Cricket: When prattle is better than play

Henry Blofeld on the rainy-day appeal of radio's Test Match Special
For years, it has been the habit of Test Match Special to go on talking about anything and everything when rain or bad light prevents any cricket, so much so that it has become one of the traditions of the programme.

For new and nervous commentators, the prospect of trying to fill in can prove daunting, especially when sitting behind you in the back of the box was that champion of all filler- inners, Brian Johnston.

He did it so easily, it was impossible not to feel that one was laboured and contrived in comparison.

Having said that, the programme's considerable post-bag contains a fair number of letters saying how much listeners love the idle chatter and some go so far as to say how much better it is than when the cricket is being played. Which may mean the cricket isn't done very well!

Like most things in the programme, the chatter during rainbreaks, far from being part of a grand design, was something which just happened. The commentary box then acquired a taste for it, which mercifully was picked up by many of the listeners.

For many years when rain stopped play, the commentators used to go through the details of the day so far before handing listeners back to the studio. They would not then be returned to the ground until play was just about to restart.

This sequence ended during the Lord's Test against the West Indies in 1976. Very light rain was falling which looked as if it would stop at any moment and there did not seem any point in going back to the studio for they were bound to hand listeners back again to Lord's in a matter of moments.

As it happened, the light rain obstinately refused to stop and those around the microphones kept prattling on to general enjoyment. This led, the next morning, to one of the great pieces of name-dropping in the history of even TMS. Johnston came into the box and cheerfully announced: "My friends at the Palace told me that the Duke of Edinburgh rather enjoyed himself listening to us during the rain." So one could almost say that the prattling continued by royal command.

One commentator who took a little bit of convincing of the virtue of carrying on during breaks for rain was John Arlott. When it rained, he was always quick to hand over the microphone to a colleague and go and sit in the back of the box.

Then, as the chatter progressed, a subject would come up which would interest him and it would not be long before he was itching to get back to the mike.

A great many of the things talked about were, to say the least, curious, but in general they have fitted in with the central idea that TMS is a group of friends who go to the cricket to enjoy themselves and the audience are simply eavesdropping.

There was one splendid occasion during rain when Johnston and Trevor Bailey were talking about mothers who had helped teach their sons to play cricket. They spoke about Penny Cowdrey, who had bowled to Chris and Graham. Johnners then wondered if Mrs Chappell had ever bowled to Ian Greg and said: "Alan McGilvray will know the answer to that."

He turned round and McGilvray was fast asleep in the back of the box. Brian covered this up by saying: "Oh, Alan has just slipped out of the box."

But McGilvray had heard his name mentioned and suddenly sat bolt upright and said in a very loud voice: "What, what? Did someone call me?" Which was followed by gales of general laughter.

Looking around Lord's over the last two days, I'm sure that the conversations different groups of spectators were having while there was no play will have been no more curious, mad, improbable or unlikely than many of the things which have been said on air when rain has stopped play.