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Commentators in cricket history – 4: John Arlott – the master

Commentators in cricket history - 4: John Arlott - the master

John Arlott had the unique power to weave the sights and sounds of the ground and far beyond in an intricate picture painted with words © Getty Images

Policeman, poet, wine-connoisseur, author, part time politician, anti-apartheid spokesperson and word renowned host of dinner parties – John Arlott was also the soul of cricket commentary for over three decades. In the fourth part of the series on cricket commentators, Arunabha Sengupta covers the career of the Basingstoke legend.

Cricket aficionados are well aware that in his last innings at The Oval, 1948, Don Bradman lasted just two deliveries. When he entered, the English captain Norman Yardley famously gathered his men and gave the greatest batsman to have played the game three rousing cheers. And then off the second ball he was bowled for a duck. So, how remarkable could a defensive push off the first ball have been?

However, in the BBC box, Rex Alston had described Bradman’s entry into the ground and handed it over to John Arlott. And this is how the 34 year old commentator described it.

I am not as deadly as you are Rex, I don’t expect to get a wicket, but it’s rather good to be here when Don Bradman comes into bat in his last Test. And here’s Hollies to bowl to him from the Vauxhall End. He bowls, Bradman goes back across his wicket, pushes the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are beyond mid off. It doesn’t go that far as that, merely goes to Watkins in the silly mid off. No run.”

John Arlott had the unique power to weave the sights and sounds of the ground and far beyond in an intricate picture painted with words. Once he had held the world of cricket lovers enthralled through a 20 minute phase while merely describing the covers being taken off. “A sound like Uncle Tom Cobleigh reading Neville Cardus to faraway natives”, as the poet, friend and collaborator Dylan Thomas put it.

In many ways, his was not really the archetypical BBC voice. A heavy Hampshire drawl, often emphasised to bring out his uniqueness, took the traditionalists – Rex Alston among them – more than a while to get used to. Besides, he spoke from the purest recesses of his soul and never were emotions shoved away under the modulation of professionalism.

When Bradman was bowled off the next ball at The Oval, he was as shocked as the next man and his words and tone reflected it across the wireless sets of thousands of homes. “Hollies pitches the ball up slowly and …he’s bowled…Bradman bowled Hollies … nought …and what do you say under these circumstances? I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you’ve played some of the biggest cricket in your life and where the opposing side has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you see the ball at all.”

It was this quality that led Paul Coupar to mention in the history of Test Match Special, “(Brian) Johnston provided the life, Arlott the soul.”

The Poet and the Policeman

The career of this man, who was perhaps one of the most well read of his generation in spite of not completing high school, had started as far from the commentary box as imaginable.

He had begun earning his wages a diet clerk at a mental hospital, and later became a member of the Hampshire police force.

It was while he was still a policeman that Arlott communicated about his poetry with accomplished poet and broadcaster John Betjeman. Under Betjeman’s guidance he secured his first position in BBC in 1945, as the Overseas Literary Producer. The man he succeeded at the post was George Orwell.

During the first few years, and even when he had started doing regular cricket commentaries, Arlott kept producing literature programmes, and collaborated on several books and anthologies of poetry, including some of his own works.

Cricket was placed on his plate as a rather lucky break and he lapped it up with wolfish appetite, leaving no doubt that he wanted a second and third helping and convert it into his staple diet. Arlott recalled later:

“(at a planning meeting) In 1946, the head of the Eastern Service, Donald Stevenson, said, ‘Isn’t there an Indian team coming this summer?’ (in a rather distasteful tone) and I said, ‘Yes, there is.’ ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I remember from your interview that you’re keen on cricket. When do they start?’ I said, ‘First Wednesday in May…in Worcester. … (then) in Oxford.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘Because I’ve got the fixture in my pocket.’ He said: ‘Have you ever done cricket broadcasts?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, stretching out the truth, because all I had ever done was a 15-minute talk about Hambledon.’ He said: ‘Would you like to do it?’ I thought someone had turned me upside down.”

Thus began Arlott’s career as a commentator and lasted 34 years. His voice on cricket was first heard across the world in India, along with the Hindi broadcast of Abdul Hamid Sheikh. It was in fact the feedback and fan mail that reached BBC from the eastern part of the Empire that transformed Arlott into the regular voice of cricket.

Wine and words

That same season saw another first – that was to go on to be the singular feature of the Arlott home. He invited three cricketers for dinner – Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad. The Arlotts were soon faced with the strange problem of putting a spread in front of men who not only did not eat meat, but refused fish and eggs as well.

Whether it was because of this or not, Arlott soon became passionate about the intricacies of food and also developed into one of the biggest connoisseurs of wine in the land. The gourmet food on his table was thoroughly supplemented with the most extensive choice of wine – and cricketers from Denis Compton to Ian Botham thronged to the Arlott home, often inviting themselves on the way.

Wine, in fact, was a passion that became associated with the Arlott persona. Not only did he write several popular books on the topic – he always carried a briefcase with a bottle of excellent claret and a set of wine glasses, always ready to entertain friends and cricketers.

Yet, even with continuous flow the finest wine in the world, Arlott’s commentary standards never slipped from the highest pinnacles from the very first day. The poet in him brought forth bon mots which delighted the hearts and tickled the humour of several generations.

The brilliant moments

When South Africa visited England in 1947, and the left arm spinner Tufty Mann had Middlesex and England batsman George Mann in all sorts of difficulties, Arlott described it as, “A case of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Soon after that, he was on his first overseas assignment, in South Africa, a country with which he would go on to share a love-hate relationship. During the first Test at Durban, with an edge of the seat last ball finish in spite of  bad light and rain, that left many nails chewed to the raw and knuckles cracked to the limits, Arlott’s wit, description and absolute honest engrossment in the game was aired in full.

Snippets of the last eight ball over are produced below –

-        “Two to win, that was the third ball – if this goes another five balls, there will be no commentator left …

-        ” The hills of North Durban completely hidden by rain …

-        “Two to win …  that hit him in the stomach, it was passing a foot over and 5000 people appealed and not one came off …

-        “127 for eight , neither of them tried the over throw, I don’t think either of them have sufficient nerve or sufficient wind, and I certainly have no wind at all …

-        “Bouncer, goes past the leg stump, and Wade’s attitude of prayer prevents it from going for byes…

-        “(last ball) he’s knuckled it and they’ve run and England have won … it belongs to a novel, not Wisden … this wicket now looks even worse that it did a minute ago with half Durban running on it.”

During the same tour, when asked to fill an immigration form with his race as “white, Indian, coloured, black”, Arlott wrote “human” – the first of his many confrontations with apartheid.

In 1954, when Compton was at his majestic and merciless best at Trent Bridge, Arlott was also in supreme vein. With the Pakistani attack being put to sword , here is how Arlott described the field. “Kardar seems to have about four fielders and seven missionaries. As they used to say in Victorian days, sent into distant fields. They’re still in Trent Bridge but only just.”

And when the strike was rotated and Trevor Bailey played his characteristic forward defensive prod in the aftermath of Compton’s flurry of boundaries, Arlott summed it up, “After the Lord Mayor’s show, comes the dust guard.”

Down the years, the voice of Arlott continued to ring through, bringing many memorable moments into the cricket loving homes. He was there when Jim Laker scalped 19 wickets at the Old Trafford, when Test Match Special was launched in 1957. When Fred Trueman took his 300th wicket, getting Neil Hawke caught by Colin Cowdrey, Arlott remarked, “There was no nicer touch than Trueman congratulating Hawke.”

Smiles wrought with tears

Although he continued to broadcast, work as a columnist for various newspapers, publish numerous books on diverse subjects, and invite cricketers and literary figures to his famed dinners, Arlott’s personal life was going through a series of upheavals. In 1958 he went through a divorce after 18 years of marriage. This was followed by a miscarriage suffered by his second wife. However, the crushing blow was delivered in 1966 when his eldest son Jim perished in a car accident at the age of 21. The tragedy left the deepest vacuum in his life and heart – “there will be a well of sadness in me forever,” he wrote to his first wife, Dawn.

Yet, even as the voice grew raspier with time, the humour continued to pour forth.

When confronted with the action of Pakistani fast bowler Asad Masood in the late sixties Arlott said, “He reminds me of Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress.”

Apartheid

Although he had thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality and the friendships developed in South Africa on his earlier visit, Arlott was staunchly against apartheid. According to him, all governments had their own share of rotten measures, but only two national policies were downright evil – holocaust and apartheid.

In the late 1950s, Arlott had been instrumental in getting Basil D’Olivera, the Cape coloured South African cricketer, a contract in Lancashire Cricket League. In 1970, D’Olivera had unwittingly created a chasm in the world of cricket that was to force South Africa out of the game for 21 years. Guided by his strong personal ethics, Arlott refused to broadcast any game during South Africa’s scheduled tour.

This statement received criticism from both the South African media as well as his fellow countrymen. Peter May, in particular, sent a stinging note condemning him for his stance. But, Arlott stood by his decision.

However, when a Rest of the World side, captained by Gary Sobers and including five of the South African team, played a five-match ‘Test’ series in England once South Africa was banned from international cricket, Arlott happily rejoined the TMS commentary team to cover those matches.

More bon mots

The 1975 World Cup final was one of his immortal days. He remained brilliant all through, remarking about ‘Umpire Bird having a wonderful time, signalling everything in the world.’, ‘the whole ground seething with leaping West Indian delight.’ However, the pinnacle was reached when Clive Lloyd pulled a ball from Gary Gilmour to the Mound Stand, and Arlott’s voice captured it as, “The stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick.”

That same year, during the Ashes series, the first streaker was witnessed running into a cricket ground. Arlott mistakenly referred to the intruder as ‘Freaker’, but the description bore the stamp of his class and provoked spontaneous chuckles from his colleagues in the box, “We have got a freaker down the wicket now. Not very shapely, and it is masculine, and I would think it has seen the last of his cricket for the day … he is being embraced by a blond policeman and this may well be his last public appearance – but what a splendid one!” 

One blow too many

Life, however, kept balancing the light hearted spirit with one crippling blow after another. His much younger and beloved second wife, Valerie, passed away in 1976 at the age of 44. Arlott presented a brave front, but never really recovered from the shock.

He refused to cut down his professional commitments, going on air and writing continuously about the game and other subjects. However, according to Mike Brearley, “The second loss increased his tendency to sadness. The pleasures of life, of friendship, family, cricket, wine, food, poetry, were real enough, but even the best moments were tinged with an awareness of their eventual ending.”

He continued to have his moments as in the centenary Test at Melbourne,1977: “Lillee setting a field of immense hostility… the crowd with sun and beer doing their work, appealing for quite significant  non-events … seagulls on the top of the stands as vultures recruited for Lillee.” Later, when David Gower hit the first ball he faced in Test cricket for four, he hailed him with, “Oh, what a princely entry.”

Yet, deep down he had turned clingy to his near and dear ones. When son Timothy went to Australia, Arlott ended Ashes broadcasts from England saying, “A nice evening to Our Man in Australia.”

Farewell

By 1980, he decided that it was time to go. The Centenary Test at Lord’s was chosen for the occasion of his farewell. The match was marred by rain, and yet, when there was no play, the conversation concocted was sparkling. “I do wish that everybody could be entertained by the great dramatic presentation of Dickie Bird worrying about whether to have play or not.”

However, his last bit of commentary was sans any flourish – crisp and businesslike. “Boycott pushes this away between silly-point and slip … picked up by Mallett at short third man … the end of the over … Nine runs off the over – 28 Boycott, 15 Gower, 69 for 2 – and after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins,” following which the entire box broke into applause.


Christopher Martin Jenkins picked it up from there, “The applause – I am very lucky to have been on when John completed his last commentary and on behalf of the Test Match Special team and the audience I thank him very much indeed and could he open the bottle of champagne a little quickish.”

At the end of the next over, following a public address announcement, the crowd gave Arlott an ovation. The entire Australian team in the field and the two England batsmen joined in, with Geoffrey Boycott even removing his batting gloves to applaud.

During his last days, Arlott retired to Alderney in the Channel Islands, and spent his time with his third wife, Patricia, among his books and his excellently stocked cellar, often visited by old friends, one of the most notable of them being Ian Botham.

He passed away in his sleep in 1991. Engraved on his headstone are two lines from one of his own poems: “So clear you see those timeless things, That, like a bird, the vision sings”.

Long time colleague and equally legendary commentator Brian Johnston summed up his life saying, “He spread the gospel about cricket around the world more than anyone else.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

Earlier Parts:

1.  Alan McGilvray

2.  Howard Marshall

3.  Rex Alston

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