Champagne moment for cricket fans as Johnners' bats, caps and ties go on sale

Sarah Jane Checkland previews the auction of revered commentator Brian Johnston's memorabilia
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THE most popular cricket fixture of the year could be the auction of the late Brian Johnston's memorabilia in London on 11 May. Fans of the sport's most loved Radio 4 commentator are sure to compete avidly for the relics of their hero, who died in January 1994.

Famous admirers, who include the Prime Minister, will bowl in secret, leaving their bids with the auctioneer. And they will be spoilt for choice. The 100-lot sale includes a host of books, scoresheets, bats and caps, not to mention 250 ties.

What Imelda Marcos was to shoes, "Johnners", it transpires, was to neckties - for the simple reason that he was presented with them wherever he went.

Mrs Pauline Johnston has no qualms about selling her husband's treasures. "Brian was a person who never put any score by personal possessions," she says. "If things ever had any value he would say `Sell them!'"

Furthermore, she is glad to recover the space they took up: "We couldn't even shut the cupboard door for all those ties." She considered sewing some of them into a skirt, but luckily for collectors decided to sell: "I just couldn't be bothered to do it."

Choice examples include his Primary Club tie (estimate pounds 200), which Johnston used to exhort listeners to wear on the first Saturday of Lord's Test matches, or else be fined. Also for sale is his Eton Rambler tie, marking his pedigree as an Old Etonian, and his XL Club tie - for players aged over 40.

But his MCC tie is expected to fetch the most. "We have mounted it with a nice plaque," says Richard Madley, sports specialist at Phillips, whose official estimate is pounds 100-pounds 150. But, he says, "it wouldn't surprise me if it makes pounds 500 and set the record for a tie".

The Johnston memorabilia will be part of an all-day auction which Phillips plans to run on the lines of a cricket match. Spectators will first be treated to the famous recording in which Johnston and fellow- commentator Jonathan Agnew collapsed into giggles at the sight of Ian Botham being "unable to get his leg over".

The "match" will then start off with the Johnston consignment, breaking for cucumber sandwiches and drinks. Next will come a section devoted to Johnston's other great love: raising funds for less privileged cricketers. Last year his widow helped to set up the Brian Johnston Memorial Trust to follow on this work. "The idea is to improve the England side," Mrs Johnston says with a wry laugh.

The sale also includes an early cricket ball with a bell inside, for the benefit of blind cricketers. This will be sold for the blind players of today.

Mrs Johnston has been canvassing famous personalities to donate items, and the offerings include a miniature bat signed by Ian Botham at pounds 30, as well as Geoff Boycott's signed panama hat.

In mid-afternoon the auction will break for tea and chocolate cake - in honour of Mr Johnston's often broadcast penchant for the latter. The final section will be some 400 rare items sent in by the public, including a signed WG Grace photograph.

Cricket memorabilia have been enjoying a boom of late, the biggest premium being on anything that evokes England's glory days before the First World War. Last year a complete run of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack (from its beginning in 1864) sold for an astonishing pounds 34,000. "When Tim Rice bought a set in the late Seventies for pounds 7,000 people thought, `Gosh, he's crazy'," Mr Madley says. Then, the prices leapt progressively to pounds 12,000, pounds 15,000 and pounds 34,000. The forthcoming sale includes a further set - cautiously estimated at pounds 25,000-pounds 28,000.