Legendary broadcaster Jonathan Agnew’s venerable tones have graced the airwaves for over four decades and bought both pain and pleasure to millions as he brings to life the pace and rhythm of the handsome game of cricket.
Aggers, as he is affectionately known, will soon to heard by thousands more as he takes up the reins as commentator for the equestrian events at next year’s Rio Olympics.
The Gaitpost caught up Aggers for a two-part interview as he prepares for a riding holiday to celebrate a significant birthday with his wife, Emma, to see how his riding is coming along and to find out what equestrian sport can learn from cricket.
I really decided I had to ride a bit when I took on the Olympics, I don’t think there is any way at all that you can talk about a sport without having a vague idea of what is going on. I watched Charlotte Dujardin last year and that was my starting point – I wanted to know how is she making her horse do all this. My wife, Emma, has always wanted to go on a riding holiday and that gave me the impetus I needed.
How has it been going?
I had been having a few lessons and it had been going quite well when I had a horror of a week and fell off. It had to go on the back burner during the World Cup but I have got to get back on again between now and leaving for Argentina. I’m not a brave person so you can’t shy away from it. I’m going to start from a fairly basic position. There is a very nice riding centre near us called Vale View and I have lined up a couple of gentle lessons with Julie Hyslop. My wife, Emma, competes at Advanced Medium dressage and it has been useful to watch the competitions at Vale View.
Do you ever groom for Emma?
No but I do call her tests for her at competitions (this is when riders are allowed to have their tests read out to them in competitions up to a certain level). There was one occasion when I was calling her test and her horse went beserk and things didn’t go to plan. As the next lady entered the arena, she asked if I would call her test and she went on to win. We had a very quiet journey home!
Have you always loved horses?
Lord no! I have never had anything to do with horses. It has always been Emma’s thing. She gave up riding for 15 years and started again about 5 years ago. She saw her horse advertised on the British Dressage website and it came from Charlotte Dujardin’s yard. That was before the London Olympics and we joke that we wouldn’t be able to afford a leg of him now! She trains with Ian Woodhead.
Above: Burghley House, Stamford, UK, 4th September 2015. BBC Cricket Correspondent Jonathan Agnew watches William Fox-Pitt prepare for his dressage test
Are you enjoying the horsey world?
What is really nice is that since I have got involved in the sport, I am now much more capable of talking to Emma’s horsey friends. And what has really struck me is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. People come up and chat. I’ve met William Fox-Pitt and Harry Meade and everyone has made me feel incredibly welcome. I was worried people would think ‘Oh no, we’ve got a cricketer covering the sport’ but I really hope I can do a nice job, bring new people into the sport that might not have watched horses before and that is a big challenge for me.
You recently made your first equestrian broadcast from the European Championships at Blair. How did that compare to cricket commentary?
It was entirely different. I am used to broadcasting about a sport that has been my life. With cricket, I have stories, facts, experience, information, history – I can talk to you about it for hours. Having no history or experience is quite daunting.
I am going to take it gently – I don’t want to sound like a world expert. You have to remember that most broadcasting is instant and it is like a rug is waiting to be pulled from beneath your feet.
In Rio I will be covering the eventing as well as pure dressage and showjumping. The comparisons with cricket are tricky as with cricket you are reacting to split second action. With eventing, there are very different skills in each discipline and it is not easy to describe what you are seeing.
With the dressage, I will have an expert with me so I won’t be assessing how they do it but I will know what the dressage test movements are. I have been given an interesting challenge by the British Equestrian Federation to make dressage sound more approachable for people and there is a fine line between making it more understandable for people who don’t know the sport without dumbing it down and upsetting the aficionados. Dancing horses is a good example of this – I expect 5 years ago describing dressage as dancing horses would have been unspeakable. That has been the legacy left by the successes at the London Games.
There is a huge difference in the media coverage that cricket and equestrian sports receives. Do you ever envisage riders getting back page broadsheet coverage?
I think there is a very different attitude to the media with equestrian sports. I am coming from a sport where the media is totally controlled and you may only get 2 minutes with a player. My assessment from Blair, for example, is I believe the equestrian media are going to have to become a little more penetrating perhaps. It surprised me that at the press conferences that there were only one or two questions asked. I believe the press needs to be more critical and whilst I am not good enough or knowledgeable enough now, I think for the sport to get more coverage, the media needs to be inquisitive and analytical. There could have been questions about team tactics, for example, and a whole host of other questions that for me, having covered a high profile sport for as long as I have, would make the back pages and give a healthy perspective.
It bemused me why, after Charlotte Dujardin’s win at the Europeans in Aachen, where she herself recognised that it wasn’t her best performance, that there was nothing on the news about it. She won! I watched it on holiday in Portugal and flew back the next day and there wasn’t a single column inch in a major broadsheet about it and in my eyes, it should have received a double page spread. But to get that sort of coverage you need to ask more probing questions, maybe not at a press conference for everyone to hear, but the athletes are going to have to accept a more inquisitive line of questioning to get the sport out there.
We all hear whispers at events and there are occasions when people are talking about a story but no questions are asked – these are the type of stories that will get the sport the coverage.
In Part 2, Jonathan shares his thoughts on both The European Championships at Blair and the ultimate 4* that is the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, plus we discover his key to perfect happiness and the Aggers life motto.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Aggerscricket
Aggers has very kindly given us permission to share the film of his fall last year: