Veteran English commentator Henry Blofeld has enthralled listeners and viewers for over five decades. In a freewheeling chat, he tells Derek Abraham that he preferred radio to television because he always got bored being inhibited by the monitor
This must be your 10th tript o India!
I honestly can’t remember, but I first came here almost 50 years ago, in 1963-64 (reporting for The Guardian), which was Mike Smith’s England side. And we were at the Brabourne Stadium and England had only 10 fit men. I was about half-an-hour away from playing a Test match! But Mickey Stewart (father of Alec Stewart), the vice-captain, was at the Sun & Sand Hospital if I am not mistaken. He heard what the news was, got out of bed and came and played. He fielded at backward short-leg for an hour-and-a-half and went back to hospital with a temperature of a 104 (laughs)!
“I would certainly play if needed, but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I was damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test.” Did you actually say these words to England manager David Clark?
Absolutely! And he said to me, ‘my dear boy, we will jump that hurdle when we get to it’.
So when exactly were you told about the possibility of playing the Test?
We had a press conference in manager David Clark’s room the night before the Test match. And he asked me to stay behind. Skipper Smith was there too. And they told me there were only 10 fit men. That was obviously not for publication. They then told me to try and get to bed by midnight. I said I’d try all day hard!
But you were a Cambridge Blue and had played some first-class cricket...
Yes, I had. Ted Dexter was my first captain in 1958-59. But after a while I realised I wasn’t all that good.
I enjoy Twenty20, but I only hope it doesn’t swarm the game. Just imagine a generation of cricketers being taught the game on the basis of Twenty20 where none of the basic rules of batting apply. The standard of the game would drop alarmingly
So what happened to the other players? Did they take ill?
We went to Hyderabad after the first Test in Madras and Ken Barrington broke an arm in that practice game. The rest of the boys had tummy trouble, dysentery. A couple of them went home, two others recovered. Peter Parfitt and Colin Cowdrey flew in as replacements. Cowdrey scored a hundred in two of the three remaining Tests (Calcutta and Delhi). And Tiger Pataudi, he was a great friend of mine and we played together in school in England. So Tiger got the wicket of Cowdrey (leg-before) in one of the Tests (Kanpur) and funnily enough, it was Tiger’s only Test wicket, which is quite a notable scalp!
You have a distinct style. You often describe the pigeons and seagulls. Where did you pick it up from?
I didn’t pick it up at all. I think it’s all part of the scene. If you paint a picture, you’ve got to paint the whole picture. You must not let seagulls and buses get in the way of the cricket. But cricket is like a symphony concert. You get fast bits, some slow bits some medium bits. When the cricket is not particularly interesting, then I think you can enliven it by going over the boundary. Look, every over has six scared moments; when the bowler bowls, you’ve got to talk in present tense. But there’s an awful lot of time when nothing’s happening, like the bowler walking back to his run-up and fielders getting the ball back to him. That’s when you can digress and talk about things like ladies in the stands (smiles) or whatever.
This theory holds good when you are on radio. But when on TV...
I was never good at TV. I got so bored being inhibited by the monitor. When I saw something funny over there, I wanted to talk about it. And I was not good at television. As a rule, radio commentators talk too much than the ones on television. The only person who moves seamlessly from a television box to a wireless box is Tony Cozier, the West Indian. I think he is quite brilliant.
So who are your all-time favourites?
I hate really in a way to talk abut this, but John Arlott, Brian Johnston (the man who nicknamed him ‘Blowers’), Charles Fortune of South Africa was very good. Alan McGilvray of Australia, also here (in India), you had Berry Sarbhadhikari and I remember him very well. The other one I’d like to name is New Zealader Iain Gallaway
How different was it to cover cricket back then?
There was no one-day cricket then (in the 1960s). You didn’t have the pressure of the one-day game then. It is a very statistical game: overs left, score, balls left, run rate. I think you have more fun and more freedom discussing Test cricket.
What’s your take on Twenty20 cricket?
I did one match for the BBC. It was England vs Australia at the Rose Bowl in Southampton in 2005. Australia were 31/7 (in response to the hosts’ 179/8). I wondered if it was beach cricket. But I enjoyed it. They (his employers) are not brave enough to unleash me on two cricket; plus my reflexes are slow now. I am 73.
Do you watch the IPL?
Yes, a little bit. It’s fun. I enjoy Twenty20, but I only hope it doesn’t swarm the game. Just imagine a generation of cricketers being taught the game on the basis of Twenty20 where none of the basic rules of batting apply. The standard of the game would drop alarmingly.
You’ve seen Sachin Tendulkar at his peak. What you think of him now? Is he holding his own?
He has got to score some runs quickly otherwise people will say why are we holding onto him. I think if he doesn’t get a decent score in this series, then he should declare his innings close. That is not out of any disrespect for the man. He is a wonderful man, a good friend, perhaps the greatest player I have seen, and he is wonderfully kind. There comes a time in all our lives when we’ve got to stop. Like when my eyes don’t work, I shall stop. When age catches up, you’ve got to say OK and move on...
You indeed have nine lives. You survived a horrific bike accident in your teens, then your heart ailments. God’s been kind...
God has been very kind but I don’t take any notice of any of it. I just live on! We will all die some day, won’t we? I should have died when I was 17 (he was unconscious for 28 days), and maybe because of the heart ailments later in life. Maybe the Almighty can’t face me!
Could you recall a funny incident in the commentary box?
John Arlott and Brian Johnston were very funny, but most of what they said isn’t unrepeatable. Once Arlott walked into the commentary box at Lord’s with two briefcases. There were 23 bottles of wine in all. And with 20 minutes to go for the start of play, he said (imitates Arlott), “Let’s wait for the lunch interval, gentlemen.” But we obviously didn’t have any of it till the day’s play was over.
You must have come across quite a few characters...
Denis Compton, Colin Milburn, Shane Warne are all characters. In a way, Sachin is an interesting character. Also MS Dhoni, the way he won that World Cup was amazing. Garry Sobers was always a great character. As were Alan Knott and Geoffrey Boycott; ah, there he goes (points to Boycott who is also here on commentary duty). He’s never short of a word. And he does it in his own inimitable way. Keith Miller, the Australian all-rounder, was a great character. He was a pilot during World War II. He was based in England, taking on the Germans. He once told me that modern cricketers complain about pressure. He said, “you know what pressure is? When you are flying and you look in the rearview mirror only to find two Messerschmitts (German fighter planes) chasing you! That’s pressure.”
So who among the current lot could go on and become a great?
Cheteshwar Pujara has every chance. I would be awfully surprised if he doesn’t become a great cricketer.
How about David Warner?Indeed. But Pujara is on top of my list.But people say he is slightly boring...
No, not at all. He’s got two amazing hundreds already. This (Wankhede) is a tough wicket. Let him bat on a belter and we will see him. The boy’s got some wonderful strokes.