The language of cricket: Daniel Norcross

In the next instalment of The Cricket Blog’s language of cricket series, Miles Reucroft speaks to Test Match Special and BT Sports commentator, Daniel Norcross. Norcross took a somewhat unconventional route to the hallowed TMS box, launching his own internet radio station, Test Match Sofa, which rose to prominence in the game in the late 2000s. We spoke about that, swearing on air, his favourite cricket commentators and his favourite cricketing phrases.

The first, and perhaps most fundamental question is, how important is language in cricket? Norcross takes a deep draw on his cigarette in ponderance. “It’s absolutely fundamental to the game,” he begins. “Much like baseball terminology has been adopted into American society, it’s similar in England. Everyone knows the phrase ‘sticky wicket’, for example. From a commentator’s perspective, however, I need to consider how much of it is taken as understood by the listener. There’s a difference in approach depending on the format; if I’m commentating on a Test match, I assume the audience is made up of dedicated cricket followers, whereas it’s very different when commentating on The Hundred, which is designed to bring a new audience to the game. Then you make conscious decisions to make your language more accessible, by which I mean avoiding the more abstruse elements of cricketing terminology.

“It’s a similar set of drivers when you’re commentating on TV rather than radio. Because the viewer can see the action, obviously, it allows you talk more technically and to the component elements of the game.  On the radio, it’s more conversational and descriptive. The descriptive side of this comes from within the language of cricket, so you have to use a different approach for different stages of the game. For example, when things are close, you may discuss just how far in front of square is short leg? Your listenership needs different things at different times.

“Language is used in so many different ways within cricket, I guess more so than almost any other sport. There are myriad field settings, we all know what inside and outside edges are, what clothed means, all because there’s a massive variety of things that can happen within the game. The terminology used gives shortcuts to describe what is a very complicated scene.”

Test Match Sofa to Test Match Special

The conversation moves on to Norcross’s own career. Having come from the outside of cricket to one of its innermost sanctums, commentating alongside former England captains and a plethora of current and ex-internationals, does he feel that he talks about the game differently to his colleagues?

“I’m afraid I’m going to give you an equivocating answer because it’s yes and no,” begins Norcross. “I grew up listening to Test Match Special, but with Test Match Sofa I wanted an avowedly different experience for the listener. It had the same disciplines, namely calling each ball as it happened and updating on the score, but I wanted to liven up the game that I love because I felt it had started to go a little bit stale. I was starting to imagine what cricket might sound like if you had someone saying, ‘that was a diabolical shot,’ or ‘what a pile of shit that was!’ We were allowed to swear and in doing so offer more of a passionate reaction to the game. It was geared at being the fan voice you’d hear if you actually went to the game.

“Test Match Special has always said it wants to be like listening in on friends at the game, it’s just the Test Match Sofa friends had had three or four cans of Stella and were a bit more infuriated by Kevin Pietersen getting out driving the ball into the wind at Perth (a reference to England’s disastrous 2013/14 Ashes tour Down Under). I can’t be like that on Test Match Special. My language has to be much more neutral and not take a side. There’s no “we’re playing well,” it’s “England are playing well.”

Has that switch in commentary style and journalistic approach been an easy one for Norcross to manage? The language used across both TMSs is fundamentally different. “It was surprisingly easy,” says Norcross. “I realised as I was doing it that I’d grown up with the language of Test Match Special. There’s a rhythm to it, knowing where to go large and when not to, when to divert into strange areas with Phil Tufnell talking about zombies, when to zone in completely on the batter’s experience.

“I should have known, because I’d done this with amateur cricketers on Test Match Sofa, with people who are passionate about the game. They always found their stride. The first ball you call is always rubbish because it’s all about rhythm and you need to find that. Nigel Henderson, who I used to commentate with there, was just so natural with it. There’s a pattern to calling the game. This might sound pretentious, but it’s quite Homeric in style. Epic poetry goes to repetitive tropes and we intersperse periods of chat with the repetition of the pattern of the game; in comes the bowler, over the wicket, two slips and a gully. It has that rhythm which resets what you do and lets the listener know that something is going to happen right now.

“This has always been the case with cricket commentary and language. I’d been listening my whole life and it had seeped into my bones. We’ve got a young lady commentating with us now, Melissa Story, and her dad never had cricket on the TV, rather she was exposed to cricket on the radio. Her first delivery on Test Match Special was an exercise in perfection. I firmly believe she has that from being inculcated in the language of cricket via the radio from a very young age.”

In Norcross’s documentary Calling the Shots, he listened back to commentary of the Verity Test match of 1934, a game in which Hedley Verity took 15 wickets, including 14 in a single day, at Lord’s against Australia. “The cadences and the descriptions are the same,” he explains. “As old as cricket commentary itself is how you do it. That’s not to say you can’t shake it up a bit at times, but essentially the technique and methodology remains unchanged.”

Swearing and cricket

Whilst the rhythm of commentary is the same, the surrounding elements can be quite different. Norcross had mentioned Pietersen in Perth and we were talking during the second Test of England’s 2022 tour of Pakistan. Ben Stokes had rather given his wicket away in the second innings of the first Test, my own reaction was to swear at the futility of it. Is it difficult to contain such reactions live on air? Afterall, if you go to a sporting event the likelihood of hearing somewhere swear is almost certain.

“A lot of people have asked me this,” smiles Norcross. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to sometimes. There’s a chimp on my shoulder going ‘just say fuck’, because it’s the mode used at the time; ‘what the fuck was that?!’ When Stokes got out, that’s exactly what was going through my head. But it’s pleasing and rewarding being able to say ‘what the fuck was that?’ in a more elegant way.

“David Gower does this brilliantly, using litotes a lot. When something’s really dreadful, we might say something like, “well, you won’t see a more average shot than that in the next 20 years.” People say they’re disappointed a lot; they’re not, they’re furious. You find a way of expressing the magnitude of the awfulness you’ve just witnessed, but you do it in a more elegant way.

“I was commentating on the Mankad incident this summer when Deepti Sharma Mankaded Charlie Dean at Lord’s. At the time my blood was boiling – not because I don’t think Mankading should be allowed, but because of the calculated nature and the time in the game. I could feel the enraged blood boiling of Alex Hartley next to me and I realised that I was going to need to speak here for two minutes to let her calm down. That’s where you earn your money, being absolutely clear on what’s just happened and conveying that to your audience in an appropriate manner. You subsume your fury, but anyone listening would’ve known that what just happened was extremely controversial.”

Cricketing phrases

The conversation moves on to cricketing phrases. We spoke to Eoin Morgan in the previous instalment of this series and he used the word ‘intent’ a lot whilst commentating during the 2022 World T20. Does Norcross have any phrases that he likes to use?

“I’m trying to think,” he says, lighting another cigarette, before asserting, “I absolutely do not execute plans. Never. It doesn’t sit right with me, it’s too prosaic. Every broadcaster has to be different, though. There’s no point trying to mimic someone else. My stock in trade is slightly more grandiloquence, more persiflage, trying to construct metaphors that enliven peoples’ experience.

“Intent is a decent one, though. It describes the likely risk taking by a batsman. It’s a shortcut and says to the listener, ‘listen in now, he might come charging down the wicket.’ I do have phrases that I repeat too often, I know. A lot of cover drives are ‘glorious’ with me! I can’t help it. It’s so Jim Laker and I was brought up listening to him. It’s stuck in my subconscious. I could do with widening the repertoire,” laughs Norcross.

“I also say ‘oh my goodness’ a fair bit, which is short hand for ‘fuck me.’ You can tell the chimp’s on my shoulder if you hear me say oh my goodness. That’s when my instinct is to go somewhere quite different.

“I don’t think I try to use technical cricketing language too often. Things like ‘wobble seam’ I’ll use, and I’ll ask summarisers if it’s reversing, that sort of thing. You’ll look out for if the ball is reversing or gripping, because it’s essential to the action. Hitchcock talked about a bomb in a room, with two people chatting. Now, you don’t just show them chatting and the bomb goes off. You focus on one person talking, then the bomb. Then the other person talking, then the bomb. Back and forth, thereby creating the jeopardy in the scene. One of the commentator’s jobs is to work out where the jeopardy is, from a batter getting off the mark, runs left in a chase or how a bowler is trying to get a wicket. You’re forever looking forward in anticipation of that bomb going off. Often the bomb doesn’t go off, of course, but you’re still setting up the jeopardy. This inevitably leads to the use of certain cricketing terms and phrases.”

Favourite commentators

Having mentioned the impact of Jim Laker upon his subconscious, which other commentators influenced Norcross? “The one I think is the greatest of all time is Tony Cozier,” he says without hesitation. “When you turned on the radio and heard his voice, a whole load of things suddenly happened. He set the scene and tone of the game within four our five words and he had a beautiful voice. That’s important, aesthetically, as a listener. He modulated his tone perfectly, so you knew if we were in the middle of a big partnership or wickets were tumbling, just from his voice. The state of the game was expressed just through his voice and that’s an incredible skill. It’s beyond belief really, and he did it whilst moving effortlessly from TV to radio in the room next door. That transition is much harder than people realise, because the formats are so different. His knowledge of the game and when to use anecdotes that could be playful but were always illuminating, meant that you learned and were entertained. He would be my number one.

“As I mentioned you never try to imitate, but there were things that he did that I often think about how I might reflect in my own style. What would Tony think?” chuckles Norcross

“Aggers (Jonathan Agnew) is also an incredible person to learn from. His grasp of technical aspects, such as run outs, which are the hardest thing for me, helped. He told me to watch where the ball’s gone then you can pick up later what’s gone on. The next day, would you believe, I got Nathan Lyon running out James Vince at Brisbane and I listened to it, and fuck me if it wasn’t perfect! It’s all because of what Aggers told me. Now, I’m not claiming it as one of the best pieces of commentary ever, but it was seamless. The day before I’d have called it completely differently. It was a great piece of advice. Also, just the way he describes the scene is as strong as any other radio commentator I can think of. He’s excellent at using that to reset conversations. You might be having a laugh with Tuffers, but he brings it back to the setting and the place we’re in.

“Simon Mann, for my money, is the most efficient commentator, the most technically perfect, that we’ve got. I listened to him a lot during the Covid period (when fans weren’t allowed to attend games) and it was so weird. The commentary reflected that – I did three of those Tests and it was very strange. You’re in a cavernous, empty space, everyone’s worried about a life threatening disease and you’re questioning what we’re doing here. But it was an escape for people. I was listening to the first Test in my garden and when Simon came on, everything was reset. It was just the game and you knew exactly what was going on. He’s not demonstrative and he doesn’t use silly long words like I will or go into daft anecdotes like some of us. He’s not a silly child. He just makes me feel like one on many occasions! Because of all that, he resets the programme but people don’t appreciate his gifts. They take him for granted. He’s like a really good umpire or an efficient keeper; you don’t necessarily notice him and other clips get taken from a day’s play.

“I also appreciate the joy in the voices of others. Ebony Rainford-Brent has a real playfulness in her voice, yet she’s perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the game. It reminds you to keep the joy in your own voice, because the commentators that drive you mad are the ones who sound like they don’t want to be there. It’s the most privileged position in the world, the jammiest job. We’re all lucky to be doing it because, frankly, there are lots of people who could be doing it, it’s just that we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“You’ll notice that nobody willingly retires from commentary unless they get very old. Most people want to leave their job by 60, but nobody wants to stop commentating if they can avoid it. It’s beholden on us, therefore, to at least have the good grace to enjoy it while we’re there.”

And enjoy it Daniel Norcross does. An unconventional route into mainstream commentary has perhaps given him a unique footing among his now fellow commentators, in that he’s lost none of the joie de vivre of the Test Match Sofa days. If the aim is to make cricket commentary sound like listening in on a conversation among friends, then perhaps none does it better. The highest compliment I can pay in that regard is that talking to Norcross is the same as listening to him on the radio. I even expanded my vocabulary with a few silly long words along the way.