Jonathan Agnew

Address by the Public Orator, Dr Paul Jenkins, to be given on 18 July 2018

Jonathan Agnew was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire and brought up on a farm in Stamford, Lincolnshire.  He went to Uppingham school before becoming a professional cricketer with Leicestershire.  He played 218 matches for his county, taking 666 first class wickets, including five in an innings on 37 occasions.  He played three Tests and three one-day internationals for England and was named one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year in 1987.

Being a professional sportsman is always a precarious occupation where one’s livelihood depends on the whim of the team selectors.  Jonathan was well aware of this problem, and with a young family to support he was planning for the future during his playing career. He used to write a weekly column for the Today newspaper and, in 1990, when he retired from playing cricket he became a full time cricket correspondent for the same paper.  Jonathan’s first assignment was the 1990 England tour of Australia.  In the words of the English players Aggers had become a “Beastie,” that is a cricket journalist for a tabloid newspaper.

One day on the Australia tour Jonathan was invited to join the England players to bowl in net practice.  However, he declined realising he had now joined the journalists and that his loyalty would be divided if he practiced with the players.  In the mid 80’s Jonathan gained valuable broadcasting experience with Radio Leicester, where he was the presenter of the main Saturday afternoon sports programme.

It was no surprise when Jonathan became the new cricket correspondent of the BBC in 1991 stepping into the shoes of Christopher Martin-Jenkins.  In his first commentating assignment one of his instructions was, “Radio 5 want 50 seconds at eleven o’clock.”  Jonathan was now a professional broadcaster so if Radio 5 asked for 50 seconds that meant 50 seconds and not 45 or 55.  Stop watch in hand Jonathan learned the skill of providing accurate sound bites.

Soon Jonathan was a regular on Test Match Special where he joined Brian Johnston. One could say the programme became the Jonners and Aggers show.  Together the two presenters broadened interest in cricket with their jokes, puns, and general good natured banter.

In 1992 Jonathan went to New Zealand armed with a flashy tape recorder and a set of screw drivers in case the hotel telephone needed fixing.  That year England faced a New Zealand team with a formidable home record but comfortably won the series 2-0.  There was nothing unusual to report until Ian Botham failed to turn up for a voluntary net practice and Jeffrey Boycott publicly criticised him, at last a story worth talking about.

It was quite the opposite situation when the Pakistan national team came to England in 1992.  To mark the occasion Jonathan had a special edition of Test Match Special entitled “Why England and Pakistan don’t seem to be able to play a game of cricket together without World War Three breaking out.”  The answer to this question is quite complex and it is related to the colonial past of the British Empire which casts a shadow over cricket even today.  However, from the journalistic point of view there is plenty to report.

The next tour was of India.  Jonathan regarded this as enormous fun.  The difficulties of transport to more remote areas and the problem of telephone communication back to London added to the experience.  Occasional reliance on a diet of Mars bars also helped.

Someone once asked Jonathan “Who was the best batsman you ever bowled at.”  There is only one answer to this and that is Viv Richards who was the second player Jonathan dismissed when playing for England.  Jonathan recalls Gordon Parsons, warhorse bowler for Leicestershire, discovering that Viv Richards liked a short pitched ball.  On one occasion at Grace Road in Leicester Richards hit a short ball with a resounding crack which was followed by the sound of breaking glass when the ball came to earth.

The West Indies was Jonathan’s favourite place to watch cricket.  A test match at the recreation ground in Antigua is a celebration of love for the sport and for the West Indian way of life.  What could be better than to commentate on a test match in shorts and T-shirt with exciting cricket and an enthusiastic crowd, then as the sun goes down travelling back to the hotel for a swim in the Caribbean.  It is a tough job but someone has to do it!

Jonathan won a Sony Radio award for Best Reporter in 1992 and in 1994.  In 2010, the Association of Sports Journalists named Agnew, Best Radio Broadcaster of the Year, the same year that Test Match Special also won Best Radio Programme. He has received Honorary degrees from De Montfort and Loughborough Universities.  In 2015 Jonathan was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Leicestershire and in 2017 he received the MBE for his services to broadcasting.

He lives in the Vale of Belvoir with his wife Emma, and their three dogs.

In 1991 he was commentating with Brian Johnston at the Oval and when Ian Botham almost lost his balance, Jonathan said “Botham just didn’t get his leg over.”  This comment caused great mirth not only in the commentary box but also to motorists listening on their car radios.  It produced a two-mile traffic jam at the Dartford Tunnel caused by drivers unable to pay the toll because they were laughing so much.  Fourteen years later the incident was voted “The greatest sporting commentary of all time,” securing 78% of the vote.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and Council I present Jonathan Agnew, that you may confer upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

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