The maestro of Australian cricket broadcasting on singing, speaking, training and listening

The first record I ever owned as a boy was ‘Last Date’ by the pianist Floyd Cramer. I was so keen on getting records that I went down to the radio station in Sydney, and asked if they had any spare records. They gave me a 45rpm of ‘I want to walk you home’ by Fats Domino, and I wore that out. In the 1950s and ’60s there was a lot of talk radio in Australia, no Classic FM. So my parents bought me a gramophone when I was 11 and signed me up to the Concert Hall Record Club. A disc would arrive every month: Dvořák’s New World, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and Mozart’s Jupiter. My parents’ efforts stuck with me, and at the age of 14 I started buying LPs myself.

I never learned to read music, but my parents bought me a guitar, which I started learning. Then cricket took over, and the guitar sat at home and eventually warped. I saw my first opera in 1972. I was 22 years old, and I had been on a round-the-world cricket tour, 90 matches in six months, most of them in England. We ended up in Rome, not to play cricket but to relax. A friend in the team got me along to the Baths of Caracalla, to see Aida. We sat in the open air on chairs – and there were elephants! Surely they can’t do opera like this all the time, I thought. And I was hooked.

‘If done well, cricket commentary has an intimacy with the audience, like a good musical performance’

When I got home I bought up Joan Sutherland recordings on LPs and cassettes. She gave an Australian identity to opera that we hadn’t had since the days of Nellie Melba. Then one day I bought a Decca opera compilation, and it was Renata Tebaldi who hit me, singing ‘Che gelida manina’: I had to play it again and again. Jussi Björling also got to me: he didn’t have the robust quality of other tenors. These days I’m a subscriber to the Opera Australia season myself, and I’ve seen the soprano Nicole Car sing a lot of roles at the Sydney Opera House. In the ’90s I discovered the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and their director Paul Dyer, and I became a supporter of them. That’s how I heard Andreas Scholl for the first time: what an extraordinary voice!

I trained my own voice, as a singer does, by listening to it, and working on it. I was doing Test cricket by the age of 26, having begun working at the ABC when I was 22. My mentor was Gordon Scott: he used to work on emphasis and breathing from the diaphragm, just as singers do. And I had some benefit from the fact that I had my adenoids removed when I was very young. So I’ve never been a nasal broadcaster, though that’s quite common. I also learnt a lot from Alan McGilvray, sitting at the back of the commentary box while he was calling the game. ‘Copy technique, not style,’ he told me. ‘Make your own style.’ It was the Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies who told McGilvray: ‘When you are broadcasting, the most important thing is – pause.’

If done well, cricket commentary has an intimacy with the audience, like a good musical performance. You’re there for some time, and there’s an unwritten production happening in front of you. It’s like a thriller, and you’re not sure how it will end up, if it’s a good game. A lot of people don’t understand a thing about cricket, but it’s a friend on the radio. Music is the same. When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, I can anticipate what’s coming, but it feels different every time – and that’s how it is with someone like Steve Smith batting. He’s fiddling at the crease, but he gets into a rhythm when he bats which is akin to musical performance. He goes into periods when he doesn’t play shots at all, because the bowlers are trying to tease him out. He’s worked out that most of the time he’ll win the battle, and he has the skill and the patience to time his own period of dominance, once the bowler is tired, and he can explode into form. You can sense an instinctual life force and need to communicate in both great batting and musical performance. David Warner’s bat is an instrument and an extension of his body no less than the piano is for Alfred Brendel.

On BBC Test Match Special and ABC Grandstand, Jim Maxwell is a leading member of commentary teams for the Ashes, which runs until September 8

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Gramophone. Subscribe to the world’s leading classical music magazine