Cricket: Old pals passing the very best time of day

Henry Blofeld, a member of the Test Match Special team since 1974, looks back over the first 40 years
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The Independent Online
Test Match Special was given its official title for the first time for the series against the West Indies in 1957. Forty years ago, on 30 May, John Arlott, Rex Alston, Kenneth Ablack, Jim Swanton, Gerry Gomez and Bill Bowes came to the microphones at Edgbaston to describe one of the most remarkable of Test matches.

"Those two pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine" had spun their way with devastating effect through England's batting in 1950. In the first innings at Edgbaston now, Ramadhin took 7 for 49.

After he had picked up two more early in the second innings, the ghost of Ramadhin was finally laid by Peter May and Colin Cowdrey in a record stand of 411 for the fourth wicket. By the time the match ended the West Indies, who had led by 288 on the first innings, were 72 for 7 and close to an extraordinary defeat.

Tomorrow morning, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Jonathan Agnew, Fred Trueman, Trevor Bailey, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, the ubiquitous Bill Frindall and your correspondent will foregather in the commentary box at Edgbaston to describe what one hopes will be a Test match comparable to that first.

Test Match Special is a highly personal programme, both for the participants and for the listeners. It is a group of friends, as Brian Johnston used to say, who have come along to enjoy the cricket and the occasion and to talk about it.

It may seem almost a contradiction for me to say that my first appearance as a commentator with TMS, at Old Trafford for the first Test against India in June 1974, was the most frightening experience of my life.

To start with, I simply could not believe that I was about to share a commentary box with John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Jim Swanton and Trevor Bailey. We were joined too by the ever cheerful Maharaja of Baroda as a comments man, but his presence at the start did little to soothe my nerves.

Somehow, I survived what began as an ordeal and very quickly turned into sheer, unadulterated bliss. I remember that Test match probably better than any other I have commentated on, including the Ian Botham, Bob Willis match against Australia at Headingley in 1981 when, on air, I took the last wicket of the match.

First of all at Old Trafford, there was the inimitable Johnners who, quite unintentionally, left me on the second or third day in a somewhat tricky situation where I felt that my whole career as a commentator was on the line.

Tony Greig was bowling probably to Sunny Gavaskar, and Johnners was at the microphone. "And it's Tony Greig with his gangling run of his who bowls now to Gavaskar. He plays forward and it's picked up by Hendrick at mid-on.

"Now, as Greig walks back to his mark, he polishes the ball on his right thigh. He turns, runs in again, hair flopping, and bowls to Gavaskar. He comes forward and again it's Hendrick who fields. And this time, as he walks back, Greig, to ring the changes, polishes his left ball."

A moment's stunned silence followed by gales of scantily suppressed laughter and much snorting. Johnners was as bad as anyone and all he could do was hand over to me. I shall never know how I managed to get through the next over with the hysterics going on all around me.

I was not at all sure how I was going to get on in the rain sessions when we continue to chatter. Johnners was presiding over one such on the second day and decided to bring me in. By then, I had thought of one or two things to have a go at and off I went.

For about eight or nine minutes I banged on all by myself. When I had finished, I turned to my right feeling rather pleased with myself and hoping someone else would lend a hand.

To my horror, all the seats were empty and there was a piece of paper on the table on which Johnners had written: "Keep going until 6.30 and don't forget to hand back to the studio." Which was the perfect way of saying: 'Don't forget, you're playing a team game'.

Then, there was John Arlott's choice of adjectives. The iron balcony on the first floor of the pavilion bulged out half-way down. The Master said: "And then there's the balcony on the first floor of the pavilion with its portly iron railing." Portly was brilliant and said it all.

There was the fun and laughter too. An early initiation into the rites of chocolate cakes, a chance to appreciate Arlott's love of claret and Trevor Bailey's devastating one-liners: "An ordinary county seamer" or "Can't play".

It was the start of something which for me has simply grown better and better and more and more fun over the years. And long may the BBC continue to find a home for us on the ever more crowded airwaves.

And finally, why the red buses, the pigeons and the aeroplanes? In 1969 in Broadcasting House, Henry Riddell, the deputy head of Outside Broadcast, told me: "It is your job to describe the picture. You must concentrate on the centre, which is the cricket, but make sure the picture is complete and don't forget the frame."

And they're all part of a day at the cricket too.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF 'TEST MATCH SPECIAL'

1957 Edgbaston saw the birth of Test Match Special on BBC Radio. For the first time ball-by-ball coverage was heard. Commentary by Rex Alston, accompanied by the slogan: "Don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all." Remarkable Test match between England and West Indies, involving fourth-wicket partnership of 411 by Peter May and Colin Cowdrey.

1966 Peter Baxter joins the TMS team as an assistant.

1966 Bill Frindall (The Bearded Wonder) takes charge of the scorebook.

1967 Trevor Bailey (The Boil) joins the TMS team.

1970 TMS's most-loved personality, Brian Johnston (Jonners), moves from BBC Television to BBC Radio commentary.

1973 Peter Baxter's first summer in full charge of the show.

1974 TMS debuts for Henry Blofeld (Blowers), Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Fred Trueman in the commentary box.

1988 BBC threatens to ditch ball-by-ball commentary, but reconsider after public out-cry.

1991 Johnathan Agnew (Aggers) becomes TMS's latest recruit.

1992 TMS moves to BBC Radio 5 for the morning sessions and stays on BBC Radio 3 in the afternoons.

1994 TMS moves to BBC Radio 4. Uninterrupted but for shipping forecasts at 13.55 and 17.50.

1994 The death of Brian Johnston aged 81.

1996 Listeners increase by several million as broadcasts are carried to South Asia by the BBC World Service.

1997 (Thursday 5 June) TMS celebrates its 40th birthday.

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