It’s a few weeks since it happened now, so I’ve calmed down a bit, but I’d maintain it was one of the highlights of my life.
From around the age of eight I’ve listened to Test Match Special, developing the insiders’ knack of decoding the narrative, not just the cricketing jargon but the references to each others’ nick-names and foibles, mostly a product of public-school juvenility that seemed quaint and hilarious.
I especially adored John Arlott. Firstly I was fascinated by his voice, a croaky Hampshire drawl dredged from the bottom of the throat, and slightly breathless as if he was commentating while running up stairs. He seemed more serious than the others, often saying things like “and the ball’s picked up by John Edrich, just inside the shadow cast by the House of Commons,” as if he was aware the game must always be kept in its proper perspective. As I got older I realised he followed those ethics with some courage, as an implacable opponent of apartheid, which placed him in a small minority within the English cricketing establishment. .
Arlott was also magnificent on television, because he couldn’t see the point in any unnecessary words. When he was commentating on Sunday League cricket the sound would often stop altogether for ages, as if he was thinking “What’s the point in telling you where he’s hit it, you can SEE that can’t you?” Once I remember the batsman was clean bowled, but still there was nothing, not even an “oo.” The batsman left the field, the new batsman took his place, still there was nothing and I yelled “MUM – THE TELLY’S BUST,” while giving it a nineteen-seventies telly-whack on the side. Then, just as the bowler was about to bowl the next ball Arlott muttered quietly “And he’s bowled him.”
By some quirk of commissioning Arlott was booked to do a television series which involved him in conversation with intellectual England captain Mike Brearley, while sipping wine in front of stacks of musty second-hand books. It was around the time the SDP had been set up by David Owen, and Brearley was a supporter, so one week Brearley asked Arlott whether, in a society in which class structures had been undermined etc. etc. we had to accept new forms of shifting something or other, and wasn’t the SDP a valiant attempt at responding to this and creating that. And after about three doleful minutes of this Arlott poured a glass of wine, sniffed it in no hurry, sipped it, said “Aah, Australian red 1965 – very good wine for politics,” and that was the end of his answer.
For most of my life as a cricket fanatic, Test Match Special was the only port of call for vital Test match information. In my first job, as a messenger delivering documents around London in the summer of ’76, I’d carry parcels in one hand as the other clasped a portable radio to my ear to bring me the commentary, and in the blinding sun I’d think “And this is WORK – woo hoo.”
There can’t be a single year since 1968 that I couldn’t identify through memories of Test Match Special; a group of us in the squats, foregoing the usual nocturnal debauchery to sit entranced as England beat Australia by three runs; hearing Caddick take four wickets in an over to bowl out the West Indies for 54, on the way to my partner’s scan while pregnant with our daughter; desperately scrabbling for odd moments of commentary in between takes, as we filmed my programme about Oliver Cromwell, while Australia survived with nine wickets down for a draw at Old Trafford. So a few weeks ago my stomach went into a pulsating knot of excitement and anxiety, because I’d just been asked to go to Edgbaston the next day to be the lunchtime guest on Test Match Special.
I travelled up with my son, and we were shown into the commentary box, the actual box with the perfect view from where the sounds are made, and there they all were. I’d met Henry Blofeld once before but even so it seems remarkable, when you hear him close up, that he really speaks like that. A bit of me expected him to step away from the micropohone at the end of his stint and go “Thank fuck it’s lunch, I’m fucking knackered talking like that all bleeding morning.”
I tried to adopt a certain poise, that wouldn’t betray the volcanic anxiety of being half an hour from the interview. Then it started to rain, and the covers were brought on, and a few seconds later Jonathon Agnew turned to me and said “They’re taking an early lunch so we might as well do the interview now.” Aaaaagh. I wanted to say “You can’t just bring a momentous occasion like this forward by half an hour, that’s as if Mission Control at Houston had said ‘We might as well go half an hour early as we’re ready’ to the astronauts on Apollo 11.”
So I was in the chair, with Bill Frindall (the veteran resident scorer, famous for his autistic knowledge of statistics) still furiously writing figures on a sheet. Was he scoring the rain? Or maybe he was marking my interview. And in twenty years time, when someone in the commentary box vaguely remembers me being on, Bill will interrupt “He was the lunchtime guest at Edgbaston in 2008, performing two impressions and receiving 3.7 laughs off the crew.”
“Well my goodness,” said Agnew near the start of the interview, “It says on my sheet of paper here you were a punk?! A punk eh?” Only on Test Match Special would anyone still be shocked by a musical trend that ended thirty years ago. There’s almost nothing, you realise, that isn’t too modern for these people. If they were interviewing a classical violinist they’d say “Oo my word, classical eh? Well it goes to show cricket can appeal to the young and trendy, though we’re all rather attached to fugues and madrigals in here, aren’t we Henry?”
But we chatted for half an hour, about the Kent team of my youth and the impertinence of selling the TV rights to Sky and comics who liked cricket but mostly I had to restrain myself from yelling “Fuck me, I’m on Test Match fucking Special.”
And then my son and I spent the rest of the day hovering around the sort of room where, at one point, in my vision were five England captains at once, including David Gower, who flitted in and out with a sardonic smile, as if he’s perpetually thinking “I can’t believe I’ve got away wth pursuing this ridiculous game instead of dealing with the real world for so long.”
But none were as entertaining as the magnificent Geoffrey Boycott, who walked straight up to my son and with crisp authority said “And what do you do? Do you bat or bowl?” Because it can’t occur to Geoffrey there’s any category of human being that doesn’t do either. If you stuck him in the middle of Ecuador he’d go straight up to an old woman on a donkey and say “And what do you do? Do you bat or bowl?”
My son threw him a bit by saying “I’m a wicket-keeper,” so Geoffrey replied in an instant “Well you want to get out there now because England’s wicket-keeper’s RUBBISH.” And we were into a real live sketch, perfectly written and wonderfully acted, involving what would happen when Boycott met an eleven-year-old boy. I wrote down the perfect lean dialogue as it happened and I’ve been repeating it in my live show.
Alec Stewart, on the other hand, is disconcertingly engaging and generous, to the extent that at one point he said to me the ridiculous words “You’d know that, as a batsman.” As if I should say, “That’s right Alec, because we’re both alike aren’t we, in that we’re batsmen. Sure, not all batsman are identical, so for example you’re style was to score more runs for England than anyone in history whereas I’m more of the type that misses nine consecutive balls off a bowler who’s fifty-seven and recovering from a hernia operation, but we’re batsmen, you and me both, Alec.”
But for this one day I could pretend I was part of the heirarchy of the cricketing world, because I was on Test Match Special. I’m aware, of course, of the contradictions here, in that Test Match Special is a colonial hangover, redolent of empire and the dominance of public school. But somehow, and I’ve no idea why, even if you’ve no interest in cricket, if you couldn’t find anything to admire in Test Match Special, and be manically excited at the prospect of being its guest, I’m not sure you cou’re the sort of person who could entirely be trusted.