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Smooth talking Miss is a hit with sceptical lords of the airwaves

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

20 February 1998

THE BBC's decision to offer one of its commentary slots on Radio Four during the third Test in Trinidad to Miss Donna Symmonds, who broke down the barriers of chauvinism (real or perceived) in Barbados as long ago as 1988, will have surprised some, pleased many and angered a few, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

The great majority will feel no doubt, that if a woman is articulate enough, knows sufficient about the game and, crucially perhaps, understands its nuances, she has an equal right to commentate on BBC radio or anywhere else.

I have worked with Donna, an attractive, 39-year-old barrister, in Barbados in the past. She is an intelligent and bubbly character and although cricket commentary to her is a hobby, not a profession, she does a good job. Being a Bajan from a family who love the game, she has a good cricketing knowledge.

Not having played it since her schooldays, or to any significant standard, is clearly a disadvantage 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 any case, Donna Symmonds is no foreigner to competitive sport: she played tennis for Barbados.

One of the former Test cricketers sharing the microphone with her in Trinidad said that just occasionally she got little cricketing details wrong, confusing an edge with a deliberate steer off the face of the bat for example, but there have been male commentators who make similar errors. She makes up for that with other great qualities: an ease with words, a sense of humour and a ready wit.

In any case, who has ever been the perfect commentator? There were those who found Brian Johnston too frivilous; others who think Richie Benaud too uncritical of the contemporary game and its players. If John Arlott came closest to the ideal, there were those who thought him too lugubrious at times.

The law is Donna Symmonds' main professional concern and she has no intention of changing that. Her father, Algernon, once a cricket commentator himself and a sometime High Commissioner for Barbados in London, is head of her Chambers, the Equitus in Bridgetown, and her cousin, David, is the present Attorney General in the Barbados Labour Government.

Having qualified at the Bar in London in 1987 she fell into radio work to supplement her income when she went home, took over some tennis commentary when the established commentator fell ill, and found she had a gift for it. ``Cricket commentary is far easier than trying to keep up with tennis,'' she says.

But neither is very lucrative compared to life as a criminal barrister. ``I love commentary,'' she said before returning home to Bridgetown on Tuesday (she never goes to the Guyana Test because the food and water there make her ill), ``but it's only a hobby for me. Travelling to report cricket is out of the question because of my job. At least Test matches at home give me an excuse to get out of the office. Cricket has always been my passion. My father was a friend of Sir Frank Worrell and since I was a little girl there have been people like Gary Sobers or Clive Lloyd about the house.''

As a regular on the CBC station, she believes she is accepted in her own country now, whatever the reaction to her opening sallies on Test Match Special might have been. ``Cricket is a religion in Barbados and it took time for people to get used to me. At first some people thought it was a gimmick. I was asked by someone whether they were using my face and somebody else's voice.''

A woman talking about cricket on the BBC, as opposed to commentating on Test Match Special, is not unique. The archives still hold records of the former England captain Marjorie Pollard reporting on women's Tests against Australia and more recently, Rachel Heyhoe Flint, sure to be one of the first female MCC members if the vote which will decide whether women should be eligible for membership in future should go her way next week, has often reported and summarised. The long-serving TMS producer Peter Baxter says that he has listened to various female voices during women's series in recent years but has spotted no exceptional talent. It was he who sanctioned Donna's appearance in the recent Test, strongly encouraged by the BBC cricket correspondent, Jon Agnew.

Lest anyone should think the West Indies a beacon of social enlightenment in all matters, no women members are allowed either at the Queen's Park Club in Port of Spain (Queen's Club though it may be) or at the Kingston Club at Sabina Park. All who castigate MCC for their fuddy-duddyness as they await the meeting next week might ponder that.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 20 Feb1998 - 10:26