A talent for the great game

Stephen Fay finds the man behind Blofeld is finally revealed

Since he earns a living as a freelance journalist, Henry Blofeld has written a stream of books about cricket matches he has seen, but none is like the autobiography which has just been published.

Since he earns a living as a freelance journalist, Henry Blofeld has written a stream of books about cricket matches he has seen, but none is like the autobiography which has just been published.

Blofeld, a colleague on this newspaper and a broadcaster, was a wonderfully talented schoolboy cricketer. In his penultimate year at Eton he scored a hundred for the Public Schools against the Combined Services at Lord's, which was admired by Don Bradman. On his debut that summer for Norfolk, his native county, he scored 76 not out. Expectations were very high.

He was captain of Eton in 1957, his last year at school, and one of his privileges allowed him to ride his bicycle to net practice. Henry talked a lot even then, and when he saw a friend he kept on talking to him over his shoulder after he had passed him by, failing to notice a bus carrying French Womens' Institute members on a tour of Eton.

"I believe it was going faster than it might have been and I crashed straight into the front wheel and was thrown into the bus and then back on to the road by which time I was clearly going to be late for my net, and maybe for all others scheduled for me in the future... My skull had been broken much of the way round. A cheekbone had been squashed flat, my jaw was somewhat the worse for wear, a collarbone had taken quite a hammering... A good deal of sewing had gone on and I remained unconscious for quite a while," he writes.

His mother had been in Chartres Cathedral on the same afternoon, and on an impulse she stopped at a shrine and lit a candle, something she had never done before. "It was all very French," writes Henry, who is incapable of throwing away a line.

Whether it was divine intervention or a strong young body is undecided, but he recovered quickly and was able to return to Eton before the end of the summer term. He made his comeback in a house match.

"I could defend adequately, but when the ball was dropped short and I wanted to hook, which was one of my strokes, I was completely unable to tell my feet to move. I knew what I wanted to do but my feet stayed put... I was no longer half the cricketer I had once been." He still managed to score a first-class century at Lord's - 138 for Cambridge University against Middlesex - but his contemporaries had hoped for greater things.

So had he; you feel the disappointment can still rankle. He tried merchant banking, but was hopeless at it, and became an itinerant sports reporter, following Test cricket all over the world, and enjoying himself most when he was able to describe it on the radio.

He is an English "good old boy" who loves his cricket and his claret, just like John Arlott, whom he revered. The style is unmistakable and inimitable, inspired, perhaps by PG Wodehouse, his favourite author. It leaves him vulnerable to parody, which can come close to ridicule. But he knows cricket, and his analysis is more vivid and less inhibited than that of many former Test cricketers.

In 1999, he had a heart by-pass operation, during which his heart appears to have had an attack. "My blood pressure hereabouts had been lingering at 59 over 43, which in cricketing terms is a bit like finding you and your partner in the crease at the bowler's end and cover point's throw on the way to the wicket-keeper," he writes.

That remark perfectly captures his insouciance, but the experience persuaded him to write more freely. Without ever feeling terribly sorry for himself, Henry admits his imperfections as a family man and his insecurities as a journalist. The addition of a few warts reveals a rounder, clearer picture of a good colleague and a fine broadcaster. He has written a most endearing book.

Henry Blofeld: A Thirst For Life; Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99.