To celebrate West Indian cricket commentator Tony Cozier being honoured with lifelong membership of the MCC, here is another chance to read my interview with Tony from July 2010, when he celebrated his 70th birthday.
Not all legends of cricket make their name on the pitch. Tony Cozier has been the voice of Caribbean cricket for more than half a century. Now, as he celebrates his 70th birthday, he talks to Gemma Wright about his time in the game.
It is difficult to pick a favourite memory in cricket because there are so many. It’s been a long time. It’s 70 coming up and I have been doing it since I was 15. My first Test match I covered was in Barbados; Australia against the West Indies. When I was at school my father was the editor of a small daily paper in St Lucia, the Voice of St Lucia. I asked him if I could cover it for the paper. I got permission from the headmaster to go and cover the match and that was it. There have been so many memories, and so many ups and downs of West Indies cricket, and new, brilliant players coming in. Back then there was no 50 over cricket and no T20 cricket. It’s been a long time.
I don’t have a specific worst memory, but what has happened in West Indies cricket in the past ten years has been perhaps the worst. West Indies cricket has gone down for several reasons; the lack of leadership, the administration, the Players Association taking advantage of the weakness of the administration. We’ve had two strikes at international level, and two strikes at first class level. I don’t know what they’ll achieve except to bring West Indies cricket further down. And I have no idea how West Indies cricket is going to get out of the hole which it has dug for itself. That is the whole disappointment; West Indies cricket has dug the hole for itself and it has reached where it is now.
I have never been asked to be involved in the leadership of West Indies cricket. I’ve worked in sports administration; I was the president of the Barbados Office Presidents Association for something like 7 years. But then because I was travelling so much I just couldn’t continue with that. But if I carried on with that I couldn’t be a West Indies cricket journalist. I’ve been close with West Indies administrators, chatted with them, and put forward a few suggestions. My columns have tended to be more and more critical of the administration and also the Players Association. I’ve been critical of everyone in West Indies cricket because they need to be criticised; they don’t seem to understand the damage that they have been doing to West Indies cricket. It’s a huge split between the players and the association and I don’t know how we can get over it.
I don’t know if there is hope for the future of West Indies cricket, unless the Players Association and the board come together. The acrimony has to be heard and seen to be believed. That’s what’s happened with West Indies cricket; it is a house that is very badly divided against itself. In 98-99 the West Indies players first went on strike for a week at Heathrow Airport in London before they went to South Africa for their first historic tour. They didn’t like the terms and conditions. Sir Hilary Beckles, the principal of the University of the West Indies in Barbados and a member of the West Indies board, even that far back said that the players view the board as an enemy not its partner. If anything it’s got worse and you really can’t have players on the field representing the West Indies when they feel they are not properly represented by the board. And then vice versa when the board doesn’t feel the players are giving their best.
When I first came in to cricket writing, I was 14 and my father was in a position where he could help me. He was the editor of newspapers in the Caribbean; the voice St Lucia, Trinidad Guardian, Barbados Daily News, Barbados Advocate, so that was a help to me. He also wrote cricket, he covered the West Indies tour of England in 1950. In fact he was the only West Indian reporter covering that historic tour when the West Indies won for the first time in England. And he was well known in professional offices throughout the Caribbean so his son young Cozier coming up would always get a lot of support from the experienced and elderly journalists in the press box, so that was a great help. On the 1963 tour I had to pay my own way around England. I had a lot of school friends who went to university in England and I used to bunk in with them to cover that tour. Then I went to Australia 68-69 and the radio said they would pay for me, then when I came out they said they wouldn’t so I had to do that all out of my own pocket. But it was an investment I suppose to what happened in the future.
I’ve missed a few tours, not many, but a few. I’ve always been freelance so where I work and where I go depends on getting people to employ me. First of all newspapers, then radio, and eventually television. I first did radio in the West Indies in 1965 when Australia toured. I was one of the team of commentators who did that tour. 1966 was the first time I did BBC Test Match Special, when the West Indies where there, and I always supplemented it with newspaper coverage. There were occasions as well where I did all three, newspaper reports, radio, and television but that was physically more difficult to do with the passing years. Television was more lucrative than either of the others so now I am just doing television on a daily basis. As far as radio is concerned I do that very occasionally, and newspapers I just write a weekly column for West Indies papers and I do some occasional magazine work
I think that I will be phased out of television commentary. They are looking for younger commentators, and commentators who have played Test cricket. There are very few who do commentary now on TV internationally who have not played Test cricket. Harsha Bogle of India, myself here in the West Indies, Mark Nicholas in England.
My Father was my biggest influence. I got, and I still have it in fact, for my 8th birthday, a Wisden inscribed ‘happy birthday Tony from Mum and Dad’. I have virtually all of them since then but that was the first one. That was what you did in Barbados, you played cricket during cricket season, you played football as well and then track and field came into it. But cricket was the main thing. I played cricket for the Lodge School in the first team. In those days the 3 main secondary schools in Barbados; Combermere School, Harrison College and the Lodge School, all played in a first grade competition so we would play on a regular basis against the top teams and immense players.
Alan McGilvray is certainly the one I learnt from as far as radio commentary is concerned. He was a great Australian commentator. I got a lot of tips from him, a lot of guidance on how to do commentary, how to deliver. People listen from all over the world, and not all of them use English as their first language, so don’t mumble and speak clearly and deliberately. A few techniques such as when the bowler was running in to bowl to the batsmen English commentators you will hear say he’s on his way and he bowls. He said ‘don’t say that because as soon as you’ve said that you are a second or two behind and the batsman has the ball with him so when he’s on his way just transfer your attention to the batsman and say Jones is on his way and Smith is back, forward, drives, pulls, whatever and you won’t be behind the play.’
Brian Johnston was an influence as far as commentary was concerned in the Test Match Special box. He made you feel completely at ease and that’s one thing I find in any job that if you are not comfortable you won’t do it as well as you should. Certainly Brian Johnston in the TMS box made you feel completely at ease; made you feel very comfortable. I was aged 26 when I first went in the TMS box. I felt quite nervous and overwhelmed but he made you feel completely at ease and from the start I felt that I could say what I wanted.
Writers that I admire now would be Peter Roebuck who is exceptional to read. Ian Woolridge, who used to be a daily mail cricket correspondent, then he eventually became a general sports columnist. We got to know each other very well. He would come to the West Indies and I was considering starting a cricket annual, a West Indies cricket annual. He influenced me and he said go for it, and I did, and it ran from 1970 to 1991 when we lost sponsorship and it was very difficult to maintain it. Then after that I went into a cricket quarterly which went from 91 to 2001 so that also helped as far as I was concerned keep me in touch with what was happening in West Indies cricket; keeping me up to date. I followed everything from every territory at every level, first class, club, and so on, so I knew players coming through and it was really was an advantage to have that background when you were doing writing and doing commentary on radio and television.
I grew up with quite a few cricketers. Richard ‘Prof’ Edwards, who played for Barbados and the West Indies. I did a lot of radio work with him, he was a radio analyst as well. A lot of the others I travelled with, I was the West Indian journalist on tour. Wes Hall, Gary Sobers, we were very close as well. When we toured together we would go out together a lot. Clive Lloyd, all of them. I got very close with a lot of them. I think they felt that they could trust me and they knew that what I would write would be sincere and I wouldn’t be looking for any sensation.
I feel more at ease doing radio commentary than any other. Writing I find far more difficult. When I read people like Peter Roebuck and Michael Atherton sometimes I feel quite inadequate. It’s certainly more of a chore than doing radio commentary. I really enjoy radio commentary. I don’t know what it is but I suppose when you get a microphone in your hand it seems to trigger something, and description comes to you quite easily. And I’ve been in it for so long. Television commentary is a little bit different, I also enjoy that but I find radio commentary is the thing I feel more at ease and more confident with.
I’ve often been criticised for things that I’ve said or written. Especially for the West Indies. For example, towards the end of his career, I suggested that Gordon Greenidge should be in his last innings. There was a fella called Brian Lara who was coming through, perhaps space should be made for him. I got very heavily criticised, in fact a couple of people in the press box made their feelings known. So naturally you get that quite often; that’s part of the job and you can’t hold back. You’ve got to be true to yourself. More especially in recent times with the board and the Players Association against each other; you get criticised by the Players Association quite vehemently and quite often.
I think players behaviour has probably changed a lot in the time I have been in cricket. I would imagine it’s because of the money now in the game. Players feel one mistake by an umpire could change their career for instance, could almost wreck their career, and they get very sensitive. I suppose that’s understandable. They play a lot of cricket now, they play all over the world, but they do very well out of it. The majority of the players are extremely well paid. You look at T20 and IPL and so on, they can make a very good profession out of it. And they do. Television is very intense, the coverage, cameras all over the place, the papers, mainly the tabloids, which are always close to the players, and everybody has a mobile phone so they can take a photograph. When England were here in the west indies last year you had players who were going out at night to the nightclubs and the fans were there to take their photograph and sending it back to the tabloids to use them.
Gary Sobers is the best player I have seen in my life. He is so far above the rest that I don’t think you can compare him. There have been so many that you want to watch going back to the first of the three W’s who were around when I was at school, who were outstanding West Indian cricketers. We used to listen on the radio when we were at school and hear them playing in England and Australia and really setting the benchmark for West Indies cricket from that time. After that you had some outstanding West Indians. But it’s not just West Indians, Australians as well, some English, too many really to pick out, all but Sobers. Sobers is absolutely number one, as far as batsmen you would like to watch. People like Roy Canning beautiful player to watch, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, master blaster, hit the ball like thunder, fantastic and exciting to watch. Shane Warne was mesmerising to watch in a different way to fast bowlers. They all bring pleasure to you. Once you see a great sportsman in any sport he is going to excite you. I’ve been lucky to have gone through so many generations of cricketers who excited me and I am sure there are others who are going to come along who do the same thing before I pass off!
There has never been an issue with me being white and reporting on West Indies cricket. I never feel that way. l may do so in other areas but as far as I am concerned I’m just West Indian. My family has been here for six generations, so I’m original West Indian and West Indian to the core. I was born in Barbados, my father lived and worked in Barbados, St Lucia, Trinidad, and St Kitts as well. So I always felt completely West Indian and I was always received by the players that way.
It was natural for my son Craig to get involved in cricket. In the same way my father influenced me I suppose I might have influenced him. You know he would’ve gone the same route, he didn’t go to the same school or college but he played cricket there. He was much, much better at Hockey, he played for Barbados. In fact I played hockey for Barbados but mainly because I got the selectors to choose me in goal. My wife also played and she was pretty good, but Craig was the best of the three of us by far and he was an outstanding player for Barbados. He’s taken to cricket and he really enjoys it. He too is treated with respect and people believe that he does a good job.
I was asked many times if they could put my name on the press box in Bridgetown and I said no. I didn’t want it. I found it was almost an embarrassment to have something named after you when I was alive. Wait til I go along and then do it. But they came back and they came back and I said the only way I’ll do it is if the Cozier that you have on the media centre is not only myself but my father as well. They said ok but we consider it to be you. I said well you put the Cozier there and I will know it’s for both father and son. I’m proud of it up there. I feel humbled by it, I’d rather it not be there and he deserves it as much as I do.
I don’t know how much longer I will carry on. I’ve dropped newspaper writing on a daily basis so I’m only doing television now . To be honest in the last year or two it’s become more physically tiring. You’ve got to realise that when you reach four score and ten you’re not going to get any stronger, you’re not going to get any more physically alert and there will come a time when you give it up. But then I look at people like Richie Benaud, who has been going for longer than I have and he’s still going. Brian Johnston died while he was in the job; he was 80 years of age so you know you never can tell.
Regrets? I have a few but too few to mention, in the words of Sinatra. I suppose one of the regrets would be not having the talent to be able to play. Perhaps I would have switched the job for playing for West Indies. I think it’ s every young boy’s dream. I just played ordinary club cricket. I suppose if I switched from what I do now I would’ve liked to have had the talent to play for the West Indies.
My wife is planning my 70th birthday party. It’s going to be a 50s theme. I don’t know what that entails. I understand that Elvis Presley comes in somewhere, and others. But it’s going to be interesting to see how it turns out.
It’s difficult to say how I would like to be remembered. Just how I honestly and truthfully chronicled West Indies cricket to the best of my ability.