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Alan David (Allan) McGilvray (1909–1996)

by Philip Derriman

from Sydney Morning Herald

It was the voice, of course, which set Alan McGilvray apart from other sports broadcasters. None sounded as rich or resonant as McGilvray, no matter how hard they tried, which in the final analysis was probably the secret of his appeal.

McGilvray, who died yesterday in Sydney aged 86, did not always sound that way. On recordings of his simulated Test broadcasts in 1938 his voice seems a little tinny, even allowing for the poor reproduction, which suggests that it did not all come naturally.

The cricket author Jack Pollard was working as a young journalist in London in 1948 when McGilvray joined the broadcasting box for the Ashes tour there that year, and he remembers the BBC broadcaster John Arlott speaking disparagingly of the newcomer's ability. "Where did you find him?" Arlott asked.

"When Alan went home to Australia he realised he had a lot to learn," Pollard said yesterday. "He set about developing his technique and his voice, and before long he was a master of both.

"The voice he ended up with certainly wasn't the one he started out with. I might add that John Arlott came to be one of his great admirers."

During his 40-odd years as the ABC's chief cricket broadcaster, McGilvray did not ever have to fight off a challenger. His pre-eminence was never questioned.

Young sports broadcasters starting out at the ABC regarded him with awe. McGilvray would tear strips off them when he felt they did not come up to standard (I once heard him dress down a senior ABC sports announcer as if he were a schoolboy), but they listened to him and learnt.

However confident he felt in his own ability, McGilvray was nervous before going on air. This astonished Bob Simpson when he first shared the broadcasting box with him. Simpson had got to know McGilvray well while playing for Australia and always thought of him as immune to nerves.

"But in the broadcasting box it was obvious he was edgy," Simpson said yesterday. "You could tell it from his smoking and certain mannerisms. I think it was just the adrenalin flowing. He used to come on for 20 minutes at a time, and before each 20 minutes he'd build himself up for the broadcast.

"What I admired about him was that he knew the game. He read the play. He really understood what was happening out there."

In this regard, McGilvray had the advantage of having played cricket at the first-class level. Even in his own playing days he was reckoned to have a good cricket brain, which explains why in February 1934 he was made captain of NSW in only his third first-class match.

At times as a broadcaster, he also got help from the middle. In the 1960s, the Test umpires Lou Rowan and Col Egar, who often stood together, worked out a set of signals to let each other know how they saw the play. They confided the signals to only one other person — McGilvray.

So if a ball brushed past a batsman and ran down to fine-leg, Rowan at square-leg might touch his leg to show Egar he thought it had hit the batsman's pad, not his bat. Seeing this in the broadcasting box, McGilvray would be able to predict on air that the runs the batsmen were crossing for would be ruled leg-byes.

Rowan said yesterday: "We told Alan about it because we had a very high regard for him and trusted him." McGilvray did not ever let on to his listeners that he was receiving privileged information.

One of McGilvray's maxims was that a broadcaster should always be ahead of the crowd, and it became a point of honour for him. Thus, if a batsman was caught behind, he would make sure he got in "Snicked! Caught!" before he was drowned out by the crowd's roar.

The rugby broadcaster Gordon Bray, who first came under McGilvray's influence at the ABC in 1969, had this lesson hammered into him. Beating the crowd required sharp reflexes and anticipation, McGilvray told him.

Like everyone else, Bray admired the tonal depth of McGilvray's voice, but it was his craftsmanship that fascinated him.

McGilvray had a knack of using the noise of the crowd to dramatise his own commentary, rather like a singer making use of a backing orchestra.

"He could ride the emotion of the crowd," Bray said yesterday. "He would adapt the tone of his voice, becoming confidential or relaxed or dramatic, to suit the mood of the moment."

(This is consistent with another story told of McGilvray. It is said the Prime Minister of the day, Bob Menzies, was the first to advise him to open the window of the broadcasting box so the microphone would pick up the noise of the crowd.)

Like other up-and-comers, Bray was sometimes rebuked by McGilvray for various shortcomings. On the other hand, when McGilvray was pleased with the young ABC people they could expect to be summoned to his hotel room for a "prayer meeting" — sharing a few or more drinks.

McGilvray enjoyed a drink at the bar as much as anyone, especially when in the company of old cronies like Bill O'Reilly, but it did not affect his performance at the microphone. One of his old ABC colleagues said you could tell he had been socialising more than normal only if his hat was tilted back slightly.

O'Reilly was a favourite jousting partner. The two men had begun their on-field association in unusual fashion. In McGilvray's debut match for NSW — against Victoria in December 1933 — he spoiled O'Reilly's chance of taking all 10 wickets in Victoria's second innings by bowling Ben Barnett. The other nine wickets fell to O'Reilly.

Some days before his death, knowing the end was not far off, McGilvray is said to have remarked that he was looking forward to having another argument with O'Reilly.

Might McGilvray have made a successful transition to television if he had tried to? Bob Simpson thinks he could have. "He was enough of a pro to do it," he said yesterday. In fact, McGilvray did do some television work in England, but it seems he did not like it.

On returning to Australia he told a fellow ABC staffer, Bill McGowan, that he found television broadcasting restricting since it meant he was dictated to by the camera. He also felt it was less personal than radio.

The ultimate measure of his success was his longevity — the fact that he stayed at the top, unchallenged, for so many years. Sir Donald Bradman touched on this in a tribute after McGilvray retired.

"That one man could have a successful and honourable career at the microphone extending over 50 years is quite astonishing," Sir Donald said. "It happened mainly because Alan stuck rigidly to those essential qualities of integrity and impartiality which brought him goodwill and acclamation from all cricket-playing countries."

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Citation details

Philip Derriman, 'McGilvray, Alan David (Allan) (1909–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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