I suppose that Henry Blofeld has often divided opinion. You could almost describe him as the Jeremy Corbyn of the commentary box – a sobriquet that is deliberately facetious as I think it would be stretching credibility to suggest that Blowers is hiding even a hint of red under the bed. He might have a picnic hamper, perhaps, and maybe a jeroboam or two, but Mao’s little red book? I doubt it somehow.
I learnt the other day that Blowers is 77 years old. This wasn’t necessarily unexpected but I can’t help thinking that he’s been this age for at least 25 years. Perhaps that’s why I have always had a slight fondness for him. It’s one directly linked to his post-modernist interpretation of a pink gin sipping genial old buffer.
Blowers is a living caricature of a gentler amateur era, but one perceptive enough to avoid being anachronistic. Behind the garish bow-ties, and the “my dear old thing’s” lays a carefully concealed understanding of cricket. What’s more, he has the brilliant ability to frame it within an amiable and broader contextualised view – itself the antithesis of today’s T20 commentaries that cast undue focus on sound bites amid a slathering desire for hyped up action.
By contrast, Blowers is the man that you listen too as you quietly loaf on a deck chair whilst knocking back a bottle or two of something nice. His mannerisms, if they were present on a younger man, would mark him out as an insufferable Jazzer. But, on the 77 year old Blofeld, they provide an air of old world charm and affableness that it is nigh on impossible to dislike.
It is no coincidence that Henry Blofeld is a distant relative of the old England captain The Hon. Freddie Calthorpe, once heir to the Baronetcy of Calthorpe. From this beginning it is easy to understand why he might appear to exist slightly outside of his time. Effecting as he does a visage that is somewhere between an aging Bertie Wooster and the old Lord Charles puppet.
He appears as a living breathing example of a character from a John Betjeman poem. One can imagine the young Blowers as the protagonist in “The Subalterns love song”, playing tennis with the “furnished and burnished” Miss. Joan Hunter-Dunn “under Aldershot’s sun”.
Partly through longevity he has found his place among the pantheon of commentary box royalty as a midway coordinate between the heavyweight forms of John Arlott and Brian Johnston. I think Blofeld is sufficiently modest and self-aware to admit that he is not in the same league as either. However, he has proved marvellously adept at combining Johnston’s relaxed sense of fun with Arlott’s focus on verbal picture painting imagery.
That being said, references to red busses pootling along the Harleyford Road are somewhat removed from the artistry of Arlott’s rich poetic seam. Lacking as they do in the thick Hampshire burr and the complex levels of melancholy that usually underpinned Arlott’s customary narrative.
In recent years, I’ve heard it said that Blowers’ imagery has begun to feel slightly repetitive and put on – perhaps like an old school comedian clinging on to a long-standing catch phrase in order to please the crowd and fill air time. It really is a testament to how much he is admired and loved that it has continued to work this well and for this long.
His commentary can only be described as enjoyable; laced as it is with an infectious love of the game. He is widely perceived as one of the last non-playing and thus professional commentators. This label does him something of a disservice though. After all, Blowers did actually appear in sixteen first-class matches. These were mostly as an opening batsman, and part-time wicket keeper, in the Cambridge University teams of 1958 & 59 under the captaincy of the future England great, Ted Dexter.
Legend has it that Blowers actually came within an ace of a highly unlikely Test match appearance. In the run up to the 2nd Test of the 1963/64 tour of India, and with England depleted by illness and injuries, he was strongly considered as an emergency batting replacement for the Bombay Test.
Blowers, already on the scene in his role as reporter for The Guardian newspaper, was considered to be the only Englishman present that either had first-class experience or was still sufficiently athletic enough to perform. Ultimately it wasn’t to be, as Mickey Stewart returned from his hospital bed on the eve of the match – although he over-reached himself and promptly returned to it before the 1st day was out.
It may sound rather ludicrous to present the old Etonian, Oxbridge, MCC tie wearing Blofeld as anti-establishment, yet there is sufficient context to support this view. In todays polarised world where disenfranchised supporters speak of being either “inside” or “outside” cricket, having the likes of Blofeld in the commentary box becomes vitally important.
In theory, he has the ability to express independent opinion that is not hamstrung by old playing alliances, historic grievances or a restricted world view. For me, Blofeld is the critical link between the clique of ex-professionals that now dominate the commentary box and the listener at home.
We can’t all know what it is like to play in a Test Match or score a century in front of a packed house at Lords, and neither does Blofeld. He is our emissary, our representative among the greats. He sees the game from our vantage point and with the same level of awe that we hold for people that can do things forever beyond our reach.
Unlike many of the ex-professionals, he is patient when describing mediocrity or incompetence on the field. As someone that was never able to make a career as a player, his view is less polarised and includes a deeper and richer perspective. Existing outside of the small and narrow box of professional cricket, Blofeld is able to place the game in its true context – one that sees the game as important but hardly a matter of life and death.
When England snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, or are hammered into another humiliating defeat, Blowers has always been there as a constant. He says to us in his inimitable way that it doesn’t really matter. We are at the cricket, the sun is shining, we are among friends and the bar is always open.
For this alone, when he hangs up his microphone at the end of the summer, I and many others will miss him. That and his glorious vagueness when it comes to mere trifling details like the actual score.