The gentleman and the player

For many, Swanton and Arlott embodied the soul of cricket themselves

Robert Low

English cricket is in crisis: we have just lost the Ashes in humiliating fashion, attendances at county games have plummeted, the authorities are casting around for new formats that might attract young people back to the game. Yes, all true of 2018, but as Stephen Fay and David Kynaston remind us in their delightful and thoughtful book, also the case in 1959, when their subjects, E.W. Swanton and John Arlott, were the best-known and most authoritative writers and broadcasters on the game.

Swanton was the voice of the cricketing establishment, the long-time cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, a plummy-voiced patrician who was also one of the BBC Test match commentary team: he provided summaries between overs and at the end of the day’s play, fortified by a glass of whisky — and woe betide the BBC lackey who failed to turn up with it on time. He was also a power behind the scenes, the self-appointed guardian of cricket’s traditional values who thought professional players were better-off being captained by a gentleman amateur.

Arlott was a former Southampton policeman and poet whose rich Hampshire burr was instantly recognisable as he commentated on the day’s proceedings. It was almost lost to us, Fay and Kynaston reveal. When Arlott embarked on his broadcasting career he assumed his accent would be a handicap and tried to speak in “the King’s English”. The actor Valentine Dyall objected: “I’ll personally cut your tongue out if you carry on,” he said, and how right he was. Arlott was also a prolific writer on the game, eventually becoming cricket correspondent of the Guardian, fortified by two bottles of fine claret a day carried around in his battered briefcase.

The book’s title is intriguing. Indeed, what other sport can lay claim to a soul? A book on the soul of English tennis would be unlikely to find a publisher. For many, Swanton and Arlott probably embodied the soul of the game themselves. The religious allusion is not misplaced: Swanton was a High Anglican, with friends in high church places: his funeral address was delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, no less, and his memorial service was held in Canterbury Cathedral. Arlott was not a churchgoer, but he was a believer steeped in the Bible from youth who doubted his faith after his son’s premature death. He told a biographer not long before his death that he said his prayers every night and believed in an afterlife. And his most lucrative freelance assignment was to write a hymn for the BBC, which he provided overnight and is still sung today.
Arlott was a Liberal, who twice stood for the party in general elections, but a cricketing conservative. His great love was the county game, then played over three days, and he became the friend and confidant of many journeymen professionals, so much so that he was elected honorary president of their representative body, the Cricketers Association, and worked tirelessly on their behalf.

The proposed solution to the game’s woes in the late 1950s was one-day cricket: Arlott opposed it, but, unexpectedly, Swanton gave it his qualified approval. This was far-sighted of him as the success of the one-day game has undoubtedly extended cricket’s survival, although 20/20 and the new 100 format may eventually kill it off.

Cricket’s litmus test of decency and judgment was the D’Oliveira affair in 1968, when the South African-born Cape Coloured all-rounder and adopted Englishman Basil D’Oliveira was not selected for the MCC winter tour of South Africa, despite scoring a magnificent 158 in the final Test against Australia and taking a vital wicket. An almighty row ensued and he was eventually picked when another player dropped out, upon which South Africa’s Prime Minister John Vorster cancelled the tour: no blacks would play first-class cricket in South Africa on his watch. Arlott had been instrumental in bringing D’Oliveira to Britain and finding him a county: his anti-apartheid views were well known. More surprising, again, was Swanton’s steadfast support for D’Oliveira and multi-racial cricket. Indeed, the reader is left with a grudging admiration for Swanton’s ability to adapt to changing times in a way that Arlott never really did.

In its way, the book serves as a sporting postscript to Kynaston’s groundbreaking three-part social history of post-war Britain which he launched with Austerity Britain. I was a boy in the 1950s, listening to every word of Arlott’s evocative Test match commentaries before grabbing my father’s Daily Telegraph from his briefcase when he got home from work to read Swanton’s magisterial reports. Arlott and Swanton may mean little or nothing to anybody aged under 40, but for my generation of cricket lovers, this is a nostalgic delight.

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