“…after Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins”

Thirty years ago today, the final Test broadcast of a BBC radio commentator drew a standing ovation at the home of cricket. PHILIP BARKER outlines why

The master at work: John Arlott. Photo by Patrick Eagar

Risking life and limb, photographers clambered to the top of the Lord’s pavilion. Down below, swathed in September sunlight, the crowd was on its feet applauding. Their  example was followed in the field by the Australian team and even Geoffrey Boycott took off his gloves  and joined in the applause.

Up in the radio commentary box, a BBC commentator, with no ceremony or flourish, had just uttered these few words:  “Nine runs off the over, 28 Boycott, 15 Gower, 69 for two and after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins”.

It was 30 years ago today, at the 1980 Centenary Test, that John Arlott made his final broadcast on Test cricket after 34 years at the very top of his profession.

According to broadcasting legend, Arlott got the job of reporting cricket because he just happened to have a fixture list on his desk at the BBC, where he’d just become a poetry producer after leaving the Hampshire constabulary.

In fact, Arlott had made a couple of broadcasts on cricket and, specifically, his beloved Hampshire players, while still in the police force before his big break.

Arlott covered the first two matches of India’s 1946 tour for the BBC regions, and back came the telegram from the powers that be:

“Cricket broadcasts greatest success yet STOP Must be continued at all costs STOP”

So Arlott combined racing around the country for cricket with his passion for poetry, developing a strong friendship with Dylan Thomas as he produced the Welsh bard’s BBC programmes.

From 1946 on, Arlott covered every home Test match. On air, he sounded markedly different to other commentators; he was criticised by Sir Pelham Warner for using player’s first names. The old boy felt this was too familiar.This from a man known to his intimates as “Plum”.

Arlott also covered MCC tours, significantly including the 1948-1949 trip to South Africa. “The Voice is coming” announced the local newspapers. Listeners in the Cape had heard his commentary on the South African Tests in 1947.

Arlott missed one of the cricketing highlights of that tour, going to his bed exhausted rather than make a trip for what seemed to be a minor match at Benoni. A wise choice but for the fact that Denis Compton took apart the local bowling and hit a triple hundred.

That decision had other, far-reaching implications for international sport.

Later that day, Arlott witnessed first-hand the horror of apartheid, seeing a black man being kicked into the street. A decade later, when a young South African cricketer, categorised as “coloured” under the apartheid laws, wrote to Arlott asking for help, the journalist wrote back and acted to assist his move to England. The player was Basil d’Oliveira, whose role as an England cricketer was the catalyst for the international sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa.

“Say that cricket has nothing to do with politics and you say that cricket has nothing to do with life,” Arlott would say.

Such was Arlott’s mastery of the airwaves that it is possible to forget that Arlott was a fine newspaper writer, first for the News Chronicle, later at the Observer and Guardian, on football as well as cricket.

Indeed, in the 1950s, Arlott even reported Manchester United’s scintillating victory at Arsenal, and anticipated a trip to cover their European Cup quarter-final. Much to his disappointment, he was told that he would not be going after all. That match, of course, was in Belgrade, and the Manchester united team and journalists returned via Munich on February 6, 1958.

Poetry remained a life-long passion for Arlott, who had many interests and areas of expertise on which to write. A chance recommendation of an appropriate vintage to a journalistic colleague led to assignment to write about wine, another great passion for Arlott.

He also had strong political conviction. “Politics governs everything we do – the games we play, the way we play them, who we play,” he said. Arlott twice stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in Epping in the days before celebrities did that sort of thing. He lost.

His early cricket books were loving chronicles of a season. Gone With the Cricketers evokes a wonderful picture of post-war cricket and was dedicated to his father “who knows nothing about cricket and cares even less but who wos very good to me”.

As the biographer of Fred Trueman, Arlott was appropriately on the air when FST claimed his 300th Test wicket in 1964, dismissing Australia’s Neil Hawke.

“There was no nicer touch than Trueman congratulating Hawke,” he said.

A decade later and Arlott’s superb command of the language was still delighting listeners. Of the bowling run-up of Asif Masood, he said, “He looks like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress.”

Of WG Grace, Arlott noted waspishly, “His personality was such that it is remembered by those who played with him to the exclusion of his actual performance.”

And of one of his favourite players, Jack Hobbs, Arlott said, “Others scored faster; hit the ball harder; more obviously murdered bowling. No one else, though, ever batted with more consummate skill.”

You got the impression that Michael Angelow was listening to Test Match Special and timed his run accordingly during the 1975 Lord’s Test. Angelow was the ship’s cook who assumed that Lord’s was a “clothes optional” ground and became the first streaker at the home of cricket. Arlott described his display in superb terms, right down to“the final exhibition”.

In those days, Arlott would work many a Sunday afternoon for television on Sunday league matches, delighting a new audience. A highlight of many a tea time was Arlott with a cameraman wandering through a county pavilion and, unscripted, talking about what he found, tales of the greats and of lesser known cricketers. It was a veritable tour de force.

It seems scarcely possible that there is now a whole generation of cricketers and cricket journalists who never heard Arlott. Their education in the game is the poorer.