Sport

Sport finds a meaning in triumph or tragedy

Through many years of broadcasting cricket across the holiday season, I've often imagined the location and circumstances in which people are engaged as they listen. The images thus conjured are invariably idyllic: an echo of commentary from caravans to tents across beach-side camping grounds, via a radio resting on a big towel under a beach umbrella on the sand or at low volume as a fisherman dangles a line. 

Of course, people are doing all kinds of things as they consume sport on radio at any time of year. It's just that the images of summer listening are especially evocative and appealing. There's timeless synergy between cricket and summer holidays. 

So deeply etched are some moments that broadcasts from decades ago are recalled with enough clarity to create a picture of where this once-young listener was as the action unfolded. I recall pulling rank with mates when they wanted music and I wanted cricket as we basked in the sun: the trannie was mine and, generally, the cricket we got. It was with vindication I noticed not many years later that they, too, had become rusted-on radio cricket listeners at the beach.

Non-summer broadcasts are different, although rich images have on occasion been sketched by talkback callers and generous correspondents. One, who had migrated from the United States, related how footy on the radio enabled him to capture the local zeitgeist and join the morning-tea conversation at work. It was through this that he came to feel he belonged. Others have described losing themselves in cricket and football broadcasts sufficient to be assisted through difficult life circumstances.

After the Sydney Olympic Games, one correspondent told me of being on a Qantas flight over central Australia as Cathy Freeman's 400 metre final was run. The captain put the radio broadcast on the PA and, at the climax of the race, the plane erupted in celebration. While deep down I know almost every Australian listened to Bruce McAvaney's television call, Cathy and I will always have central Australia at 40,000 feet.

These are affirming testimonies. Spending a working life talking about people playing games is hardly a profound job description. Despite the extreme good fortune in having such a career, there were odd times in years gone by when I wondered if I should get a real job. Learning that occasionally these broadcasts have provided more than the mere score, though, brought meaning.

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Yet still there are times when the gravity with which we treat major sport can be made to feel inappropriate. Occasionally, over the years, there have been moments in which sudden breaking news almost completely over-shadowed the significance of a sports broadcast. A tragic example was the 1996 Port Arthur massacre which unfolded during Sunday afternoon football from Waverley. With each update the business of getting excited over a game felt more like an irreverent obscenity. 

Within 18 months of that, and just before the first bounce at another Sunday football match, a news flash reported the death of Princess Diana. Over the past two summers, news of terrorist attacks in Paris has broken on the morning of international cricket matches in Australia. 

At times like this it's hard to know how to go about broadcasting what is just a game. These days we joke about First World problems. Getting too bothered with sport is surely one of these, whether we are sitting in the outer, in front of the TV, or at the microphone.

This summer, the Boxing Day Test was played as bushfires raged along the Great Ocean Road. On this occasion the breaking news actually intersected with the life of the broadcaster. I went to the MCG on Boxing Day feeling apprehensive about my little place at Wye River. After an on-air stint during the early rain-delay, I anxiously checked my text messages. A neighbour – Ken from across the road – had got word: "Sorry just found out only 3 houses left in dunoon rd. Unfortunately yours and ours have gone."

Suddenly, the worlds of the beach and the broadcast box had come together. The little house in which I'd visualised one day listening to lots of Test cricket in retirement was no longer.

It was a shock and a serious issue to have to deal with. Nevertheless, no one was killed – at my place or anywhere else – and there are people in the area who have lost their homes and everything in them. So mine is a very much a problem of the First World variety.

It serves as a reminder, though, of the courage and commitment of those who fight fires on any day of the year. On this occasion the crisis arose on Christmas Day and the firies forwent their enjoyment of that special day of the year as a matter of duty. 

It was also a reminder of how quickly the most glorious Australian summer setting – with the low hum of cricket emanating from the radio – can go from idyll to inferno. I now know it doesn't just happen to other people.

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