Book review: Not a single bus in sight

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The Independent Online
Listeners to the radio institution called Test Match Special will know Henry Blofeld as the man with a bus obsession. He can rarely permit one to pass a cricket ground without describing its progress in some detail and if there has ben a shortage of such vehicles for an hour or so you can be sure that three will probably come along at once.

This can be mildly disconcerting but it has become an essential part of the show and the Blofeld persona. It also tends to conceal the trenchant, passionate views which Blofeld holds on the game itself, though readers of this newspaper will be well versed with them. They are at large in his latest offering, Cakes and Bails - Henry Blofeld's Cricket Year (Simon and Schuster, pounds 16.99) in which nary a green double-decker 72 trundling along the Radcliffe Road is mentioned.

The main title, encapsulating a woeful pun but otherwise meaningless, might profitably have been dumped at the working stage; the sub-title says it all. For 12 months, from September 1997, Blofeld records his life in cricket, the games he has seen, the press boxes and media centres in which he has worked, the hotels in which he has stayed.

This is all enchanting enough because the year contained some vintage stuff and Blofeld, despite his flights of fancy on the radio, is an astute chronicler of playing events. Here, he deftly recaptures the compelling Sunday spat between Michael Atherton and Allan Donald at Trent Bridge when the South African bowled like the wind and the English opener battened down the hatches and refused to let him pass. Blofeld also writes vividly of Mark Ramprakash's maiden Test century in the Caribbean last spring.

But this diary stuff is merely the framework for Blofeld to put forward his opinions. He is entitled to them because few people can have seen as much big cricket as Blofeld these past 30 years and he is unafraid to espouse them. For some reason, he remains a proponent, over several pages, of uncovered pitches.

He thinks, with some justification, that this will not only improve English batting technique but also that of bowlers who will be quickly found out if they are taking, say 5 for 87 on a surface which should be more conducive to 6 for 25. But for all his advocacy, Blofeld must know he is whistling in the wind. Covered pitches are here to stay.

In various forms and in no particular order he rails against the handling of Atherton's continuation in the England captain's job, the power of television (and not least Mark Mascarenhas, the Indian mogul who founded WorldTel, with whom he seems to have had a terminal falling-out) and above all Geoffrey Boycott. By a mixture of whimsical description of odd behaviour and plain condemnation of poor manners Boycott's personality is dismantled. It will not make pleasant reading for those who assume Boycott to be, as Blofeld puts it, the Greatest Living Yorkshireman.

The format, though it covers the author's year, is not chronological and many points are repeated. But it is bang up to date and manages to squeeze in a mention of Sri Lanka's Test win at The Oval. Blofeld obviously knows what he is talking about, though he will curse himself and his editors for allowing Lance Gibbs to be billed as the only spinner to have taken 300 Test wickets since Shane Warne is, famously, the other.

His style is lucid, light and mischievous one moment, vituperative the next. It could perhaps be a book on any year in cricket but it comes from someone who has an important attribute: he loves the game.