By PHILIP BARKER
It was 40 summers ago on a sunlit September afternoon that the crowd at Lord’s gave a standing ovation, not for a cricketer but a commentator.
The distinctive voice of John Arlott had become synonymous with cricket and the sound of summer and his fellow commentator Henry Blofeld spoke of ‘his inimitable Hampshire burr’.
In his writing and his broadcasting, Arlott came also to embody civilised human values.
Originally a poetry producer at the BBC, he began by covering India’s tour in 1946. His broadcasts were also relayed on the BBC’s overseas services, so by the time he ventured abroad he was already a celebrity.
In 1948, he was sent to cover England’s tour of South Africa and local newspapers announced excitedly “The Voice is coming”.
The trip was a long one and Arlott did not attend every match, meaning he missed Denis Compton’s triple century in Benoni.
Instead he walked down Commissioner Street in Johannesburg and witnessed an African man kicked in the gutter by an Afrikaner.
A year or so later, as a panelist on the radio programme ‘Any Questions’, Arlott described the South African government as ‘Nazi’.
“Anything can happen to a native man in South Africa carrying as far as murder,” he said.
“The present government is now issuing forms to ascertain everybody’s race. They give you the blanks to fill in. You can fill yourself in as European, African, Asiatic or ‘other coloured’. The greatest credit I can claim for our party is that when asked to fill in our race on leaving the Union, we filled in on the relevant line, the word human.”
His comments were branded “political” by Pretoria which sought to ban further BBC broadcasts.
A decade later Arlott received a letter from South African cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, denied an opportunity to progress because of the colour of his skin, and helped secure him a passage to England. After a spell in league cricket ‘Dolly’ joined Worcestershire and Arlott admitted his great pride when in 1966, the name B.L. D’Oliveira appeared on a test scorecard for the first time.
Two years later, a tour of South Africa was cancelled when the Pretoria government refused to accept D’Oliveira as an England team member.
South Africa’s cricketers were due to visit England in 1970 but there had been fierce protests during the 1969 Springbok rugby tour and Arlott spoke against the tour in a televised debate at the Cambridge Union.
“For personal reasons I shall not broadcast the matches of the South African tour. Apartheid is detestable to me and I would always oppose it,” he told readers of The Guardian in an article titled ‘Why I am off the air’.
“The Cricket Council has failed fairly to represent those British people especially cricketers who genuinely abominate Apartheid.”
In the end, the series was cancelled on government advice and instead Guinness sponsored five ‘Test’ matches between England and a multinational Rest of the World side, the very antithesis of apartheid.
Arlott’s cricket commentaries were mostly on radio and had the turn of phrase of a poet.
His description of the first Lord’s streaker in 1975, an unexpected moment, was unfaltering and without a hint of vulgarity.
He did do television on Sundays and during the tea interval he would lead a camera crew into the pavilion and give an apparently impromptu talk on the treasures and history of the club concerned.
By the late seventies, Arlott admitted that travelling to matches had become too tiring and although he made one final commentary on the Gillette Cup final in 1980, his last test match broadcast was the Centenary Test between England and Australia at Lord’s.
Although the Radio Times put him on their front cover, there were no laps of honour.
Camera crews clambered outside the Lord’s commentary box in the pavilion as Arlott signed off with the words: “69 for 2 after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins.”
He described this masterpiece of understatement as a ‘clean break’.
When Arlott made the man of the match presentation to Australia’s Kim Hughes, the applause was so prolonged that he was overcome and told the crowd: “You’ll have to stop applauding otherwise I won’t be able to speak.”
It was not a problem he’d often encountered.