November 14, 2000

Blofeld quenches his cricketing thirst

A Thirst for Life (with the Accent on Cricket) by Henry Blofeld. Published in New Zealand by Hodder Moa Beckett. Price $64.95. Reviewed by Lynn McConnell.

As you would expect with a larger-than-life character like Henry Blofeld, there has been more than a little experience packed into his 60-plus years.

The Etonian who, with some regret on his own part, failed to last the distance at Cambridge University, but with no regrets, failed to last the distance as a merchant banker, has truly had a life in cricket.

It may not have been as consistent in terms of regular employment as some of the icons of cricket journalism and commentary like: Jack Fingleton, Neville Cardus, E W Swanton, John Arlott, John Woodcock, Bill O'Reilly and Richie Benaud, but it has been a full life nonetheless.

For that reason alone, Blofeld's opinions on cricket count for something. That's the thing about opinions, you can agree or disagree with them. Some may disagree with Blofeld's perspective, especially if they are in the Kerry Packer camp.

But no one can deny Blofeld's sincerity on all matters cricket.

There is little in the cricket world that could stump him and that is borne out in this autobiography. "Blowers", as he is best known, has seen it all during the last 40 years. He's even managed to hold up international flights because he realised the completed chapter of a book he was writing has been mistaken for rubbish by airport cleaners in Colombo. Fortunately, the wait proved worthwhile as the chapter was located and installed in what became a classic Blofeld book, The Packer Affair.

A P G Wodehouse devotee, Blofeld has made cricket commentary his Holy Grail and on the radio he has developed his own inimitable style. Cricket is an event and that means describing everything that leads to atmosphere.

That is also crucial to Blofeld's writing style. He comments on the surrounds of the game. Any trip to New Zealand would not be complete without a test of the latest vintage whether it be at Cloudy Bay or Martinborough.

And what better way to get ready for a Test series in India than by driving from England in a vintage Rolls Royce. This description of all the events along the way, mainly hostelries and eateries it must be said, is one of the highlights of this book.

It was West Indian academic C L R James who drew the parallels between cricket and its place in the social structure of the Caribbean. Blofeld is the archetypal representation of England, an image he hasn't been reluctant to utilise to his own advantage.

What is interesting is the visit into Blofeld's rural background, the manner of his life-threatening accident when colliding with a bus, the treatment of his latter-life angina and the view of cricket as it has evolved from the less media intensive Test match-oriented days of the pre-1970s and the One-Day International world of late.

That has brought its own problems of match fixing, money for players, behavioural standards and diminishing skills. All are visited by Blofeld interspersed with a fair smattering of assessments of players and events.

He has always held a kindly view of New Zealand cricket, much more appreciative of its playing assets than many of his literary countrymen, but then he has a much worldlier outlook on life. That fact is borne out in his autobiography.

There are points of issue in the book. His assertion that England's stance on the D'Oliveira incident, when Basil D'Oliveira's selection as a replacement for an injured player to South Africa in the summer of 1968-69, was the start of South Africa's ostracism in world sport is one.

New Zealand could lay most claim to that distinction with its 'No Maoris No Tour' stance over the abandoned 1967 All Black tour of South Africa.

But there are snippets in the book of which players who have the good fortune to be worthy of writing autobiographies can have no conception. These are the insights on matters seemingly outside of cricket but which add to the colour of touring and cricketing life.

His comments on personages like Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, his on-going battles with Geoffrey Boycott, his run-ins with Bobby Simpson and Alan McGilvray and numerous others among the famous, and not so famous, are the sort of things that could only be written by an acute observer of the game.

That is what Henry Blofeld has been. If an umpire like Dickie Bird can write a book that is in the best sellers' lists for months then 'Blowers' could even outstay him. A sequel on countries and personalities is hinted at for the future. It promises to be very interesting.

Perhaps the New Zealand dollar is to blame for the very high price of the book but for the cricket lover it is likely to be well worth the price.