1909 - 1996 | NSW | Sports broadcaster
McGilvray was the voice of Australian cricket on radio for decades, mostly on the ABC, establishing a style and credibility that influenced two generations. He began his radio career in 1934, when the only communication between Australia and England was telegraph cables. The ball-by-ball cabled information was embellished with sound effects in the Sydney studio to give the impression of being at the ground. McGilvray called every Test match in Australia between World War Two and his retirement in 1985, when the crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground gave him a standing ovation.
Reaching 100 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is an achievement restricted to a tiny elite. An elite of one had a crowd acclaim his century more than four decades after he ceased playing. On 1 February 1980, before the commencement of an Australia v England Test match, ‘McGilvray 100’ was hoisted on the ground’s venerable scoreboard to mark the 100th Test that the ABC’s Alan McGilvray had commentated between Test cricket’s oldest opponents.
In these last years of McGilvray’s half century at the microphone, there seemed an ovation every other day. ‘The Game is Not the Same without McGilvray’ ran a popular jingle; the public was exhorted to ‘Watch the Test on ABC Radio’.
But it had been a long haul to overnight success, beginning with a nondescript twenty first-class matches in the early 1930s, with 20 wickets and three half-centuries. It happened to coincide with the ABC’s first experiments in ‘Synthetic Test’ broadcasts: the local wireless simulation of Test matches in England, with commentators expanding on coded cablegrams and adding sound effects.
McGilvray was first employed in November 1935 delivering close-of-play summaries on Sheffield Shield matches; the spots proved a successful audition for the synthetic coverage of the Ashes of 1938, which McGilvray called “pioneering adventure that left no doubt where my future lay”.
A decade later, McGilvray made the trip to England himself, accompanying Donald Bradman’s Invincibles, and calling the series with the BBC, alongside the likes of John Arlott, Victor Richardson and Arthur Gilligan. He represented his country in other ways too: when Arlott penned a radio program commemorating the centenary of WG Grace, McGilvray put on his most nasal strine to play the part of Grace’s Australian mucka Billy Murdoch.
McGilvray and Arlott are often bracketed. Both spanned decades. Both answered to the epithet ‘the Voice of Cricket’. In truth they were an instructive contrast. Where Arlott’s tendencies were digressive and picturesque, McGilvray cheerfully identified as a ‘straight broadcaster’, self-deprecatingly quoting the advice of his boss Charles Moses about commentating with Richardson: “Leave the jokes to Richardson. He’s got a sense of humour.”
McGilvray’s gift was demonstrating that the straight path need not be narrow. He invested the simplest activity with low-level drama, wringing from single deliveries every possibility for significance and nuance, light and shade. He avoided catchphrases, aside from a few familiar elliptical phrases (“As well as it was bowled so was it played”). His delivery was low and intimate, rising only for wickets and boundaries. And if Richie Benaud grew famous for his silences, McGilvray was the master of the pause, in which he took instruction from no less than Sir Robert Menzies.
He became wonderfully deft in enlisting the crowd in his reporting. ‘And he’s caught by Chappell!’ would come the instantaneous report, with a little space in which to hear the acclamation, before the succinct and incisive description.
This made McGilvray the ideal foil for other commentators, and he struck up long-lasting partnerships with the likes of Richardson, Gilligan, A. G. Moyes, Keith Miller, Lindsay Hassett and even Max Walker.
He was possessed, too, of a low-key patriotism that never shaded into partisanhood. “When Alan was commentating, you always felt he was with you,” recalled former Test vice-captain Keith Stackpole. “Although he never let it get in the way of his commentating, he was always an Australian; he was happy when you won; and he always suffered when you were beaten.”
In all circumstances, he was calm, even, in May 1978, when a riot truncated a Sabina Park Test. In the background of his morning summary could be heard an angry mob and the sound of gunshots. So astringent were McGilvray’s criticisms of the crowd’s behaviour that he was provided safe custody by the Australian consulate and spirited out of Jamaica.
By then, McGilvray had entered his phase as an institution, a reassuringly still point in a fast-moving cricket world, when the ABC redoubled its commitment to radio after losing the cricket broadcast rights to Channel Nine.
In the 1981 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, England’s great cricket mandarin E. W. Swanton deemed the Australian the best commentator of all: “For both quality and length of service, Alan McGilvray’s career at the microphone stands alone. To the listeners of every Test match playing country he stands for generous-minded, unbiased, factual common sense. At any crucial moment of an England-Australia Test, the ideal recipe, for me, is to turn on the television picture, turn off the sound, and listen to Alan.”
Four years later, McGilvray undertook his tenth and last tour of England, whereupon he retired to pen a string of successful reminiscences: The Game is Not the Same (1985), The Game Goes On (1987), Backpage of Cricket (1989), The Captains of the Game (1992). McGilvray was appointed MBE in 1974 and became a member of the Order of Australia in 1980, the year of that unique hundred.
Gideon Haigh is an international cricket author and journalist and an inaugural member of the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Courtesy of the ABC
McGilvray, Voice of Cricket, ed. Norman Tasker, ABC Books, 1996