Donna Symmonds: “what she know about cricket?”

She’s Barbadian. An attorney-at-law. A cricket commentator for the past 14 years. She is Donna Symmonds, the first woman to successfully breach the hallowed walls of the commentary box. Georgia Popplewell reports

  • Symmonds at her chambers, with the law courts in the background. Photo by Mike Toy
  • At the 1999 World Cup with former WI captain Viv Richards: “I always  appreciated his courtesy and the fact that he treated me without any  discrimination whatsoever. Real cool fella.” BBC correspondent Orrin Gordon is at right. Photo courtesy D. Symmonds
  • With Test Match Special statistician Bill Frindall, World Cup 1999. Photo courtesy D. Symmonds
  • Symmonds on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special 1999 postcard. Photo by Patrick Eager/Stamp Publicity
  • In chambers with (left to right) father Algernon W. Symmonds, Q. C., and partners Margaret Reifer and Margot Greene. Photo by Mike Toy
  • Donna Symmonds, attorney at law. Photograph by Mike Toy

“On the last day South Africa were 122 for two, needing only 201 to win, and there was this feeling, obviously, that the West Indies would lose, and there was nobody there, just a few selectors and barmen and groundsmen and — us. And empty stands: the outside mikes were picking up: phhh. And then, the West Indies started this phenomenal comeback. Ambrose and Walsh bowled unchanged, and the match just took on a whole different aura. And yet there was no atmosphere. So you had to conjure. It was amazing. It was probably the most difficult match I’ve ever done, and yet it then turned into one of the most rewarding, because I think we did a good job of it. But, you know what was really sad at the end? After Ambrose and Walsh took the last eight wickets for 26 runs, bowling South Africa out for 148, and they did this victory lap around Kensington: there was nobody to cheer them. It was bizarre.”

 

This is Donna Symmonds describing the experience of covering the final day of the historic West Indies v South Africa Test at Kensington Oval on April 23, 1992, a match boycotted by Barbadians protesting the omission of a local player from the West Indies side. She calls it one of her “oddest cricket moments.” Apart from a few scorers and other support figures, few other women could tell the tale from this vantage point. Few other people, in fact, could probably tell it with such a combination of authority and expressiveness.

Donna Symmonds’s path to the commentary box was a somewhat circuitous one. She started out studying food science, physiology and biochemistry at Reading University in England back in 1978. “And I hated it,” she says. She quit after two years, and embarked on an extended period of loafing — and cricket-watching. “That,” she says, “was really my great occupation in England at the time.” Luckily for her, it coincided with her father’s tenure as Barbados High Commissioner to Great Britain. A family friend set her back on track. “He said: well, you talk a lot, and you have a lot of lawyers in your family. Why don’t you try doing law? So I sort of meandered into that.”

She sort of meandered into commentary as well. “It’s not as if I had any burning ambition to be a cricket, or any kind of, commentator,” Symmonds says. “I’d come back to Barbados looking for a job, and I was just swanning about for the summer, and I had a good friend who was doing production for CBC Radio. Barbados was hosting the Commonwealth Caribbean Lawn Tennis tournament and some fella was supposed to be doing the commentary for CBC and I think he got ill. My friend called me up and said: Donna, we need somebody to do this commentary. I said: yeah, and? You want me to find somebody for you? And she said: No, why don’t you come and do it? I said: me? I don’t know anything about journalism. And she said: my dear, we will pay you a hundred dollars a session. I said: when do you want me there?”

That was 1985. Symmonds, a former Barbados Junior tennis player, did sports commentary for the first time “up on a little scaffolding” at the clay courts at Paradise. The experience challenged her — “if you think cricket is hard, lawn tennis is 50 times more difficult” — and she loved every moment of it. The radio station’s manager took note of a potential addition to his talent pool. “He said: this girl knows anything else? So my friend asked me: do you know anything else? And I said: well, yeah, I know cricket. And she said: Donna, don’t be ridiculous, no women do any cricket. And I said: no, I know cricket. I’ve been following cricket since I was in my mother’s womb!”

That is perhaps not as much of an overstatement as it sounds. Symmonds’s native Barbados is the spiritual home of West Indies cricket, and she comes from a household which lived and breathed the game, and where the likes of Sir Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd were visitors. Her father, Algernon Symmonds, was a cricket commentator for a brief spell. “I’ve skipped school,” she confesses. “I used to get out of classes and pop down to Kensington, or run up by Bank Hall, because I lived fairly near to Empire Cricket Club.”

Symmonds also played cricket at both primary and secondary school, not to mention in the family backyard — where, incidentally, she had a preview of the milieu’s sexist aspects. “I used to play with my brother, but he’d never really let me bat. I was four years younger, so these fellas would make me field, or bowl when they wanted to make some runs!”

By the next cricket season, 1986, Donna Symmonds was juggling commentary stints at domestic matches with a job at the Barbados Attorney General’s office. She did a few Shell Shield (regional) matches in 1987, and in 1988 covered her first set of international games: the Barbados leg of the Pakistan tour of the Caribbean.

 

Public response was mixed: some listeners found the idea of a woman so closely juxtaposed with their sacred game a little hard to bear. Many switched off their radios; others wondered if there was somebody holding up placards in front of her telling her what to say. “I won’t kid you,” Symmonds says, “initially it was hard.” But broadcasters kept faith, and by 1989 she was travelling to the other West Indian venues to cover games as well.

In 1993, the South African Broadcasting Corporation engaged Symmonds for her first extra-regional assignment, the Total International Series, a one-day triangular tournament involving West Indies, South Africa, and Pakistan. She describes her sojourn in a South Africa just emerging from apartheid as “bone-chilling”. “It was extremely important, I think, for me to see it,” she says. “It’s given me a different understanding about how you survive and what you will do to survive. But I must say, they treated me very well and I enjoyed my trip.” Her South African performance also occasioned a reassuring show of public appreciation back home in the Caribbean. A dish was named in her honour at the annual press luncheon at Kensington Oval, and, when she went out to examine the pitch and outfield before a match at Trinidad’s Queen’s Park Oval, the crowd there greeted her with a rousing cheer.

She has had to forgo other international engagements, like the 1995 Benson & Hedges Tournament in Australia, because of professional obligations. For while law, especially in a practice involving mainly civil litigation, may not offer some of the highs that sports commentary affords, Symmonds appreciates the hybrid nature of her life. “Law can often be challenging, intellectually,” she says. “I have to say, I like doing the mix. I like having this today, and then off to do some cricket or some tennis.”

Juggling legal work with an increasingly busy commentary schedule has become less of a task since she and two partners formed the firm of Symmonds, Greene, Reifer in March 1999. The new arrangement permitted her, for instance, to join the BBC Radio 4 commentary team for the 1999 World Cup in England. And she will soon take up a contract with BBC Radio which covers not only the 2000 West Indies tour of England, but also Wimbledon tennis.

“The offer of Wimbledon was the icing on the cake for sure,” says Symmonds, who was also courted by Channel 4 Television. But she chose the BBC for other reasons as well. One is loyalty: she’s had a relationship with “the Beeb” since the 1998 England tour of the Caribbean, when she was invited to join the broadcast team on BBC Radio’s venerable Test Match Special, becoming, in the process, TMS’s first female commentator. (“That’s when I got presented with my Test Match Special tie,” she says. “I did suggest politely that perhaps they should get some scarves made, as they will no doubt need some in future!”) The other is that she prefers radio to television. “You do more,” Symmonds says. “You can be more creative. And your real personality comes out far more.”

 

In Symmonds’s case, the “real personality” is light-hearted, elegant, expressive, yet authoritative. Her delivery is fluent, crisp, musical — Barbadian, for sure: there’s no mistaking that glottal stop, those soft consonants. Her commentary idol is the immortal John Arlott. “I just adored his phrasing. It was like poetry; he just had a way of putting things that was extremely restful to the ear, and also, it pricked your interest.” For sheer knowledge of the game, she admires, and has learned much from, her compatriot Sir Everton Weekes, who has often furnished the expert comment to her ball-by-ball.

About her own approach to the material, Symmonds says: “I’m not one of these people who believes I must make cricket exciting if the particular game is not exciting. Because cricket is a really peculiar game. It goes through these little patches where there’re lots of little tactical things going on, and it seems dull. It’s not — it’s just that you’re playing within the rules, or you’re trying to wear the other side down. So I’m not going to make it seem as if it’s a horse race when things are at a really tight period where you’ve had an hour and maybe 15 runs have been scored, the bowling is really tight, the pitch is difficult, conditions aren’t easy.

“What you then try to do is develop another aspect of the game. You look at the whole tactical aspect, why it’s like this, the quiet of it. Why it’s not like any other game on earth. There isn’t this continuous roaring, this grand frenzy, this frenetic run: it’s not that. It’s actually a game that more reflects human beings and human life, because it goes through those ups and downs and it can do that over the course of a day.”

Symmonds’s grasp of the big picture is indisputable. But the question often raised by detractors is: can she — a woman — really, intuitively, know cricket? She doesn’t simply dismiss the question — she’s downright bemused at the thought that she might be at any sort of disadvantage. “I suppose I’ve just been so into it,” she says with a bewildered laugh. “I have never thought like that. I just know my cricket!”

Some of her colleagues have begged to differ. “Not having played since her schooldays, or to any significant standard, is clearly a disadvantage,” wrote English commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins in a somewhat-backhanded Telegraph article in 1998, “but it is one noticed, perhaps, only over a period of time and by those who feel that the perfect commentary requires acute cricketing intuition.”

In the same piece, CMJ went on to cite an instance where Symmonds apparently confused an edge with a steer off the face of the bat. (Television replays eventually showed it to be a hybrid stroke: an edged steer.) But former England off-spinner Vic Marks, had only praise for Symmonds’s cricketing expertise. “We so-called expert summarisers dread sitting next to a commentator who struggles to distinguish some of the intricacies of the game,” Marks wrote in the Observer “— for example, the difference between a leave and a play-and-miss, or a glide and an edge to third man . . . She does not make those sorts of mistakes.”

In many cases the criticism hasn’t been nearly so scientific. During the India tour of the Caribbean in 1989, Indian radio flatly refused to take the Caribbean broadcast feed with a woman on the commentary team. (“They’d never even heard me,” Symmonds says.) Her broadcasting colleagues stood firmly behind her, however, and the issue was eventually resolved.

She has inspired similarly strong feelings among listeners. Posts re: Symmonds on the Internet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket during the 1999 World Cup tended either to rhapsodise — “Knowledgeable without being uppity, passionate without being silly, wonderful, clear, lyrical, musical voice”; “Her voice is so gorgeous that I’d happily listen to her recite the telephone directory” — or ridicule: “Your penance will be to download an hour’s worth of Donna Symmonds on realaudio and prove you’ve listened to it by answering questions afterwards.” One contributor has her (we assume in jest) speaking a strange dialect: “Who be dis cha ching ten dool car? I be thinking bwiyun ara be da bescht batschman aroun,” which could be roughly translated as: “Who is this Sachin Tendulkar? I think Brian Lara is the best batsman around” — two statements it’s unlikely that Symmonds has ever had cause to make, and certainly not on air. A West Indian contributor, conveniently glossing over the complexities of inter-island rivalry, adds: “I don’t care much for her commentary. I’m from the West Indies (Trinidad), so it’s not a bias.”

While the criticism stings, and knowing full well that the only thing to do is wait for the sluggish cricketing establishment to adapt (and remembering, too, perhaps, that BBC contracts speak louder than words), Symmonds is philosophical. “I actually think that’s a positive thing,” she says, “because it stimulates debate on the whole issue of gender involvement in anything.”

 

Symmonds has accepted her trailblazer status gracefully. “I suppose it’s just come with the territory,” she says, “not that I planned to be a pioneer or anything. Because, I suppose, I’m the first woman who has done cricket at certain levels, you get asked to do many things.”

She has had few problems, on the other hand, with players. “Players don’t care. Players just sort of look at you and think: huh, Press,” she says. She appreciated, particularly, the consideration of Viv Richards, who was West Indies captain in her fledgling days. Subsequent captains Courtney Walsh and Brian Lara have been fine as well, though she notes that Lara’s capriciousness is a challenge for any interviewer, male or female. Praises, too, for England’s Mike Atherton. Imran Khan (Pakistan) she found “a little aloof”, but she met him subsequently at the 1999 World Cup and thought him “improved.”

Symmonds has also noted a general improvement in her reception by the Caribbean public. “I’m getting actual respect,” she says. “Before, you’d hear: oh God, Donna Symmonds. And yet now I walk down the street, in Barbados or wherever, and they’ll say: aren’t you going to do cricket, aren’t you commentating, aren’t you going to wherever?”

She has gained increasing favour with the cricketing fraternity as well. She had another dish — “Donna Symmonds Callaloo” — named in her honour at the Kensington Oval’s press luncheon in 1999, and during the 1999 World Cup a Donna Symmonds Test Match Special postcard bearing the England and Wales Cricket Board stamp was in circulation.

Still, for all Symmonds’s ground-breaking moves, female cricket commentators have not exactly stormed the ramparts. (The UK’s Channel 4 hired their first woman commentator, Sybil Ruscoe, in 1999, though she’s yet to achieve the kind of visibility Symmonds has.) Granted, the number of women aspiring to the position is still quite small. Only in 1999 were women members admitted to England’s MCC, the world’s most influential cricket club (and while 9,394 members voted in favour, another 4,000 were against). And possession of two X-chromosomes still disqualifies one from membership in the Queen’s Park Cricket Club in Trinidad. But the issue of women in cricket is receiving increasing attention. “The ICC [International Cricket Council] is looking at it, and they encouraged it very much during the World Cup recently,” says Symmonds. “It’s an important thing to recognise that we’re a very important consumer market. And there’re a lot of women who play excellent cricket — I mean, really, really good cricket.”

So it may be a few years yet before Donna Symmonds gets another female colleague in the commentary box. In the meantime she remains supremely bankable, not to mention iconic — as Wisden Cricket Monthly’s Tanya Aldred writes, lamenting the shortcomings of the new radio programme Talk of the Test: “where is their Donna Symonds (sic), signed up for next summer by the BBC?”