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.