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The Commentators: 100 Years of Sports Commentary – Michael Schiavello

by Venky

Sachin Tendulkar, arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest batsmen the world of cricket has ever seen, spent the better part of the waking hours of April 22nd and 24th, 1998, methodically murdering a much vaunted Australian bowling attack in the searing heat of the United Arab Emirates, and in the process, single handedly ensuring that India won the Coca Cola cricket tournament. Even two decades after this memorable collaring of his opponents, legions of his fans fondly remember his exploits and have even taken to calling them “Desert Storm”. However, what embellished Tendulkar’s magnificence was the unabashed and unhinged eloquence of the burly Englishman Tony Greig from within the confines of the commentators box. “Oh he has hit the ball back over his head! He is half is size!” Greig hollered, shrieked, shuddered and yelled his throat hoarse as Tendulkar carted the Aussies all over the park. Desert Storm would have been a gentle breeze without the impact of Greig’s vocal heroics.

Michael Schiavello is a decorated sports commentator in his own right. From Oyster shucking to the Olympics, the man has covered it all. Traveling to over 26 countries he has commentated combat sports spanning geographies. His memorable play-by-play calling of the now immortal & brutal mixed martial art epic between Aung La N Sang, the World Champion from Myanmar (then Burma) & Hasegawa, his challenger from Japan, won Schiavello his first Asian TV Awards in 2018. In an auditorium with no air conditioning and with delirious people packed like a can of sardines, Schiavello battles the pulsating din and the fear of Dengue to deliver an extraordinary commentary. When a bruised Hasegawa finally is brought to his knees after a bloody and unimaginably brutal encounter, Schiavello screams “Burma goes into meltdown.”

Now in his brilliant book, “The Commentators”, Schiavello regales his readers on the overwhelming joy and lasting memories etched into the hearts and minds of billions of viewers across the globe by 60 magnificent commentators. Spanning a variegated range of sports from Olympics to Horse Racing, from Darts to NHL, there are lines that are magical, pauses that are magisterial and killer head notes that are magnificent.

As Schiavello illustrates, the universally acclaimed greatest goal of all time scored by Maradona in the 1986 World Cup had 4 commentators giving it their view. Victor Hugo Morales describing the action in the vernacular from the Azteca Stadium in Mexico scored the most vociferous and emotional version. Describing the unrivaled genius of Maradona by borrowing references from the cosmic sphere, Morales became Maradona, transformed himself into the non-plussed and bewildered defenders whom the striker left stranded in his wake, converted himself into the maniacal crowds who had driven themselves into a frenzy and almost became the ball itself which was spectacularly maneuvered past a devastated Peter Shilton in goal.

Bryon Butler‘s version for BBC Radio on the other hand was a measured and methodical denouement of both the man and the game. Butler who had earlier raked Maradona over the coals for his “Hand Of God” goal, now conceded that he was the greatest in the business, but not before adding a few irreverent adjectives. Replete with “little eel” and “squat man” references, Butler finally ends the goal scoring sequence with the “greatest player in the world” admission.

The third version has Barry Davies who is a synonym of equipoise, describe the greatest ever goal scored by a footballer in exactly 29 words and the final version involves the Irish Maestro Jim Magee‘s informed, & articulate tone that illustrates with surgical precision the genius of the man & his strike!

The best way to enjoy “The Commentators” would be to sip a luxuriant brand of Scotch, plug the laptop to a flatscreen TV, and keep a You Tube tab open. The moment you get to a memorable chunk of commentating history, pause the reading and view the actual historic occasion on You Tube. Soak in the mood, mechanics and montage fully, and get back to reading only after the hairs that have stood on the nape of your neck have settled down. Chic Anderson’s calling of the 1973 Belmont Stakes where, Secretariat, the greatest horse in all probability to have ever featured in the races, ground competition to humble dust by winning the race by an astonishing margin of 31 lengths, needs to be seen to be believed. Delivering an almost unparalleled commentary of the race from its commencement to conclusion, Anderson proves that he is as invincible as Secretariat himself! “He is moving like a tremendous machine” will never ever escape my memory!

Schiavello covers the usual suspects as well. Al Michaels “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” needs no further elaboration. The victory of the unassuming and unpretentious United States Ice Hockey team over the much glorified and favoured Russian (then Soviet Union) opponents sent an entire nation into rhapsodies of undisguised delight. Even today Al Michaels’ memorable words are deemed to be top of the pile when it comes to making a list of “Best Of Whatever” when it comes to sports commentary.

The Olympics usually represent the pinnacle of any commentator’s career. There have been some who have rejoiced in the cauldron of pressure. George Grljusich employed 53 words and nine sentences in just under 10 seconds in a staccato burst to call Ben Johnson’s now infamous 100m run at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Jim McKay calling the decathlon in 1968, Dennis Cometti calling Ian Thorpe’s splendid gold medal in 2000 and Steve Cram almost urging Mo Farah along in the 2012 Olympics are all singularly invincible masterpieces.

Sometimes a commentator is so unpredictable in his description of a game or an outcome that he becomes unwittingly etched in history. When an unfancied Norwegian team knocked out a powerful and ultra-hyped English team out of the 1982 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers at Oslo, the home commentator, Bjørge Lillelien went ballistic. “We are the best in the world! We are the best in the world! We have beaten England 2-1 in football!! It is completely unbelievable! We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana–we have beaten them all. We have beaten them all. Maggie Thatcher can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher, I have a message for you in the middle of the election campaign.[a] I have a message for you: We have knocked England out of the football World Cup.[b] Maggie Thatcher, as they say in your language in the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden in New York: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

This amazing rant, nay tirade was not only taken in a humorous spirit by the English, but became the yardstick for spawning many hilarious versions after key events.

Even games that are peculiar or unique to a region are made so “amenable” for viewing and listening by these genius commentators. For example, As an Indian I firmly believe baseball is an incomprehensibly mutilated version of cricket (just kidding). But even for me the novice, the immortal Vin Scully’s call on Sandy Koufax‘s “perfect game” created such an electric atmosphere that i remained riveted listening to the narrative. No wonder Vincent Edward Scully, called 67 mind boggling years of Major League Baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers and is universally acclaimed to be the greatest broadcaster of all time. Scully has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6675 Hollywood Blvd. In 2016, Scully received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on Tuesday at the White House.

The author also illustrates in a refreshing manner as to how women shattered the glass ceiling by making the cramped space that is a commentator’s box, all their own. The trend setter in this domain was American gymnast Cathy Rigby. Rigby was a household name even before the likes of Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut became darlings of the sport. A multitalented individual with a feisty personality, Rigby even had a successful stint in the musicals. She distinguished herself especially well as Peter Pan in the now famous Broadway hit. However, Rigby carved out a niche for herself as an expert commentator for the sport of gymnastics. Her astute observation of the nuances of the game made her call the Romanian sensation Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 (the first ever in the history of the sport) in the 1972 Olympics an audience’s delight.

Sometimes a commentator becomes unforgettable for delivering broadcast news that is out of the ordinary. The legendary and irascible Howard Cosell and the inimitable voice of “Monday Night Football”, broke to an unsuspecting nation the shocking news of the murder of John Lennon as he was commentating on a Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game. “Three seconds remaining. John Smith is on the line. And I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth. “Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival.” So poignant and yet so matter-of-fact.

Sometimes commentators make the sport what it is. A classic example being the seemingly mundane game of darts. Relegated to the status of a child of a lesser God, the sport received a scintillating breath of new life solely due to the spectacular efforts of Sid Waddell. Dubbed ‘The Voice of Darts’, Waddell’s scholarly juxtaposition of wit and acerbic commentary left a permanent legacy within the sport. A man known for uttering iconic lines, Waddell burst into a spontaneous spurt of absolute genius when he celebrated a glorious victory of the all-conquering Bristow when the dart’s champion was only 27 years old. “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Bristow’s only 27!”

Schiavello closes his book with a very moving and emotional Chapter on carrying on with sports commentary in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic. As COVID-19 went on its rampaging way, commentators were forced to call games to empty stadiums. Breathtakingly brilliant and egregious commentators such as the incomparable Peter Drury were left calling EPL games to digital cut outs of thousands of fans and artificially stimulated crowd noise. Professional wrestling (WWE) commentator Jim Ross who shocked the world with his Hell In the Cell narration where the Undertaker almost killed Mankind, found it unnerving to feed on the energy of the wrestlers in the absence of a crowd. But the game still goes on. It has to go on. Just like the athletes/sportsmen do their job, so should the commentators. This fact was driven home in a most seraphic manner by Fabio Caressa. After Italy’s thrilling victory in the 2021 UEFA European Championship Final (a tournament made famous for the heroics of both the Danish medical staff and players in rescuing Christian Eriksen after he had a horrific heart attack on the field), the Azzuri skipper Giorgio Chiellini was handed the trophy. Caressa took over, “Here comes the captain to receive the medal for the ones who suffered. For those terrible months which seemed hopeless. For all the people we loved who couldn’t make it, but are now there next to you. For all the doctors who caught just 10 minutes of sleep so they could try to save another life. For those coffins being transported on trucks. For those days we spent listening only to ambulance sirens. And the courage to recover, to fight back, to smile again. For the courage of staying together and going on the balcony to celebrate like we are about to do now.”

Sport, beautiful sport. Commentators, beautiful commentators, Schiavello masterly Schiavello!

(The Commentators: 100 Years of Sports Commentary by Michael Schiavello is published by Wilkinson Publishing and will be on sale beginning 1 December 2021)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!

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