Life & Culture

Meet Andy Zaltzman, the statistical mind behind Test Match Special

News Quiz host Andy Zaltzman knows it all when it comes to the quintessential English sport


They’ll probably be holding bar mitzvahs on the moon by the time we next see one of our own striding down the steps of the pavilion at Lord’s in the whites of England. Short may be the roll of Anglo-Jewish Test cricketers but our contribution to the game is not to be sniffed at.

When Sky Sports pundits pronounce on the summer proceedings, they rely on information provided by statistician Benedict Bermange, formerly of Maccabi Association London. And on one of the BBC’s most hallowed institutions, Test Match Special, the man in charge of cricket’s “wonderful numbers”, as he refers to them, is Andy Zaltzman. The Oxford classics graduate with the boffinesque hair brings a wry humour to the role reflective of his other career as a leading practitioner of topical comedy for 25 years, whose voice has become increasingly familiar on Radio 4 as host since 2020 of another radio perennial, The News Quiz. Astonishingly, it is in its 114th series and three years shy of its 50th anniversary.

The statistician is a keeper of the records that tell of the historic deeds of cricket’s heroes, and more recently heroines, over more than a century. The true fan reveres the figures as much as the rabbinic student his gematria (numerology). You might not be able to gather the average number of cucumber sandwiches W.G. Grace consumed for tea but there is a near-inexhaustible supply of facts to be mined out of the annals of the sport.

Cricket’s numbers go back “a long time”, he explains, “and the numbers tell the story of a game in a way that [they don’t in] football. You might have a game that was 2-1 in 1904 but you have no real idea of what happened.

“But you look at a cricket scorecard and you see the story of a game. The fact that the numbers tell the story of a game in cricket or baseball in a way that they don’t in a lot of other sports has meant that people have studied them for longer.

“I think cricket has been popular for so long is because essentially it is a fascinating form of narrative. Each game is a potential series of turning points – with every ball the game evolves a little bit or a big bit depending on what happens. The stats help tell that story.”

Zaltzman, who on Monday will be joining journalists Jonathan Freedland and Giles Coren for a “Jews Talk Cricket” event at JW3, was initiated to the game at the age of six in 1981, the year of the “Botham Ashes”, when the swashbuckling all-rounder licked the Aussies almost single-handedly. His father gave him a couple of books on the series, which included scorecards from the Test Match Special scorer Bill Frindall, aka “Bearders”. “That’s where it all began in terms of my obsession,” Zaltzman says.

For a couple of years his family lived next to the cricket pitch in the Kent village of Fordcombe, though he grew up mostly in Tonbridge Wells. “I still play, not with any distinction whatsoever. I always enjoyed it but it was fairly clear early on, my performance ceiling – I think they might call it in modern terms – was fairly limited.” He went to Tonbridge School, which still offers sports scholarships in memory of its most famous cricketing son, the England captain Sir Colin Cowdrey. “I maxed out in the Third XI,” says Zaltzman.

Test Match Special was “very much a significant part of the audio-landscape of my early years”. Like many of us, he would often watch with the TV sound turned down and the radio on and it would accompany the family on long car journeys. “I was into the stats,” he says. “I can’t remember actively thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do that?’ but if you’d asked me would I like to do that job, the answer would have definitely been yes.”

When we Zoom-meet, I am a touch disappointed not to see a whirring bank of computers at the back of his office-shed in south London crunching the data for him. “You can do most of it with a fairly basic laptop,” he confides.

His electronic bible is the “statsguru facility” on the leading cricket website ESPNcricinfo, which enables afficionados to delve deep into the numerical bowels of the sport. Details that previously would have taken days to research in books the search engine can throw up in seconds. At the BBC he also makes use of CricViz software, which also provides ball-tracking data.

For ten years he wrote a blog blending humour and stats for Cricinfo, launched after one of the website team heard him talk about cricket on The Bugle. This was the topical podcast he began co-hosting in 2007, originally for Times Radio, with John Oliver – with whom he has written for other radio productions. This podcast is still going strong. That led to appearances on Test Match Sofa, an irreverent alternative to Test Match Special – “it shook the commentary landscape up a little bit – a disrupter, you might call it in modern parlance”.

In 2016, he received the call-up from Radio 4 to cover the one-day internationals. “My first day on Test Match Special was the morning after the Brexit vote. It was quite a weird day.” He hasn’t looked back.

He remains a traditionalist in that Test cricket is his “lifelong passion. The shorter the cricket gets, the less interesting the balance between risk and reward becomes. It doesn’t fascinate me as much as the longer formats.”

Test cricket is essentially a “long-form narrative” and people like “long-form narratives” – but he believes it has not been marketed properly in that way. He doesn’t see the need for The Hundred – the wham-bam, jazzed-up shortest form of the game introduced three years ago here to entice younger spectators. As for fears the five-day game might be driven towards extinction, he says: “People have been saying that for a hundred years and it’s probably been true to an extent during that time. The irony is that the way Test cricket is played at the moment is probably as exciting as it’s ever been.”

He has had to juggle his various commitments. A few days before we speak, he had done a “live” election-special edition of The Bugle at the Bloomsbury Theatre, he is hosting the summer season of the News Quiz, and when the cricket season ends, he will be refining material for The Zaltgeist, a stand-up show scheduled for more than 40 venues across the country startingin Reading in November, the month after his 50th birthday, and ending in Milton Keynes in April. “I haven’t done a tour like this for quite a long time,” he says.

After his debut on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999 and nomination for best newcomer in the comedy awards there two years later, his comedy career progressed. You might catch him occasionally on TV in cricketing headphones. But radio has proved his forte. He clinched the News Quiz slot ahead of seven other candidates who were auditioned after Miles Jupp stepped down.

There’s “great scope” with audio-comedy, he says. “You can make something sound spectacular with just a few sound effects – whereas to make it look spectacular on television requires a lot of money and planning and time and logistics. It’s very flexible, You can be very creative with it, I think. It’s a bit more relaxed.”

He doesn’t appear on a Jewish platform very often. “I have never been practising, I was brought up in a very lapsed household” – although he was barmitzvahed in Brighton. “My mother would drive me and my brother down to Brighton every week [for lessons] during the school holidays.”

He is at work on a cricket book, too, although he can’t say when it will be out. But when it does so, the maven of the scorecard will find a ready readership.

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