Peter Baxter: Right off the middle of the mic

As producer of 'Test Match Special' for the last 34 years, Peter Baxter is an institution within an institution. With the programme approaching its half-century, he talks to Chris Arnot celebrates a national institution
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Some broadcasters transcend their specialities to become national institutions. John Arlott was one, Brian Johnston another. All the more remarkable since, in both cases, their speciality was cricket, a sport that baffles and bores as many listeners as it entrances. Arlott, a lover of poetry and fine wines, managed to elevate his commentary almost to an art form. And "Johnners" was the orchestrator of many a jolly jape between balls that helped to make Test Match Special what it is today - either a comfortingly reassuring part of an English summer or an intruder that boots Radio 4 listeners out of their cosy nest on long wave.

Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's current cricket correspondent, confirmed himself as Johnston's natural successor as long ago as 1991. His suggestion that Botham "just didn't quite get his leg over" when he failed to hurdle his stumps and was out hit wicket reduced the venerable broadcaster - and himself - to helpless mirth. Nothing but giggles and wheezes issued through the airways for what seemed like an eternity to producer Peter Baxter. It is almost certainly the most celebrated case of "corpsing" in the annals of the BBC and is still occasionally requested by guests on Desert Island Discs.

"I've heard it so many times since and it still makes me laugh," Baxter admits. "But at the time I was horrified. So was Brian when he finally stopped wheezing. We both left The Oval that night thinking 'God, that was awful'. Even Aggers felt he'd gone too far." But Agnew survived to become something of an institution himself. "He's in reasonable contention for that position," Baxter ponders, "insofar as he's been asked to do things on the telly. But this is a fickle business, sometimes dependent on external factors. It will only take some event, like the forthcoming Ashes series, and he'll be in huge demand again."

Ah yes, the Ashes. Was it only last summer that even some of those indignant long-wave Radio 4 listeners became intrigued by England's head-to-head and ultimate triumph over Australia? Since then a squad hit by injuries has failed to win any of the three subsequent Test series and has been routed by Sri Lanka's one-day side. Meanwhile, the football World Cup has dominated terrestrial television channels devoid of live cricket.

Confident in its ability to keep its end up as the BBC's last link with our national summer game, TMS bats on serenely towards next season's half-century. With a new series gets under way against Pakistan, only this winter's encounter Down Under stands between the programme and its 50th anniversary.

It was May 1957, with England taking on the West Indies at Edgbaston, that ball-by-ball commentary began on the old Third Programme. For 34 of those intervening years, Baxter has been the man responsible for the peculiarly English blend of voices. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, Henry Blofeld [Eton and Cambridge] would do spells at the microphone alongside F S Trueman [Maltby Hall Secondary]. It was Gent and Player side by side - a character who appeared to have modelled his voice and demeanour on a character from P G Wodehouse undercut by the flat vowels of a great fast bowler from South Yorkshire.

"When Henry started, he was very focused on the 22 yards in the middle," Baxter recalls. "I told him that he could afford to put some colour into his commentary." So you, Peter Baxter, are responsible for all that Blofeld burbling about buses passing by and pigeons roosting in the outfield?

"A lot of people have accused me of that," he concedes with his affable grin. "But when Blowers misses a Test, our emails are jammed with listeners demanding 'Where is he?'. He polarises opinion, as Fred used to do." In Trueman's case, it was his increasing inability to "understand what's going off out there" that drove some listeners to ask: "In that case, what on earth is he doing in the commentary box?" So is it true that Baxter was the one who had to sack him?

"No," he says. "I couldn't have done that. We'd been colleagues for 25 years and, in this game, you spend a lot of time together, having dinner in hotels at home and abroad. I had started to tell Fred that we had to modernise and bring in new people to reflect the game as it is now. But it was my head of department, Bob Shennan [now head of Radio Five Live], who wielded the axe. For all his grumbling, mind you, Fred was worth his weight in gold during interruptions for rain."

His fund of anecdotes was given another airing ethis when news came through earlier this month that Trueman had died of lung cancer. The TMS team was at Headingley for an otherwise meaningless one-day international against a Sri Lankan side that had already won the series. Much of the country was focused on the England football team's imminent quarter-final against Portugal, but Baxter felt obliged to go into overdrive when the news came through shortly before the lunch interval.

"We scrapped our plans for a discussion on the England captaincy and focused on Fred instead," he says. "Luckily, I carry around a digital editing machine and there were some clips of him talking on that, as well as Arlott describing his 300th Test wicket. I knew that Boycott was doing telly and my PA managed to find Ray Illingworth somewhere else in the ground as well as get Everton Weeks [the veteran West Indian batsman] on the phone. Meanwhile, I was writing a script for Aggers and fielding calls from the Radio 4 newsroom."

Not for the first time, then, the serene flow of commentary masked frantic activity at the back of the box. No wonder Baxter, 59, is contemplating his declaration at the end of the fourth and final Test against the West Indies next summer. "These days I appreciate coming home more and more," he admits. Home is an ivy-covered former hunting stable, just down the road from an idyllic cricket ground in rural Buckinghamshire. Between Test matches, he spends much of his time here writing a book timed for next year's 50th anniversary. There is no shortage of anecdotes to draw on.

How could he forget a purple-faced Arlott complaining about the steep steps to the old Lord's commentary box before opening his briefcase to reveal three bottles of vintage claret? Or Johnston corpsing four times before he could record an interview to mark his 70th birthday? Or Trueman filling the cramped Headingley box with so much pipe smoke that the field of play was barely visible?

Test Match Special will continue after Baxter's retirement. "Mark Damazer [head of Radio 4] made that clear the other day," he says. "Luckily, he's a cricket fan." And one who recognises the value of a national institution.