The life-changer

Dan Norcross salutes a man who played a key part in his childhood and career. This is an extract of a piece first published in the Barbados special edition of the Nightwatchman.

It’s not that I’m a peculiarly stoic fellow. I can cry. In fact I cry regularly. I cried when Wimbledon won the FA Cup in 1988. I cried when England won the Ashes in 2005. I cried when Alex Higgins cried. I even cry when a moderately talented kid from a broken home with mild behavioural problems doesn’t completely murder an Adele track on X Factor and is told by an inane judge/employee of Syco Productions that she is world-class, was born to sing and will be able to uproot her family from Tower Hamlets to a detached mansion in Cobham from the proceeds of her first album. And I don’t even like Cobham. In short, I am an easily manipulated man who weeps salt tears of joy at the drop of a hat. But I don’t cry when people I don’t know succumb to the cruel inevitability of the human condition. Princess Diana, John Lennon, Prince, David Bowie? As a colleague once said to me: “Well, Dan, that’s entropy, innit.” And he’s probably right.

But on 11 May this year, gazing out over a sun-drenched beach in the heart of San Sebastián with a jug of sangria and a delicious selection of pintxos waiting for me, I saw a tweet and began spontaneously sobbing. Tony Cozier had just died. In the moment I wasn’t sure why I was sobbing. I felt more than a little daft trying to explain to my partner of 20 years what had elicited this atypical reaction, and have spent considerable hours since then trying to make sense of what I was feeling, and indeed still do feel.

I only met Tony, or Mr Cozier to me, the once; it was at the Cricket Writers Club dinner in 2014. I had just finished my first season working as a cricket commentator for the BBC and a colleague very kindly effected an introduction. The moment Tony spoke I was in raptures, so enchanted by his presence that words just came tumbling out of my mouth. He tolerated my undignified adoration with a modest smile, and then, to shut me up I presume, adjusted my badly assembled tie with the gentlest of hands. Through this one very personal and intimate gesture my composure returned. We chatted for no more than five minutes and that was that. But what a five minutes it was.

Cricket commentary, you see, is very much my obsession. I commentated my first hundred at Lord’s in 1976 aged seven, trying to ape in my head the perfect cadences of John Arlott, Don Mosey and, of course, Tony Cozier as they described my precocious exploits. And it was always Tony Cozier who was on the mike for the dismissive cover drive off Andy Roberts that not only took me to my historic landmark of 288, thereby surpassing RE Foster’s record on “dayboo”, but also won England the match from an impossible position at the end of day two. “Norcross will be absolutely joooobilant at levelling the series in front of an ecstatic crowd. England have not only discovered in this prodigiously gifted seven-year-old a long-term replacement for the absent Boycott, but also a cricketer who stands comparison to the true greats of the game. He drives with the elegant grace of Everton Weekes, cuts with the ferocity of the recently ennobled Sir Garfield Sobers, and struts with the brooding presence of Vivian Richards. What a player.”

So when I was suddenly in front of Tony Cozier two years ago, hearing his words, watching his face animate and his mouth move, it was for me the equivalent of a Catholic gaining an audience with the Pope, or a Led Zeppelin fan being given a private rendition of “Whole Lotta Love” in their garage. Because Tony Cozier was an artist, a technician and a guru in one. He was my Yoda. My Dumbledore. My Aristotle. I yearned to spend a month with him on the Planet Dagobah being taught the mystical ways of “Immaculate Vocal Rise and Fall”, or a term at Hogwarts honing his “Perfect Economy Of Language Spell”. For those special five minutes I was a young Alexander the Great being grounded in all the necessary skills required for benign world domination.

What made Tony Cozier so special is both easy to describe and impossible to emulate. We hear much made of his extraordinary technical versatility; of his ability seamlessly to switch from the TV box – where commentary is much more like expert summary and Richie Benaud’s dictum of “less is more” rules – to the radio studio where dead air is a criminal offence and detailed, precise description of the action is paramount. And yes, he was fantastically good at that. John Arlott, after all, would tend to nod off during his stints on TV, once famously getting through a full half-hour spell without saying a word. But it wasn’t because Arlott wasn’t up to the job; just that occasionally he didn’t feel like playing ball. Tony Cozier always played ball, despite commentating for over 50 years. But diligence and professionalism, whilst being admirable virtues, do not explain the unique quality of his commentary style. Rather it was that the watcher or listener was transported to a beguiling, exciting, familiar but transfixing place whenever he was on commentary. His voice evoked memories of the first time you heard it (in my case 1976) while firmly placing you in the here and now. He was the ultimate Borgesian broadcaster; able to exist in the present and the past simultaneously. For a game obsessed with its traditions whilst constantly seeking to reinvent itself and meet the challenges of “relevance”, Cozier was a gift from the gods.

Much is made of his encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, but the manner in which he used his knowledge was just as important, if not more so. There is a temptation when commentating to prove one’s credentials; to find facts, make allusions to and comparisons with abstruse events as a means of elevating oneself and justifying one’s position behind the microphone. Cozier never did this. If he had a more complicated point to make he would find an accessible way to make it. He would make the listener feel both informed and clever at the same time and would achieve this special alchemy through a combination of generous interplay with his co-commentator and the sheer sympathy that his voice engendered.

And what a voice.

To read the full piece, buy the Barbados special edition of the Nightwatchman, available in print and digital formats.