“Oh God, not him. Now we will hear descriptions of buses and birds and pigeons. Cricket can go take a walk…”
The subject of that bitter sentence from my father himself took a very long walk Saturday. For about ten minutes, the Mecca of cricket, Lord’s, forgot all about the action on the field between England and the West Indies and instead stood up to applaud as a rather elderly gentlemen resplendent in red trousers, pink shirt, and a light green jacket took a lap of honour around the ground. Henry Calthorpe Blofeld, after being an integral part of BBC’s legendary Test Match Special commentary team for more than forty years, had finally called it day.
Commentators are not known for getting extravagant farewells. The legendary John Arlott had slipped out of the commentary box with a rather somber “End of the over, it’s 69 for 2, and after Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins,” at the Centenary Test at Lord’s in 1980, and in many other cases, commentators found no chance to bid a farewell thanks to cancelled contracts with the powers that be. Some others passed away while still in the saddle. But no commentator that I can recall actually walked around the hallowed turf at Lord’s, acknowledging the applause of thousands of fans, shaking hands and even getting a kiss (which he seemed to particularly enjoy) as he bid farewell to the commentary box.
Papa would not have been amused.
For, when he started out as a commentator at TMS, he was considered very much second string when compared to the likes of Brian Johnston, John Arlott and Don Mosey – people who wielded the mike because of their ability to describe and analyse the action rather than because of their past association with the game. Blofeld was seen by many traditionalists as someone who talked a bit too much, was a bit on the flippant side and seemed as (if not occasionally, more) interested in events in the crowd and off the field as on the pitch itself.
“He does not talk enough about the cricket,” my father had muttered, in firm disapproval.
Perhaps he did not. At least when he started out. But Blofeld, whose own budding cricket career was cut short thanks to a destructive meeting with a bus which put him in a coma for almost four weeks, had the gift of being human in a commentary box full of super heroes. With his bright clothes, penchant for banter, and also Wodehousian sense of humour (replete with “my dear old thing”), he was the antithesis in many ways to the high priests of cricket commentary. Yes, Johnston did play pranks on the other commentators and might have been more witty, but it was difficult not to smile when Henry Blofeld was behind the microphone. For, when he was on song, cricket was suddenly transported from being a grim, gritty affair to one replete with giggles and good humour. No, it was not as if the others had no humour or that Blofeld was flippant – it was just that it was rare to listen to him without a smile. In a commentary box of demi gods, he was perhaps the most human – think Batman in the Justice League of America, if you will.
No, he was not perfect. Indian cricket followers of the eighties will remember his penchant for noticing earrings in the crowd and for his slight penchant to use ten words when two would do, even on television. And many was the critic who felt that the man overdid his Old Etonian style of talking. But even though Henry Blofeld might not have been the greatest commentator the game had witnessed or heard, he was easily amongst the most entertaining. And he did have the penchant for being in the oddest situations – whether it was for saying that “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey,” claiming that a fielder would have taken a catch “99 times out a thousand”, or ending up in a hotel corridor in the altogether after having accidentally locked himself out of his room.
Was Henry Blofeld the best commentator that cricket had? I doubt anyone will say that. But he was perhaps one of the most-loved. That lap of honour around Lord’s proved that. And at a time when cricket commentary seems to be borrowing more from the World Wrestling Entertainment than its own self, he reminded us that one could entertain without sounding like a sales person running a special sales promotion. In many ways – oh the irony when you consider what dad said – he was the last bastion of the golden age of cricket commentary. A period when narration mattered more than volume, listeners were mentioned more often than sponsors, and cricket was still a reflection of life, rather than a soap opera. A period when you did not HAVE to be a former cricketer to be a commentator.
You might have at times accused him of attracting far too much attention to himself with his penchant for sounding like something out of Wodehouse and his extremely loud dress sense, but one thing you could be assured of:
There was seldom a dull moment when Henry Blofeld was on air.
He never let us forget that at the end of it all, cricket was just a game. To be enjoyed. In playing. In watching. In describing.
And that there was life beyond it. In the pigeons flying in the sky, the bored spectator reading a newspaper, the bus on the road in the background, the schoolboy running to field a ball beyond the boundary rope…
I wonder who will tell us about earrings now?
Fare thee well, my dear old thing.
It was, as you would have liked to say, fun.
A LOT of fun.