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Pearls of Wisden

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Neither the passage of 13 months nor a similar terrorist outrage before this year’s African Cup of Nations football tournament have made the details any less shocking.

The murderous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last year should never have been allowed to happen. But it did; and its survivors will be haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

The account of those awful minutes inside the team bus contained in the 2010 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac leaves us in little doubt of that. Written by Scyld Berry, the Sunday Telegraph’s cricket correspondent (and for the third year running Wisden’s editor), along with an Indian colleague, Nagraj Gollapudi, it includes interviews with many of the men who came under siege that morning, and it is incredibly moving. Right-handed batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan, we learn, risked his own life by daring to pop his head up and navigate as the driver got the bus moving towards safety. Mahela Jayawardene, too, dodged bullets, as he sought to assess the situation, while in the minibus carrying the match officials to the Gadaffi Stadium, the English referee Chris Broad helped save the life of Ahsan Raza, the fourth umpire, by stanching the flow of blood from a bullet wound.

“On a very basic level, it’s interesting how some of these guys reacted,” says Berry. “It’s a matter of conjecture how ordinary people might react in similar circumstances, but basically they had to take it lying down, which is not something sportsmen do easily. They don’t like to hide. That’s what they found so difficult looking back afterwards – they hadn’t been able to fight this enemy back.”

According to Berry it is the “duty” of Wisden to recapture the event for posterity, a view that is in-keeping with the publication’s significance in the cricket world. Wisden is no officially sanctioned gospel: it is known as cricket’s “bible” because it does not flinch from telling the sport the truth about itself. “It’s the game’s summary of itself,” says Berry, who wrote for the Herald in the 1980s. “Few human activities summarise, analyse and chronicle themselves as coherently and articulately.”

John Wisden, a pioneering cricketer in Victorian times, published his first Almanac in 1864. The book, which cost five shillings, ran to only 112 pages and included non-cricketing information such as dates of battles in the English Civil War, an account of the trial of Charles I and a list of winners of The Oaks to pad it out. This year’s Wisden runs to 1728 pages and retails at £45, but for many of the game’s followers, at least in England, it is indispensable.

There is, in fact, no better indication that the cricket season is entering full swing than Wisden’s arrival on the shelves. This year, Englishmen have the added bonus of being able to look back on 12 months of solid achievement. One of the book’s major draws is a piece written by the England captain Andrew Strauss in which he claims the home side’s Ashes success last summer can be attributed to collective will: “What people like to call the unity, or spine, of the team.”

“It was a good year for England,” says Berry, “particularly I think as they didn’t lose in South Africa over the winter. In 2005, after winning the Ashes, they lost everything for a long time afterwards but this time they didn’t suddenly go from fourth gear into reverse. And they kicked on in 50-over cricket as well, beating South Africa 2-1 out there, only the second team they had lost to at home in 50-over cricket.”

But it’s not all a case of jolly good show, chaps. In his Editor’s Notes, Berry does not shy away from the problems facing English cricket, or indeed where the England and Wales Cricket Board have let the game down.

“We really ought to have an inquiry into why England have never won anything in limited-overs cricket,” he says. “They’re the only major Test-playing country never to have won either a World Cup or Champions Trophy. The ECB shouldn’t get away with such a history of failure. Their response has been to cut the 50-over format from the domestic programme and replace it with a 40-over structure that’s wholly absent from the international stage, which is a very good way of making sure you never win anything.”

Berry also voices concern that England’s reliance of late on batsmen born or bred in South Africa exposes a frail underbelly in terms of county cricket’s record of developing young talent.

“You just have to be a promising 18-year-old without ever having performed at senior level and you can be on a contract of £40,000 a year for three years, so what’s the incentive to go and play in the under-19 World Cup for England if you have a good living at such an early age?” he wonders. “English players born in England have to be nurtured into winners.”

But while there is a place for gripes, the overall tone of Wisden is more celebratory than reproachful. In that spirit, we find Michael Parkinson writing, in praise of Ricky Ponting, that “he has always been a particularly Australian mongrel, an unflinching cross between battler and maestro”.

And in the “Chronicle” section, the editor has culled all manner of jocose tidbits from the world’s sports pages, including the news that in Pakistan a team of eunuchs beat a side of “normal” male cricketers in the first match of its kind, and that 500 prisoners in Kolkata went on strike after the authorities refused to install cable TV so they could watch IPL matches.

There is also an excellent article by Stephen Chalke about how cricket helped boost morale in communities throughout England in the post-war years. It is a reminder that while geopolitics – and even atrocities – may occasionally cast their pall on sport, it will take more to extinguish its spirit.


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An interview with Blowers

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.