BBC’s Test Match Special commentators remembered

Review: Archie Henderson

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston (Bloomsbury)

arlott cricketThere have been several golden ages of cricket depending on your preference or prejudice. The one in which John Arlott and EW (Jim) Swanton existed – even helped create – was post World War 2 until about the ‘70s when the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer broke the mould.

Both men were dead by the time Twenty20 cricket became the rage; it probably made them turn in their graves.

Arlott was a policeman who became a poet, then a BBC producer and most famously a BBC cricket commentator. He was a middle-class boy. Swanton was born into privilege, educated at a public school and had a good war, albeit as a prisoner of the Japanese. Arlott’s voice was a West Country Hampshire burr; Swanton’s was posh.

They became part of what today is called Test Match Special, the BBC radio’s ball-by-ball cricket commentary of Test matches. It is so beloved by  the cricket world that not even television has been able to kill it off. Its most famous commentary line was delivered not by Arlott or Swanton (they would have been aghast) but by the irreverent Brian Johnston who had joined the team. Describing a duel between the West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding (now a household face and name on TV) and England batsman Peter Willey, Johnners provoked guffaws with “the bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”. And the BBC did not even ban him.

Neither Arlott nor Swanton would have gone that far. Arlott was best known for describing the “colour” in his commentary – the birds, the weather, the scenery, the crowd – and worked hard to avoid the cliché, unlike many unimaginative TV commentators of today. Swanton did not do ball-by-ball, but provided the summing up at the end of the day’s play. Henry Blofeld, the wonderfully plummy BBC commentator who recently retired, was Swanton’s bagman at the time. One of young Blowers’ tasks was to make sure that Swanton’s whisky and water was at the microphone when he delivered his end of play pronouncements – “and don’t forget the block of ice!”

Arlott and Swanton came to cricket at a time when only amateurs were allowed to captain England. Arlott was delighted when Len Hutton became England’s first professional captain; Swanton, an establishment man, was opposed. Their politics were also very different, but both men abhorred apartheid and Swanton was particularly torn when the all-white South African team was banned from world cricket. Arlott less so; he had helped Basil D’Oliveira come to England where the Cape Town-born allrounder could play with the best and eventually for England, a selection that led to South Africa being blackballed by world cricket until 1992.

Arlott, one senses, had fun in cricket whereas Swanton took it all too seriously and became a committee member of the MCC, with even an MCC-commissioned portrait that hangs in Lord’s. Arlott refused to have lunch with the club on his final day of commentary.

As someone who listened to both men as a boy, it was easier to be drawn to Arlott. Who other than Arlott, after all, could come up with this description of Pakistani bowler Asif Masood’s crouching bowling action: “He approaches the wicket like Groucho Marx pursuing a pretty waitress.”

Swanton, frankly, was boring in his writing and broadcasting. For a long time he was the Daily Telegraph’s cricket correspondent, an exalted position in those days. It was left to Arlott to describe Swanton’s style: “Like a combination of the Ten Commandments and Enid Blyton.”


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