Behind the mic with legendary sports commentators Jim Maxwell AM and Gordon Bray AM
Gordon Bray AM and Jim Maxwell AM have a century of broadcasting on the scoreboard between them and a close friendship that spans 50 years. Gordon Bray and Delta Agribusiness have a long and close relationship since the company’s very inception, with Gordon acting as inaugural MC at its launch in April 2006. As Managing Director Gerard Hines puts it, “Gordon and his family are close friends of ours and the company, and has been actively involved for over 15 years as a trusted voice in our company’s media campaigns and MC at milestone events along our journey. I met Jim through Gordon and his family and enjoy the pleasure of witnessing the terrific banter, humour and respect between these two Aussie icons”.
Through this relationship, Prospect Editor Rosie O’Keeffe gained an exclusive insight into their career highlights, changing national and international sporting dynamics, and the most memorable sporting moments that surprisingly silenced the colloquially renowned “Voice of Rugby” and “Voice of Cricket”.
As I walk out onto the green turf of the historic Sydney Cricket Ground alongside Gordon Bray AM and Jim Maxwell AM, it’s instantly apparent it has not only been the scene of some of Australia and the world’s greatest sporting moments, but both commentators reflect on how being in the box seat here also holds a personal significance to them.
Both have notched up 50 years’ experience in the broadcasters’ box and theirs is a friendship that also spans 50 years. Gordon says it was always a sporting passion that has connected them, recalling squash games together at the Royal Sydney Golf Club, playing touch football on Sundays, in Gordon’s case, guest appearances for the Old Cranbrookians cricket club, and both gentlemen also reminisce casual dinner parties eating fish and chips plated on newspapers.
And, of course, with a passion and connections in racehorses, there’s always a cheeky tip from the form guide shared between them.
Jim Maxwell AM, Gordon Bray AM and Delta Ag Managing Director Gerard Hines at the Sydney Cricket Ground
As I capture images in front of the Member’s Stand which is steeped in grandeur, and we tour the players’ area and the historic dressing rooms, some of the greatest moments in cricket Jim Maxwell has etched in his memory just rolls off the tongue as he highlights key statistics of the game, even information that has been documented dating back from the Don Bradman era… and he talks about how calling the women’s gold medal win at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, one of the most memorable moments of his career.
But even though he’s broadcasted other sports, it’s with his cricket yarns that his wry smile emerges.
“One of the most famous cricket games (here at the SCG) was when Michael Clarke scored his triple century here, no one had ever made 300 runs in a Test match at the SCG and the crowd just went wild… They may not ever see anything like this again,” Jim, who also had his wedding ceremony on the SCG turf, enthuses.
I then ask Jim who he believes have been the most talented cricketers over the years. “Brian Lara is the best batsman and Shane Warne the best bowler I have seen,” Jim says matter-of-factly.
“Lara was certainly the greatest batsman, with his flair and his ability. The way Lara came back in Jamaica after media reports of a slump, scoring 242 and they won the game, and scoring 100 in the run chase in third test… It emphasises that brilliant batsmen are match winners.
“The Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath era was something special and I don’t believe there has been a greater pairing in Test history with pace and spin. When you look back in that era, Australia didn’t make a lot of runs but they were not out of the game because of these two. Shane Warne is our greatest living cricketer… he is out of this world.”
Jim recalls another significant and memorable cricket moment was in the West Indies in 1995 when Curtly Ambrose and Steve Waugh came face-to-face and Australia won back the Frank Worrell trophy after Steve went on to score a double century and his brother Mark put 100 runs on the board as well.
“A lot of the remarkable things I’ve seen in cricket involving Australia has been when they were on the other side, not often the winning team,” Jim recalls.
Jim’s media career is certainly one that reflects his passion for all sports and has as much variety as the magazine clippings he glued onto cardboard (still treasured today), although even in his early years, it’s his coverage of cricket with more than 300 Test matches, and numerous One Day Internationals and World Cups that he is most renowned for.
Jim was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to sports broadcasting in 2013 and Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports Journalism at the 19th annual Sport Australia Media Awards last year.
He has a long standing role as editor of The ABC Cricket Book and has written and compiled several other cricket books.
He recalls editing a cricket magazine at school and the moment he realised that despite not being talented to compete at an elite level in sport, there were other ways to be involved in sport.
“I had a dream in those days that I could still be involved somehow in the game of cricket and that was a goal I could achieve,” he says.
It was actually ‘third time lucky’ applying for a cadetship at the ABC after Jim had returned from a Collegians Tour in 1972, and it was his mother who encouraged him to reapply in 1973 after she discovered an advertisement in the newspaper.
“I remember they played 90 matches as part of the tour and there were a lot of first grade cricketers, but on returning to Perth, I didn’t know what I was doing next, so I actually rang my father, who was a probate lawyer at the time, and asked him to shout me a trip on the Indian Pacific because I was a bit skimp,” Jim jokes.
“It took a few years for the opportunities to open up, but after getting to cover a Test match in Pakistan and Australia in 1977, the offers to cover more matches became regular. We then had a team – Alan McGilvray, Dennis Cometti and myself – and a real opportunity came for me when I was sent to the World Cup in England that year…”
Jim says that opportunities grew, from covering Olympic Games and international and national cricket, to being taken back to amateur sport days, club rugby and schoolboys games.
“I was doing rugby on television in 1996 and that was a lot of fun with Brett Papworth, Ross Reynolds and Toby Lawson. It was actually the start of a good time having a glass of red before every match,” Jim grins.
“I remember we did the Joeys and Riverview game and we were in the box with a bottle of red. The tradition persisted to the point where the Yalumba rep would bring a bottle as part of an association with the Eastern Suburbs rugby club.
Whilst there was never an opportunity legally to advertise any product, we were 10 minutes into the game and I thought there might have been a chance to repay the hospitality as the Eastern Suburbs were about to score… so I’m poised with microphone on and it’s ‘here’s a chance for Eastern Suburbs, Yalumba-ing in for the try!’,” Jim laughs.
“They were great days and club rugby was always a sport you’d love being a part of because you could mix with the players socially after the game. Even with cricket in the 1980s and 1990s, they would all have a beer with the members after matches. I think it was when Alan Border was the Australian captain that last happened. It has certainly become a more clinical culture with endorsements and social media, and it’s not as much about the grassroots members these days.
“Having not played for my country, like others have, it takes a while to develop a confidence to speak behind the microphone. I have an honest respect for the players and I think it took me 20 to 30 years to feel a sense of authority and control in what I was doing. Eventually the respect grows. It’s interesting that the ABC never employed me as a cricket commentator, I was a sports commentator, the respect for me as a cricket commentator has come from the public, which is just the best feeling.”
Whilst Jim talks freely today, he believes that when behind the microphone, “saying nothing is lost these days”.
Gordon Bray AM and Jim Maxwell AM take a stroll through the Australian SCG dressing room
“The important thing to always remember, is the pause. The technique of the pause is really important and using the crowd in the commentary. Some of the best commentary you can do is to say nothing, and you can forget that in the moment sometimes.”
And that’s why he believes the energy of a live crowd is also important to the game, with the lack of a live audience something he has now experienced as a part of COVID-19 restrictions. “The atmosphere is what you kill for as a commentator and the opportunity to work off a crowd.”
Gordon agrees and recalls his first televised test rugby commentaries at the SCG in 1980. The capacity crowds witnessed a thrilling series win over the NZ All Blacks spearheaded by a rookie fly-half named Mark Ella. He also reveals the sporting moment that silenced him… It was the Rugby World Cup Quarter Final in 1991 between Australia and Ireland in Dublin. “The Irish scored a late try and it looked like we were gonners six minutes before full-time. The crowd was in a frenzy and out of control. I’d never seen crowd reaction like it. The Irish thought they had knocked out the favourite… It was definitely one of the most dramatic games I’ve called and probably the best commentary I’ve done. Why? Because when Gordon Hamilton scored that try for Ireland, we shut up for 31 seconds. You didn’t need to say anything. It just unfolded before our eyes, the visual impact of the moment took over and I had to physically gag fellow commentators Gary Pearse and Chris Handy. When the Wallabies finally stole the game with Michael Lynagh’s try, the loudest eruption came from the ABC commentators,” he recalls.
Gordon’s broadcasting career began in 1969 as a specialist trainee at the ABC and after 25 years of covering sport across the globe he moved to commercial television spending the next 25 years with the Seven Network and Channel Ten. Gordon has a reputation for fastidious research and after 50 years in media is recognised internationally as a leading and diverse sports commentator and an entertaining and polished after dinner speaker and MC.
Gordon has been a commentator at 10 summer and winter Olympic Games, 5 Commonwealth Games and has written six books on rugby. From test rugby and test cricket to golf and equestrian, he has covered over 25 sports at international level, as well as, completing six Sydney to Hobart yacht races for the ABC on the official radio relay vessel. In 2001, Gordon was awarded a one-off Sydney 2000 Prime Minister’s medal for services to sports broadcasting, as well as, being a recipient of the Penguin Award, the highest peer award for a sports presenter, and in 2005 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to sport, charity, and the community.
For Gordon, the memories of his “dream job” and one he still pinches himself doing, goes back to his school days when he would hit a tennis ball against a wall playing out imagined cricket tests and he chuckles that his family were always having to replace windows he’d broken. He would cut out newspaper articles and keep the scrapbooks. Cricket and rugby were his two great loves; however, Gordon also reminisces playing golf at Hudson Park in the Western Suburbs of Sydney – one school holidays even playing every day for his six weeks’ vacation.
“On very special occasions in my teens I chose to wag school too. I remember in 1963 I attended Alan Davidson’s last cricket test on the final day here at the SCG and I snuck into the Members’ Stand. After stumps Wally Grout, the great wicket keeper threw his two cricket pads to me from the dressing room window and I got one signed by both Australia and England. I even offered to carry Davo’s bag to his car. Unfortunately there was a photographer from The Sun on hand and the next day I was pulled into the headmaster’s office… and he revealed the back page photo showing me in my school uniform.
“I think I was definitely destined to be a commentator, even though I didn’t know it at that stage.”
Gordon lost his father at 10 years of age, tragically killed in a workplace accident, and has since had a longstanding connection with Legacy. It was this connection that assisted him into his first role as a specialist trainee with the ABC Sports Department. “Sir Ivan Dougherty our family legatee, was a war hero and head of Civilian Defence. He spoke on my behalf to Sir Talbot Duckmanton, the general manager of the ABC who also happened to be President of Sydney Legacy. So I got to the interview stage and after a rigorous audition process led by the late Drew Morphett I landed the position. I ended up working alongside Drew as part of the ABC’s television test cricket coverage to regional Australia.
“I believe the key to being a successful commentator is 100 per cent passion and a genuine love of sport, and a desire to wholeheartedly immerse yourself. Preparation is everything. When something happens, I can hopefully spontaneously relate to it. It’s all part of the thrill and adrenalin rush of being behind the microphone personally communicating with viewers and listeners.”
Gordon admits there is a growing level of political correctness in the modern era and there have been moments he was controversially thrust into the spotlight.
“Political correctness is certainly a challenge, but that’s all tied up in the skill of a broadcaster – being on your toes and razor sharp with everything you say,” Gordon says.
Some of his greatest moments involved in sports commentary go back to an amateur era. He recalls the ABC sending him on a Wallabies tour in 1984. The team won the Grand Slam for the first time and Mark Ella scored a try in every test match. It was a moment that Gordon says “put rugby on the map in Australia ...”
One of the biggest highlights for Gordon as a commentator was the 2015 Rugby World Cup when Japan downed South Africa in what he describes as “one of the biggest sporting upsets of all time”.
There have been several other career highlights and funny anecdotes including streakers across the field in the 1981 match at Twickenham, Australia versus England.
In his first Olympic Games in 1976 at Montreal, Gordon hosted the opening colour transmission to Australia for the combined Australian Television Team. He also covered the yachting regatta in Ontario but his favourite Games remains London in 2012 with the Macquarie Radio Network as he was required to commentate ‘live’ on a dozen sports.
“I remember I was calling Australian whitewater kayaker Jessica Fox’s silver medal from the International Broadcast Centre and unfortunately we had lost pictures before the start of her run. Falling back on my ABC training I had made sure I was prepared with the phone number of her coach and because I could only hear water effects and crowd reaction, I quickly rang him and he then described what was happening which I passed on to the listeners.
“These experiences gave me a chance to show my versatility. I’ve always aimed for 150 per cent and perfection, which I could never achieve, but that was always the goal.
“One thing we were always taught at ABC Sport was to be objective and not become a barracker, but it can certainly be difficult to deploy diplomacy sometimes.”
Gordon also shares a friendship and says his most entertaining commentary colleague is Chis Handy, universally known as ‘Buddha’. He chuckles at some of the adventures they shared while on tour, including a ritual before every telecast to drink a rum and coke.
Gordon believes sports landscapes are changing and says win bonuses and excessive money can have a negative impact on professional sport – still referring to his highlights of an amateur era.
“Professional sport is faster, fitter, stronger, more demanding, and there is the element of betting, and that brings its own implications. The quest for victory brings a lot of pressure on the players, especially with multiple television cameras evaluating every move, and I think the whole objective should be to keep the fun side of sporting achievement – it’s very cut throat, have we already lost it to win at all costs?
“I think many teams are trying to go back to an amateur ethos, it’s not about me, it’s about we, and having respect for the opponent, commitment, hard work, a sense of sportsmanship, accepting the outcome. For love first and money second… all those noble character traits are really important. A lot of teams are trying to now develop a culture of modesty, selflessness and group pride with an understanding of why they are doing it – money, teammates or something greater?”
Gordon has admired many great sportspeople, including golfer Greg Norman and tennis player Evonne Goolagong Cawley. In the modern era, he says Ash Barty is an inspiring ambassador and a phenomenal talent, epitomising everything we want in our Australian sportspeople.
He says the recognition for women in sport is growing, especially with the inclusion of female commentators in the game, and admits he has certainly maintained a conscious focus on female supporters – developing a style in humanising the players.
“I would always try and come up with some quirky fun facts on the players to target the female and younger audience, bringing in the players’ backgrounds, their families and some anecdotes,” he says.
In recent times, Gordon has observed changes to the rugby game, making it more technical with a decreased number of supporters, and believes to get back to the game’s elements, it needs to be driven by a much wider grassroots exposure, inspiring more children to get involved in the sport.
“It’s about where I started – kids having their heroes and building from the grassroots up. I believe Australian rugby has been in a void for more than a decade. The last big era was the decade leading up to the 2003 World Cup. Since then, I think things have gone backwards due to administration issues, a lack of correct focus and planning, leadership, funding issues and a lack of unity in the provinces – states are largely in survival mode and are pursuing their own avenues to success.
“They are trying to address these issues through exposure in schools and juniors, and without question the rural areas need to be embraced because there is so much untapped available talent. Australian Rules football succeeds spectacularly in that area.”
In the last 50 years he believes he has visited almost every rugby club in NSW as a guest speaker and is aware of the importance of the sport in regional Australia. Gordon has a fond connection with the land, with his wife Cathy coming from a well-known farming family on the rich black soils around Gunnedah, and his son Andrew also runs Wagyu cattle on his property at Ebor near Armidale.
Gordon is now focused on giving back to the game through mentoring up and coming commentators especially internationals Alicia Lucas (Quirk) and Emily Chancellor. He is involved in a number of podcasts including the Rugby Club of Victoria’s ‘The Spirit of Rugby Union’, and contributes video profiles of classic Wallabies on an honorary basis for the Rugby Australia website and archives.
Whilst Gordon believes he may have called his last game of rugby his interest and passion for the sport remains strong.
And one thing’s for sure, whether it be a rum and coke, or a glass of red, the friendship of these two much-loved and celebrated voices in Australian sport, will be one to be enjoyed and remembered for many years to come.