rather than a smart speaker, after his departure from the TMS commentary box in 2017. He enjoyed his lap of honour on his final day, revelling in the adoration of Lord’s in a lime green blazer.
As a commentator for more than 45 years, Blofeld’s gift was paying loving attention to a cricket match’s irrelevant details while never losing track of the actual game. “I always felt that if you just stuck to the cricket it ultimately got rather boring,” he says.
By the end, his mind was willing but his eyesight was failing. “I just didn’t see things as I used to. In the end, I made a ghastly mistake in Chennai in the winter of 2016-17 [Blofeld said Liam Dawson had been caught at short extra cover – he had in fact been bowled by Amit Mishra.] It was then I realised I had to stop. It was very sad but I did nearly 50 years. You can’t complain about that really.”
Blofeld was in charge of his own departure from TMS but that did not stop the whispers which accompanied it – that his face no longer fitted in an age where diversity is prioritised, and that he had begun to feel somewhat unwelcome in the commentary box.
Was there any truth in that? “It never occurred to me that I wasn’t welcome,” Blofeld replies. “Although faces change it never occurred to me that people were looking at me thinking ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ I would have hated it if they had thought ‘God, what’s this old bugger doing?’ I didn’t get that impression.”
Former BBC commentator Henry Blofeld
Some former TMS team members have departed less happily than Blofeld. Mike Selvey was dropped in 2008, a year after long-time producer Peter Baxter was succeeded by Adam Mountford, who still occupies the role.
Selvey understood the need to modernise. He was brought on to the show at around the same time as Vic Marks to freshen up the experts’ roster. After nearly 20 years of service, Selvey felt his exit was not handled as it should have been. What did Mountford change when he came in, I ask. Selvey’s reply is instantaneous. “Me. That was about the initial sum total of it.”
Still, for someone with a potential axe to grind Selvey has nothing mean to say about the show. “I could understand why they wanted to change it,” he says. “I didn’t really have an issue with that. It was either I went or Vic went, and they kept Vic. I didn’t have a problem with that either. Everything has its course.”
In truth, every TMS refresh brings controversy. Former producer Peter Baxter oversaw the introduction of Selvey and Marks at the expense of the much-loved Fred Trueman and Trevor Bailey. He describes it as an “awful business,” and could not face the difficult conversations with the condemned men. “The then head of outside broadcast did it,” he says. “He knew that I would never do it. I would have essentially been firing my friends.
“I missed Fred, particularly when it rained. He had a prodigious memory so he was such good value in the rain session.”
Those Trueman and Bailey days seem from a different epoch now. Many who have turned off TMS in recent years, or at least claimed to, complain about a perceived shrillness, a knockabout tone that has seeped across from 5Live.
But, again, such worries are nothing new. An early day motion was tabled in Parliament in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of TMS calling on the BBC to “resist any attempts to alter fundamentally the successful formula and not to be seduced by proposals to modernise in the belief that this might attract a more partisan listener.”
It was proposed by then-Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, Andrew George, who can no longer remember what prompted those worries. “The whole point about TMS, the attraction that I think it has for many people is that the whole experience is very, very relaxing.”
Despite his concerns about its direction 14 years ago does he still listen? “Yes, they haven’t lost me.”
A TMS producer is also, in part, a casting director, and Mountford has faith that the experience and calibre of his team will hit the right notes. When he arrived shortly after the programme’s 50th birthday he wanted some experts who were closer to the modern game, hence Selvey’s exit and the recruitment of Michael Vaughan and Phil Tuffnell.
These casting choices have always been controversial. Listeners found now-sanctified figures tough to warm to at first. Brian Johnston was too lightweight, John Arlott’s Hampshire burr too agricultural. The most obvious difference in this generation of TMS is it is no longer exclusively male. Baxter brought in Donna Symmonds for a tour of the West Indies in 1998, but Alison Mitchell is the first woman to become a regular commentator for TMS, having made her name at the 2007 World Cup.
Her TMS debut in the same year came just after her friend Jacqui Oatley broke similar ground on Match of the Day. That was greeted with such fierce hostility the BBC was spooked. “We deliberately kept it low key,” says Mitchell, remembering her first day and wariness that one mistake would reflect not just poorly on her but be used to dismiss everyone of her gender.
Alison Mitchell was the first woman to become a regular commentator on the BBC's Test Match Special,
She was primed for the usual tired arguments about women being unqualified to cover men’s sport. Thankfully, they never came. “A big part of that is the way that Adam Mountford handled me. I had done so much with the TMS team that I had built up that familiarity with the audience. The audience already knew and trusted my voice.”
Now she is stopped at cricket grounds by parents with young children and thanked for her work – one told her “my daughter switches on and hears a girl’s voice and realises cricket is for her as well” – and is no longer the only female voice in the commentary box.
Isa Guha arrived on TMS in 2018 after a steady rise through the ranks. She did not consider herself a natural to begin with – “I was horrendous,” she says – but is now considered one of the voices of the game, both on television and radio.
Guha has noticed a change in vocabulary at TMS during her time with the programme. “We discuss language. Things like player of the match, rather than man of the match, I think it makes it feel like it’s a bit more inclusive, gender-wise.
“Stereotyping is also something I’m very conscious of. It’s not something that I expect everyone to be doing, but it’s just something that I like to be doing myself.”
That allowance for matters of personal conviction is typical of modern-day TMS. Mountford might tee up his team with gentle direction about ideas to cover in more detail but is rarely in their ear. This mirrors the light touch of producers past – Baxter used to limit interventions to passing the occasional note.
Usually, members of the TMS team are given just one piece of advice: be yourself. Inevitably, that has changed the sound of the show, making it more conversational. Listening back to the days of Arlott reveals absurdly long silences. Brian Johnston would commentate on the over, then leave a gap for the summariser to speak. Now it’s a burbling, continuous chat.
Not everyone captures the mood. Mark Pougatch and Arlo White are two highly-rated broadcasters who did not last long at TMS. An implicit understanding of tone and the programme’s history seem to be prerequisites for a long stay.
“When I played I was more of an Aggy,” says the artist formerly known as Leicestershire pace bowler Jonathan Agnew. Since 1991 he’s been ‘Aggers’, owing to Brian Johnston’s Oxford-reared nickname nomenclature. At 61 he is three years younger than TMS itself and the last major link to the beloved Johnston era.
Indeed, his most famous radio moment remains the ‘leg over incident’ with Johnston in 1991, Agnew’s first summer as a TMS mainstay. He described an Ian Botham dismissal against the West Indies – where the all-rounder brushed his leg against the top of the stumps after overbalancing – by saying “Yes, he just didn’t quite get his leg over,” prompting both he and Johnston to collapse in giggles.
Initially new boy Agnew, Johnston and Baxter thought it was a mis-step: “As a producer, one of the things you’ve got to do is to keep the meter ticking with something coming out of the loudspeakers,” says Baxter. “For a while there there wasn’t anything, apart from a little bit of wheezing.
“Both Brian Johnston and I left the Oval that night thinking we’d really blown it. On the way home I was thinking: ‘Oh God that was really dreadful’.”
Hi-jinks are a fondly remembered part of the Johnston era in particular. Agnew and others enjoyed sending in fake correspondence, from listeners such as Hugh Jarz. While infantile, these moments are as much a part of TMS as making sure run-outs are relayed effectively. They help to maintain an apparently healthy contingent of listeners who are not huge cricket fans. TMS to them is pleasant company, chatter to have on in the background, the original podcast. How much of that spirit remains?
What does remain resides in Agnew, although he may not be around for much longer.
“I’ve got a date in mind,” he confides. “I won’t tell you what it is just yet, but it’s not that far away. I won’t go on as long as other people, I’m sure of that.”
Has he told Mountford? “No, I haven’t. But he could probably work it out if you look at likely Ashes series. I’d like to end with an Ashes. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, just the whole excitement of an Ashes would be a good time to call it quits.”
Having seen Blofeld’s triumphant send-off you can imagine Agnew will want a piece of a similar cake. The next home Ashes is in 2023, when he will be 63. He does not seem minded to stick around for the one after that, four years later.
“I’ve been in cricket a long time. I’m lucky in a way in that it’s not the be all and end all for me. It can either totally consume your life, or you fit your life around it. I think largely because of [his wife] Emma’s influence I don’t wake up every day and think about cricket. I think it helps the broadcast that I do have other interests.”
Agnew speaks at twice the speed in person you’re used to from his radio work. He feels commentating on TMS now is harder than it’s ever been. “These days, being a live, unscripted broadcaster is a challenge because people do take offence very quickly. And there’s an awful lot of areas in which people seem to be offended. That’s the hardest part of the job now, if I’m honest.
“The reaction to saying something which is considered by some people to be unsuitable is so instant and so huge. The ramifications of saying something slightly wrong these days are very serious.”
He values his role as the link to TMS’s past. He demands the best of himself, still listening back to his work to find improvements. He tries not to say “and there’s no run” too often after a dot ball, a phrase he felt he was leaning on too heavily.
The moment he walks away the programme will lose its most recognisable voice and one of its most dedicated quality controllers. But he does not want TMS to be tied too firmly to past glories. “There have been times where we do live off that reputation. I think that’s why, every year, we have to remind ourselves of what makes the programme really good.”
While attracting younger customers is a ‘nice to have’ for most companies, especially in media, few are as obsessed with the quest as the BBC. The gradual changes at TMS must be viewed in that light. Agnew and his peers cannot hang around forever, but the belief in some quarters is that some of the new cohort have made the programme objectively worse. Less insightful, more grating.
Agnew believes the programme must remember who it’s for. He keeps in mind a listener between 30 and 49, man or woman. “You avoid the temptation, the urge, to aim too young. Without parents being enthusiastic, and loving the programme, loving cricket, they’re not going to pass on that enthusiasm to the children.”
That enthusiasm is somewhat curbed now that TMS is no longer covering every foreign tour. Talksport has plugged the gaps fray and proved radio Test cricket can be executed in a different style. It has shrewdly positioned itself as a more energetic competitor, less haunted by the ghosts of cricket past. Sometimes there are even (gasp!) three voices on at once.
The challenges that face TMS are not just tonal but practical. Most presenters and experts are busier than they were, with multiple commitments if they are BBC employees, dipping into the chalk of radio after spells of cheese covering the same game for TV. Away from the ground, the lives of listeners have changed. In an increasingly segmented world of entertainment personal curation (Spotify) and clever algorithmic recommendation (YouTube) are to the fore. The ideas of listeners idly putting their radio on and sticking with it for hours seems increasingly quaint.
There are two criticisms which Mountford is sick of hearing. Don’t tell him TMS has been ‘dumbed down’ during his time as producer (“it’s a very hackneyed phrase”), or that he is guilty of ‘box-ticking’.
“Occasionally I’ll put out a tweet with the commentary team and someone will say ‘oh you’re ticking boxes again’ and I’ll say ‘yeah I am ticking boxes’,” Mountford says. “I’ve got award-winning broadcasters, Ashes winners, World Cup winners, brilliant characters, but with the TMS favourites. So yes, those are the boxes we’re ticking. And it just so happens that it’s Isa Guha, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Alison Mitchell but they are three of the most highly respected broadcasters not just in the UK but around the world.”
Mountford encounters plenty of the general hostility directed towards the BBC, but it will not affect his earnest belief in a need for diversity. There is no doubt that the current TMS box looks very different to the one that Johnston left behind: in 1990, three of the four lead commentators had gone to public school (two Eton, one Marlborough) and Oxbridge. All the programme’s regular, English-based contributors were white men, and the 31-year-old Agnew was the only nod to ‘youth’.
The TMS commentary team during the 2nd Test match between England and India at Old Trafford, Manchester in August 1990 – Pictured are (back row, left to right): Peter Baxter, Bill Frindall, Farokh Engineer, Henry Blofeld, David Lloyd and Mike Selvey; (front row, left to right): Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Fred Trueman, Brian Johnston and Don Mosey.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Now, Mountford wants a range not just in race and gender, but class. He wants his team to tell the sorts of stories that only they can, the sort which haven’t always been heard on TMS before. “I want them to bring the flavour of their lives. Diversity in the programme brings the richness and flavour to TMS and has enriched it over the years.”
The BBC has a word for the 35-54-year-olds it is trying to target with some of its output. They are "replenishers", the people who will replace their older listeners as they die off. They are the key people to target in the next chapter of TMS’s history, although who becomes the voice of that – assuming Agnew holds firm on his plan to retire – is open to debate.
One potential candidate could be the current host of the Radio 1 breakfast show Greg James. An outstanding broadcaster, James is a huge cricket fan and presents the freewheeling Tailenders cricket podcast with James Anderson and Felix White, the guitarist from the Maccabees. Most Radio 1 DJs head for the mellowlands of Radio 2 in their dotage. Does James consider TMS in his future? “I obviously have thought about it because I’m a huge fan of it. At the moment, my headspace is I don’t want to make every passion of mine into work.”
He has experience presenting sport, fronting BT Sport’s coverage of Test cricket. “I did enjoy it, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to go again and rebrand myself as a sports anchor. That actually isn’t where I’m best.
“Ian Ward is better. Isa Guha is better. Never say never but I am happy not being a commentator on TMS and just being a fan. For the time being.”
While you would back James to make a success of any radio job, listeners moved to complain about someone like Daniel Norcross could take some persuading.
Breaking up tradition
It is unthinkable that the BBC would sacrifice such a beloved brand as TMS, but the end of the compulsory licence fee seems more possible now than at any time in living memory.
In that doomsday scenario, the BBC could become an opt-in service, a more modest Netflix. Previous public-service untouchables may end up under the auspices of the profit-making arm of the organisation, BBC Studios. In that case it is tempting to wonder how best to proceed with an institution like Test Match Special. Any private media company would be focussing on what makes it unique, re-asserting long-held values rather than attempting to reinvent, or spread the net as widely as possible. As far as possible, siding with tradition.
To the listeners, producers and broadcasters of TMS tradition will mean different things. Is it keeping a listener company, making sure they are entertained, informed and occasionally telling them the score? Is it using the same sorts of voices as 30 years ago, delivering the same sorts of words?
Mountford describes the programme as a “comfort blanket”. That source of succour will be understandably different if you’re a retired listener in the home counties who can remember Arlott, or a 30-something mum of three in Sheffield. Alienating the former would be regrettable, failing to adapt to the latter would be like signing a death warrant.
Thousands would turn off if the programme suddenly became nakedly youth-focussed, but the taste’s of today’s parents are significantly different to the tone of TMS past. Some who fall in the supposedly youthful generation classed as millennials will turn 41 this year.
The origin story of almost every TMS listener involves parents, usually having the show on during long summer car journeys. In the end, if it can hang on to enough of them, it will be okay.
The challenge for the producers and the BBC is tuning out the noise. Any change can feel upsetting, every departing commentator evoking the bittersweet moment of sending your first born to university. TMS, though, must continue to change, as it always has.
Eventually, these changes may become too traumatic to endure. Eventually, TMS may not take you along for its ride. Maybe it will lose you. But maybe it has to.