Friday, April 25, 2014

John Arlott

John Arlott would have been a hundred had he been alive on 25 February 2014. He is an odd choice for a hero, but that’s what he was to me. When Arlott retired from commentary the Glamorgan player and TV commentator Peter Walker said that listening to Arlott talking about cricket had given him more pleasure than watching any individual player. Better than watching Underwood bowl, Knott keep wicket or Viv Richards bat? Quite possibly.

John Arlott was the best sports commentator there has been. He worked mainly on radio, but it was on television that I first heard the rough, rumbling Hampshire voice, in the summer of ’66 during the Test series against the West Indies (for a couple of years Arlott alternated with Brian Johnston between the TV and radio commentary boxes). He continued to provide TV commentary on Sunday afternoons throughout the seventies. The conventional view is that he was not as good on television, but I disagree. He never said a thing that the viewers could see for themselves, so when he spoke it always added something new. Often, this was more interesting and entertaining than the predictable Sunday League game that was his subject. One particularly dull Sunday his attention was taken by the noise made in the delivery stride by AA Jones of Middlesex. “Let’s listen…grraghh!...that was me”. He made the mundane special.

Here’s Arlott commentating solo (as he always did on Sunday afternoons) on a match between Somerset and the International Cavaliers at what appears to be an Arctic Taunton in May 1966:

For several years he delivered wonderful monologues about old cricketers straight to camera, AJP Taylor style, for our education during the tea interval. In would be great if someone found these somewhere and put them on You Tube, though as they pre-date VCRs it’s probably unlikely. Also regrettably absent are Arlott’s conversations with Mike Brearley from the mid-eighties and his full-hour appearance on Parkinson early in 1981.

What is on You Tube is the whole of a four-part album released by the BBC 25 years or so ago featuring a selection from Arlott’s radio commentary, or what remains available from it—most recordings from the late fifties to early seventies were taped over. Here is a link to the fourth part, which takes examples from the final half-dozen years of Arlott’s career:

All the qualities that made John Arlott such a wonderful commentator are demonstrated here. The extract from a single 20-minute spell of commentary from the 1975 World Cup final contains more high-carat phrases than most callers could manage in several seasons.

In many of these extracts Arlott is uninterrupted by the summariser. These days it is the norm for the comments man to chip in between almost every delivery. It is a conversation as much as a commentary, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but would constrain a modern-day Arlott or Alan Gibson from giving us the full benefit of their descriptive powers. Perhaps the ball-by-ball commentator could be allowed once a session to mute all microphones except his own for an over.

One of the extracts is from the third day of the Centenary Test at Lord’s in 1980, for much of which there was bright sunshine and no play. Arlott’s measured indignation was heard by many spectators and validated their frustration. John Arlott had effectively given them permission to set aside their English inhibitions and jostling on the pavilion steps ensued. By the way, I was lucky that day to have made a last-minute decision not to go to Lord’s and went instead on Monday when an extra hour was added.

There was another occasion when Arlott spent 20 minutes or so describing the covers being removed after rain, a perfect an exposition of the way in which radio, in the hands of an artist, frees the listener from the constraints that vision imposes.

Arlott’s departure from the test match microphone is featured; but that was not his last commentary. That came the following Saturday at the Gillette Cup final. I was in the crowd, earpiece in place, as Arlott described Middlesex’s bald South African fast bowler Vincent van der Bijl coming into bowl “like a young Long Longford, only not as benevolent”. As he promised, he went out before there was any sign of the light dimming.

It has amused me when people have complained about non-cricket specialists like Mark Pougatch and Jon Champion being given a go on Test Match Special. Both Arlott and Johnston—TMS’s most famous voices—were general broadcasters before they were cricket commentators. Arlott was a poetry producer, Johnston was the cheeky chappie of Saturday night radio, performing pranks and stunts for audiences measured in millions. In today’s terms it would be like making Roger McGough and Ant (or Dec) part of the team. It was precisely because cricket was not his lifetime’s work that Arlott could put the game into proper perspective.

There are many accounts of Arlott’s lives outside cricket, as a clerk in a mental asylum, a policeman in wartime Southampton, poet, wine writer, football reporter, Liberal candidate, Any Questions? panellist and much else. David Rayvern Allen’s biography is the best source, though plenty is available on the internet, such as this piece by Frank Keating:

Sadness coloured him too. He lost his eldest son Jimmy in a car crash in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1966 (Arlott was always keen that people should know that excess alcohol was not involved; the boy fell asleep at the wheel). Valerie, his second wife, died suddenly ten years later. A hint of melancholy is discernable in much of his his later work.

For some time Arlott served as President of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. It is a measure of the man that he was trusted with this position when he was not a player and was politically well to the left of the average county cricketer of his time, particularly over South Africa, which was where politics and cricket most often met. Famously, when he covered the 1948/9 MCC tour of South Africa for the BBC, on the immigration form he identified his race as “human”. As I have written in another post, without Arlott Basil D’Oliveira would have been just another cricketer lost to apartheid:

The West Indian commentator Reds Perreira was interviewed recently in The Nightwatchman. He says that his inspiration was John Arlott, and I have heard Tony Cozier say that if kids on a Caribbean beach wanted to imitate a commentator, nine times out of ten it would be Arlott, just as it was for those waiting for the school bus on the north Kent coast. For them, like me, John Arlott made cricket funny, human, compassionate and poetic. All of us are grateful to him for that.

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