Our Dear Old Blowers

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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.

Garry White

@LWOSGarryWhite

19 Comments

  1. David Edwards on

    Never understood the appeal.
    Waffling on about sea gulls, buses, cranes etc.
    Almost always inaccurate when player naming or score relaying.
    Sorry not for me

  2. The eye problem he has is sad but why the BBC employ a commentator who has an eye problem is beyond me. It would seem a pre-requisite of the job that one can see reasonably well. It will be good to have a commentary box with a full compliment of competent commentators at long last.

  3. I feel this is what the present obsession with using ex-players as the core of sporting commentary in all sports is missing out on. Perspective and humour is key to entertaining commentary, which is after all what it is there to provide. If there are eloquent outsiders involved this only enhances our enjoyment. Many folk still have TMS on whilst watching TV coverage with the sound turned down, so we don’t get the hysterical Aussies bending our ears, shouting and screaming their polemics. One of my local pubs does this during tests and it’s amazing how quiet the place becomes during breaks in play as people listen to the musings in the commentary box. This is a truly English institution with no equivalent abroad, that should be treasured before it fades away. Maybe there are no obvious replacements, but the BBC should make an effort to ensure the new breed of commentators are aware of the traditions they uphold. They need to be well rounded in life not just sport. We have had a litany of them before, with the likes of Eddie Waring, Peter O’Sullivan, Harry Carpenter, Peter Allis, Barry Davies, Murray Walker, etc etc. All of these were as interested in what went on away from the arena as in it, and bought anecdotes and experiences in to offset the endless diet of stats and criticisms so beloved of the ex’s.

  4. I seem to remember that he accused Botham of captaining the side “like a great big baby” which led to an altercation at an airport and may even have ended up in court. Still, apparently Alastair Cook was subjected to unparalleled vitriol or something.

    Couldn’t stand him – and couldn’t stand Brian Johnson either. Comparing Johnson to Arlott has got me flabbergasted – are you aware that Johnson was a major reason why Arlott left TMS? Arlott was a difficult man and I’d rather have been stuck in a lift with Brian Johnson – but there is no comparison between the two as journalists and commentators.

  5. No mention of the mistakes on air in recent years and the co-comms haven’t got their timing/technique right when correcting his blunders and hesitation at crucial moments.

  6. I had no idea he divided opinions so deeply.

    I side with those who are fond of the guy. I wouldn’t want a commentary team composed entirely of Blofelds, but to deny the lighter side of cricket appreciation is to deny half of its essence.
    Arlott was a great commentator, but listening to a full house of unleavened Arlotts would be a miserable experience indeed.

  7. Harmy's Head on

    I’m too young to have heard Arlott live, but grew up hearing Johnners. As the last of that TMS generation, it’s a bit sad to see Blowers retire – all the stuff about London buses etc might have been a bit irritating at times (I have certainly had occasions when I’ve been listening in and thinking “Just tell us the bloody score”) but they got that TMS was like hearing friends chatting away, and was a lot more than just the cricket. It’d be great if the BBC could find room for a new voice on TMS who’s not an ex-player – I agree that they give a different perspective to those who have spent their whole career in the game.

  8. James Morgan on

    I really like listening to Blowers. With Richie Benaud and others passing away, Blowers is one of the few commentators still going that reminds me of my youth. His voice is somehow reassuring. I’m quite happy to forgive the old error because somehow it adds to his persona.

    I don’t really listen to cricket commentary for the expertise (I’ve seen enough cricket to assess the game situation and make my own mind up about shot selection / field placings etc). It’s all opinion anyway. I listen to TMS because it’s like an old friend. I just like to hear them chatting away about a game I love. And Blowers is an important part of the group. He’s unique too, and it will be hard to replace him because of that imho.

    • “It’s all opinion anyway” – Precisely.
      I am totally in accord with your feelings on this.

      One thing the recently retired professionals do bring is a bit more insight into what goes on behind the scenes, but a commentary delivered entirely by ex players is a bit one note.

  9. "IronBalls" McGinty on

    I like Blowers. He brought something “quintessential” and slightly eccentric to the commentary team. Like a flower in the desert. Aggers has that homely, affable demeanour, but is Establishment through and through. Him giving Bayliss a sound thrashing with a feather duster in the post match interview reinforces, to me, that he should just stick to commentary. FICJAM and Lovejoy (Smith and Swann) are just utter gobshites, and bring, to me, an audible groan when they are on.
    Not everyone’s cup of tea, but, nowadays, who is?, but I think that Mark Nicholas would be a fine addition?

    • Even the gobshites have their place – though perhaps too large a one. Swann might be nowhere near as amusing on air as he believes himself, but he is technically astute.

      And I enjoy a bit of conflict. The persistent winding up of the Boil and the Alderman by Johnston and their irascible rejoinders was a regular source of enjoyment.

  10. I used to find him irritating but have mellowed. Has the great attribute that he remembers cricket and cricketers before 20 years ago, which few of the modern pundits do, hence the nonsense about how wonderful some of today’s players are.

  11. I’ve enjoyed his various cricket commentaries. over the years. I thought he had virtually retired in the last few years as he just popped up for the odd Test.

    I remember as a youngster listening to him on the radio during the night commentating on NZ v England in the late 80s – the series where Martyn Moxon opened and the highlights were on ITV.

    I think Henry’s Dad was at school with Ian Fleming, and Fleming used his name for Blofeld.

  12. SaxophoneAlex on

    I’ll miss Blowers on TMS. He comes across as a thoroughly lovable man who simply adores the game of cricket. He always says what the fielding positions are and usually does remember to tell us the score. I enjoy all the descriptions of portly gentlemen in striped blazers, distant cranes, low-flying pigeons and of course buses. He paints a picture very well. I can’t afford Sky, so it’s great to have TMS and Blowers describes the action very well and I don’t mind the odd mistake, he’s only human after all. I started listening to TMS back in the 1970s, so I can remember Arlott, Johnston, Mosey, Trueman, Bailey etc.
    Some of the younger commentators and summarisers joke around too much. Swann does come across as an arrogant so-and-so.

  13. Thank you for this thoughtful appreciation that zeros in on how some, perhaps many, like to ‘take’ their cricket.

    The man is a concoction. A carefully put together act. His popularity tells us more about the people who are entertained by him than ‘the man himself’. Of course, he is never off stage. Never glimpsed without his grease paint. How intriguing.

    There are now four ‘Death Rows’* along the concourse in front of the pavilion at Lord’s. Places seem to be allocated by length of service to the Death Row community, so, as with geological layers, the cricketing geologist will find the oldest rocks along the row immediately beneath the windows of the Long Room.

    Here can be found those who knew him at Cambridge – knew the man (or his older brother who apparently did not ‘speak like that’) before the saccharin was added and heat applied – for even the sweetener is artificial.

    Perhaps it all depends on how many lumps you take with your coffee.

    *Members who are over 75 years of age, and were elected more than 30 years ago, are entitled to apply for a reserved seat on the concourse …

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