Tony Cozier: A Voice And Vision

For 40 years he's been the instantly recognisable voice of West Indies cricket. Among contemporary cricket commentators...

"Why, you’re Tony Cozier," said the rental car man.

Cozier, you see, had spoken. Until he opened his mouth, he had simply been another middle-aged customer sent over by the Heathrow airport desk. But then he asked whether we could possibly exchange our Hyundai Sonata for a Volkswagen Passat, and Cozier metamorphosed before the elderly gentleman’s eyes into an icon. Here, demanding an audacious upgrade (though let me say, for the record, that our argument was trunk space), was the voice of West Indies cricket. The talk then switched from cars to the inevitable: Brian Lara, whom Warwickshire had fined again that week; the Test series (England vs South Africa) in full swing up at Edgbaston; and what in heaven had happened to West Indies cricket? In the end, we did drive away in the Passat.

Similar incidents took place over the course of that week we spent with Cozier in England, filming interviews for a video entitled 25 Years of West Indies Cricket. Even my super-cool London friend, when Cozier deposited us at his house post-shoot, acted like he’d just watched the Lone Ranger ride off into the distance. "Know who that was?" he said to his wife. "That was Tony Cozier." 

The rental car man and my hip friend would first have heard Cozier’s musical Bajan lilt in 1966, when he first did ball-by-ball commentary on the BBC’s venerable Test Match Special during the West Indies tour to England. By that year, Cozier had already started making a name for himself in West Indies cricket circles, both as a print journalist and as a broadcaster.

Cozier in fact covered his first cricket match at age 15. Then a boarder at the Lodge School in Barbados, he reported on the Australia vs West Indies Test at Kensington Oval for the St Lucia Voice, where his father was managing editor. You could say that journalism was in his blood. At age 12 he was working at the Voice in his spare time, doing page layouts and other odd jobs. Before that, he was learning the business by osmosis, as the family followed his father from Barbados to a Cable & Wireless post in St Kitts, then to a stint back at the Barbados Advocate, before going on to the Trinidad Guardian in 1946, returning to the Advocate before going back to the Caribbean Commission in Trinidad. As a teenager, Cozier spent his holidays working at Trinidad’s Evening News, and covered a few Barbados matches for them, as well as the West Indian Games in Guyana.

So, in a sense, the Cozier factor has more to do with journalism than with cricket. The cricket would have come anyway. Cricket is in the blood of most West Indian men of Cozier’s generation, and he was born in Barbados, the most cricket-mad of the West Indian islands. In any crowd of cricket fans you’ll meet characters able to expound quite eloquently on innings past and present, but how many of these fellows could have sustained this activity, day in, day out, for 40 years?

In 1960, Cozier went off to Carlton University in Ottawa to study journalism, which he quickly discovered was not for him. "It was the first time I’d left the Caribbean," he says, "and in winter it was 25 degrees below zero all the time." He lasted a year, the high point of which was probably his trips to Montreal to hang out with fellow West Indian students. An essential travel accessory on these trips was his short-wave radio, on which he and his pals could pick up cricket broadcasts from the Grenada-based Windward Islands Broadcasting Service (WIBS). The thing eventually turned into a money-making venture, a forerunner of sorts to latter-day developments like the Trini Posse and the Red Stripe Mound.

"They got to a stage where they would pay my train ticket to Montreal to bring the radio up," Cozier says, "and we set up a thing in their flat and charged West Indian students to come in and hear the commentary. We set up a bar and everything, and there were no pass-outs, so if you had three classes for the day, you paid three times."

On returning to Barbados in 1961, he went to work for the Barbados Daily News, a paper founded by his father. In the same year he made his radio broadcasting debut at Radio 610 in Trinidad. "The West Indies team was in Australia and they had mostly Barbadians then – I think there were nine Barbadians. And a number of new players were in the Barbados team in Trinidad, and since the commentators didn’t know who they were, they asked me to come and help identify them. So I carried a stint, and then they said, OK, well, keep on going."

Cozier got a chance to do more radio when he followed the West Indies to England in 1963. The trip was largely his idea, and since the Daily News had no budget for foreign travel the young Cozier worked his way around England under distinctly cut-rate circumstances, seeing the inside of several YMCAs and friends’ houses. Apart from his reporting for the Daily News, he landed a gig doing match résumés for the BBC Caribbean Service through Alva Clarke, a former associate of his father’s.

Another of the pleasures of that trip was the close relationship he forged with the West Indies team itself. "Frank Worrell was captain, having just come from Australia with the tied Test. Sobers, Kanhai, Griffith, Hall – these were fellas who I would have played cricket with in Barbados at club level, and Trinidadians as well who I knew – Joey Carew I’d gone to Fatima College with when we were in Trinidad . . . So I knew these fellas. A lot of them were my age group and it was quite easy moving with them, and as we went on I got very friendly with a lot of them. I virtually became almost a part of the team."

In 1965, when Australia came to the West Indies, the Caribbean Publishers and Broadcasters Association, forerunner to the CBU, put together for the first time a Caribbean broadcast team which would cover all of the matches. Cozier was chosen as the Barbados representative. The other team members were Tony Williams from Trinidad and Roy Lawrence from Jamaica, with the visitors represented by Australian Alan McGilvray, whom Cozier says has had the greatest influence on his commentary style. "I’d listened to him before on West Indies tours from Australia and I always felt that his style was the easiest to listen to. Of course you have the Englishmen as well: you always hear about John Arlott. But you cannot copy a fella like John Arlott. He had his own distinctive style. I suppose just as as a cricketer you couldn’t copy Lara, for instance. Or you couldn’t copy someone like Sobers, who had his own style. But for basics, McGilvray was the one who really described the cricket, and you could copy that and use that as a model."

Cozier covered the 1966 tour to England for the Barbados Daily News - under "improved conditions" – and, because Roy Lawrence had to go back and cover the Commonwealth Games, he also got the chance to do ball-by-ball commentary on the BBC radio institution known as Test Match Special. He’s been a part of the TMS team on every England tour ever since. 

In 1968, the Barbados Daily News was bought out by the Thomson group, who had previously purchased the Barbados Advocate and wanted to eliminate the competition. One of the terms of the purchase was an agreement that neither Cozier nor his father could work for a competing paper, so Cozier went to work for the Advocate’s advertising department. He describes his stint there as "the worst working time I’ve ever had." After eight months of "walking around Bridgetown dressed in tie and suit," he secured an agreement with Thomson to cover the ’68Ð’69 Australian tour for all the organisation’s regional papers. "Then I came back and quit."

In Australia Cozier also did commentary on ABC radio, again thanks to Roy Lawrence, who missed the first part of the tour to cover the Mexico Olympics, then ended up not coming at all, leaving Cozier to do the whole series. The whole tour, which included a three-Test series in New Zealand, lasted six months, and Cozier doesn’t remember it as a particularly good one for the West Indies. Several of the players were nearing retirement, including Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, and the tour itself was undisciplined. Cozier, as the sole West Indian journalist on the tour, had his journalistic mettle severely tested when Rohan Kanhai came to him one evening and revealed he wouldn’t be going on to England. As Cozier remembers it, he reported the incident to team manager Berkeley Gaskin. "I said, ‘Look, Kanhai has come to me,’ – he hadn’t even been to Gaskin yet – ‘and said he’s giving me a story saying he’s not going to England. He hasn’t told anybody else, but I’m not going to use it unless you tell me.’ He said, ‘Give me a week,’ and he tried to work on it, but in the end Kanhai wouldn’t, so he told me to release it. But I could have done it right away."

Not that "right away", in those days, meant with lightning speed. In the 1960s, Cozier remembers, filing a story from halfway across the world felt exactly like that. "You’d have to carry it down to the post office," he recalls. "You’d type it off on a cable sheet, and then get a taxi, or if you were in India in a place like Jullundur or Pompoona, a motorised rickshaw, or however you could get there, and go to the cable office, where you’d have to file it with a chap there who would then have to retype it, and then it would go by cable to the address of the paper. In India a lot of them didn’t even speak English, but they could type it and send it off."

Factoring in human error, the process became even more convoluted, as Cozier discovered once when trying to file a story from Perth to the Guyana Chronicle. "The first night I got a cable back from Guyana saying that nothing had arrived. So they checked it out: they had sent it to Ghana. Second night it didn’t go again. So then they checked and it had gone to Guinea now. And the third night they said, ‘Put the capital on it,’ so I put ‘Georgetown, Guyana.’ The thing then went to the Cayman Islands. Eventually it got there. But that’s how you did it in those days."

Cozier had some decisions to make when he returned from the Australia tour in 1969. Since cricket wasn’t the year-round pursuit it is today, he became a stringer for the Associated Press, whom he worked for in the Daily News days. He then landed a gig writing Caribbean supplements for the Financial Times, eventually becoming their Eastern Caribbean correspondent, and also added a few other news services to his client list. It was a good living, and an exciting time to be working as a journalist in the Caribbean. "The Black Power riots were in Trinidad, Anguilla seceded from St Kitts and Nevis and they sent the bobbies down there, the Antilles went down off Mustique," Cozier recalls. "And there must have been a hurricane around somewhere or the other. All these things fell into place, and I found I had a lot of work." He was even mistakenly thrown out of Grenada by the notorious Eric Gairy, for which he received an official apology from the man himself.

But while covering current affairs gave Cozier the breadth of vision and encyclopaedic knowledge of the region that’s a hallmark of his cricket commentary, it wasn’t something he saw himself doing forever. "I didn’t feel as comfortable doing that as I did with cricket, because I know cricket," he says. He worked as a regional journalist for six or seven years in total, doing some cricket on the side. When Kerry Packer’s infamous World Series Cricket started in 1976, he went to Australia on spec, knowing that they didn’t have a West Indian commentator and he’d probably be employed. By the time the World Series ended in 1979 he had done 14 seasons in all with Channel 9, and had added "seasoned television broadcaster" to his list of accomplishments.

From Packer it was on to the much-documented glory years of the mid-to-late 1980s, that period when the West Indies were virtually unbeatable. "’84, to my mind, was the best part," says Cozier, reeling off some of the phenomenal statistics of the period. "But at the time you got bored, really. Sometimes you said, let me hope these fellas put up a bit of a show and give me something to write about. Of course it was great for us to be winning, but when you got to the ground you knew what the result was going to be."

Today, as he struggles in the opposite direction, Cozier probably counts himself lucky that his commentary is based on style as well as substance. Cozier’s commentary tends to be rigorous, but also light-hearted and viewer- (or listener-) friendly. He can talk cricket, but he’ll also give you the history of the landmark in the colour shot. Last year, during the Sri Lanka vs West Indies tour, the producers of the television broadcast were lucky to have had Cozier on hand to explain to viewers what a banner saying "WHERE ARE THE 3 Ws?" meant, since his commentary partner could not.

He credits Australian producer David Hill, whom he worked with in the Packer days, as being one of the main shapers of his television technique. "He liked my style," Cozier says. "You know – foolishness. He liked something different, like he put up the full moon one night and I sang Blue Moon. And he encouraged you to do it, because when we first got there the commentators were Bill Lawry, Richie Benaud, Keith Stackpole, fellas who had played cricket. And he asked questions which made these fellas think he was an idiot. They would say things like, ‘Well, it’s a good googly,’ or ‘He hit it wide of gully’. And he’d say, ‘What’s a googly?’ And they’d say, ‘What kind of question is that?’"

"So then he put up a little animation on the screen: that’s what a googly is, this is where third man is, and so on. And the reaction was just astonishing. He was the man that brought up the duck – when a fella was out for a duck, he’d bring up a quacking duck. Some of the batsmen didn’t like it, but people liked it, the viewers liked it."

This non-purist view is the reason I insist that Cozier’s not simply a cricket journalist or a cricket commentator: he’s a writer who happens to be in love with a game called cricket (and many other sports, I might add, including American football). There’s a writerliness, an attention to language, about his commentary that’s increasingly rare in this age of "expert" (read "former Test-player") commentators. In his work, there’s always the generous acknowledgement that this is something people have to listen to, that people have to read. None of which is surprising from a man who used to get his wife to record his radio stints, "and just before I got to sleep just turn it on and listen for – hey, that word’s coming up too often, or it’s not flowing properly. You do an analysis by listening to yourself."

That kind of attention to detail, combined with a breathtaking command of the game of cricket, its social context, and its history, not to mention a talent for "foolishness," is a powerful formula, and one which has often made  Cozier the preferred pick for broadcasters and newspapers throughout the cricketing world, including All India Radio, New Zealand Broadcasting, Australian Broadcasting and the Independent. But it’s also a formula which is losing currency, especially in television. While he acknowledges that commentators like him still have a place in radio, as television leans increasingly towards former Test-player commentators, Cozier – who, with Indian journalist Harsha Bogle, is one of the few non-player regulars doing television today – will probably find himself more and more often in a position like last year, when the fast-bowling pair of Michael Holding and Ian Bishop carried the television commentary for the West Indies tour of India.

Over the years, Cozier has also written books with former players Sir Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, and Michael Holding. In 1978, he published a book called 50 Years in West Indies Test Cricket. He was once commissioned to write a history of West Indies cricket, but got so immersed in the research that he overran the wordage by several thousand, and ended up having to abandon it entirely. "It would have been a life’s work, really," he says. With son Craig and wife Jillian he runs Cozier Publishing, which over the years has published the West Indies Cricket Annual and the Caribbean Cricket Quarterly, and now produces high-quality souvenir magazines for the Caribbean international cricket season.

Inevitably, his relationship with the West Indies team over the years has also changed – his contemporaries would have retired from the game by the 1970s – and so has the game itself. And, as West Indies cricket came down from the heights of the glory days, a journalist would have had cause to utter some harsh truths. Once, after writing a piece critiquing the performance of Trinidadian batsman Phil Simmons, Cozier was greeted at the Queen’s Park Oval with a sign saying "COZIER IS A DOG."

"Of course you don’t go in the dressing room at all now," he says. "When I first started, I could go in the dressing room. I was almost like a member of the team, I had friends in the side, and I never, ever felt then that what I wrote or what I said affected my relationship with the person. It might have done to the fellas I didn’t know that well. But I never felt that.

"Later on, I suppose I began to feel it more and more – that ‘keep your distance’. If a fella says good morning to you, say good morning to him. Or, if they’ve had a bad day, try and don’t go down to breakfast. Because if you go down you know they’d be grumpy – some of them. A few can still handle it. But criticism is very difficult. If you’re struggling on a tour, and there are fellas who are writing that you’re struggling, and that you shouldn’t be on the team, which is your living, obviously the reaction is going to be negative."

<image>He wonders now how he ever felt sorry for the opposition when West Indies was beating them to a pulp. "Now, you say, I wonder how I felt bored in those days? I tell you, if we start to win again, I want to beat them real bad this time. But in those days, of course, for cricket’s sake you felt, come on man, let we get a little match here, nah?"

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