The radio murmurs with a commentator running through the placement of the field before describing the bowler steaming in to release a delivery defended for no run.
Everything is expressed in intricate detail — except the whole description is entirely fabricated.
With all the vision, instant replays and even decision review system that form part of today’s cricket coverage on radio and television, it’s hard to believe at one point cricket commentators made up entire overs.
A pencil being tapped on the table is the enduring imagery of synthetic cricket, but there was a lot more that went on to bring the broadcasts to life.
When shortwave radio wasn’t up to direct broadcasts from the United Kingdom in the 1930s, cricket commentators on the ABC had to use some creativity and ingenuity.
Cables arrived at the end of each over with information, but only detailed the shots where batsmen had made runs. Any dot balls were filled by the commentator with a bit of imagination.
But in the 1930s even the regularity of cables couldn’t be assured, meaning even more liberties were taken when there was a delay in communication being received.
Bernard Kerr was at the beginning of his career during the synthetic tests, before a lengthy career at the ABC. His job was to scribe down the cables sent direct from the London Post Office to the Sydney Post Office.
“We had our fun when the cables broke down,” he said when reflecting on the synthetic Tests years later.
“And of course we had some stories, made up, but nevertheless they were fairly true, such as a batsman having trouble with his glove, and then having trouble with the strap on his pad.”
That was one way to buy time, but other avenues were needed when the delays were lengthier.
“The best way though when the cables broke down was to whip in a few maiden overs,” Kerr said.
With limited information, the cricket broadcasts, complete with synthetic sound effects, left many people vehemently believing they were direct broadcasts from grounds in England.
But the ruse was up when sometimes things did go wrong, like when legendary commentator Alan McGilvray received a cable saying ‘MC out,’ when both Stan McCabe and Ernie McCormick were at the crease.
In the moment, McGilvray sent McCabe packing, but when the next cable expanded on the dismissal and said it was McCormick who was in fact out, McGilvray simply apologised.
This made it clear to some that the broadcasts were not coming directly from England, but historian Frazer Andrews said this style of commentary fit into what was popular entertainment 90 years ago.
“In this period of time, this is when radio dramas were becoming a kind of staple fare. And so people were used to dramatic stories,” he said.
“And I think it kind of fitted into that, that this was not only a sports commentary, but there was also a kind of drama involved in it as well. That really seemed to take people in.”
To think players could one day challenge umpiring decisions via a video review system would seem implausible to cricket fans 90 years ago. But Andrews said synthetic cricket was cutting edge for radio listeners.
“I guess on one level synthetic, as we would understand it today, implies something that imitates something, but that is artificial. But it also implies something modern,” he said.
“And you think about at the same time, in the 1930s, the development of things like the first man made textiles, rayons and nylons and things like that. The Bakelite that the radios are made of, that is a synthetic material. It’s a plastic. So synthetic means newness. It implies modern and new.”
This innovation kept Australians updated with how their national side was fairing, even if it there was a little make believe involved.
Synthetic Cricket is one of six podcast episodes of the Everlasting Summer series, celebrating 90 years of cricket coverage at the ABC. Listen to the full series here.