This is a Sport Australia podcast production.
Mick Earsman It's an absolute pleasure to be sitting alongside one of the great Australian sports broadcasters. To many, his voice is the soundtrack of Australia's greatest triumphs and failures on cricket grounds here and all over the world. In almost half a century of broadcasting with the ABC, he is synonymous with the Australian summer, and now he is the 19th recipient of the Sport Australia Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports Journalism. We're here, we've been welcomed into his lovely home here in Sydney's eastern suburbs, along with his budgies, his pet budgies. Jim Maxwell, congratulations.
Jim Maxwell I'm very sort of surprised, overwhelmed and all of the things that happen when something like this occurs. So, it's Marjorie and Albert, by the way, over there, making the noise in the background. That might add something to the conversation as we go, but, well, thank you very much for the honour and the recognition. And there's a wonderful list of sporting people involved in this over the last 19, 20 years. So, yeah, it's a great honour to be told of this award. Thank you.
Mick Earsman It isn't your first award, clearly, Jim, and it won't be your last. How were you told? How did it come about, this news?
Jim Maxwell Yes, it was a phone call from Steve Moneghetti and we had a very pleasant chat about everything under the sun and then he told me that I was the recipient of this prestigious award.
Mick Earsman Ok, 48 years behind the microphone Jim. Over 300 test matches not out. Did the young Jim Maxwell ever dream that all of this was possible?
Jim Maxwell He had a dream. Maybe it was a fantasy in those days. When I was at school, I had an idea, an inkling that being involved somehow in the game of cricket, other than playing because I wasn't good enough to be playing at that top level, was perhaps achievable. I was writing a cricket magazine in school and I had quizzes and crosswords. I was also a bookmaker, but that's another career that I didn't embark on. And from there, even before I left school, I was applying for a job in the ABC as a trainee and funnily enough, the person who got that job was also at my school and had done his degree at University, a very good all-around sportsman and a lovely fellow who taught me a lot about broadcasting, Peter Meares. So that was the first crack I had at it and it went on from there at various intervals in the next few years before eventually I got in the front door.
Mick Earsman Yeah, you first started as a cadet in 1973 at the ABC but it wasn't all smooth sailing early on, was it? You got rejected a couple of times, was that right?
Jim Maxwell Well 1967, that was an optimistic shot in the dark. I hadn't even done the higher school certificate, but I thought it was worth having a crack. And then I went to uni and I had another go in 1969. And then I worked in life insurance for a while in the brand-new superannuation business that was all about and then I decided, because Tom Spencer, who was working in the same place, played first grade for Manly said “Why don't you come on the Old Collegians tour to England in 1972?” And I did. And it was through that experience and coming back home that my mother had advised me when I returned penniless at the end of spending all my dough there that “I got this cutting out of the paper, that job you were looking for in the ABC has come up again” and that was in September 1972. So the process started again and six months later, after auditions and whatever, I ended up with the job.
Mick Earsman And what was it that actually inspired you in the first place to pursue a career in broadcasting?
Jim Maxwell Cricket commentary. Listening to Alan McGilvray when I was young, particularly those Ashes series, ’61 a bit more, 1964. I used to listen to the cricket because by then I developed a keen interest in playing the game and following it. I used to have stuff stuck all over the bedroom wall. It was a combination of all the newspapers that I could find where I get some photos and scorecards. Cricket and motor racing. I had a lot of motor racing stuff on the wall. I probably had a few other things, but we won’t worry about that. But certainly, a lot of cricket and McGilvray’s voice was unique. There was only one McGilvray and the thing I loved about listening to him talk about the game was that he told you what was happening. All the other guys were colourful, they were lyrical and poetic and whatever, but they didn't give you the nitty gritty and McGilvray always did that. And that was the formative early influence in, as it turned out, my broadcasting career was listening to McGilvray’s silvery voice, confidential style and it had a lasting impact.
I had no idea when I was 14, 15 that I'd be sitting alongside him and sitting behind and listening to him. That was how I learnt more about cricket broadcasting than with anyone else.
Mick Earsman Was it him that shaped the way that you, your approach to cricket commentary?
Jim Maxwell No doubt about it. He didn't give advice very easily, very freely but every now and then he did offer you a crumb and one of them was ‘copy technique, make your own style’. So that's why I used to sit there and watch the game through his eyes and follow the way that he described the action, because cricket, unlike a lot of other more fast-moving sports, gives you pause for reflection. When you've got these rapid fast identification sports, you've got to be on the hammer. Cricket, you can just sit back and relax in between and talk to your kindred spirit next door or mull on what was going on in the crowd or somewhere else. So, it gives you a lot of opportunity to use language and to talk about things other than cricket the more it goes. It wasn't that in the early days you had to concentrate and be disciplined and that was drummed into you that you give the score, describe the field, very formal. And that was the McGilvray style and it was very, very effective. And he had a lot of people listening. As he used to say, a lot of people told me that they love listening to the cricket even though they don't know a damn thing about the game because it's just a friend on the radio, which is the delightful intimacy of radio.
Mick Earsman So, it has been a career in which has spanned the World Series cricket split, the coming of professionalism for cricket. There's been rebel tours, T20 cricket’s come along. You've seen the complete transformation of the game in your time in watching it and covering it. How have you seen the evolution of commentary over that same period?
Jim Maxwell Well, you always like to think things improve and I think for the listeners, I think what they're hearing now is a lot more enjoyable than my memory of it back in those years when it was pretty much inside the church, you know. It was strictly on the game as it was happening. And that's how we were taught. I think perhaps in keeping with the way we lead our lives and enjoy our social discourse, it's loosened up a lot, it's become more conversational. And hopefully we haven't got too far away from the essentials of giving the score on the scoreboard and I don't think as a rule we have on the radio. So, I think it's changed for the best, the games changed too. The players are more athletic and prepared than they were, the games generally more entertaining. And not just the T20 stuff, the frolics, but Test cricket is more combative and challenging and good to watch than perhaps it was in my young days when people were reluctant to take a risk and sat back a bit and waited for something to occur. So, I think the style of commentary has moved with the reshaping of the game. The game has evolved, and let's face it, there are very few sports that are as diverse, as varied, as cricket. When you look through Test match cricket, one-day cricket, T20, T10s around there, are there all sorts of different styles and looks and moods to the game of cricket that very few other sports can replicate. So that's another reason I think cricket is so good.
Mick Earsman There is a lot of variety, but are there rules that you've sort of stuck to throughout your career and that you would sort of preach to any, I guess, young broadcaster coming through the ranks at the moment?
Jim Maxwell Around the essential element of enjoying yourself because if you're enjoying yourself and you're involved in the game that will come across, hopefully in such a positive way for the listeners that they'll want to keep listening to you.
I think you need to have some sense of anticipation of events to keep people interested in what's going on when it gets a bit quiet as cricket can, because it has all these moods. But I think essentially, you know, the respect for the game, for the people who are playing. But the big thing to remember it is, it is a game. So, whenever things get a little bit serious on a particular topic, you always have to come back to that. And that's the good thing about talking to someone who goes off on a tangent on an issue in the game alongside you. The next ball will bring you back and you just keep moving on so that's how you sort of control, do your little bit of editorial in terms of the game.
That's part of recognising the fact that there is an audience out there. Now who’s listening? They're listening in England, yes, in Australia. Where's the audience? So talk to your audience. And remember, there are a lot of people out there who are coming and going. So don't forget the most essential thing, the score! Please don't forget on radio, to give the score! It's the one thing that really gets up my goat when I'm listening to other people and when I'm in the car or somewhere else that every now and then, they lapse into a discussion about this or that and get away from what's going on in the middle and don't give the score. So, yeah, that's my sort of reflection without going too hard on it for all cricket commentators.
Mick Earsman You have also written a stack of cricket books, but only one of those could really be considered the Bible of the Australian summer and that is the ABC Cricket Magazine. Was that your biggest passion project outside of the commentary?
Jim Maxwell Well, I used to buy it, of course, when I was young, two and six, whatever it cost back in those days and Alan McGilvray was the editor after John Moyes. And you also need to remember that this is a magazine that started in the 1930s around the synthetic broadcast as a guide to the broadcast, so it developed, evolved from that into what it's become. And it's probably the longest running cricket publication in Australia so it's got some history and tradition and there are a lot of collectors out there. So, I was doing bits and pieces for McGilvray when I first joined the ABC and then eventually, he passed the baton on and I was lucky enough to pick it up, back in the 80s. And the idea really from there on has been to try and introduce a bit more quality writing in the publication but stick to the basics of having enough statistics in there and pen portraits, the field. That's the one permanent thing the field placing, that's been there forever, we've stuck with that. So, you know, the quality of the production of the magazine it just keeps improving. And I'm very grateful to the ABC and those that have come on board from various organisations outside the ABC to edit and publish it and that it's survived because it's pretty hard as a lot of people out there would know for a magazine like that to survive in a in a market where everyone's online.
Mick Earsman Well, Jim, you've also had the pleasure of working alongside many great cricketers and commentators all over the world. Is there anyone that you've particularly enjoyed working with?
Jim Maxwell Well, Peter, the late Peter Roebuck, I enjoyed his company enormously. I was involved with a few other colleagues and getting him on the ABC many years ago. And he brought some dimension and knowledge, intellect, to cricket broadcasting that we hadn't had before. And the combination at that time of Peter Roebuck and Kerry O'Keeffe's quick wit, observational humour, I think made it one of the most enjoyable periods for me, if not for those who were listening, that the ABC has put out on the radio. So those two would stand out. And on the other side, I've got to say, although he does polarise the audience, Geoffrey Boycott’s been a lot of fun to broadcast with and with Michael Vaughan and then Vic Marks, Mike Silvy going back. We had a lot of fun in that Test match special box with those expert commentators around, obviously, Jonathan Agnew, Henry Blofeld, Chris Martin-Jenkins, a lot of very, very good broadcasters. And I probably I probably learnt more about how to relax as a cricket commentator by working with them, going back to Brian Johnston in the 80s than with it with anyone else.
Mick Earsman You have witnessed all of the highs and lows of Australian cricket over those years. Has it got to the point now where it's impossible for you to pick your most memorable moment in the box?
Jim Maxwell It's interesting, you think back on what Australia has achieved and its achieved an awful lot. And it's one I mean, very successful most of the time through all forms of the game. But funnily enough, it's the close games they've lost that seem to stick in the memory. Games like Edgbaston in 2005 when but for a whisker and a glove down the leg side and the rest of it with Michael Kasprowicz which they probably would have won that game. But as it turned out, it was a very important, significant trigger moment in the history of the Ashes, because with England winning and then winning the Ashes, it put some new life back into the Ashes series with Australia having been so dominant for so long. So that game stands out and there are a number of other very good games of cricket like, as a further example, because Brian Lara is probably the greatest batsman that I've seen, when he got the winning runs in that game in Barbados back in 1999. And they won by one wicket, another game Australia could have won and lost.
Yes, there's been a lot of those over the years, including a couple of ties that were memorable as well. But just watching the quality, the style of Australian cricket through that period out of the 90s into the 2000s, that was the time to be enjoying Australia's success and the quality of Test match cricket as we've not seen before, because of the superb bowling to a large extent of Warne and McGrath no matter what Australia did with the bat and most of the time they did enough with the bat.
Mick Earsman I think you've done very well to pull out those test matches from everything that you've seen. But you have also commentated on some other sports, rugby union, rugby league, golf, hockey. What would be your second choice behind cricket if you were to start your career again today?
Jim Maxwell It's very tough. I can tell you one of the most enjoyable matches, performances I've ever seen and been part of was Australia winning the gold medal in 1996, the Australian Hockeyroos, the women's team and Alyson Annan's performance with the hockey team and that was a stunning effort, that gold medal. So that that sticks in the mind as much as seeing Australia recover from a huge deficit in a rugby union test out of the football stadium against the All Blacks when Jonah Lomu was playing.
Nothing sticks quite as strongly in the mind, though, as calling club rugby on television, particularly down the road here with the eastern suburbs, with the home team, as it were. And probably the only time that I've been able to get a plug in for a sponsor without being in front of the Senate Estimates Committee. Yalumba with the sponsor for eastern suburbs, the late Greg Pullen, lovely fellow, he used to put a bottle of signature or something on the table for us to enjoy during the match. And they were very cold afternoons, you needed some medicine so that was important to have. And I thought to myself on one of these occasions, how on earth do I get a plug in for Yalumba without making it bleeding obvious that it's a commercial? So, we had this play down the right hand side or whatever it was and I said, the ball's gone out on the far side and Bartrop he’s out there and he's taken the pass and he's going to Yalumba in for a try. No one said a thing and Greg Pullen was very happy and Yalumba’s support for eastern suburbs was reinforced.
Mick Earsman You mention the Olympic Games and you have called at three Olympic Games, actually called three Olympic Games. But the most recent one that you called was Rio in 2016. And that's where life took a dramatic turn for you, didn't it, Jim?
Jim Maxwell Well, it did, yes. Luckily, I'm here today and chatting away, well it could have been different, but it was quite strange. We were working very strange hours in order to be on top of the time difference with Rio, we're doing it from most of it from Redfern, although we did have a couple of broadcasters in Rio, Alastair Nicholson and Quentin Hull were over there.
And I was introducing this yachting segment with my friend Peter Shipway who is a very famous Australian yachtsman and as I was about to introduce him, my voice just went. I lost it completely and Tim Gavel, who was in the studio, immediately recognised, even though he wasn't a doctor, that I'd had a stroke and called it, he called the stroke as I had it. And so, yeah, that that wasn't a great moment and the paramedics whipped me off to hospital and I have to say from that moment on, I really wouldn't have made the recovery to where I am now without the support of my wife Jen who has been outstanding. She's been with me on a lot of trips, work and pleasure and just the way she has looked after me and shown that sort of love you have in the relationship has been outstanding. I've been so fortunate so that's been a big part of it all. And remembering if we go back a few years to when we were married, it happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground. So, we've kept everything in perspective over these years.
Mick Earsman Did you ever doubt your ability to make a full return to the commentary box?
Jim Maxwell Oh, yes. Yes, well, in the early stages of it, I was struggling a bit with my speech and I've still got the legacy of a bit of a shaky right side. And I can't hit a golf ball properly at the moment so that needs a bit of work. But look, as they say, always, always look on the bright side. It could have been a lot worse, a lot worse. So, I'm very grateful that I haven't lost my voice and that I have been able to recover and do what I've been doing for such a long time. I mean, as Jen says, well, it's a stroke that keeps on giving.
Mick Earsman You’ve now even called a Boxing Day Test match from your lounge room here, probably that seat that you're sitting in but that wasn't due to your health or anything that you did, that was that was due to Covid-19 restrictions preventing you from travelling to Melbourne. Would that be up there with one of the strangest moments of your career?
Jim Maxwell Yes, it was certainly detached and remote. It wasn't as good as being there, nor was perhaps being at Redfern, where we did a remote call of that thrilling Test match that India played and won so well in Brisbane recently. But look, in all these things and perhaps the experience of being in the subcontinent, where to lose patience is to lose the battle, as has been said by a number of other people, so you adjust, you just have to adjust to whatever you confronted with. Just adjust and get on with it.
Mick Earsman That's fantastic advice. What do you feel has been, you know, the secret behind your longevity?
Jim Maxwell The fact that the ABC has stuck with me as much as I've stuck with them, I suppose, over these years, and I've had the opportunity to do what I've enjoyed. And it seems as though other people have enjoyed it, too. And so, yeah, there's something a little tenacious about it all, but a kind of fulfilment, a sense of enjoyment and the fact that 99 per cent, it seems, of those who are listening are enjoying it has sustained me and the more so having had this stroke and I'm recovering from it.
So just the support of so many people, either in a commentary box, the management level of the ABC and the BBC, but essentially at the end of the day, it's the people who are listening. And that's the best feedback you can get is from the bloke who walks across the road in the middle of nowhere and it's happened to me, fortunately, a few times, “I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed listening to the cricket from England”. And it's moments like that that make you realise that what you're doing is significant and to a lot of people, very important. So, I'm lucky to have been that messenger for so long. And now, I suppose as long as I've still got the voice that I've got at the moment, I might be allowed to continue to do it.
Mick Earsman I was going to ask, how long can you keep doing it, Jim?
Jim Maxwell Who knows? How long's a piece of string and all of that? I think it's the one thing about doing cricket that you can endure for a bit more than fast moving sports. I noticed and I haven't done a game of rugby or rugby league, for that matter, for some time, for a few years. But you need sharp identification and a quick brain to do that stuff. I'm not sure whether I could get away with it because all broadcasters who are listening to this will know that there's an element of bluff in what you do. So, yeah, and maybe as McGilvray said I'm not quoting him directly here, but I'll paraphrase him, he said it's amazing the boloney you can get away with on the radio. So, if it's all baloney, well, then a lot of people are listening to it so there must be some sort of substance to the baloney, I guess. And you just got to keep sticking your neck at all. As I said to my friends, you know that you are in control of what you are doing if you can put your foot in your mouth and then realise how to take it out.
Mick Earsman That’s great,that's really good. So, Jim, a few cricket questions to finish off for me without notice.
Jim Maxwell Is this a quiz?
Mick Earsman It's a quiz. Who is the greatest player you've ever seen?
Jim Maxwell Shane Warne. No doubt. Warne has done more to influence the game of cricket than any other Australian cricketer if not world cricketer since Bradman and is extraordinary, the most extraordinary talent I think we've seen in this era with his ability to rip those leggys and have the variety and the personality to command the stage. And he's not only been a great bowler, but great theatre. And I think he has added more to the spectacle of cricket than anyone else in the last 20 or 30 years.
Mick Earsman There havebeen a number of very successful Australian captains, who's the best of them?
Jim Maxwell That's a very tough question, because I remember Richie Benaud from my youth and he was an inspirational force, so is Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor’s probably up there, close to the top. You need the ability to have the confidence of those are around you for them to believe in you. And you need to have the tactical nous. And I think Mark embraced all of that.
Mick Earsman The scariest bowler you've ever seen.
Jim Maxwell Well, when I was at school, it was a kid called Nigel Agonia who came from Papua New Guinea and he frightened the hell out of everyone because there were no helmets in those days and he was bloody fast. That's a personal experience but sitting back in the commentary box and watching, that's a very good question. I'd say a combination if I put two on the table. Froggie, sorry, a combination of I put two on the table, Jeff Thomson, because no one could see where the ball was coming from with his javelin like action and Patrick Patterson at his best was ferocious, ferocious.
But there have been plenty of fast bowlers who have frightened the tripe out of batsmen. But I reckon Thommo in his peak for the two years before he got injured would have to be the fastest and most frightening bowler the game has seen.
Mick Earsman You will have witnessed hundreds of thousands of innings by any number of batsmen across the globe, is there one of all that really stands out?
Jim Maxwell The one that sticks in my mind because of its significance in the course of the series was Sachin Tendulkar in Chennai against Shane Warne. And he got out, I think a duck in the first innings, caught at slip by Taylor. In the second innings, he took on Warne and out of the rough there was a bit of rough too, I remember he hit this six over midwicket and he stamped his authority on the game and on Warne from there on in this series. And it was a brilliant, brilliant innings and it made a huge difference to the course of that series. So that stands out but goodness, there have been plenty of others, plenty of hours, and Ricky Ponting’s performance in the final of the World Cup in South Africa in 2003 is another that stands out as a glittering example. Certainly in one day cricket, if not all cricket, of a batsman, so dominating the opposition that it helped chalk up a significant victory for Australia.
Mick Earsman What about your favourite cricket ground?
Jim Maxwell I always come back to the SCG because I've watched and done commentary, I mean, actually even played on the ground, fortunately enough, once or twice. The slightly lower level than the stars, but the thing with the SCG is that unlike any other ground in Australia, you have the members, and the ladies stands and in the members stand, you've got those two dressing rooms. Now, those dressing rooms are hallowed places. You can go in there, not just as an Australian player, but as Joe Blow, if you're able to on a tour or whatever, and take a seat where W.G Grace sat at one end of the pavilion or Don Bradman at the other. There's no other cricket ground in Australia that has that special historical significance that the SCG has, so that's why to me it is the number one ground in Australia, probably the world, but Lords is certainly special too. But the SCG, that's the home of cricket.
Mick Earsman This is probably going to be the hardest one to answer for you, but who is the best cricket commentator?
Jim Maxwell Alive or dead is the riposte to that goes. Well McGilvray was the best on radio and Richie Benaud was the best on television. I mean after that, there are a lot of very good commentators, my colleague from England, Jonathan Agnew, and we're very fortunate in the ABC to have a number of excellent commentators. And, yeah, I think it's a bit hard to define.
And the person whose company I've enjoyed enormously when we've had the chance to work together is Harsha Bhogle from India as an all-rounder and is that without peer, whether he's talking about the game or the influence of the game on our society, Harsha is number one. And you know, in the same breath I talked about Roebuck and O’Keeffe, my old pal Mike Coward, a wonderful person to have talking about the game of cricket with his passion and knowledge of the game. So it's a strong list and at the same time, as I say that, I think without doubt the best all round sports commentator, who was excellent on the radio and is just as good on TV is my old pal from Melbourne Tim Lane.
Mick Earsman Last question for you Jim. Why is cricket better on the radio than it is on television?
Jim Maxwell Because it's kind of seamless on radio, right, and you don't have to be concentrating on a screen to follow it and you can enjoy the lyricism of the commentator’s diction, description of the game. And that's more and more the case in this country, it seems, with people in the middle of summer who were out and about in a car, on a harvester, in a truck, on the beach. They need the radio and it's very soothing, gratifying and quite intimate, too, to have this person talking to you about the unfolding drama of an unscripted drama that's taking place. So it's just so much more fun than TV, which is Brian Johnston said years ago, television commentary, there's a bus coming down the road. What am I going to say? Oh, there's a bus coming down the road. So that's why radio is so good. It takes you to a place that you're not at, so to speak.
Mick Earsman Well Jim Maxwell, congratulations on being the latest recipient of the Sport Australia Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Journalism and thanks for welcoming us today in your lovely home. It's been a real honour.
Jim Maxwell Well, thank you for listening. And I say that to you, Michael, and to everyone. And I hope that you enjoy the continuation of listening to cricket on the radio and one of the unique sounds in the world.