Henry Blofeld, born September 23, 1939, is one of the most beloved voices on Test Match Special. He offers more than cricket, largely inconsequential details in and outside the ground find their way into the descriptions and somehow it works wonders on the listeners. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and long career of the man who drove from England to India in a Rolls-Royce and once came tantalisingly close to appearing for England in a Test match.
Come on over and have a pint
In the Australian summer of 1978-79, England were playing the fourth Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). In the press box, Henry Blofeld was keeping a professional eye on the proceedings. After an hour’s play, the aforementioned professional eyes were enhanced by a pair of binoculars as he looked at the bottom of the floodlight pylon on the Hill, surrounded by a dense and noisy crowd. Characteristically for a match at Sydney, there were plenty of banners proclaiming the public opinion about the proceedings and beyond. Blofeld’s eyes fell upon one of the larger ones that had been stuck to the pylon and announced in large red letters — THE BESPECTACLED HENRY BLOFLY STAND.
And on the following day, underneath the sign another banner had appeared, with the endearing words of invitation: “Come on over Henry and have a pint.”
That afternoon Blofeld had been asked to lunch in the offices of the Cricket Ground Trust at the bottom of the Noble Stand. He was met there by the jovial figure of the great Arthur Morris, who greeted him with the words: “Welcome to Henry Blofly.” Soon, every member of the press corps was engaged in pulling his leg, none more so than Jack Fingleton. Pointing at the I Zingari tie striped in orange, gold and black that was knotted around Blofeld’s neck, Fingleton warned, “Blowers, you won’t dare to go round to the Hill in that tie.” It was a challenge too difficult to resist and soon after lunch Blofeld set off on a walk to the Hill.
The cheers, and some catcalls, that greeted him made even some of the England fielders look around. When he reached the pylon, a cheer broke out that would have drowned any celebration of a wicket or a six. He was offered hundreds of cans of beer, and met the people responsible for the sign. They were students of the Sydney University, and soon an exceptionally pretty girl among them threw her arms around Blofeld, voicing her desire to marry him. This however proved to be a false promise for the visibly-delighted Blofeld, as it was soon revealed that the man the damsel was actually after was Geoff Boycott.
Blofeld lingered there for an hour, talking to the crowd. After the match was over the group streamed across the ground and handed the ‘Bespectacled Henry Blofly Stand’ over to him as a memento.
Soon, other signs started appearing around Australia. Henry Blofeld was immensely respected in the land and no greater proof of this assertion can be presented than the one banner which said, “OUR HENRY CAN EVEN OUTDRINK KEITH MILLER.” To this day, Blofeld remains surprised that Miller never sued for libel. There were other signs too, of dubious interpretations — like the one that said, “Our Henry is to cricket what Tony Greig is to limbo dancing.” However, Blofeld was touched. His was a voice that to the Australian ears seemed to go with a bowler hat, even if an honorary cork dangled from the brim.
Seldom has a commentator enjoyed such universal popularity. Blofeld’s mellow voice is well known around the cricketing world and his quaint idiosyncrasies and perpetual delight at describing scenes at the stadium and beyond with little or no connection to the game have bestowed on him legendary status.
Years before joining Test Match Special (TMS) he was already describing a sunbathing man on a deckchair on his balcony. He was intrigued by this reclining figure while covering the Yorkshire versus Surrey county game for Rediffusion at The Oval in 1966. It was left to Crawford White, his co-commentator, to alert him: “Be careful Henry, that’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” The figure had got up and was going through the stretching motions. Her feminine assets were very much on view on the television screens. The next day both the lady in question and Blofeld found themselves clubbed together on the front pages.
Yet, the malady — a most endearing one in this case — was never cured. Pigeons and buses, the number of pink shirts and an almost maniacal fascination for earrings kept finding their ways into his microphone between the descriptions of wickets and the odd run. Narrations include detailed analysis of lunches, tea and especially cakes as soon as play resumes after the breaks. At Sharjah in the late 80s, the camera zoomed in on the Bollywood superstar Rekha. Blofeld, uninitiated to the world of Indian cinema, blurted out the most innocent and poignant appreciation of the lady in question: “A bird from paradise?”
The charm of Blofeld’s commentary is beyond technical details — although there is enough expertise in that domain. Indeed, Blofeld was a serious cricketer in his younger days and but for a nearly fatal accident was on course to set cricket grounds on fire. Even after the mishap, he played 17 First-Class matches and came tantalisingly close to appearing for England in a Test match.
However, it is the obvious infectious joy of cricket watching that he brings into the game that lends fascination to his broadcasts. Take the instance when Carl Hooper tried to cut a Narendra Hirwani delivery and played outside the line of the googly. On witnessing a deceived batsman, Blofeld burst out in a spontaneous fit of laughter. And when, after heavy drizzles during the 1992 World Cup, Eddo Brandes ran around the third-man boundary, slipped on the wet outfield and landed on his backside, Blofeld described the resulting boundary as, “Oh, what a jolly good fall.”
When Henry Blofeld talks about cricket he brings along additional sights and sounds, a background full of fun, joy and bonhomie. The game is to be enjoyed, but there is much more on offer in his Etonian diction and style, frequently interspersed with the phrase ‘my dear old thing’. As indeed, Blofeld has been taught by life.
He has been much more than a cricket correspondent and commentator. In a life that has centred around the game, he has played at grounds from Fenners to Lord’s to the Caribbean pitches. He has even graced the curious wickets of South America during periods when ‘the current national pastime was kidnapping ambassadors’. He has stood amidst riots in Pakistan, driven in a Rolls-Royce from Calais to Bombay. He has been called by the British High Commissioner in India as a key witness in a diplomatic drama. He has also spent nights in the car of an Australian police detective accompanying the force to the dens of drug dealers.
Not the Boy’s Own Hero
Born in Hoveton Home Farm, Norfolk, Blofeld had cricket in his genes. His uncle was the Honourable Freddie Calthorpe, who had led the England side to West Indies in 1925-26.
Blofeld was born in September 23, 1939, barely three weeks after Hitler invaded Poland. As a baby he was once left unattended as the rest of the household had rushed to an air-raid shelter after a warning siren shattered the countryside calm. When his absence had been noticed, a red-faced search had ensued and he had been discovered happily gurgling away in his pram on the lawn.
He was educated in Sunningdale School and went to Eton.
Cricket was a first love and the passion was intensified when he watched Don Bradman score 89 at Lord’s during his last Test series in 1948. By the next year, his own leg breaks were pitching and turning accurately and he was included in the school eleven.
But soon, he had to put on wicketkeeping gloves, and progressed rapidly as a ’keeper-batsman of considerable promise. At Eton he met the great Australian leg-spinner and cartoonist Arthur Mailey and even received a personal sketch from him in which was written, “My best wishes for a successful cricket life. Saw you play at Runcton about three years ago and am very pleased about your progress. Arthur Mailey, 1956.”
He arrived at Lord’s for his first Eton versus Harrow match in a Rolls-Royce, enjoying a ride offered by Richard Burrows, the father of one of his teammates. There were a few heartening successes during his schooldays, but also a rather embarrassing dismissal — hitting across the line and losing his wicket, unaware that it was a hat-trick ball. Against Winchester in 1956, he caught a young Nawab of Pataudi in the first innings and stumped him in the second.
In Blofeld’s second Eton versus Harrow encounter, he walked out at 71 for six and scored a much acclaimed century. Interestingly, the only two earlier batsmen to have registered a similar feat for the Public Schools were Peter May and Colin Cowdrey.
He was also lucky enough to play under Bill Edrich for Norfolk.
It was just before his entrance for Cambridge King’s College that Blofeld, on his way to cricket training, was hit by a bus carrying a load of French Women’s Institute ladies around Eton. It seems that at the very moment of the accident, Blofeld’s mother had stopped at a passing shrine, had bought a candle and lit it — something she had never done before.
It was a near fatal accident. Blofeld’s skull was broken, a cheekbone squashed flat, and his jaw suffered multiple fractures. He regained consciousness after 28 days and was just able to complete the last few days at Eton.
Incidentally, the Blofeld family is linked to Eton through popular culture. One of the Etonian school friends of Blofeld’s father was Ian Fleming. It is conjectured that Blofeld senior lent his name to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-villain in the James Bond thriller You only Live Twice.
In what Blofeld considers a rash decision, King’s College decided to admit him without the entrance exam. He did not graduate from Cambridge. Neither did he remain the same cricketer. His coordination had been affected and he could not get into position to hook short balls for another decade. However, he did play a few First-Class matches for Cambridge.
The end of First-Class career
The first outing for the University did not get off to a very auspicious start. Blofeld spent much of the previous evening with a girl who had asked him to Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball for debutantes. He returned on the milk train from Liverpool with his captain Ted Dexter. According to him, a Boy’s Own hero would have made a hundred and gone on to marry the girl. But unfortunately he himself scored a duck and never saw the girl again.
In the end, he managed ‘just enough runs to be awarded probably the worst Blue for an opening batsman since the Boer War’. But, he did play against Keith Miller who was turning out for Nottinghamshire and dropped him off a skier as the champion all-rounder scored 62 and a hundred. Years later, he sent the match scorecard for Miller to sign and it came back with the words, “Well dropped Henry, Keith Miller.”
In his penultimate game for Cambridge, he scored a hundred against Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s, his only century in First-Class cricket.
Blofeld’s only other cricket approaching seriousness came 10 years later when he toured West Indies with ‘The Arabs’ managed by Jim Swanton.
The correspondent who almost played for England
Without a degree from Cambridge, Blofeld took up a job with the merchant bank Robert Benson Londale. However, it was soon apparent that life in investment and public banking would be infuriatingly drab. He looked around for opportunities to make a living writing on cricket, approaching seasoned journalists for possible openings. He got his break when Johnny Woodcock asked him to fill in for the indisposed Uel Titley to report the Kent-Somerset match for The Times. So, Blofeld called in sick at the bank and spent the day watching cricket and dictating his report on phone. The odd jobs increased with time and ultimately he got enough of them to resign from his banking job.
By 1962-63, he was covering cricket for The Times and football for The Observer. And by that winter, he had obtained enough writing assignments from Guardian and Observer to travel to India to cover the tour of the England cricket team. He was signed on by the Daily Sketch as well. He had to rough it out, spending his nights at hotels arranged by the travel agency run by EM Wellings of Sketch. This was very different from the rest of the journalists who stayed in the same hotels as the visiting cricketers. But, he was not complaining. This tour was full of the most intriguing experiences.
During the second Test at Bombay, injury and illness had reduced the England dressing room to an infirmary. Colin Cowdrey and Peter Parfitt had been sent for as reinforcements, but would not arrive in time for the Test. The day before the match, David Clark, the England manager, asked Blofeld to stay back at the end of the press conference. Soon, he was explaining to the curious correspondent that only 10 players were fit, and unless one of the others made a remarkable recovery, someone from outside the party needed to be included in the team. “You and I are the last two to have played First-Class cricket, and you’re a great many years younger than me. So if it comes to it, you will be the man. Try to go to bed before midnight.”
Blofeld was thunderstruck, but somehow managed to respond, “I don’t care if Cowdrey and Parfitt are flying out as replacements. If I make 50 or above in either innings, I’m damned if I’ll stand down for Calcutta.” Eventually, Mickey Stewart crawled out of the hospital bed to make up the eleven and crawled back after tea. England drew the match in spite of playing just three fit specialist batsmen.
It was also during this tour that Blofeld the innocent bystander got caught in the violent crossfire between Wellings and the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram about seating arrangements at Delhi. The quarrel blew into a big diplomatic issue and Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the British High Commissioner, invited Blofeld to have breakfast with him and tell him the full story.
It was at the Guardian that Blofeld came across Frank Keating, and got introduced to Rediffusion. He auditioned for both football and cricket commentary, but ‘scored quite a few own goals’ while commentating on a taped football match. Hence, he was earmarked for cricket. The stint for Rediffusion was his first experience in sports broadcasting.
While touring for The Arabs under Jim Swanton, Blofeld was enticed into writing for Daily Telegraph as well. Since Guardian stressed on exclusivity, he wrote for Daily Telegraph under the pseudonym Henry Calthorpe. Tutelage under Swanton could be formidable at times, but in the end it served him well. But he was moved to write: ‘If, by way of practice, I had been able to do a stint beforehand for Alexander the Great on one of his more demanding days, it would have stood me in good stead.’
It was in 1969 that BBC arranged for Blofeld to do two 20-minute periods of trial commentary during a match at The Oval. Each time his period commenced when Brian Johnston handed it over to him at the end of his own stint. Blofeld’s interview ended with the welcome information that he had been added to the list of BBC cricket commentators. But, the first opportunity of commentary would arrive much later.
He continued to club assignments and fly overseas, covering cricket in India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies. In the Caribbean, with New Zealand and West Indies engaged in the 1971-72 series, he got his first chance to broadcast Test matches live — although for local channels. Alan Richards, the New Zealand cricket correspondent, had made arrangements to cover the series with the local broadcasters in the Caribbean. However, he had not been aware that each island had two stations — one owned by Rediffusion and another by the government. Having said yes to both, he asked Blofeld to help out and the reporter had a great time sharing the box with Jackie Hendricks, Gerry Gomez and Clyde Walcott.
It was in the summer of 1972 that Mike Tuke-Hastings, the cricket producer of BBC, asked him to cover a county match at Chelmsford. And after two more such trial runs, he was asked to commentate on two of the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) against Australia at Lord’s and Edgbaston. It was baptism by fire. He spoke alongside John Arlott and Brian Johnston, with Jack Fingleton providing the expert opinions, and Jim Swanton doing the summing up at the end of the day.
Test Match Special
It was two seasons later, in 1974, that Blofeld finally featured in a TMS box. It was the first Test against India at Old Trafford and once again the company was exalted. He shared the box with Arlott, Johnston and Christopher Martin-Jenkins. Trevor Bailey was the summariser along with the Maharajah of Baroda, Jim Swanton came in at the end of the day to wind things up.
There was a potentially disastrous moment when during one of the sessions Johnston was going through his last bit before handing it to Blofeld. Sunil Gavaskar had played forward to Mike Hendricks at mid-on and the ball was returned to Greig who according to Johnston: ‘as he walks back, polishes the ball on his right thigh.’ Gavaskar played the next ball the same way and Hendricks threw it back to Greig and Johnston described: “And now, to ring the changes, as he walks back Greig polishes his left ball.” Suppressed giggles almost gave rise to a preview of the leg-over incident and Johnston quickly said, “Over to Henry Blofeld.” As Blofeld writes, “I attacked the microphone, trying desperately not to laugh. My whole career was poised on a knife-edge.”
It was customary for the TMS commentators to talk on during rain. Blofeld was not very sure how it was to be handled and on the first day and had prepared a number of monologues to help things along. Johnston was presiding during a rain break when he handed it over, “I’m now going to bring in Henry Blofeld.” The rookie commentator blurted out his prepared ‘rain speech’ for seven minutes before looking around and finding all the chairs empty, a piece of paper on the table telling him in Johnston’s handwriting : “Keep going until six thirty and don’t forget to hand back to the studio.” When Blofeld began to stutter and sweat, the rest of them came back into the room in fits of laughter.
Thus started the long career with TMS, broken only by a stint for BskyB from 1991 to 1994.
To India in a Rolls
Of course there have been other endeavours, many of them fascinating. Blofeld covered the 1976-77 England tour in India, and got there by road. That too in a Rolls-Royce! It was a motley group consisting of Blofeld, Johnny Woodcock, Adrian Liddell — a Hampshire farmer with a collection of cars, and a glamorous Sydney lady named Judy Casey. Liddell offered the services of his 1921 Silver Ghost, and London stock-jobber Michael Bennett joined them with a three and a half litre Rover. They travelled through Dover, France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then down through Delhi, onto Rajasthan and finally reached Bombay.
It was a journey of a life time and symbolic of the zest of life of this man behind the microphone.
Continuing joie de vivre
With advancing years, especially after his double heart surgery in 1999, Blofeld has been less frequent on air. However, the endless thirst for life continues.
Blofeld was awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting in 2003. There was a brief break during 2006-07, and he surprisingly missed the 2007 ICC World Cup. But, soon he was back in the summer of 2008 with undiminished enthusiasm and description of pink shirts.
Blofeld has also written several books which trace his life in commentary box and thereby cover the lengthy period of his association with the game. His ‘An Evening With Blowers’ is one of the most popular shows around the country.
Life is not limited to cricket and memories. Blofeld also idolises Noel Coward and is a compulsive collector of first editions of PG Wodehouse.
Walking along the illustrious footsteps of John Arlott, Blofeld is also a wine connoisseur and has his own label ‘Côtes du Rhône’. He promotes it during his chat shows as ‘Blower’s Rhone’. Yes, he follows Arlott, but there is a difference.
In 2009, on his 70th birthday, he hosted an evening show in front of 2000 paying ‘guests’ at the Royal Albert Hall — one of the most successful such parties. The event was narrated by Jonathan Agnew and starred Tony Cozier, Stephen Fry, Johnny Woodcock, and elder brother — the former High Court Judge Sir John Blofeld.
The compulsive entertainer continues on his journey full of vitality and joie de vivre. The forthcoming autumn and winter are fully booked with various stage performances, alone or in company of Peter Baxter, reminiscing about the great days of Test Match Special. The endearing voice, the infectious sense of humour and curious idiosyncrasies continue to entertain.
(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://twiter.com/senantix)