It sounds a terrible thing to say but sometimes I love it when the rain arrives and the covers are pulled over (I’m talking cricket here, not about dragging someone to bed every time precipitation looks imminent).
In England, we’ve had a wonderful summer in which to play the game we gifted to all those poor colonies that went on to beat us at it (or, as it has often seemed, beat us with it). Anyway, we’re good at it now – but now the weather is often more of an unknown quantity than the Australian bowlers.
Most sports don’t get totally cocked up by rain: rugby thrives, football tends to survive, golf looks bloody depressing on TV done in navy waterproofs on a rain-lashed links but they plod on and, cannily, darts players stick to the inside of pubs so that their cigarettes don’t go out. But cricket? Oh my dear old thing, no. When the rain comes again (and the Eurythmics earn even more royalties), what is there for the cricket commentator to do? Where does the summariser head? What can the pundit project about? Oh, you know – everything else. In the trade it’s called "filling".
The commentators on BBC radio’s venerable cricket flagship Test Match Special are masters at filling. Some cynics might say that cricket commentary is all about filling but they’d be wrong and they can go back to watching American football and move swiftly along while they do so. There’s an art to filling that makes it seem like it isn’t filling at all but the revealing of the fascinating and subtle subplot beneath the splashy drama of the main sporting action. Good filling is clubbable, funny and absorbing; a skill in itself.
What are the themes on which the cricket commentator can enlarge, faced with a full morning of not talking about what’s not happening on the pitch? Well, there’s what happened yesterday, there’s what might happen today if the rain stops, there’s what might have happened on either days if there were different players playing and there’s the existential matter of tackling the nature of the weather itself. So far so normal, you’d guess. But where TMS comes into its own is in the fine quality of the commentators who can not only paint a picture – immediately and often poetically – while describing the action but can turn their hand to winning flights of fancy.
Regiments of pigeons, caravans of red double-decker buses, the fancy dress of the crowd, the length and complexity of revellers’ “beer snakes” in the stadium and times when wonderment and pseudo-science meet when assessing, for instance, for how many days one might wear a cricket shirt without washing it (a listener wrote in that six days was fine; the commentators begged to differ). Much of it is turns wittering on into an art form.
“Of all the storms,” TMS stalwart Henry Blofeld once asked a former player, “which was the real humdinger?” Commentating on the rain? Like Rupert Brooke’s corner of a foreign field, there is thankfully a corner of the radio schedule that is forever England. If only these chaps had been on hand to guide us through the door marked Lindo wing as news anchors went mad waiting for that royal baby.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s culture editor.