Authors: Rio Sports
So long then, my dear old thing. After 45 years on Test Match Special, Henry Blofeld has, to borrow one of his own favourite phrases, put his cue back on the rack. English cricket will never sound quite the same again. It hardly could, given the unique, deep Cholmondley-Warner timbre of his voice. From now on, then, TMS listeners will find there are far fewer pigeons strutting around the outfield, and not nearly so many jet planes flying overhead or bright red busses driving by the boundary walls. The flipside being that they’re rather more likely to know exactly who it was that just made the catch at third man. Punctiliousness never was a notable quality of his commentaries.
Blofeld is the kind Englishman you’d concoct in your head if all you had to work with was the collected works of PG Wodehouse. Which is precisely why so many fans adore him, and so many others find him so annoying. His Wooster-ish catchphrases were, Christopher Martin-Jenkins said, “deliberately cultivated”, and “my dear old thing” was “originally conceived because he could never remember the name of the person whom he was talking to”. Martin-Jenkins once listed Blofeld’s strengths as a “rich voice, an unquenchable enthusiasm, and quick eye for anything from a leg break to the colour of the pattern on the red skirt of the lady watching in Row H, Section C”.
Add to that his Munchausen-esque repertoire of stories. The tale of his first lunch with Noel Coward got a final outing on Friday, though you’ll likely be able to catch it again on stage at a provincial theatre somewhere near you this autumn and every other after for the foreseeable. Beneath all the rum-flummery, Blofeld had a sound grounding in the mechanics of the game too, and the kind of expert knowledge of its history you only acquire from spending far too much time reading Wisden as a kid. He was a very good schoolboy player himself, once-upon-a-time. Until he was run over by a bus, a twist of fate which makes his lifelong obsession with them seem all the more odd, as if the No38 was his great white whale.
Blofeld is, one colleague says, “a loveable rogue”. And if his public persona was sometimes just a touch at odds with his private demeanour – the tale of his encounter with Duncan Fletcher, who he memorably told to “fuck off” when they met in a restaurant, presumably doesn’t make the cut for his one-man show – then that, at least, is one way in which he’s not unique. In all other regards, he is, as TMS’ producer Adam Mountford says, “inimitable and irreplaceable”. The TMS box, Mountford says, will be a “darker place without him”. It isn’t clear here whether or not Mountford was referring to Blofeld’s taste in luminous suits.
TMS, it’s easy to forget, is still how the majority of people in this country follow cricket. Far more people listen to the sport on the radio than watch it on TV, whether live on Sky or on Channel 5’s highlights. Precise figures are hard to come by because of the way coverage is parcelled out between online, long wave, and digital, but more than 500,000 watched the TMS beer match they played to celebrate the show’s 60th anniversary earlier this summer. Which explains why so many politicians seem so keen to appear on it. Theresa May, after all, does not turn up to do for lunchtime interviews on Sky, but she thought it worth her while to do a 40-minute interview on TMS on Friday.
Blofeld was one reason why TMS has such a broad appeal. He made the game seem fun. It’s easy to forget just how dull cricket seems to all those poor souls who haven’t yet acquired the taste for it. And while he may have infuriated all those listeners who really do care who is fielding where, he delighted the ones who couldn’t tell a short leg from a silly mid-off to begin with. “We have an audience that’s not just cricket fans,” Mountford says, “and even if you know nothing about cricket, you know Blowers because of the language, the personality, the character. In that way, he transcended the sport.” Blofeld drew them in. His audience didn’t necessarily follow the sport so much as they did the show.
If Blofeld was the dash of booze in the cake, the mix will still be pretty rich without him. There was a time, not so long ago, when TMS started to sound a little too much like 5 Live. But it’s rowed back from that. They brought in more female summarisers, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Isa Guha, and found room for a commentator, Dan Norcross, who didn’t come up through first-class cricket or the ranks of the BBC. And if a lot of English cricket coverage leaves you with the impression that game is the exclusive preserve of middle-aged white men (the written press, it has to be said, is more homogeneous than either radio or TV) the ECB’s last survey showed that 37% of the recreational players are from non-white minorities, TMS at least does a better job of reflecting the sport’s audience than the rest of the cricket media manages.
Mountford says he likes to make sure the commentators have a range of perspectives and experiences. “The danger is that if everyone’s a former player, then they talk about it from a former player’s perspective. Which means that as a non-player I’m left shouting at my radio, asking “Why did he play that shot? Why did they pick that player?” Or indeed if Blofeld happened to be on, “who the hell took that catch?” He may have been a throwback, but he had his audience, and they are as much a part of the game in this country as any other. At Lord’s on Saturday he was given a standing ovation when he finished his final spell, and took a lap of the ground after the match. You’d hope there’d always be room for the likes of him, too. Not that another one will come along any time soon.
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