Jim Maxwell AM (OC 1968), the Voice of Cricket
This extended article was written by Lyndon Goddard (OC 2007) for the Old Cranbrookians' Association and first appeared in the OCA Newsletter, August 2014.
Jim Maxwell was the 2014 Old Cranbrookian of the Year, and with good reason. Over 40 years of broadcasting on the ABC, Jim has become one of the country’s best known cricket commentators. He has also edited Australia’s longest running cricket publication, the ABC Cricket Magazine, since 1988. Outside the commentary box, he has served since 2009 as the president of the Primary Club of Australia, which provides sporting and recreational facilities for people with disabilities. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2013. Jim kindly agreed to an extended interview with the OCA.
Even to one not accustomed to watching the cricket broadcasts on TV, there is something strangely distinctive about Jim Maxwell’s voice. Perhaps it is its impressively sonorous quality; perhaps it merely reflects Jim’s familiar omnipresence in cricket commentating, having covered 270 Tests over more than 40 years.
As it happens, however, his voice has not always been as it now is. ‘I think it took 10-20 years to get it to the sound that it’s become. There’s been a change in the tone of my voice, which had been much lighter. One of the things that has contributed to that is that I had my adenoids removed when I was very young. So I don’t talk from my nose, which is what a lot of sports broadcasters in particular do; you’ve got to get it further down to your chest.’ And Gordon Scott, an old retired announcer who was around when Jim first started commentating, used to give him elocution lessons so that when he spoke, he would emphasize the right syllables.
But none of this would have happened if Jim Maxwell’s father had not started taking his young son to the cricket at the SCG in the early 1960s. At first, Jim didn’t pay much attention to the game; instead, he collected empty bottles (threepence each) to make a bit of money. But the atmosphere of instantaneity and spontaneity was attractive, given that his family didn’t have television at home in those days and instead relied on the radio.
And although one can rarely put one’s finger on the particular moment that triggered a long-standing interest, the Test at the SCG during the 1960-1961 series against the West Indies played a significant role in piquing the young Jim’s curiosity in the game. ‘I went with my friends (Ken and Stephen Hann) on the 333 bus on spec on a Saturday, paid a shilling to get in and watch the game from the hill. There was a wonderful atmosphere, and Gary Sobers was going berserk, making a brilliant 100. That stuck in my mind – that would have been January 1961.’
Days at Cranbrook
Jim’s interest and skill in cricket were then developed substantially in the Cranbrook Senior School. Although Jim actually lived very close by in Bellevue Hill, his parents sent him to school as a boarder because, given that he was an only child, they thought that he needed the fraternity that a boarding house would provide. Particularly since Jim was young for his year, his experience as a boarder was not always positive. But, paradoxically, it was precisely because he was essentially ‘incarcerated’ in the school campus for long periods of time that he was able to better pursue cricket: whenever there weren’t classes to go to, there was always something happening on Hordern Oval. It wasn’t long before Jim rose from the 13Cs to the 14As as a spin-bowling all-rounder.
It also helped that in those days, a lot of the teachers had a talent for one or more sports. Gethyn Hewan in particular was responsible for hiring such teachers as Bruce Otter, Jim O’Regan and Eric Stockdale, who ‘probably owed their position to their cricketing background more than anything else’. That’s not to say, however, that they were insufficiently qualified as teachers – ‘Eric Stockdale’s results in the Leaving Certificate were extraordinary.’ It was an old-fashioned system in which coaches were a foreign concept and school teams had to rely on their ‘master in charge’ having some sporting skill, as well as the occasional old boy who would come and give a few pointers.
Jim Maxwell’s cricketing interest at one stage manifested itself in the form of his very own cricket magazine – the ‘Cricket Chronicle’ – which he produced when he was about 14. (For those who want to catch up on the latest cricket news from 1964, there are a couple of copies of the ‘Chronicle’ in the Cranbrook Archives.) ‘There’d be articles and a quiz and crossword, and if you answered the questions successfully, you’d get your sixpence back, which was the price of the magazine. My mother would type it and she’d copy it on the Roneo machine.’ The machine (a ‘mimeograph’) worked by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper. Unfortunately, you could only make six to eight copies at a time, and then you had to type out the magazine’s contents all over again! ‘It was like Mr Caxton’s printing press; it was great fun.’
Three applications to the ABC, one audition
While Jim was still at school in 1967, he applied for a job as a trainee at the ABC (which would have involved commentating in a variety of sports), but he was coincidentally trumped by an old Cranbrookian, Peter Meares. What was it about commentating in particular that attracted Jim? The mad interest in cricket was clearly there, but while there was also some playing proficiency, it was not enough to sustain a career. ‘I really liked the strategy of the game, and whenever I watched cricket matches I found myself thinking of different plays that should have been attempted or mistakes that shouldn’t have been made.’
After repeating Year 12, which was not uncommon in those days, Jim went to study arts at UNSW. Though his parents were both academically minded, he didn’t much like university, and was distracted most of the time with socializing – often at the Bellevue Hotel. He lasted a year at uni.
After another unsuccessful application to the ABC in 1969 (reportedly lost to a young Gordon Bray), Jim was lucky enough to participate in the 1972 world tour of the Australian Old Collegians cricketers – the last tour of its kind. After traveling around America, Canada, Bermuda, England and Wales, Jim got back to Perth in May 1973. Unfortunately, by then, he had completely run out of money. A supplicant phone call to his father and $129 later, he was sitting on a train that would get him to Sydney by September. ‘I sat there bored out of my brain, watching the spinifex bounce along the Nullarbor.’ When Jim got in the door, his mother showed him a newspaper clipping with a job advertisement for a trainee position at the ABC.
This time, Jim would have the perfect preparation. ‘The old Cranbrookians had their first overseas tour to New Zealand in 1973, and Peter Meares was in the team. He gave me a few clues to help me with my upcoming audition for the ABC that I would do when I got back to Sydney. So he did some commentary with me of our old Cranbrookian games, just with a tape recorder. He gave me a few finer points about technique, which helped me to get a method going, of anticipation.’ Jim did the audition not long afterwards and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sitting in the commentary box
Jim had a number of mentors in the early days at the ABC (then broadcasting out of its old studios where Harry Seidler’s Horizon apartment block now stands), but none of them really compared to Alan McGilvray. By the time he retired, his cricket commentating career had spanned 50 years: he called every Test in Australia from World War II until 1985. He was also a chain-smoker with a silvery voice who, to put it politely, was known for being ‘thirsty’. Alan always said, ‘copy technique, not style’, and ‘you won’t be any good unless you listen!’. Says Jim: ‘I’d like to think that I listened a lot in my early years to try to work out the correct technique and to marry a certain style to it that is to a large extent conversational but still sticks to the path of presenting the information.’
That conversational style, however, has not always existed in the commentary box. Interestingly, in the old days of eight ball overs, the ‘ball-by-ball’ commentator would call the over, and the man next to him – generally a former Test cricketer – would say virtually nothing until the end of the over. ‘It was a bit intimidating: you can imagine a 23-year-old in the commentary box with someone who’d been around for a long time. I haven’t played Test cricket, and yet I was trying to describe it without making a fool of myself! So I tended to be less opinionated in those days than I later became.’ Of course, the other source of intimidation, at least initially, came from knowing that Alan McGilvray, the undisputed legend of cricket broadcasting, was sitting behind Jim.
While the style of commentating may have changed, what has stayed the same is the number of long periods during a cricket match when there isn’t a whole lot of action on the pitch. On one view, that creates a formidable challenge for the broadcaster who must have a wealth of material to turn to during the duller moments. Jim Maxwell sees it as a positive characteristic of the game, in that it allows for moments of reflection and more thorough discussion than would be possible in a high-intensity sport. But quite apart from that, as Jim says, ‘there’s so much peripheral stuff apart from what is happening in the battle between the bowler and the batsman’. One of the true difficulties, as Jim sees it, is calling a match when there is no audience at the stadium: ‘they are what create the atmosphere and what you play off as a commentator’.
Sports commentators often resort to listing a barrage of statistics to fill up gaps in a broadcast, but Jim is careful not to overdo it. ‘We have screens in front of us in the commentary box with statistics, but you can’t rely on that too much because it’s easy for the listener to get information overload.’ But when statistical questions do arise, Twitter has proven very useful. ‘I can tweet a question about some obscure statistic and invariably, someone will tweet back with the answer after a short time.’ For research in advance of a match, Jim tends to read about the pitch and the players, and often attends the teams’ press conferences to get a feel for what their strategy is likely to be on the day.
Changes in cricket over the past 40 years
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim Maxwell can offer a few reflections on the development of cricket in Australia since he started as a trainee commentator. There have been four broad themes.
The Australian cricket team
The first is the success of the Australian cricket team, which has seen far more flows than it has ebbs. One of the earliest tough periods that Jim has seen was the time after the retirement of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh in 1983-4; Kim Hughes took over and there were some defections to South Africa. ‘That was a low period until Bob Simpson came along and brought some rigour and discipline under the reluctant captain Alan Border, and we slowly made our way back to being a force again, winning the 1987 World Cup.’
‘We then won the Ashes in 1989, but the West Indies kept knocking us on the head; and that kept going until 1995 when we won against the West Indies. And by then of course, Shane Warne had arrived and a guy called Glenn McGrath, so with those two bowlers we were strangling teams. And then cricket was really strong: 16 straight wins at one point when Steve Waugh had come into the captaincy. And really until 2005 when we rather surprisingly lost the Ashes after McGrath broke down, we were dominant. And then after a couple more years, things started to get a little bit wobbly – a champion team wins both home and away, and even now, we’ve stopped doing that. We got belted in India last year and then lost the Ashes Series in England. But since then, we’ve looked very potent.’
The perpetual challenge for the team is that Australians always expect their cricketers to win, and the press will be merciless if the team is perceived to be underperforming. But at the moment, Jim thinks that the team is traveling OK, ‘but you can still see holes in the side in terms of the batting. And it’s all building up nicely towards the World Cup in Australia, but also the next Ashes series: we’ve lost the last three Ashes series in England, so you’d think that that’s the way that Michael Clarke’s career has been going. The swan song series for him will give him some chance at redemption, at winning over there.’
The 'professionalization' of cricket
The second big change over the past 40 years has been the professionalism and athleticism of the players. Alan McGilvray himself made a similar observation in the 1980s, drawing a distinction from the time that he was playing for NSW in the 1930s, and that development has only accelerated since then. That increased athleticism by itself explains some changes in playing style, but with it is coupled the better weaponry that players these days have (‘players are now mishitting the ball for six’). T20 cricket, under the influence of one day cricket, has encouraged players to bat more confidently. Jim remembers speaking to Matthew Hayden during a series in India when he scored over 500 runs in three Tests: ‘everyone was full of admiration for his technique against the slower bowlers – he really took them on, with horizontal shots, slogs and just brave hitting. And I said to him, “I don’t know whether the old Don would approve, because he always said, ‘You can’t get caught if you don’t hit the ball in the air.’ And Hayden’s response was, “Sorry Don, there’s a whole lot of room in the air.” And that’s a comment that tells you a lot about how the game has changed.’
This more physical kind of playing demands more rigorous preparation in advance and, especially, a more careful eye to recovery after each match. Jim says: ‘There’s a greater thoroughness about the whole process of preparation and recovery, and the monitoring of these guys to make sure that they’re not about to fall over; and if it looks like they are, they’re given a rest. But there’s a lot of cricket being played, so the strain on players physically and mentally is big, and the people in charge have got to make sure that they don’t overdo it. And commercially, that’s the issue: the game is driven by money, so you’ve got to get out there and play.’
The commercialization of cricket
The commercialization of cricket, consistent with all other popular sports, has been the third major change occurring during Jim’s career. There is some truth to the view that Kerry Packer’s World Series in 1977, controversial though it was at the time, served as the catalyst for the modern fixation on the financial rewards of sports broadcasting. Packer’s plans were certainly not philanthropic in nature, and they particularly stung Jim’s employer, the ABC, which had had the broadcast rights to cricket for the previous twenty years. While the new system took a couple of years to settle in, it did bring with it long-lasting innovations such as day and night matches (which were disparagingly referred to as ‘pyjama cricket’ by old timers at their introduction).
However, Jim points out that the effect of this commercialization on players’ salaries was not really felt until much later, in 1995, when the players got together an signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Cricket Australia, under which they would earn 27% of the gross revenue of the matches. For the players, it was that agreement that was the turning point in their remuneration: today, most Australian team members would be on a base salary of $250,000 a year. Of course, when cricket used to be an amateur game, the players would all have day jobs!
Technology in cricket
The final significant change in cricket since the 1970s has been the deep insinuation of technology into cricket matches, with systems such as HotSpot, Snickometer, Hawk Eye and Stump Cam. As Jim says, the problem with technology is that once you start introducing it, there’s no end point. ‘It’s this quest for perfection, which we see everywhere in our lives I suppose – but particularly in sport. And in cricket, we’re looking at the quality of the technology, which is getting better and better. And really India is the only country that doesn’t embrace the review system. Perhaps that will change in another couple of years.’
‘It’s obviously helped the accuracy of umpiring, but beyond that, it depends on your point of view. I suppose there’s a need to get as many decisions right as possible: we’ve gone beyond the old notions of it being a gentleman’s game (taking the good with the bad, and getting on with it). But the problem in cricket is that they’re not just line ball decisions all the time – there’s always the grey area – bat pads, LBWs, and the efficacy of the projected LBW etc. But I think we’ve got to a point where most people think that it adds to the quality of the game – and for spectators in particular, they now get involved with the “theatre” of the replay; it’s become part of the show.’
Many would say that Jim Maxwell, with 270 Tests under his commentator’s belt, has also become ‘part of the show’.