Chris Rattue: Personalities who took over the airwaves

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From Howard Cosell to John Arlott, the best commentators use eloquence, wit and anecdote to draw us into the world of their chosen sport, scattering memorable catchphrases or gaffes along the way.

Often imitated, never beaten. Richie Benaud has remained the standard-bearer of Australian cricket commentary for decades. Photo / Getty Images
Often imitated, never beaten. Richie Benaud has remained the standard-bearer of Australian cricket commentary for decades. Photo / Getty Images

Former England captain Tony Greig, who died last week, wasn't just a renowned cricket commentator. He brought the panama hat back into wide view and reinvented the humble car key as a tool to measure pitch conditions. The most memorable commentators have a style of their own and quirks that make them unforgettable.

Howard Cosell
(USA)

The most famous media man and voice in sports history. Far more than just a play-by-play caller of course, but his Nasal delivery - described as Brooklyn bile in one obituary - did commentate sports such as boxing and American football. Too many calling cards to note but his arrogance has to be mentioned. Cosell would "tell it like it is". How do we know that - 'cos Cosell said so of course. His controversial contributions helped popularise Monday Night Football - in typical style he exited that booth in the mid-80s after calling the sport a "stagnant bore". Eschewed a famous hat for an infamously obvious toupee.

Murray Walker
(England)

Perhaps the most famous sports commentator on the planet in his day. The hyperbolic, nice-guy Walker was Captain Enthusiastic - you could almost see his saliva on the tarmac. He was integral to Formula One despite, or maybe because of, his ability to overstate the obvious and defy his own logic. Typical Walkerisms are: "This car is absolutely unique - except for the one behind it which is exactly the same" and "we're now on the 73rd lap and the next one will be the 74th."

Ted Lowe
(England)

Lowe had a legendary voice - a gravelly, throaty whisper that made TV audiences feel that a snooker hall was a kind of temple. Like all long-time callers, he had a few famous lines, including: "For those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green."

Richie Benaud
(Australia)

Led a one-man battle on the off-white jacket front - as a Benaud parody reckoned, he wore cream, bone, white, off-white, ivory or beige. Just as famous though for humbly wearing the pants in cricket commentary boxes, Benaud at his peak was the oracle and there is still a certain reverence displayed in his presence.

Sid Waddell
(England)

The king of the one-liners. Waddell was so loved that the world darts championship trophy was (posthumously) renamed in his honour. Described as eccentric, knowledgeable, colourful, excitable. Waddell's best line came after Eric Bristow won the world title - "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer ... Bristow's only 27."

John Arlott
(England)

Arlott had a voice as distinctive as Lowe's hushed snooker descriptions. His kindly, Hampshire growl described cricket in ways that have never been matched. In days long ago of finding Arlott through the shortwave radio hiss, he made cricket sound from another planet rather than the other side of the world. After a famous 30-plus year career, he signed off simply during a test commentary at Lord's saying, " ... and after Trevor Bailey it'll be Christopher Martin-Jenkins."

Bill McLaren
(Scotland)

The voice of rugby. Famed for an evocative turn of phrase delivered with a lovely rolling brogue. "They say down at Stradey that if ever you catch him [Phil Bennett] you get to make a wish," typified his style. To hear him say Doddie Weir's name made it worth getting up at three in the morning.

Peter Alliss
(England)

Definitely not from the school of nice-guy British commentators despite his use of plummy, chummy phrases. Alliss was witty, capable of scolding the great and the good in pompous tones and an antidote to golf's mainly syrupy callers. He reached the heights or the depths, depending on your perspective, during Jean van de Velde's watery meltdown at the 1999 British Open. Alliss reckoned he would rather be "sitting at home enjoying a glass of malt by now, and waiting for the old lady to bring in a nice steak". As van de Velde contemplated the impossible, he added: "If he gets that ball out, I'm retiring." Wonderful.

Vin Scully
(USA)

Eloquent longevity is his calling card - he started as the Dodgers baseball caller in 1950 and is still going strong including on Twitter. Lines such as "statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp-post: for support, not illumination", flow from his lips. His famous traits have included inviting listeners to "pull up a chair".

Winston McCarthy
(New Zealand)

The mid 1900s rugby icon had the only famous catchphrase in New Zealand sport - "Listen ... listen ... it's a goal." McCarthy was our first famous caller and only Keith Quinn has come close to matching his rugby status. Quinn says there was "worldwide curiosity" around McCarthy's exuberant style, which had a flow to match the match action.

Peter Montgomery
(New Zealand)

Listen, listen, it's a tack ... okay, we made that up, but Montgomery is our Winston McCarthy of yachting. Montgomery pulled yachting out of the ocean and into the living room. It may only be a couple of boats floating around, but at the sharp end of the radio it could sound like Frazier and Ali going toe to toe. No New Zealand commentator has had such a buoyant influence on a sport and he made history as the official yachtsman of the year in 1990.

John Motson
(England)

Is to the sheepskin-lined coat what Richie Benaud is to the ivory coloured jacket. The dominant English-speaking soccer commentator of the past three decades. There will naturally be Brazilians and Ecuadorians and Russians who have never heard of the man we regard as soccer's most famous commentator and some might argue that Motty isn't always using English anyway. We present "and Seaman, just like a falling oak, manages to change direction" as Exhibit A. Or how about "Spurs are nearer to being out of the FA Cup now than at any other time since the first half of this season, when they weren't ever in it anyway."

David Coleman
(England)

The gaffe-merchant was so famous for mistakes that Colemanballs is the byword for sports commentary errors. "That's the fastest time ever run - but it's not as fast as the world record," is a classic Coleman-type stuff-up. Broke the 200 words per minute mark although he probably wishes it was a few less after yelling "who cares who's third" at an Olympic event where the bronze medallist was a Brit.

Harry Carpenter
(England)

Carpenter, a renowned fight caller, was just as famous for receiving a punchline as he was for giving them. Heavyweight Frank Bruno's Cockney-like " ... know what I mean 'Arry" was a catchcry of the 1980s.

Darrell Eastlake
(Australia)

Took the over-the-top, screaming, bonkers-style commentary to hell and back - most notably to obliterate and illuminate State of Origin rugby league, motor racing and Olympic weightlifting. Toned it down after suffering an on-air heart attack while covering a surf championship. Also covered sheep dog trials, which must have made things tricky for the dogs.

- NZ Herald

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