Master maintains perfect pitch

Head of the game: Jim Maxwell, a loved on-air voice for 40 years, is in Britain to cover the Ashes series. Photo: Danielle SmithThe most important cricket broadcast of Jim Maxwell’s life was heard by hardly anyone, but he can still remember it as though it were yesterday.

He was 21, and sitting at the SCG, having his last crack at making a career at the ABC – back then, the holy grail of sports broadcasting. Two attempts at scoring a job as a trainee had failed but Maxwell decided to give it one more go. ”I went out to the SCG and sat there with a tape recorder and set down bits of commentary during a Test match,” Maxwell recalls today.

”It was Bob Massie and John Watkins batting against Pakistan in a low-scoring game – that was the passage of play I did and they made this amazing partnership in what looked to be a hopeless cause at the time. Old Bernie Kerr was the head of ABC sport in those days, and he said, ‘Your cricket audition was very good.”’

Very good indeed. Maxwell got the job, launching himself into a career that in 2013 hits the 40-year mark – and, appropriately enough, that anniversary is falling during an Ashes year. Maxwell is already in Britain preparing for the ABC’s radio coverage of the series. He says he has learnt his craft sitting next to many masters of the microphone – from Australia’s Norman May to Britain’s Brian Johnston.

When he started out, ”it was the golden era when we [the ABC] did everything on radio and television. Women typed letters or had children but they weren’t broadcasting. It was the big boys’ school. Down the pub every other day with Norman May and Alan McGilvray – all these great characters, extraordinary people, and if you didn’t go down the pub you didn’t learn anything, according to them, anyway.

”It was a very formal set-up in those days in terms of how we broadcast our sport. It was very serious for the most part. There wasn’t a sense of people having a lot of fun as broadcasters and that didn’t really hit home for me until I came [to England] in 1983 for the World Cup and I worked with Brian Johnston. They do it in such a friendly way over here. It’s more human.”

There have been dramatic changes in sports coverage, not least in cricket, which went through the Kerry Packer revolution portrayed in the mini-series Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War.

”It was very much them and us when it happened,” Maxwell says. ”No one thought it was going to succeed. But McGilvray was pretty pragmatic about it … he’d say to us, ‘Don’t shut the door.’ I guess we had a mixed view about it but certainly initially there was a sense of outrage about what Packer had done because it was pretty clear it was all about getting the television rights – it was cheap Australian content and he could make a lot of money out of it, and he did. He made a fortune out of it.”

Maxwell was never tempted to join the commercial onslaught – indeed, he says, he was never asked to. ”Packer was only interested in former captains and people like that.” Nor did Maxwell want to. He believes he still has one of the best jobs in sport, working for the broadcaster many Australians still regard as the rightful home of sports such as cricket. Even when Channel Nine snatched the coverage from the ABC, many found it hard to completely surrender their loyalty.

”We were pretty strong competitors – people would listen to us while watching Nine’s pictures. And they still do today to some extent.”

And when the action is happening on the other side of the world, as it will be this year, Maxwell knows that often he is in bed with many of his listeners, propped up on a pillow with an earpiece and their radios, listening to his familiar tones describe the action from Lord’s. He has never tired of the task in front of him, even after commentating on more than 250 Tests.

”You’ve got the opportunity to sit and watch live theatre and do the commentary on something that doesn’t have a script.”

The first Ashes Test will be broadcast from Trent Bridge on Wednesday, July 10, on ABC Grandstand digital and ABC Local.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.