This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
In interviews with sportsmen and women, the talk is often incidental: we’re interested more in what it tells us about battles won or lost, opponents better or bested, than the talk itself. In the case of Henry Blofeld, talking is the sport. And few are better at it than he.
Regarded variously as a “national institution” and “the voice of English cricket”, Blowers, who turns 70 in September, has been talking since 1972, the year he joined Test Match Special from The Guardian. He has talked a lot, too much for some of the cloddish contrarians who’ve written in to the BBC over the years; but for the remainder of his auditors there is good news: “I shall never retire,” he says. “I may be incapacitated and therefore have to stop working, I don’t know, but I shall never deliberately retire. Work is more fun than fun.”
So the voice endureth, though it be of a vanishing timbre, plummier than an orchard garden, delectably upper class. Blofeld’s anecdotes swarm with swashbuckling references to wonderful chaps and extraordinary matches. He is painstakingly polite, his humour gentle and Wodehousian, his delivery rat-a-tat-tat, all so much so that his on-air gaffes – “Ryan Stringfellow” for Ryan Sidebottom, “Monty Python” for Monty Panesar and “Yasser Arafat” for Pakistan’s Yasir Hamid – are both in-keeping and somehow explicable.
In further mitigation, 400-odd Test matches is a lot of talking hours; it is a great many innings, not to mention rain delays, to bring to life. But while Test Match Special remains a big part of Blofeld’s life, – “I enjoy it immensely” – like his old friend and former colleague, the late Brian Johnston, he has been able to develop his interest in talking away from cricket. “My main life is on the stage now,” says the man who, it should be recalled, grew up with Noel Coward as a family friend. His one-man show, An Evening With Blowers, has now been staged some 130 times. Last month he performed it in front of 2,500 people at the Royal Albert Hall, and in August he will bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“There’s hardly anything about cricket in it at all,” he says. “It’s all about people I’ve met and people I’ve known.” His life is “good value”. Besides Coward, the people he has known include the actor Tom Courtenay, Ian Fleming (the friend of his father’s who borrowed the family name for James Bond’s arch-enemy), Johnston and the other mainstays of Test Match Special, and cricketing friends Keith Miller and Fred Trueman.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Even if say so myself. It makes people laugh.” Laughter there may be but Blofeld’s formative years weren’t all japes and mirth. His Edwardian mother he describes as “a cross between Queen Victoria and Attila the Hun.” “It was quite a tough upbringing actually, incredible when you compare it today. I never saw my parents practically until I was about 14. It was all nannies and boarding schools.”
At Eton, Blofeld scored a century for the Public Schools against the Combined Services at Lord’s but in 1957 had the misfortune of being run over by a bus. “I was incredibly lucky not to be a cabbage,” he says. “In fact, I was lucky to be alive.” He spent 28 days unconscious and his eye socket had to be reconstructed, and though he recovered well enough to play first-class cricket for Cambridge University, his career as a sportsman soon fizzled out.
A brief spell in the City followed an unspectacular academic career before a “lucky break” gave Blowers the chance to write his first cricket match report. The rest, besides the foregoing, is all in the show, although if his radio commentary is anything to go by there will also be plenty of tangents, encompassing everything from pigeons and cakes to ‘elf and safety. But there is also a postscript to Blofeld’s own cricketing career. England, on tour in India in 1963/64, were bedevilled by injury and illness when, on the eve of the Bombay Test, David Clark, the tour manager, took Blofeld to one side and told him he might have to play. “I would certainly play if needed,” replied Blowers, “but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I’d be damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test.”
In the event vice-captain Micky Stewart hauled himself out of his hospital bed and turned up at the cricket ground, thus denying Blofeld. Any regrets? “I was rather thankful, actually,” he admits. “I’d have made an idiot of myself probably.”
He may never have played for England, but neither did he sledge. “No, you never saw sledging when I played cricket,” he says. “But I’m the wrong generation. Different times produce different customs and I think cricketers probably respect each other less than they used to. Cricket, like any other sport, reflects society at the time. There’s far less discipline than there was 50 years ago.”
And so he is off on an agreeably arch critique of modern sport. Sledging, greed, bad manners: all are ripe for a clobbering. But for all he is unmistakeably of the old school, there is a telltale hint of relish too, an element of tilting at windmills in the best, most entertaining, traditions of Test Match Special.
“It’s no good people my age saying this or that didn’t happen when we were young,” he relents. “We lived in a very different world in the 1940s and 1950s.” What of Twenty20? “I like the Twenty20, I think it’s good fun. The danger is it mustn’t be allowed to swamp cricket. Players can’t learn the lovely cricket strokes and techniques through playing a game that is about bottom-handed slogging.”
Time’s up and we haven’t got round to talking about the Ashes, other than to establish that it’s all very evenly-matched. Not to worry. Twenty20 matches are over in a flash, but Test cricket brings you hours and hours of talk, pigeons and cakes inclusive.