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Caught off a wrong'un*

Back in 1934, thousands of fans in this cricket-mad country used to listen on "the wireless" (now called radio) long after midnight, enthralled by vivid ball-to-ball descriptions of test matches being played in England. We thrilled to the thump of ball on willow. It seemed as real as today's live telecasts.

We didn't know (or at least I, as a 14-year-old schoolboy, didn't know) that the excited commentator wasn't watching the action at London's famous Oval, but was sitting in an ABC studio in Sydney. He faked the sound of bat striking ball by tapping the point of a pencil on wooden blocks. Cheers, handclaps and other crowd sounds were added too.

How many adult listeners knew they were being conned by those fake broadcasts will never be known.

The commentator was English-born cricket lover Charles (later Sir Charles) Moses. He was appointed General Manager of the ABC in the following year, and held that position until retiring 30 years later. (Not a bad innings on an often sticky wicket).

Recalling his cricket broadcasts, Moses once told an interviewer "I had to settle some bets. I had several letters from people who said they bet that it came directly from England, and somebody had tried to persuade them it didn’t. So there’s no doubt about it, a lot of people were convinced that it was directly from the ground and not from the studio."

The ABC opted for those phoney broadcasts because direct shortwave radio reception of the BBC's live broadcasts from London was plagued by static, fading, and often accompanied by a swishing sound or unearthly howls and whistles.

So they arranged for reporters to send a brief (and very expensive) coded cable message from London to Sydney after every over. On arrival, these were decoded, and handed to the broadcaster, who had to fill in the gaps with improvised and detailed descriptions and general chatter, and persuade his audience that he was actually watching the action.

"Farnes turns, runs in bowling to Bradman, the ball’s well-pitched, Bradman moves forward, drives," he might have said. "Compton at cover tries to cut him off, is beaten by the pace of the ball, and it races away for another four." Listeners would hear the crowd cheering... or thought they did. The applause was added by two versatile sound effects men in the studio.

Speaking on the ABC's Radio National in 2002, current cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said "There was a point during this sort of cricket charade that Charles Moses, who was one of the instigators of it all, had to go and shoot a Movietone thing for the newsreel to explain to everybody ‘This is what actually happens; we’re all sitting in a studio, we’re not at the ground. So although you may think we’re giving you a live commentary of the game, we are actually in a studio, we’re making it up.’ But radio being the illusion that it is, they could get away with it, and they did."

  • Charles Moses (1900-1988). Born in England, Moses graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1918, and arrived Australia in 1922. He joined the ABC as a radio sports announcer in 1930, became a news analyst, and was promoted to general manager in 1935.

* Wrong'un – another term for the googly, or any other ball that spins in an unexpected direction. - Channel 4 (UK)

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Story first posted February 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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