Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

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BBC 5 Live at 20

The BBC loves its own anniversaries. So it was no surprise that Radio 5 Live lost no opportunity to tell listeners that the station turned 20 years old this week.

Is it really 20 years? I remember joking about the name of the station when it launched in 1994: it sounded like 5 Alive, the fruit juice. It was the month John Major’s government was in trouble (just for a change), this time about funding of the Pergau dam in Malaysia.

I also remember an earlier fifth BBC radio network: Radio 5, launched in 1988, which broadcast an uneasy mix of sport and education programmes. Its successor station 5 Live has successfully mixed sport and news, but as Nicky Campbell said on 5 Live Breakfast today, some doubted that 5 Live would be any more successful with its own mix of sport and news. It has proved the doubters wrong.

I was a teenage fan of Radio 4’s Today programme, but during my forties I felt more at home with 5 Live. I like the more informal approach, and the banter amongst the presenters. The newer station can also be harder hitting: I blogged last year about Nicky Campbell’s brilliantly forensic demolition of hapless Blackberry boss Stephen Bates. Peter Allen is equally incisive.

I did feel nostalgic this afternoon listening to Peter Allen reunited with Jane Garvey on Drive. And their mention of former travel news reader Jo Sale took me right back to my early days regularly listening to the station in early 2005.

Here’s to the next 20 years. You can bet the BBC is already planning the 40th anniversary programmes. PS: look out for the half century celebration of Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 in 2017…

Jane Garvey, Adrian Chiles and Marcus Buckland on 5 Live's launch day. Photo: BBC

Jane Garvey, Adrian Chiles and Marcus Buckland on 5 Live’s launch day. Photo: BBC

Remembering Tony Greig and Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Cricket lost two legends as 2012 gave way to 2013. First Tony Greig, the South Africa-born 1970s England captain. As if that wasn’t enough, within three days the voice of cricket, BBC commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins lost his battle against cancer.

Both featured heavily in my 1970s teenage holidays. Cricket was the sound track to my summer, courtesy of the BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS) and I loved Tony Greig’s confident style and sense of humour. I was enthralled in the hot summer of 1976 by his wonderful partnership with Alan Knott in the Leeds test against the West Indies. (Both scored 116.) It was the highlight of a disappointing series for England, and I remember listening to the latest collapse on the radio as we enjoyed the heatwave at Tintagel.

Greig looked foolish after his boastful claim that his team would make the West Indies grovel. (Although a 3-0 series defeat looked good compared with the 1984 whitewash.) Yet Greig’s sense of humour won friends, as his team mate and friend Mike Selvey explained in a Guardian tribute.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ) was the voice of reason in the often chaotic TMS commentary box. As the years went by, his authority grew and it’s not unreasonable to argue that he was cricket’s greatest reporter – on air and in print.

They’ll both be sadly missed.