Bill Lawry, the former Australian captain and longtime commentator, has confirmed his retirement from cricket broadcasting after knocking back offers from the Seven and Fox Sports networks to cover the game after Channel Nine’s loss of free-to-air television rights after 40 years.
Ultimately, it was the connection to Nine that stopped Lawry from going elsewhere to continue as a commentator, where even at the age of 81 he remained one of the most vibrant and compelling of the network’s cricket callers. He leaves behind a legacy of joining Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket revolution, followed by years behind the microphone alongside the likes of Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell, setting a standard of enthusiasm and showmanship that many have tried unsuccessfully to emulate.
“Yes I am [retiring]. I’ve had 40 great years at Channel Nine and been very lucky and I think the time’s just right,” Lawry told SEN Radio. “I think it’s just been such a wonderful journey and I don’t want to spoil a great journey. I’ve seen the best cricketers for the last 40 years, I’ve been through the Packer years, I’ve commentated with guys like Ian Healy and Mark Taylor and all the new boys and it’s just been a wonderful journey I never really expected.
“I’ve had a phone call or two, which is fair enough, and I said no because Channel Nine’s been my home, I’ve been very happy there and I think when you’ve had such an enjoyable trip, at 81 years of age I think it’s just the time to call it quits. My wife hasn’t been well for probably five or six years so it was either call it quits or cut it short and Channel Nine have been very good. I certainly have enjoyed the Boxing Day Tests and the final Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, it’s just a great atmosphere, the best cricketers in the world playing on the two best grounds probably in Australia, and it’s just been a magnificent journey, almost a dream come true.
“I think the time Packer called us together way back in 1975-76, I remember Keith Stackpole and I went to the first meeting or two and I said ‘this will only last for a couple of years, let’s enjoy ourselves’, so we were way off the mark there. But I think we’ve seen the change of cricket, from basically being amateurs, I played 17 years of first-class cricket for virtually nothing, which I would’ve done again because I didn’t know anything different. But the modern era brought on by Packer and Richie leading Channel Nine into a new era and all the others popping up, it’s just been a fabulous time.”
Lawry said he was saddened for Nine and its employees having lost the rights to cover cricket, with two of three international formats to now go behind Fox Sports’ paywall, while Seven chimes in to cover Test matches and 43 of 59 Big Bash League games. “It was disappointing for all the people who work there because they’ve just been fantastic, from the CEO down to the boy who runs around with the sandwiches,” Lawry said.
“It’s just been a great team effort, some wonderful producers and directors and cameramen and guys down in that horrible [outside broadcast] van, freezing cold for six or seven hours getting the best replays in the world, it’s just been a wonderful effort by Channel Nine and everybody involved.
“It brought modern cricket into the home, their replays, the third umpires, stump cam and all that rubbish, Greigy and his pitch report way back in the early days sticking a key into the pitch, it just brought people right into their home how Test and one-day cricket’s played and then Twenty20 cricket. Modern-day cricket’s been fantastic I think for all sports – golf’s improved, tennis has improved, and I think it all goes back to Kerry Packer throwing a lot of money at a project he wanted to win.”
Recalling the early days of the operation, Lawry said he was intimidated by the likes of Benaud and Fred Trueman in commentary, but appreciated the strong guiding hands provided by Packer and his first producer, David Hill.
“It was a nervous time. When Keith Stackpole and I fronted up to the commentary box for the first game and it was Richie Benaud and Freddie Trueman, we sat in the back of the box and listened to Richie, who’d been 11 or 12 years at the [BBC] so he was an experienced campaigner, and Freddie Trueman was a great storyteller,” Lawry said. “I looked at Stacky and said ‘we can’t do this’, but we did and we really enjoyed every minute of it, the best seat in the house to watch the best cricketers.
“I think the success of World Series Cricket was purely due to the quality of the cricketers, the World XI, a great West Indian team and Ian Chappell mustering an Australian team and the good coverage. The highlight was being part of a team that Richie led. It was new territory for everybody, Richie was the key to it all and so calm and collected and then we had guys like Greigy and Ian Chappell coming in after the two years of playing and we’ve had all the visitors, the Ian Bothams and Michael Vaughan last year, Michael Holding and all the wonderful West Indian cricketers who’ve come on as commentators.
“I’ve had the best seat in the house watching the best cricketers. The modern cricketer has been fantastic – who can forget Dennis Lillee or Viv Richards, all the wonderful moments we’ve had. When you look around the box and you see all the greats, Michael Clarke’s come in, Mark Taylor’s come in, probably one of the best captains we’ve had, Ian Chappell and Greigy came in and they weren’t great friends early on, so that was interesting watching two opponents who competed very hard. I remember one day at Football Park one evening, the great Barry Richards came in and he was as white as a sheet, I said ‘what’s wrong Barry’ and he said ‘it’s murder out there’, the pitch was a little bit underdone and Lillee and these guys were giving him a working over so the cricket was fantastic.”
Reflecting on Packer, Lawry said one of his key pieces of advice was to ensure that the audience was always the focus, the better to avoid self-indulgence or going over the heads of the broad cross-section of the Australian community who repeatedly tuned in. “The most important people were our audience, we weren’t very important,” he said. “Kerry made that clear very early on, he said ‘you guys might’ve played Test cricket and think you’re good, but 80% of our audience don’t really understand the game of cricket because it’s a complicated game’ and he was completely right.”
As for the future, Lawry said he looked forward to being a guest at the Australian Open tennis tournament, which Nine will now cover instead of the cricket, and doubted others would imitate his memorably excited calls of the fall of a wicket. “I’ll probably yell ‘he’s got him’ but so will somebody else, I might register that call!” he said. “I can’t imagine Ricky Ponting yelling ‘he’s got him’, he’s probably yelling ‘that’s 5 to 2 the favourite’ I reckon.”