Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special, his “leg over” meltdown and life without Brian Johnston
Aggers has been a TMS legend ever since he made the funniest sporting blooper of all time…
Do you ever regret saying Ian Botham “couldn’t quite get his leg over” in a Test against the West Indies in 1991, which caused Brian Johnston to dissolve into laughter for a full two minutes?
No, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was my first summer and the incident established me as an individual in the TMS team. But it was a mistake at the time – we nearly fell off air and the whole thing descended into farce. I remember feeling really sick, because I felt this was potentially disastrous. It was a proper, genuine, uncontrived cock-up.
Johnners begged, “Aggers, do stop it!”
If I had said it to anyone else it would have been OK, but he had this puerile sense of humour. The next year, he refused to broadcast with me again. He said, “I can’t, because if I look at him, I’ll laugh.” Eventually he agreed to do “Your letters answered” with me at Old Trafford. Totally innocent of course, nothing could go wrong… And we were fine until we had a letter signed “William H Titt”. Johnners just collapsed. He had to be wheeled out of the box, there was terrible wheezing and whining and giggling. Brian later wrote to William H Titt and apologised. He didn’t get a reply. But Johnners was like a grandad to me. There was nothing about him not to love. He really was one of those people.
You must have shared a lot of cake together?
Yes, and when Brian died, I deliberately didn’t mention a cake for three years. It seemed totally the wrong thing to do. That was very much his thing, and I was aware that people would say, “Oh, look at him, he’s trying to be the next Brian Johnston, trying to step in.” But then I started getting letters, people saying, “Hang on, I sent you a cake last week, you didn’t say thank you.” So gingerly I went back into the cake world again.
What is it with TMS and cake?
It’s such a simple concept, isn’t it? Basically, it’s cakes. You actually see these people in the commentary box tucking into these cakes. And it has expanded, you’ve got corporate cakes, you’ve got sponsored cakes, you get people sending lots of cakes. Thankfully we’ve not had a dodgy cake, it’s just part of the warmth and the contact with people that Brian Johnston in particular introduced to Test Match Special. Brian reached out and touched people.
You sound like you still miss him.
I do, but since I started in 1991, when I was 31, we’ve lost all of those people who were around at the time. Brian Johnston, John Arlott, Bill Frindall, Trevor Bailey and the producer, Peter Baxter – they made it what it is today. It’s desperately sad but I’m still around to be a bridge between that group of amazing broadcasters. And now Henry’s going.
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What will life without Blowers be like?
It’s going to be a massive change, losing a character who is so distinctive. I think listeners get a bit worried and often think, “Oh, my life’s not going to be quite the same again.” He’s been part of their lives, and he’s brought a lot of smiles to an awful lot of faces.
Will the plummy tone change?
Apart from John Arlott, and Fred Trueman, TMS did sound like quite a posh broadcast in the past. But I don’t think it does any more. I went to public school, and Ed Smith sounds like he should have, but I think that the overall posh-boy, Eton sound has diminished. The programme changes with the passing of time; the language changes, the style changes, and the way that people communicate with each other changes. We used to wade through a massive pile of letters every day, now you can skim through emails or Twitter feeds, it’s become easier to stay in touch with people.
And now you have female commentators…
Well, it’s really good that we have three excellent women broadcasters, Alison Mitchell, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Isa Guha. They are genuine cricket experts, two of them played for England. They are as well equipped to talk about someone’s forward defence as anybody else. It’s really important that we lead the way. We had Donna Symmonds of the West Indies working on TMS for a while and she was the first, walking a really difficult tightrope, because that’s a very masculine, male-dominated part of the world. And at the moment we are covering the Women’s World Cup – women’s cricket is here to stay, it’s a proper profession.
Can TMS survive in the future?
Yes! We have an extraordinary number of followers, it’s in the millions. We broadcast all around the world via a YouTube link and the programme has used Facebook well – we’ve been ahead of the game, actually. And, of course, we have benefited from the absence of Test cricket on television.
Would you like to see live cricket back on BBC TV?
I believe that cricket should be on terrestrial television. That’s how we all started. How can you follow your heroes if you can’t see them? You need to watch Joe Root or Stuart Broad so you can go and try it yourself.
How do you work with players, such as Broad, whom you’ve criticised in your commentary?
When Stuart Broad didn’t walk in the Test at Trent Bridge in 2013 against Australia, I said it was unsportsmanlike, knowing I’d be having to deal with him for the rest of the summer and beyond. We had a very awkward six weeks.
Out of all the places TMS has taken you to, which did you like the best?
The high point of my career was when we won the Ashes in Melbourne in 2010. It had taken a long time – 20 years of commentating – and we’d done it. The Barmy Army was there in full voice, and I was going onto the pitch to do the interviews. Before I rushed out I looked in our commentary box and there was a spare pitch pass lanyard; my wife was there, so I gave it to her and said, “Come on,” and we went out to the middle and savoured the moment. That was a day I will never forget, to be able to show her what it is about cricket that I love – “This is why I do this job, this is why I spend months away.” It’s a great game, full of passion and excitement, but, you know, it’s kept us all going for a long time, and I hope it continues to do so.
Our TMS, a celebration of 60 years of Test Match Special, will be on Radio 5 Live on 25 July