Essays, reflections and more

Dear Mr Arlott

John Arlott wasn't just the voice of cricket. He was a source of comfort and hope to two cricketers who felt themselves alone against the cricket establishment

Sriram Dayanand

November 27, 2011

Comments: 15 | Text size: A | A

Broadcaster John Arlott commentates, Gloucestershire v New Zealand, 1949
Arlott: acutely perceptive and sensitive even off the field © Getty Images
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He himself must resolve them as well as he knows,
Or else take them with him wherever he goes.

- "Death on the Road", John Arlott

The sun shone weakly. It was April and it was cold and bleak in Tilbury. Dark smoke billowing out of her funnels, the Orontes drew away and sailed out into the grey waters of the Atlantic. Out on deck there was one last wave before the diminutive and huddled up figure stepped back from the rails and turned away. His silhouette dissolved into the mist. And then Harold Larwood was gone.

Out on the quay a solitary man watched the ship recede into the distance. The irony hung thick in the cold air. Eighteen years earlier that very ocean liner had received a ticker-tape sendoff in comparison. Larwood - then in his muscled prime - had stood on deck, waving back at the throngs wishing him and his team-mates godspeed and good luck in Australia. There were no brass bands this time around. In fact, there was no one but John Arlott. A farewell party of one, lingering at the quay, deep in thought. Thoughts tinged with sadness at the betrayal that lay behind the departure.

Larwood had made a memorable entrance into Arlott's life back in 1926. It was a family vacation in London and a whirlwind of sightseeing on hot summer days had ensued - enough museum walks and tower climbs to instigate rebellion in a 12-year-old nursing sore feet. Then, a fortuitous escape from the tourist's tedium: down the road from where they were staying was the Kennington Oval, the ground hosting the fifth Test of the Ashes. Voila! Eventually the parents had capitulated as he begged and nagged them into submission.

Dispatched by his mother with a raincoat and a bag of sandwiches, John had shown up for his first day at a Test match, flushed in awe. Awe that intensified when his heroes, Sutcliffe and Hobbs, walked out to open for England. England stuttered and didn't last the day, but had hit back by the end of it to take four Australian wickets. Among the entries on the scorecard: "W Bardsley c H Strudwick b H Larwood 2" and "TJE Andrews b H Larwood 3".

Six years later Arlott sat in the stands with a mate as Nottinghamshire played Essex and Glamorgan. Staring at the strange bowling tactics of Larwood and Bill Voce. "We couldn't understand this. We came back so baffled we didn't even mention it to anybody," he said. He didn't know then, but the plot had already been hatched and was being put on trial before its explosive unveiling in the Ashes.

Bodyline was to take its toll on cricket and England, but it was nothing compared to the toll it took on Larwood: "the villain-in-chief", "the monster" and "the bloody murderer". Feted as a hero on return from Australia, the humble and reticent Larwood would begin a descent into exile. Injuries he had sustained in Australia dogged him, but what eventually devastated him was the overpowering sense of abandonment by his own cricketing establishment.

A chilling realisation of the duplicity of the MCC came to Larwood when he was approached with the suggestion that he apologise for Bodyline. An apology that would serve conveniently as a public absolution of the MCC, appease the irate Australians, and pave the way for the smooth conduct of the 1934 Ashes. Larwood was a simple man, a salt-of-the-earth toiler from the coal mines of Nottinghamshire. He had given everything for King and country but now realised to his disillusionment that he was all alone. The betrayal he felt was acute.

When Jack Fingleton - one of Larwood's adversaries from that fated tour - came calling, Larwood had retreated to Blackpool and was leading a monkish existence. Fingleton extended a hand of support to Larwood, making a scarcely believable offer to help him relocate to Australia. Larwood accepted, and in April 1950 he boarded the Orontes with his family, headed to the most improbable of futures: a new life in the country that had reviled him.

Arlott found him on deck that day, a gaunt, bespectacled figure, still dignified and upright. Arlott had convinced his newspaper that this departure was newsworthy, and had shown up at Tilbury, only to find that he was the extent of the press corps. His offer of a drink accepted, they relocated, sitting across each other, sipping their teas (Larwood having declined the offer of food or beer, keeping the pounding hangover from a night of drinking with Jack Hobbs to himself).

Larwood was wistful as he reminisced about the glorious sendoff the team had received at that very harbour in 1932, and the euphoric return with the Ashes in 1933. How he looked forward to a new life in Australia.

Arlott lingered at the harbour after they had shaken hands and parted. And stayed quayside even as the ship pulled away. He believed in his heart that Larwood deserved a better farewell - not this second abandonment.

He stood there, his lone hand waving in silhouette against the bleak sky.

****

If blame there be, we share the blame -
Blame not purged by praise of nations
But only by those generations
Who, not needing passports, fly
Unchallenged over common sky.

- "The Other Fear", John Arlott

The first letter arrived in 1959. Written in green ink. Polite, courteous and respectful was the young writer: "I daresay this is a minor detail, I presume, compared to your other escapades, but I am sure you will do your best…"

 
 
"I speak from personal observation, of course - the existing government in South Africa is predominantly a Nazi one… Anything can happen to a native in South Africa - any form of violence, carrying through as far as murder, and you can rest assured that the person who kills him or ill-treats him won't suffer in any way at all" Arlott's views on the South African apartheid regime
 

The letters kept coming. Soon an undercurrent became obvious amid the politeness - desperation. This was no ordinary admirer writing from afar. This was a hand reaching out in desperation from a hopeless situation. A hopelessness the letters' recipient had experienced first-hand himself.

Arlott's first overseas stint as a commentator for the BBC was in 1948. South Africa had dazzled him, coming from bleak post-war England. His voice had preceded him there, and its reputation was already ensconced in warm appreciativeness. The stadiums were radiant and the cricket dazzled. He was feted and dined by adoring folk everywhere he went. It was all magical.

But one did not need to be very perceptive in South Africa in 1948 to see the sordid underbelly, and the repressive powers that ruled. It all came out in an impassioned rant on air after Arlott returned home: "I speak from personal observation, of course - the existing government in South Africa is predominantly a Nazi one… Anything can happen to a native in South Africa - any form of violence, carrying through as far as murder, and you can rest assured that the person who kills him or ill-treats him won't suffer in any way at all".

Egalitarian Arlott, reared by staunchly liberal folk, had determined that he could never visit South Africa again. It was too abhorrent to his humanity. That rant succeeded in getting relays of BBC newscasts banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It also succeeded in shining a beacon of hope into Cape Town.

Basil D'Oliveira's batting average was 100.47. Three times he had taken 100 wickets in a season. He was a legend in the ghettos and the "coloured" leagues. Yet he couldn't dare dream of playing for his country. For those were days when his people had to cross over to the other side of the street when they saw a white man approach on the same sidewalk as them. At Newlands they were crammed into a tiny part of the stands, barricaded by high metal fences. D'Oliveira had sat in "The Cage", one in a mosaic of eager dark faces, watching South Africa play visiting sides - white Australia, England and New Zealand, that is. Watching players with a fraction of the talent he possessed don the South African cap.

D'Oliveira sent a distress signal: "Dear Mr. Arlott…" He had picked Arlott for "he was the voice of cricket". More importantly, "he was a good man". With no hope of playing quality competitive cricket in his homeland, D'Oliveira had to try elsewhere. Arlott was sympathetic but realistic. He knew the difficulties of getting an absolute unknown from abroad into a county side.

But oh, did Arlott try! Every county was written to. Nothing. But he would not give up. If not the counties, why not the leagues? His friend John Kay in Manchester was plugged into the circuit. Arlott made clear his feelings to Kay: "I would not give a tuppenny damn if he were just an ordinary cricketer in one of the Test-playing countries, but this would be such a fine thing to do. The last thing I want out of it is credit, but I would love to see it happen."

It certainly was a fine thing to do. And a fine coincidence made it come to fruition. Middleton in the Lancashire leagues had been left high and dry when their overseas professional, Wesley Hall, had pulled out at the last minute. Their desperation to fill the vacancy was to be D'Oliveira's salvation. Back went a letter to South Africa: "Dear Basil D'Oliviera" - as in all of them before, a little typo in the name - "Now I have an offer for you to play…"

In the spring of 1960, D'Oliveira landed at Heathrow. After being received by Kay, who had to reassure him that he didn't need to line up separately from white folk anymore, he was driven to a flat in London where an ecstatic Arlott opened the door to welcome the nervous young man. The night was spent there, with a fussing Arlott busying himself with arrangements: clothes, kit, money, and a place to stay in Middleton.

Arlott called each weekend to enquire if the lad needed anything: "...if a fiver would help, I would send it out of the blue", he wrote to Kay. The D'Oliveira episode would remain the most cherished event in Arlott's storied life. It gave him more personal joy than any of his other towering achievements.

Arlott shone at his principled best in 1968 when the "D'Oliveira affair" exploded on England, setting in motion events that would reverberate from Westminster to Robben Island. The South African government had been Machiavellian, but the MCC, in its single-mindedness to save the tour had left Arlott aghast. Never one to be sequestered in the MCC's choir and sing from their hymn sheet, he didn't hold back:

"MCC have never made a more sadder, more dramatic, or potentially more damaging selection than omitting D'Oliveira from their team to tour South Africa.

This may prove, perhaps to the surprise of the MCC, far more than a sporting matter. It could have such repercussions on British relations with the coloured races of the world that the cancellation of a cricket tour would seem a trifling matter compared with an apparent British acceptance of Apartheid. This was a case where justice had to be seen to be done."

The MCC, doyens of self-preservation, were at it again in 1970 with their attempts to go ahead with the tour of the South Africans to England. This move, in the face of rampant resentment in England at the inhuman policies of apartheid, immediately drew out Arlott, who refused to commentate on the tour for the BBC:

"Crucially though, a successful tour would offer comfort and confirmation to a completely evil regime. To my mind, the Cricket Council, acting on behalf of British cricket, has failed fairly to represent those British people - especially cricketers - who genuinely abominate apartheid.

To persist with this tour seems to me a social, political and cricketing error."

He would seal the case shut with an eloquent discourse in the debate that preceded a vote on the tour, leading to a ban on cricketing relations with South Africa that would last decades:

There is a time in the growth of some political beliefs when they so offend against common morals that they are recognisable as evil and obnoxious to right-thinking people.

Any man's political commitment, if it is deep enough, is his personal philosophy, and it governs his way of life, it governs his belief and it governs the people with whom he is prepared to mix. Mr President, sir, anyone who cares to support this motion will not exclude politics from sport, but in fact be attempting to exclude sport from life.

****

Larwood and D'Oliveira: two simple men embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. Two talented players trapped in the machinations of higher powers. Two of the biggest scandals that rocked England in the 20th century. One threatened to shred the fabric of the Dominion, the other had an extraordinary impact on the world we live in.

Larwood and D'Oliveira - and Arlott. A compassionate farewell to one and a heartwarming welcome to another. A wave to one at Tilbury and a reassuring handshake to the other at the doorstep of his London flat.

John Arlott, a mighty fine man.

Bibliography
Harold Larwood, Duncan Hamilton
Arlott: The Authorised Biography, David Rayvern Allen
Transcript of Any Questions, The BBC, 1950
Basil D'Oliveira - Cricket and Conspiracy, Peter Oborne
John Arlott's columns in the Guardian, 1969 and 1970

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (November 30, 2011, 12:56 GMT)

An extremely well written and illuminating piece.

Posted by knan on (November 28, 2011, 18:16 GMT)

I remember listening to him for the first time in Test Match Special on BBC, during India's tour of 1974. What a voice !! Became a fan of TMS after that

Posted by bumsonseats on (November 28, 2011, 14:16 GMT)

i remember a benifit match for ex england cricketer barry wood at old trafford during a sunday 40 overs game, the match part of which johns commentry was been played to the ground. after a complement about barry, he turned to the commentry box and gave john, one of those large bows actors give at the end a theater performance. john to me was the best of commentators maybe not the kind overseas cricket supporters may have liked. but as british and been brought up with his likes, he was the governor. dpk

Posted by   on (November 28, 2011, 5:16 GMT)

lovely piece Sriram. food for the soul from a great man

Posted by Fifthman on (November 27, 2011, 21:04 GMT)

I originally knew Jiohn Arlott from his wonderful Test match commentaries, then for books he wrote and now for his forthright stand agaisnt the evils of apartheid. A great man, a hugely principled man and a man who loved cricket to the depth of his soul.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2011, 17:40 GMT)

THREE TREMENDOUS MEN,I HAD THE PRIVELEDGE IN 2009 TO MEET HAROLD LARWOODS DAUGHTER AND I STILL KEEP IN TOUCH,I WOULD LOVE TO MAIL THIS TO HER,BUT I DON`T KNOW HOW,ANY SUGGESTIONS

Posted by WhoCaresAboutIPL on (November 27, 2011, 15:30 GMT)

In my view, there has never been a commentator to touch him, and even today those who heard his voice are taken back to a different time and place. He was, of course, a published poet, but his Hampshire lilt was never the voice of the establishment, unlike some other commentators.

Is there any chance for Cricinfo to provide a selection of his old recordings for the many young readers who have never heard the best? The present low-brow xenophobic screams would have been anathema to JA.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2011, 15:28 GMT)

At the end of the day - irrespective of medium, faith or nationality - it's your own moral rectitude which upholds you. Great man, and a great ode!

Posted by mikeindex on (November 27, 2011, 12:18 GMT)

Excellent article. A great man.

Posted by Riders2966 on (November 27, 2011, 12:10 GMT)

What a wonderful inspiring article. Thank you for writing and informing us about John Arlott's character. Oh that cricket and our wider society will have more people who will build their character on values and stand up and stand with people when things are not right.

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