WHEN I first heard of Brian Johnston's death I was dazed and for a minute or two unable to believe it. I have little doubt that millions of others, most of whom will never even have met him, will have felt the same way, sure that they had lost a friend. 'Johnners' was an ageless figure. At 81, his humour, his enthusiasm and his irrepressible sense of fun were as strong and infectious as ever they had been.
At that first moment a kaleidoscope of thoughts and recollections flashed through my mind. Many of them were details which those of us lucky enough to have shared a commentary box with him had taken for granted.
Johnners was always one of the first to arrive before the start of a day's cricket. The jaunty stride up the steps, the cheerful grin, the joyful greeting, the carefully polished brown-and-white leather shoes he always wore during a Test match, and, almost inevitably, the first pun of the day. There was always a larger pile of letters for Johnners than anyone else and it was typical of the man that most of them - the sensible ones at any rate - received a handwritten reply. He had a great respect for his listeners.
Throughout the day, people would pop in and out of the box and each would receive an inimitable greeting. Outside at lunchtime or when he was not on the air people loved to come up and talk to him and, however boring he may have found it, he was inevitably courteous and charming. Brian Johnston brought to cricket commentary and the commentary box an all-pervading sense of fun. He described Test Match Special as the outpourings of a group of friends who had come along to watch the cricket and enjoy themselves.
He was as quick to spot anything funny off the field as he was on it. No one was immune from his leg- pulling and yet it was always done with high good humour and never with cruelty. I am sure he will be remembered by some as much for the never-ending stream of chocolate cakes that followed him around during an English summer as for his descriptions of play. The sender of each cake received copious thanks, the cake itself was described in detail and of course each one he received was the 'best'.
The flow of humour in the TMS box emanated from 'BJ' as he was known on the commentator's roster. It was at The Oval in 1976 when England batsmen were struggling against the West Indian fast bowlers that he told the listening cricket world: 'The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey.' Initially, it must have made rather surprising listening, but, sure enough, Michael Holding was running in to bowl to Peter Willey.
He had the knack of being able to chide newcomers in a way that taught lessons and never caused ill- feelings. In one of my first Test matches as a commentator there was a hold-up for rain soon after lunch. After a while Johnston brought me into a general conversation. I am afraid I seized the opportunity and banged on for about four or five minutes without letting anyone else get a word in. Eventually, I came to the end and looked round to my left for some support.
To my horror I saw that the box was completely empty and there was a large sheet of paper by the next microphone which said on it, 'Keep going until 6.30 and then hand back to the studio.' Of course, with that all my thoughts disappeared and after I had struggled on for a moment or two the others, led by Johnston, came bursting back into the box in fits of giggles and I was saved. But I had been taught not to ignore my colleagues.
It seems extraordinary that such a man could have any enemies, but there were a few who were irritated by his schoolboy jokes and his chocolate cakes and who felt that he did not treat the cricket seriously enough. I believe, though, that the great thing Johnners did was to teach all of us not to take the cricket or ourselves too seriously: after all, it was only a game.
Brian Johnston may not have been able to paint the verbal pictures of John Arlott but in his different and no less inimitable way he also won innumerable friends for cricket. His seat in the commentary box will be filled, but in my view it will never be quite the same again.
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