John Arlott: The Voice of Cricket

Sometimes his voice could tug at the most emotional of our heartstrings with the simplest of expressions: "Bradman bowled Hollies … nought …and what do you say under these circumstances?"


On other occasions, he could create vivid imageries through bon mots:

"Kardar seems to have about four fielders and seven missionaries. As they used to say in Victorian days, sent into distant fields. They’re still in Trent Bridge but only just."

He could combine frolic and class as none other on sighting a streaker rush into the hallowed turf of Lord’s:

"Not very shapely, and it is masculine, and I would think he has seen the last of his cricket for the day … he is being embraced by a blonde policeman and this may well be his last public appearance – but what a splendid one!"

And he could turn an elegant stroke into a moment of poetic inspiration that same season, on that very ground: "The stroke of a man knocking a thistle top with a walking stick"

John Arlott, variously policeman, poet, broadcaster par excellence, chronicler of the game and wine connoisseur, was multi-faceted, and sparkled in each of his many dimensions.

However, he underlined his truest quality early in his career, while touring South Africa in 1948-49. Asked to fill his ethnicity in an immigration form, with the options reading white, Indian, coloured, black, Arlott simply wrote ‘human’.

It was not just chance that made Basil D'Oliveira reach out to this man from Basingstoke when his prodigious cricketing talent looked likely to remain forever hidden in the murky shadows of apartheid. A decade later, when D'Oliveira's inclusion in the England side had divided the cricket world on the South Africa issue, it was Arlott who publicly refused to broadcast any of the matches if the proposed 1970 tour did take place.

When he finally bid adieu to the commentary box, it was during the Centenary Test at The Oval in 1980. Arlott did it with minimum of flourish. Prosaic almost. "Boycott pushes this away between silly-point and slip … picked up by Mallett at short third man … the end of the over … 28 Boycott, 15 Gower, 69 for 2 – and after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins."

At the completion of this summary, the box broke into an applause. At the end of the next over, following an announcement over the public address system, the crowd gave Arlott an ovation. The entire Australian team in the field and the two England batsmen joined in, with Geoffrey Boycott even removing his batting gloves to applaud.

When he passed away in his sleep in 1991, colleague and fellow commentator Brian Johnston observed: “He spread the gospel about cricket around the world more than anyone else.”

John Arlott was born on February 25, 1914.

Text: Arunabha Sengupta
Illustration: Maha