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Friday, April 25, 2014

John Arlott

John Arlott would have been a hundred had he been alive on 25 February 2014. He is an odd choice for a hero, but that’s what he was to me. When Arlott retired from commentary the Glamorgan player and TV commentator Peter Walker said that listening to Arlott talking about cricket had given him more pleasure than watching any individual player. Better than watching Underwood bowl, Knott keep wicket or Viv Richards bat? Quite possibly.

John Arlott was the best sports commentator there has been. He worked mainly on radio, but it was on television that I first heard the rough, rumbling Hampshire voice, in the summer of ’66 during the Test series against the West Indies (for a couple of years Arlott alternated with Brian Johnston between the TV and radio commentary boxes). He continued to provide TV commentary on Sunday afternoons throughout the seventies. The conventional view is that he was not as good on television, but I disagree. He never said a thing that the viewers could see for themselves, so when he spoke it always added something new. Often, this was more interesting and entertaining than the predictable Sunday League game that was his subject. One particularly dull Sunday his attention was taken by the noise made in the delivery stride by AA Jones of Middlesex. “Let’s listen…grraghh!...that was me”. He made the mundane special.

Here’s Arlott commentating solo (as he always did on Sunday afternoons) on a match between Somerset and the International Cavaliers at what appears to be an Arctic Taunton in May 1966:


For several years he delivered wonderful monologues about old cricketers straight to camera, AJP Taylor style, for our education during the tea interval. In would be great if someone found these somewhere and put them on You Tube, though as they pre-date VCRs it’s probably unlikely. Also regrettably absent are Arlott’s conversations with Mike Brearley from the mid-eighties and his full-hour appearance on Parkinson early in 1981.

What is on You Tube is the whole of a four-part album released by the BBC 25 years or so ago featuring a selection from Arlott’s radio commentary, or what remains available from it—most recordings from the late fifties to early seventies were taped over. Here is a link to the fourth part, which takes examples from the final half-dozen years of Arlott’s career:


All the qualities that made John Arlott such a wonderful commentator are demonstrated here. The extract from a single 20-minute spell of commentary from the 1975 World Cup final contains more high-carat phrases than most callers could manage in several seasons.

In many of these extracts Arlott is uninterrupted by the summariser. These days it is the norm for the comments man to chip in between almost every delivery. It is a conversation as much as a commentary, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but would constrain a modern-day Arlott or Alan Gibson from giving us the full benefit of their descriptive powers. Perhaps the ball-by-ball commentator could be allowed once a session to mute all microphones except his own for an over.

One of the extracts is from the third day of the Centenary Test at Lord’s in 1980, for much of which there was bright sunshine and no play. Arlott’s measured indignation was heard by many spectators and validated their frustration. John Arlott had effectively given them permission to set aside their English inhibitions and jostling on the pavilion steps ensued. By the way, I was lucky that day to have made a last-minute decision not to go to Lord’s and went instead on Monday when an extra hour was added.

There was another occasion when Arlott spent 20 minutes or so describing the covers being removed after rain, a perfect an exposition of the way in which radio, in the hands of an artist, frees the listener from the constraints that vision imposes.

Arlott’s departure from the test match microphone is featured; but that was not his last commentary. That came the following Saturday at the Gillette Cup final. I was in the crowd, earpiece in place, as Arlott described Middlesex’s bald South African fast bowler Vincent van der Bijl coming into bowl “like a young Long Longford, only not as benevolent”. As he promised, he went out before there was any sign of the light dimming.

It has amused me when people have complained about non-cricket specialists like Mark Pougatch and Jon Champion being given a go on Test Match Special. Both Arlott and Johnston—TMS’s most famous voices—were general broadcasters before they were cricket commentators. Arlott was a poetry producer, Johnston was the cheeky chappie of Saturday night radio, performing pranks and stunts for audiences measured in millions. In today’s terms it would be like making Roger McGough and Ant (or Dec) part of the team. It was precisely because cricket was not his lifetime’s work that Arlott could put the game into proper perspective.

There are many accounts of Arlott’s lives outside cricket, as a clerk in a mental asylum, a policeman in wartime Southampton, poet, wine writer, football reporter, Liberal candidate, Any Questions? panellist and much else. David Rayvern Allen’s biography is the best source, though plenty is available on the internet, such as this piece by Frank Keating: www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2011/dec/13/john-arlott-cricket-frank-keating

Sadness coloured him too. He lost his eldest son Jimmy in a car crash in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1966 (Arlott was always keen that people should know that excess alcohol was not involved; the boy fell asleep at the wheel). Valerie, his second wife, died suddenly ten years later. A hint of melancholy is discernable in much of his his later work.

For some time Arlott served as President of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. It is a measure of the man that he was trusted with this position when he was not a player and was politically well to the left of the average county cricketer of his time, particularly over South Africa, which was where politics and cricket most often met. Famously, when he covered the 1948/9 MCC tour of South Africa for the BBC, on the immigration form he identified his race as “human”. As I have written in another post, without Arlott Basil D’Oliveira would have been just another cricketer lost to apartheid: http://mylifeincricketscorecards.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/basil-doliveira-by-peter-oborne.html.

The West Indian commentator Reds Perreira was interviewed recently in The Nightwatchman. He says that his inspiration was John Arlott, and I have heard Tony Cozier say that if kids on a Caribbean beach wanted to imitate a commentator, nine times out of ten it would be Arlott, just as it was for those waiting for the school bus on the north Kent coast. For them, like me, John Arlott made cricket funny, human, compassionate and poetic. All of us are grateful to him for that.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Appeal of the Championship by John Barclay

The Appeal of the Championship is an account of Sussex’s attempt to win the County Championship of 1981, written by their captain, John Barclay. It is quite the most enjoyable cricket book that I have read for some time, probably since Of Didcot and the Demon, the collected writings of Alan Gibson. I picked it up at the second-hand bookstall at the Basin Reserve during the recent Test against India.

The Appeal of the Championship was first written twenty years after the event as a series for The Times, and collected between hard covers in 2002. It betrays its newspaper origins in the brevity of many of its paragraphs, which might have been consolidated for its publication in book form. And that footling observation is the only negative remark I have to offer. Everything else about it is unabated delight.
Barclay—known in the game as “Trout” from his unusual third Christian name, Troutbeck— was an off-spinning allrounder and opening batsman who scored nine first-class centuries, but who finished his career with a modest batting average of 25 and a bowling average of 30. 1981 was his first season as Sussex captain. The player most similar to Barclay was Vic Marks, and Barclay shares Marks’ droll, understated but perceptive style of writing. His favourite target is himself, particularly his account of his first six in twelve years of Championship cricket, and description of how, at the culmination of an increasingly desperate motivational speech as captain of a TCCB XI, he made to leave the dressing room and walked into an airing cupboard.

The stars of Barclay’s Sussex were opening bowlers Imran Khan and Garth le Roux, who took almost 150 wickets between them. More surprisingly, the Pakistani proto-politician and the white South African also formed a close friendship, travelling and rooming together, which would then have been illegal in le Roux’s homeland.

There were plenty of overseas quicks around, and it is significant that the Championship came down to the two sides with a pair of them, the other being Nottinghamshire with Hadlee and Rice. There was much moaning then about the number of overseas players in the county game; most counties had at least two (except, of course, Boycott’s Yorkshire, where they did not want outsiders to distract them from the business of fighting among themselves). I always thought that the complainers were wrong and that it was to the great benefit of young English players to be playing with and against the world’s best. With seventeen counties homegrown talent would always have its chance. It worked the other way too. Glenn Turner and Richard Hadlee are just two of many who say that they became much better players for their time in England.

Besides Imran and le Roux, Barclay had plenty of less renowned talent available. Of the rest, the best-known today would be the keeper, Ian Gould, now one of the world’s leading umpires. Paul Parker was the batsman of the year and became the only Sussex man to play for England that summer. I was at the Oval to see him make a duck in the first innings. Parker became a victim of the abhorrent practice—as near to bear baiting as cricket can get—of deciding selection for the winter tour purely on the basis of the artificial circumstances of a Test debut. I would say thank heavens that we live in more civilised times, except that this Inquisitional practice returned for Simon Kerrigan and Chris Woakes last year.

There was Gehan Mendis, worse players than whom were picked for England in that period. Ian Greig was to play for England the following year and there was Geoff Arnold the cantankerous but wise former England bowler. Also a clutch of worthy county players, Waller, Phillipson and Colin Wells among them.

I crossed paths with Barclay and his team only once that summer. It was at Eastbourne for the first day of fixture against Kent in early August, my only visit to the Saffrons. Apparently 25,000 people watched cricket there that week, and even then it was said that nobody watched county cricket. Sussex spent much of the day compiling 310 before declaring. Barclay describes how Paul Parker came to be run out without facing.
I played a ball to Chris Cowdrey at mid-wicket and, in my enthusiasm, became confused and said “yes” instead of “no”.

The rest can be inferred. Barclay was himself run out, for 79. Curiously, my main memory of that day is of Graham Dilley struggling terribly. He had a dreadful time that year as his action, never a thing of flowing beauty, had become a river of tears. It was the last time he played that season.
Barclay had persuaded the groundsman to prepare a pitch of St Patrick’s Day green, not so much to help Imran and le Roux as to negate the threat of Derek Underwood, who had been skittling Sussex out for almost two decades, and they were sick of it.
 On every page there are reminders that this was another time. For a start, the Championship comprised three-day games only. One would finish, there would be an evening drive across the country and another would start at 11 the next day. With pitches covered like Victorian debutantes at the first hint of rain, this meant that there was a lot of what Barclay calls match-fixing. This practice was not for profit, but the only way on some pitches of fitting four innings into the time available and producing a win for one side or the other on the last afternoon. Captains would agree on a fourth-innings target that would give both teams a chance and manipulate the bowling so as to bring it about. In 1981 they would at least wait to see how things were until the third day before opening negotiations. As the eighties wore on one sometimes gained the impression that everything before lunch on day three was a charade until the pursuit of a figure that both captains had in mind when they tossed could begin. It was why four-day cricket was an essential innovation and a reminder that not everything was better as it was.

Another thing is that Sussex coach Stuart Storey is mentioned only occasionally. No other support personnel are referred to for the good reason that, apart from a scorer and possibly a physio, they were non-existent.  Barclay, the captain, was in charge.

There are wonderful descriptions of the famous and not as famous. We learn that the bowler Imran feared most was Surrey’s amiable off spinner Pat Pocock. There is an account of Ian Botham giving chase to a spectator who had foolishly shouted “you’re rubbish Botham” just loud enough for the great man to hear. This was after Botham had lost the captaincy, but before the heroics of Headingley, so there was frustration to be rid of. The following year Barclay edged to Botham at second slip, an easy catch but for the fact that Botham’s concentration, always a hard dog to keep on the porch during county games, had left the ground. He made no movement to prevent the ball striking him in what EW Swanton used to describe as “the breadbasket, or perhaps a little below”.

He describes Derbyshire’s Alan Hill as having
the gnarled and weather-beaten face of a man burdened by the worries and uncertainties of batting for a living…whose style gave great comfort for, in him, I had at last found a batsman who scored slower than me.

Sussex came across Imran’s countryman, umpire Shakoor Rana on several occasions. He became famous six years later when he and Mike Gatting had a pointing and name-calling contest that interrupted  a Test in Faisalabad. Shakoor, on a placement on the first-class umpires list for the season, was particularly taken with Geoff Arnold and always complimented him in the same way: “well bowled Mr Snow”.

Of course, the backdrop to cricket in 1981 was the astonishing Ashes series, the best until 2005. At times, Barclay becomes Guildenstern, describing the more important action going on offstage. At a Sunday League game at Grace Road, the crowd was more interested in Botham’s astonishing five-for-one spell that grabbed the Test away from Australia. The players followed what was going on through the roars of the crowd as each wicket fell. The same thing was happening at Canterbury, where my radio was turned up loud with no complaint. Barclay makes clear his admiration of Mike Brearley’s captaincy.
Sussex did not win the Championship in 1981. They lost by two points by Nottinghamshire. The centrepiece of the book is the match between the two at Trent Bridge in August. The tension builds over three days in Barclay’s account until Nottinghamshire are nine down with 27 needed, Hemmings (a capable batsman) and Bore (not so) are at the crease. Bore goes back and across and Imran thunders a ball into his back pad. It looks as out as can be. Raucous appeal. Pause. All eyes on the umpire, Peter “Shaking” (a name the Sussex team had given him after an earlier encounter) Stevens. Not out. One moment never decides a season, but even at this distance you hear the hiss as the air goes out of Sussex.

Sussex did win the Championship eventually, in 2003, and again in 2006 and 2007. I hope that they did it with the same generosity of spirit and sense of fun that took Barclay and his men so close, and that comes off every page of his book, which is full of all that was and is good and fun about county cricket.

The book was published by that saint among men Stephen Chalke, who was also responsible for Of Didcot and the Demon as well as much else that has been good in cricket publishing since the turn of the century through his Bath-based Fairfield Books (http://www.fairfieldbooks.org.uk/index.html), including two later books by John Barclay that I am looking forward to getting my hands on.