The Aussie in the pack
Adam Collins talks to Jim Maxwell about the ups and downs of a career in broadcasting
“Harmison, comes in and bowls. Kasprowicz goes back and parries it… is he caught down the leg side?”
Here it is. The defining scene from the most important film our game has made in modern memory. The one that wins all the awards for skill, drama and script. Appropriately, its soundtrack is just as distinct. You know what happens next. You can probably recite it.
“HE’S OUT! England have won! England have won by TWO RUNS!”
You also know they are the words of Jim Maxwell on Test Match Special. The detail and precision are the first giveaways. Then his voice, tone rising the very moment it must, one moment’s inflexion conveying the emotional rest.
“Jim’s commentary was absolutely brilliant,” recalled Jonathan Agnew of the vignette that sums up the epic summer that was 2005. “It was masterful.” On the same BBC special made to honour TMS on its 60th birthday, Henry Blofeld enthusiastically agreed. “Can I just congratulate Jim very much on what he did that day at Edgbaston?” he said. “Having to extol all the virtues of English cricket, and as it meant an Australian defeat, he did it masterfully.”
Maxwell the master. It has a ring to it.
He wasn’t the original Australian maestro. That was Alan McGilvray, for five decades no less. The brain behind synthetic broadcasts, dreamed up when he was captain of New South Wales, taking Don Bradman to the masses through the eraser of a pencil in 1938. Ten years on, he was in England transmitting every ball back home, nearly a decade before TMS were doing likewise. The institution was one he birthed and nurtured.
The Sound of Summer is the name of Maxwell’s 2016 autobiography. That isn’t contested as far as rhythms of the season are concerned – he has been a fixture of the ABC airwaves since 1977. But it’s a sound that has grown out of McGilvray’s authoritative own. Maxwell studied it the way so many did: listening from England when he should have been sleeping.
This is the quintessential Australian experience of away Ashes. To hell with rest and the responsibilities of tomorrow, the cricket is on the radio from England. A call-and-response of Ashes years and childhood memories: 1961, 1964 and 1968 are the trio marked in Maxwell’s brain, all courtesy of the simulcast TMS call, with McGilvray on the local ABC wireless. It’s where his relationship with the programme begins.
“It was the only way to get in touch with the game,” he says. “It varied between shortwave in those early years and no coverage at all – it just bombed out. Later we had it on a link under the seas. But I remember the shortwave, which was pretty fuzzy on my crystal radio at boarding school.”
The mystique of clipped English accents that so mesmerised deferential Australians of that time didn’t beguile Maxwell so much. “McGilvray was my beacon,” he says. “His voice was very distinctive. My young cricketing brain wanted to hear what was going on. They were just a lot of voices, but with McGilvray standing out. Whenever he was on he took you into the game in a way that no one else could. I felt more confidence listening to McGilvray than anyone else, knowledgeable as they may have been.”
The local narrators, though, were evocative too: “Very English voices: Neil Durden-Smith in those early days next to Brian Johnston – that school of commentators, they were all public schoolboys with a fair bit of that old upper-class-sounding voice that would have got up the nose of a few Australians.” Not the sturdier John Arlott, though. He satisfied other parts of Maxwell’s maturing palette. “The poet of the airwaves with the ability to describe something like no one else could,” is his recollection. “His use of the language was extraordinary.”
Maxwell embraced the TMS cacophony to such an extent that it helped inspire him to start production of his own cricket magazine to fellow students at the end of the 1964 Ashes. Of that winter, he speaks vividly of Peter Burge’s defiant Trent Bridge series-winning ton, the TMS call absorbed with his father.
Four years on, Bill Lawry set the tone with a punchy 81 at Manchester, which was taken in by Maxwell around a radio on a Saturday night with his schoolmates after a rugby tour to Jervis Bay. Months on, Derek Underwood in the slop at The Oval squared the ledger. All Maxwell’s famous power of recall comes from the wireless. “The idea formed in my mind that it was something I could do,” he says. “That was the genesis.”
So he had a go, then another. Early rejection fuelled him. It meant that when he won a chance to audition for a trainee broadcaster position in 1972 he wasn’t going to fail a third time. On the strength of that trial at the SCG, where he spent so much of his youth, Maxwell was away.
A decade later, the bulk of it spent calling the cricket through Australian summers, it was Maxwell going to England for the 1983 World Cup. An “extraordinary” opportunity for him, he recalls, to join the TMS family at 33 years of age with McGilvray, now into his 70s, overlooked in favour of nurturing younger talent. Just like that, he would be calling with Johnners and Trevor Bailey and co; joining those voices from the boarding-school radio.
“It was quite daunting but I was also made to feel very welcome,” he says. “I was used to being intimidated by the atmosphere in the box from the old hands and that was understandable. I was a young bloke with far more experienced guys in the game who were more knowledgeable than I was.”
Johnston made him feel at home in inimitable style: convincing Maxwell to bite into an ice cream before immediately throwing to him for comment. As for Bailey, it was his schadenfreude that Maxwell remembers most as Australia fell to an inglorious end in the tournament, including that loss to Zimbabwe.
“All of a sudden I was the voice for the ABC on Test Match Special, so I thought I had better make sure I do it with some authority,” Maxwell says of his mindset on debut. “I’m sure people would say in those days I was a bit brash. But I was ‘out there’ with my criticism because of Australia’s performance.”
Even so, from Leeds to Chelmsford to Nottingham to Southampton, it was an experience Maxwell speaks of vividly. It may have been a fraction ahead of his time, but then and there, he was in the chair. He was the new McGilvray. Until he wasn’t. It would be 22 years until he would return to it.
When McGilvray eventually hung up the microphone, after a farewell lap of England for the 1985 Ashes, Maxwell was primed and ready. Between the World Cup and then he had been on an outrageous tour of the Caribbean and continued to rack up experience at home. It was ticking along as planned.
Instead, in 1989, the new ABC head of sport Neville Oliver decided to have a go himself. For Maxwell, the emotions were much as they would have been for a player in similar circumstances. “It rocked me. I still have a letter in my drawer I wrote to the boss at the time saying how hurt I was by this decision. It took me a while to get a grip.”
The pattern continued in 1993 and 1997, when his winters were spent calling the rugby codes and Olympic Games while Oliver followed the Ashes with TMS. Maxwell was sent everywhere else, just not to England. By 2001, Oliver was no more, but duties were split with another broadcasting giant, Tim Lane. Maxwell got the white-ball appetisers and the first Test.
When 2005 came around he was 55. Finally, he had an uninterrupted chance. “At last, here it was. It was a very big thing. I felt as a broadcaster that I was a far more mature, assured and well-rounded person for the role than I had been in 1983. It probably took me 20 years of broadcasting to feel entirely comfortable doing what I was when I sat and did the game. To feel confident enough to sit down without a piece of paper, without anything other than the game.”
The Kasprowicz moment, engineered when TMS producer Peter Baxter summoned Maxwell into the chair on the assumption that Australia were about to do the impossible, goes down as his most significant. “A seminal moment in broadcasting cricket,” he says. He was in the chair, too, when Billy Bowden flicked off the bails to signify the urn changing hands.
There was no doubting that Maxwell would be back in 2009, and again in 2013 and 2015. They may have all been Australian defeats, but his standing in the TMS pantheon grew by the tour. His lengthy initial absence from English airwaves has not diminished the reverence accorded him by English devotees, an authority who people want to talk to, be they media colleagues or autograph hunters. Even when slagging off TMS in a wide-ranging attack in 2015, career troll Michael Henderson found space for nice words about the show’s Australian staple.
“I’ve kind of grown into it, tried to assess it and be comfortable with it and not get too carried away,” Maxwell says of English adulation. “I got to a place of comfort saying what I felt about proceedings during the tours. I was very comfortable in my skin. Hopefully without losing any respect or humility about how I should put my thoughts across.”
Stylistically, his inherent cheek is a perfect fit for the modern TMS box as well. “You can get a bit confident in your delivery,” he observes. “At Trent Bridge in 2015, I appeared on the TV after the first day’s play. It was a live cross and I was asked what on Earth had happened. I said, ‘Well, they were broadsided in the morning and rooted in the afternoon.’ That comes with having enough confidence to say it. And yet feeling you can probably get away with it. A few years earlier, I wouldn’t have even attempted it.”
Joining the coverage with Australia eight down after the opening hour of the Trent Bridge Test, his advice to those at home tuning in for the first time was to switch off. “Australia now 9 for 47, plummeting towards one of the most embarrassing batting performances in Test history,” he added.
Between Ashes assignments, another England tour came in 2010 when Pakistan hosted Australia on neutral territory. Maxwell did the post-match interviews on the ground after the game, and Shahid Afridi told him he was resigning as Test captain before he had even told his Pakistan teammates. “A scoop for Test Match Special! It was hilarious.”
Part of the Maxwell charm is his reputation as a great tourist. Perhaps not McGilvray with beers in the hotel room before setting off to work, or Arlott’s crates of wine consumed through the course of a Test. But he’s never been shy of enjoying the best of the English summer, and freely admits as much.
That side of his character took a back seat after he suffered a stroke in the middle of calling the 2016 Olympics from a studio in Sydney. It wiped out the 2016–17 Test summer, save for the finale at the SCG. “My good fortune in this setback of having a stroke and recovering from it is that I have still got my voice,” he says. “It has remained strong.”
It has. It continues to boom down the phone when we talk, about both the past and the future. “If I can back that up with being able to deal with the physical demands of working a long day, I like to think I may be able to do the Ashes tour again,” he says. Or even one last England tour come 2019? “It’s something on my mind. But I’ve become a bit West Indian lately: the moment is what matters, not tomorrow!”
When that moment comes, he’ll know it. Like McGilvray before him, that’s what he does.