ENGLAND'S STRANGE DAYTIME SOAP OPERA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON -- Jonathan Agnew has a job that would give an American baseball announcer nightmares.

He is the voice of English cricket. On radio.

Mr. Agnew -- no relation to the former Maryland governor and U.S. vice president -- goes on for days talking about the weather. Rain is a really big subject on a cricket broadcast. So is light. In cricket, the light is never right.

He talks of gardening, movies and favored places to live in London. A passing ambulance siren is good for at least 30 seconds of commentary.

But when it comes to providing the drama and heartbreak of a game that is a way of life for Britons and much of the former British empire, Mr. Agnew is without peer.

When a journeyman player's first international batting appearance ends in 10 seconds -- picture the San Diego Chargers' first quarter in last season's Super Bowl -- Mr. Agnew swings into verbal overdrive.

"What an awful, ghastly moment for Alan Wells," Mr. Agnew says, his voice rising in agony.

"That is really a shocking moment," Mr. Agnew says. "The poor man. I think he probably walked off and burst into tears."

And all across England, housewives, office workers and cab drivers are enthralled.

Mr. Agnew is part of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Test Match Special, a broadcast staple since 1957. This isn't just the nation's most beloved sporting show -- it's England's strangest daytime soap opera.

A day at the cricket ground lasts seven hours, with a 40-minute lunch break and a 20-minute tea break.

To American ears and eyes, the game has all the appeal of a single batter fouling off baseballs for five days.

But to the English, cricket, with its pristine white uniforms, vast fields and rich history, is a game that cuts across lines of class, race and gender. It's the game they gave their possessions in the empire. And these days, the old empire strikes back, routinely dishing out cricket humiliation to the English, whose teams haven't won a lot in the last three decades.

"Hopefully, the game says a lot about good sportsmanship, rTC playing hard and wanting to win, but, if you don't, it's not the end of the world," Mr. Agnew says.

On the radio, the game is transformed, becoming part of a country's daily ritual. One moment, the broadcasters are whispering about "the hostility of the situation," and "glowering looks from the bowlers [pitchers]." The next, they're thanking Betty Potts of Worthing, West Sussex, for sending in a fly swatter to control those infernal wasps making life miserable in the broadcast booth.

Prime Minister John Major is a frequent guest, which is like President Clinton coming up to Baltimore to hang around with Orioles' broadcaster Jon Miller.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has dropped by the broadcast booth for an interview. Prince Philip even made a taped appearance on the air. (His wife, Queen Elizabeth II, doesn't do cricket broadcasts.)

A half-million people tune into the broadcasts when England is engaged in international matches, called "tests." Untold millions listen worldwide when the games are beamed on the BBC's World Service.

The country and broadcasters are currently captivated by a compelling series against the West Indies, which hasn't lost to England since 1969. The deciding five-day test concludes today at the Oval, a grand old park that sits by three gas tanks and assorted apartment houses in a run-down south London neighborhood. It's like Wrigley Field -- without the ivy or the noise.

The throngs that show up sit in silence for hours. Compared to this bunch, the crowds at Wimbledon act as if they're at a heavy metal concert.

Mr. Agnew, a lanky 35-year-old with a quick smile and a voice as smooth as cotton candy, loves the Oval. He made his international test-match debut there as a fast bowler.

"My dad was at the game and cried," he says, sounding just like any American baseball pitcher talking of his major-league debut.

Now, Mr. Agnew carries the title of BBC cricket correspondent, a role filled previously by only two others since World War II -- John Arlott, an ex-cop turned poet of the airwaves, and Brian Johnston, a merry old soul who never lost his schoolboy humor. Generations of Britons grew up with those men. A new generation is growing up with Mr. Agnew.

The job is demanding, since it includes some 90 test broadcasts a year, which, in American terms, would equal about 180 baseball games. The road trips are brutal. In cricket, they don't do a 10-game visit to Boston, New York and Detroit. The calendar often reads: Winter -- Australia. Summer -- England. Autumn -- South Africa.

And whenever the BBC cricket correspondent speaks on controversies, people listen. When English captain Michael Atherton was caught "doctoring" a cricket ball last summer, Mr. Agnew called for him to resign the captaincy. The country reacted as if he had suggested Queen Elizabeth abdicate.

Told American baseball pitchers routinely throw spit balls and try to split seams to get an extra dip -- and edge -- Mr. Agnew is quite surprised.

"Isn't that a shame," he says. "Fine, if that's accepted in America. But where do you draw the line? The laws are to make games attractive and fair. If you cheat, you disturb the balance."

Cricket is about balance and fair play. And so is the BBC broadcast, which survives on small talk and letters from the darndest places.

A British hostage in a Baghdad, Iraq, jail once wrote to the show. Other letters have come from as far as Antarctica and the South Pacific.

Mostly, though, the broadcast thrives on notes and cakes from devoted listeners in England.

Mr. Agnew is part of the regular team of broadcasters. Bill Frindall, the statistician, has not missed a cricket test in 30 years. He is the ultimate numbers guy, showing up for games with a computer, calculator and volumes of statistics. Someone is actually making a television documentary about this man.

Henry Blofeld, perhaps the only broadcaster left in the world who still wears an ascot, talks endlessly of butterflies and pigeons. In his world, a ball is not simply stroked, it is hit "nicely, delicately -- the gossamer touch."

Christopher Martin-Jenkins is a just-the-facts man with a resonant voice that belies the fact that he could play the lead in "Mister Chips."

Somehow, it all works. The commentary. The banter. And all those fan letters.

"And here's one from a man in a French prison," Mr. Agnew says. "Doesn't want his name used . . ."

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