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Commentators in cricket history – 6: EW “Jim” Swanton – The old reliable

Commentators in cricket history - 6: EW

Jim Swanton was one of the pioneering commentators and a regular member of the Test Match Special team.

A man who got the 1939 Wisden stamped as “Not Subversive” by the Japanese at a Prisoner of War camp, EW Swanton was one of the pioneering commentators and a regular member of the Test Match Special team.

In the sixth episode of this series, Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this often liked, often disliked but always admired man.

Jitters and Joy in Johannesburg

Sweating in his hot little box at the Old Wanderers, EW “Jim” Swanton was plagued by discomforting interpretations of “Boxing Day”. Two afternoons earlier, before the customary rest on Christmas Day, English batsman Paul Gibb had stonewalled against some of the most laboriously slow leg breaks of Bruce Mitchell. This had coincided with Swanton’s few minutes of broadcast back to England, probably propelling thousands of Englishmen to switch off their radios and set off for early festivities. When he had returned to his hotel, there had been cold silence from the BBC about the reception of the commentary – an experiment, the first of its kind, from overseas to England.

Now, on the second afternoon of the first Test of 1938, Mitchell himself was presenting the deadest of bats to the steady, but hardly threatening, Hedley Verity. It seemed to Swanton that the entire deal with BBC would end up as a once tried damp squib. Unless something remarkable happened, the listeners back in England would soon be dropping off over the Yule log after a second helping of the turkey.

Swanton was then 31, a rather pompous penny-a-line freelancer specialising in the rugby and cricket fare preferred by the public school. That autumn he had persuaded a hesitant BBC to pay him £126 for 20 live broadcasts of the final half-hour’s play in the South African Tests. On the strength of a further £60 promised for a string of features for the Evening Standard and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, he had paid his own return fare of £82.16s.0d on the Balmoral Castle.

To get the assignment, Swanton had cut short the celebrations of a friend’s wedding at Dulwich and had rushed to Oval to cover the match between Surrey and Lancashire, for two half hour stints to be shared with Percy Fender broadcasting Sussex versus Yorkshire from Hove. When he had reached in the induced festive mood of bonhomie, he had been informed it was raining in Hove and he had to do the full hour long session, that too without a scorer. Nine Surrey wickets were down, and little action remained in the game, and Swanton launched himself to describe the moments of fun from the batting of the tail. And ten minutes later, head of Outside Broadcasts, Seymour de Lotbiniere, had sent a message of appreciation. The BBC deal for South Africa had been signed.

Now, two successive drab sessions over three days in Johannesburg had all but put paid to all the effort. Swanton was going through his second stint with desperation mingled with fury.

It was then that Tom Goddard, the English off-spinner, got the stubborn Dudley Nourse caught and bowled for 73. The night-watchman Norman Gordon was promptly stumped first ball. Swanton writes: Tom was on a hat-trick and I was very excited. Young Billy Wade came in, a pretty good bat but a novice in Test cricket. He was obviously nervous. He took some time to take guard and look around the field, and then, glory be, he was bowled first ball. It was only the fifth Test hat-trick by an Englishman and quite a story. At the end of the day, Michael Standing (of BBC) sent me a wire, “Congratulations on commentaries. Everybody pleased.”

By the end of the series, the South Africans had extended their own commentaries from fifteen minutes to two hours a day. Swanton had paved the way for the future of ball by ball broadcasts from distant lands. The following summer he shared the box with Howard Marshall through the bulk of reports on the England versus West Indies that went back to the Caribbean.

555, War and Wisden

Luck had not always smiled on this most durable of cricket writers and commentators, who was, as Wisden notes, a walking database of the game.

Born in 1907, Swanton claimed that he had been taken to watch WG Grace batting in Forest Hill when still in his pram. In the summer of 1932, as a reporter for Evening Standard, he had been told that he would be sent to Australia later that year to cover the Ashes. This was a trailblazing idea for any newspaper as the norm had been to rely on news agency reports.

Before that, however, Swanton was sent to Leyton to cover the Sussex-Yorkshire match. He was there when Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe piled up their massive partnership. Eventually the magic number 555 ticked on the board, and the ancient world record for an opening stand was rewritten. But, Swanton was at the wrong end of this historic cricketing event. The Press Association and the three London evening papers queued up before him for the only telephone in the ground to send their reports, and Swanton’s big story missed an edition – the ultimate humiliation for a journalist. Bigwigs at the Standard began to think that if this youngster could not report the news on time from neighbouring Essex, he would hardly manage it from distant Australia. So, they sent their tennis writer, Bruce Harris, instead. And the 1932-33 Ashes series turned out to be the most discussed of all time.

To his last day, Swanton claimed that if a proper cricket writer, that is he, had been sent, Bodyline could have been avoided. If the British public had been informed of what was actually going on by a knowledgeable and fearless reporter, again he, things would have been different. Swanton had excellent rapport with the players and officials who opposed Douglas Jardine – namely tour manager Plum Warner, vice captain Bob Wyatt and the team members Wally Hammond, the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) and Gubby Allen. The story of the dissent about the tactics could have been communicated back home, dragging MCC down from the fence on which they perched throughout the nasty war of cables with the Australian Board. It is true that much of this hindsight has been provided by Swanton himself, who was not unknown for his flights beyond modesty, but it is none the less plausible. Especially considering that Harris relied on inputs from Jardine himself, the shrewd skipper quickly gauging the value of an ally in the press who knew little about the game.

By the time of the home series against West Indies in 1939, Swanton had put his one journalistic misadventure behind him and was gaining prominence as a cricket writer and working his way up the ladder of broadcasting. He had also turned out for a few matches for Middlesex, during one session partnering Denis Compton at the wicket. He utilised his social skills marvellously to be included in some private cricket tours to the United States, and claimed to have been part of the first cricket team to fly back to England.

It was now that he was drafted into war – and opted for an irregular transfer into the Bedfordshire Yeomanry with friend and English Test spinner Ian Peebles.

As luck would have it, Peebles got a hush-hush job in the War office and Swanton was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and spent three long years as a Prisoner of War. During his captivity in the Thai Jungles, he carried a copy of the 1939 Wisden, marked “Not subversive” by a Japanese censor, and, according to Swanton, the most read copy of the revered publication. He ended the War by turning the knob on a large radiogram in a cafe in Kanchaburi, to find himself listening to Rex Alston broadcasting one of the victory Tests from Old Trafford.

When he finally got back to England, he was down from 16 stone to a little over 10, and left with a withered left shoulder and upper arm from an attack of polio. “It hasn’t improved a golf-swing which was hardly a thing of beauty in the first place,” he wrote later.

Back to the box

On his return, he went to see Lotbiniere at BBC, voicing his hope that he would be able to carry on commentary in the Test matches. The response was cagey, and once again Swanton found himself on trial, this time in a match between Gloucestershire and Lancashire. Luck did smile again, since Wally Hammond scored 134 out of 238 – and it made for some excellent moments of broadcast. Soon after this, Swanton joined John Arlott and Rex Alston in the box for what would be a very long reign, specialising in end of the day summaries – still held to be the best ever of the kind. He also became the regular cricket correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

In the medium of print and on air waves, he reported facts with little embellishment, thus marking him apart from Neville Cardus in the papers and John Arlott on the radio. His literary style was very basic – “halfway between the Ten Commandments and Enid Blyton”, as JJ Warr once famously put it. It suited the Telegraph, which disapproved of Cardusian fancy.

Shortly before his death, Swanton recalled his method: “First, briefly, the basic facts – what happened. Next, a critical view – why it happened.” Finally, he supplied the chronological detail, which grew in length once newsprint had tided over the war induced rationing. It was the critical view that made Swanton’s fame – always delivered magisterially, tottering on the brink of becoming preachy. Swanton’s own sonorous voice and air of grandeur, instantly recognisable due to the fruity quality, was the source of his strength. Yet, he was supported by his profound – and perhaps unparalleled – knowledge of the game and the players.

He had his inevitable share of bloopers in his career in the box. Brian Johnston never allowed him to forget the day when he dropped a flask of ‘tea with a drop of Scotch’ from the commentary box on to the back of the head of a spectator at The Oval.

On the first day of the Brisbane Test of 1950-51, he had brilliantly summarised a splendid spell by Alec Bedser and Trevor Bailey, much in expectant anticipation of being received joyfully back home, when the bored Aussie engineer had laconically asked, “Suppose, you know, we never got through?” Limp, thirsty and tired, Swanton had summarised the Australian Broadcasting Commission of the day as a haphazard organisation.

There was another small incident during Television summary at Trent Bridge, when he had ended his piece with, “Now let me just repeat the score, England are …” and had glanced at the new light bulb figures installed in the scoreboard to find that they had been switched off. Co-commentator Johnston recalled that the expression on Swanton’s face had been worth a lot.

Finally there was the time when he had almost got the head of TV outside broadcasts, Peter Dimmock, libelled. At Headingley one morning, handing it over to Harry Longhurst for the Open Golf Championship, he remarked to Denis Compton before the mikes had gone off air, “… And I bet he’s got his gin bottle up there in the tower.”

But, these were minor blemishes in an otherwise exceptional career. Peter Forster of The Spectator put it succinctly in 1960, “John Arlott on stream is still the best of the commentators, with the rustic Bruno voice which occasionally takes wings, but the admirable E.W. ’Jim’ Swanton does listeners pretty well, with his suitably housemasterly manner and line of discreet euphemism. (‘Dexter has been hit in the bread-basket, perhaps slightly below’) My main reservation is that he and the others tend to befog us with statistics, too few of which are vital. I would rather watch for a moment in silence than know that this was the last maiden over bowled by a left-handed spinner with brown hair immediately after lunch at Trent Bridge in July 9 – since 1911.”

Mindset, marriage and mellowing

It was his personal style that often made him unpopular. It has been said that he was not very graceful in accepting social inferiors. Ray Illingworth remarked that he was too snobbish to travel in the same car as his chauffeur, and according to historian Rowland Bowen he should have been renamed Pomponius Ego.

Swanton rarely went down to the less important county grounds to cover matches. He supposedly visited Leicester and Northampton only once each, and these occasions had to be treated like state visits, with elaborate preparations. He expected a gin and tonic as a perpetual on demand service. Once, when told the bar had run out of ice, he responded irritably, “Didn’t you tell them who it was for?”

This attitude made him unpopular to many, increasing his enemy count by scores. It is said that Telegraph sub-editors were not allowed to change a solitary comma of his copy, and they waited gleefully for his mistakes. These were, however, very infrequent.

Yet, all this did not take away the sheen from his professionalism.

As broadcaster Michael Parkinson said: “Jim Swanton was not the greatest stylist, but he was the most authoritative commentator of the game. He was a man of his time and he could be incredibly pompous. Once when he did a TV piece to camera, a small boy wandered aimlessly in front. Swanton took him to task like the headmaster of Greyfriars. But, he was extraordinarily professional and a wonderful journalist.”

The attitude changed later in life.

In 1958, in spite of his self confessed ordinary golf swing, he got married to Ann Carbutt, a widow and an accomplished golfer and pianist. This late marriage and the passing years mellowed him down. He was much more friendly and approachable in his advanced years. As Lord Runcie said at his funeral: “The solemnity, prickliness and, yes, arrogance that were part of the serious perfectionist gave way to the gentle self-mockery and kindly wisdom which never seemed to fail us.”

Apartheid and anti-Christ

Although at heart a traditionalist, he was nonetheless the first to embrace changes coming into the game. As early as 1963, he had written of one-day cricket as witnessed in the Gillette Cup final of 1963: “this instant cricket is very far from being a gimmick, there is a place in it for all the arts of cricket.”

He also welcomed overseas players to the county championships, and remained vocal against sledging and coloured clothes.

Swanton was also famously outspoken about the South African regime and was an early advocate of the cricketing boycott of the country. His strong connections with the West Indies – he had a holiday home in Barbados – made him uneasy about apartheid, and he gave full voice to his opinions.

However, his choicest epithet was perhaps reserved for Kerry Packer, the Australian tycoon who divided world cricket into two in the 1970s with World Series Cricket. Swanton memorably called the media mogul, “Antichrist”.

Working unto death

After retiring from commentary in 1974 and The Telegraph in 1975, Swanton remained surprisingly active. He wrote regularly for his old paper as well as The Cricketer.

His also wrote several books on cricket, including a charming autobiography penned in 1972, Sort of a Cricket Person. He also published a collection of obituaries, Cricketers of My Time, containing appreciations of 83 players, every single of them known to him personally except George Hirst.

His first nationally published article, in All Sports Weekly was the only one under the byline Ernest Swanton, after which he never again used his Christian name. All his subsequent writings, including his last one in 1999, bore the initials E.W. before his last name.

When he passed away in February 2000, Colin Cowdrey remarked, “He became a supreme journalist with very strong views. He always tried to do the best for the highest principles of the game.”

According to Wisden, “He applauded good, joyous, sporting cricket and, excluding only the very greatest of players, did more than anyone in the 20th century to ensure that good cricket prevailed.”

(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)

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