A day splashed and splattered by rain. The Indians faced Zimbabwe in their World Cup encounter during the brief, rainless intervals. And in the second over, Krish Srikkanth edged Kevin Duers to the third man. The rather heavy form of Eddo Brandes ran around the corner to field, as the batsmen crossed over for the regulation single.
On that wettest of outfields, the big fast bowler stooped for the pick-up and slipped. He fell smack on his bottom as the ball squeezed through for four. Through the gasps of concern around the ground, Henry Blofeld’s cheerful voice over the microphone proclaimed, “Oh, what a jolly good fall!”
That was Blofeld all over. Cricket and the associated environment was for him a source of endless, infectious joy.
Yes, everything associated with the cricket on offer made it to his narration. He was prone to discuss earrings at Sharjah, even during the crunch moments of edge-of-the-seat Indo-Pak games. He was prone to talk about double-decker buses driving behind The Oval through the A202 into Harleyford Street, even as crucial sessions of Test matches were keenly contested. Sometimes, he also discussed the cricket.
But everything he said carried with it sweetness and light, the cheer of childlike glee.
He enjoyed being there, and by association so did most of the fans who tuned into his voice.
They say that he digressed more and more as he grew older. Especially after his double heart surgery in 1999, after which Blofeld was less frequent on air.
All that is not quite true. There were other signs of advancing age. The slight diminution of the spring in his step as he made his way up the stairs to the commentary box, the increasing number of trips to the bathroom at the rear of the press centre.
However, digression was his zest for life. The signature Blofeld element that took in the entire atmosphere. Life was not limited to cricket.
Years before joining Test Match Special he was already describing a sunbathing man on a deckchair on his balcony. He was intrigued by this reclining figure while covering the Yorkshire versus Surrey county game for Rediffusion at The Oval in 1966. It was left to Crawford White, his co-commentator, to alert him: “Be careful Henry, that’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” By then the figure had got up and was going through intriguing stretching motions. Her feminine assets were very much on view on the television screens. The next day both the lady in question and Blofeld found themselves clubbed together on the front pages.
Yet, perhaps thankfully, the malady was never cured. Pigeons and buses, the number of pink shirts and a fascination for earrings kept finding their ways into his microphone between the descriptions of overs, wickets and the odd run. Narrations included a detailed analysis of lunches, tea and especially cakes as soon as play resumed after the breaks. At Sharjah in the late 80s, the camera zoomed in on the Bollywood superstar Rekha. Blofeld, uninitiated to the world of Indian cinema, blurted out the most innocent and poignant appreciation of the lady in question: “A bird from paradise?”
And he enjoyed the game too. When Narendra Hirwani confused a young Carl Hooper as only a leg-spinner bowling a googly can, and the frantically essayed cut shot was played outside the line of the ball, Blofeld’s summary was, “Ah ha, ha, ha, ha!” Not the most technical of analyses, but one that captured the essence of the delights of the game.
It was in the late 1980s that Blofeld was heard on the microphone, “When you reach my age, the results don’t really matter anymore. It is the quality of the game that makes it enjoyable.”
His voice reflected just that. The cricketing world is blessed that ‘after reaching that age’ Blofeld was able to delight the listeners for close to another three decades.
More than just cricket
Seldom has a commentator enjoyed such universal popularity. Blofeld’s mellow voice, with its Etonian diction and style and frequently interspersed ‘My dear old thing’, is well known around the cricketing world. His quaint idiosyncrasies and perpetual delight at describing scenes at the stadium and beyond with little or no connection to the game bestowed on him the legendary status.
It was in his honour that the spectators of the infamous Sydney Hill stuck a banner to the pylon that announced: “THE BESPECTACLED HENRY BLOFLY STAND.” And the following day, they invited him over with the words, “Come on over Henry and have a pint.” When Blofeld made his way to the area, with a I Zingari tie around his neck, a cheer broke out that would have drowned any celebration of a wicket or a six.
During that same 1978-79 tour, there were other signs that appeared around the Australian grounds as well. One in particular underlined the enormous amount of respect that Henry Blofeld commanded Down Under: “OUR HENRY CAN EVEN OUTDRINK KEITH MILLER.” Even today, Blofeld remains surprised that Miller never sued for libel.
And then there were the quirky ones, which seemed to characterise Blofeld even better. “OUR HENRY IS TO CRICKET WHAT TONY GREIG IS TO LIMBO DANCING” said one.
His was a voice that to the Australian ears seemed to go with a bowler hat, even if an honorary cork dangled from the brim.
But, all this is not to say that Blofeld steered clear of technical details. There was fair amount of expertise in that domain as well. Indeed, Blofeld was a serious cricketer in his younger days and but for a nearly fatal accident was reasonably on course to set cricket grounds on fire.
It was just before his entrance for Cambridge King’s College that Blofeld, on his way to cricket training, was hit by a bus carrying a load of French Women’s Institute ladies around Eton. It was a near fatal accident. Blofeld’s skull was broken, a cheekbone squashed flat, and his jaw suffered multiple fractures. He regained consciousness after 28 days and was just able to complete the last few days at Eton. He was never the same cricketer.
Yet, even after the mishap, he played 17 First-Class matches. And a few years later, he came tantalisingly close to appearing for England in a Test match.
That happened when half the England side became sick during the Bombay Test of 1962-63, a tour Blofeld was covering as a journalist.
Colin Cowdrey and Peter Parfitt had been sent for as reinforcements, but would not arrive in time for the Test. The day before the match, David Clark, the England manager, asked Blofeld to stay back at the end of the press conference. Soon, he was explaining to the curious correspondent that only 10 players were fit, and unless one of the others made a remarkable recovery, someone from outside the party needed to be included in the team. “You and I are the last two to have played First-Class cricket, and you’re a great many years younger than me. So if it comes to it, you will be the man. Try to go to bed before midnight.”
Blofeld was thunderstruck but somehow managed to respond, “I don’t care if Cowdrey and Parfitt are flying out as replacements. If I make 50 or above in either innings, I’m damned if I’ll stand down for Calcutta.” Eventually, Mickey Stewart crawled out of the hospital bed to make up the eleven and crawled back after tea. England drew the match in spite of playing just three fit specialist batsmen.
It was in the summer of 1972 that Mike Tuke-Hastings, the cricket producer of BBC, asked him to cover a county match at Chelmsford. And after two more such trial runs, he was asked to commentate on two of the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) against Australia at Lord’s and Edgbaston. It was baptism by fire. He spoke alongside John Arlott and Brian Johnston, with Jack Fingleton providing the expert opinions, and Jim Swanton doing the summing up at the end of the day.
It was two seasons later, in 1974, that Blofeld finally featured in a TMS box. It was the first Test against India at Old Trafford and once again the company was exalted. He shared the box with Arlott, Johnston and Christopher Martin-Jenkins. Trevor Bailey was the summariser along with the Maharajah of Baroda, Jim Swanton came in at the end of the day to wind things up.
Thus started the long career with TMS, broken only by a stint for BskyB from 1991 to 1994.
However, a life that centred around the game was much more than that of a mere commentator.
Blofeld played at grounds from Fenners to Lord’s to the Caribbean pitches. He even graced the curious wickets of South America during periods when ‘the current national pastime was kidnapping ambassadors’. He stood amidst riots in Pakistan, and drove a Rolls-Royce from Calais to Bombay. He was called by the British High Commissioner in India as a key witness in a diplomatic drama. He also spent nights in the car of an Australian police detective accompanying the force to the dens of drug dealers.
It has been a life lived to the fullest.
Blofeld also idolises Noel Coward and is a compulsive collector of first editions of PG Wodehouse.
Blofeld has also written several books which trace his life in the commentary box and thereby cover the lengthy period of his association with the game. His ‘An Evening With Blowers’ is one of the most popular shows around the country. Perhaps, now with the commentating career over, there will be more offerings along these lines.
Walking along the illustrious footsteps of John Arlott, Blofeld is also a wine connoisseur and has his own label ‘Côtes du Rhône’. He promotes it during his chat shows as ‘Blower’s Rhone’. Yes, he follows Arlott, but there is a difference.
The compulsive entertainer has finally ended his journey in the commentary box, a journey full of vitality and joie de vivre. That endearing voice, with the infectious sense of humour and curious idiosyncrasies, will not be heard anymore.
But it was jolly good while it lasted. And knowing the man, he will continue to enjoy himself and bring light and cheer to the world away from the box.