Arlott, Swanton and English cricket’s class divide

A stockbroker’s son and a CND-supporting poet: the two great commentators embodied the divisions at the heart of the game.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

English cricket has always wallowed in nostalgia. Its most celebrated poem, Francis Thompson’s “At Lord’s”, written in the 20th century’s first decade, refers to “a ghostly batsman” playing to “the bowling of a ghost” and ends its first stanza, “O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago”, AN Hornby and Dick Barlow being Lancashire opening batsmen of the 1880s. All genuine cricket nuts agree that the best weather and the best cricket lie in the past.

In this year’s Wisden, the editor, Lawrence Booth, laments that the England-Australia Ashes contests are not what they were, while a former editor, Matthew Engel, finds old players, gathered to mark the 50th birthday of what is now the Professional Cricketers’ Association, “lamenting what has been lost from the game”. What has been lost includes what led to the association’s formation: rock-bottom wages and contracts that bonded professionals to their counties as if they were slaves. But as Engel reports, the old players’ view is “yes, they were treated badly; but by crikey they were great times”.

English football rarely looks back. It treats the advent of the Premier League in 1992 as Year Zero, before which little of importance happened. The only significant exception is England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 and the much-quoted words of the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme: “Some people are on the pitch…  they think it’s all over… it is now!” But there’s no published biography of Wolstenholme. By contrast, the top BBC cricket commentators of my childhood and early adulthood, John Arlott and EW Swanton, have a full-length biography each. Now the journalist Stephen Fay (aged 79) and the historian David Kynaston (aged 66) have combined the two men’s life stories into a single, beautifully written and, yes, nostalgic volume.

The differences between Arlott and Swanton – neither much liked the other – are often seen as embodying the class divisions that were once integral to English cricket. Swanton was a stockbroker’s son who went to a fee-charging school, wrote for the Daily Telegraph, cosied up to the dukes and viscounts in the Marylebone Cricket Club that then ruled the game, and almost certainly voted Tory. He denounced “disrespect for authority”, “incessant din” from spectators, caps of the wrong colour (“a melancholy sight”), protective helmets (“incongruous and ugly”), “long, greasy hair”, and “frantic overflow of emotion”. Believing the average professional cricketer, while “a sound enough fellow”, needed “wise and firm direction”, he thought upper middle-class amateurs made the best captains. His writing style was politely described as “classically straight”; less politely, Arlott observed (in private) that the eight million words Swanton wrote in his career contained not a single memorable sentence. On radio, he gave a close-of-play summary (“sermon”, a fellow commentator called it) beginning with the scorecard, which he read as though no batsman’s runs or bowler’s wickets were legitimate until he gave them his imprimatur. In the winter, he wrote about rugby union.

Arlott, seven years younger, came from a working-class background, went to a state grammar school, liked to mix with the professional players (he became president of their union), and stood twice for parliament as a Liberal. He supported CND and homosexual law reform. A published poet and friend of John Betjeman and Dylan Thomas, his radio commentaries were distinctive for his gravelly Hampshire accent and his vivid imagery. A Pakistan pace bowler’s crouching run-up was compared to “Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress”, a West Indian batsman’s stroke for four to “a man knocking a thistle-top off with a walking stick”. The young Ian Botham was “like a shire horse, cresting the breeze”, a short-pitched ball “rocketed like a partridge”. In the winter, Arlott wrote about football.

As Fay and Kynaston show, the story is more complex than those contrasts suggest. Swanton married the daughter of an Eton housemaster, as you’d expect him to. Less predictably, Arlott married a daughter of the Dewhurst butchers’ chain and collected fine wines, antiques and first editions. Again as you’d expect, Arlott visited a native township during an England tour to South Africa and was horrified by “crawling filth”. In 1950, he was banned from radio’s Any Questions? – where he was a regular panellist – for calling the apartheid government “predominantly a Nazi one”, thus flouting BBC impartiality rules. Yet Swanton too expressed “utter bewilderment” at South Africa’s treatment of its “dark population” and quietly excused himself from the 1964-65 tour. When English cricket was torn apart over whether a planned tour by South Africa should go ahead in 1970, he and Arlott, if not quite on the same side, weren’t far apart. Arlott said he wouldn’t broadcast on the tour; Swanton wrote that the MCC should have “the moral courage” to call it off, prompting Telegraph readers to complain he’d “gone rogue”.

Nor were the two men as divided as you would expect on the introduction of one-day cricket. If anything, Arlott was more resistant to change; like many political radicals, he was deeply conservative about the things he loved most. True, he was a commentator for live BBC TV coverage of the counties’ Sunday afternoon league. But he sometimes fell asleep on air and always snaffled the first commentary shift so he could leave early.

If they were still with us (Arlott died in 1991, Swanton in 2000), they would surely agree on their distaste for cricket’s commercialisation and the marketing executives’ insistence that public attention can now be sustained only for 100 balls a side. Both, though, would probably acknowledge the inevitability of change if cricket is to survive at all. Even Wisden dedicates a whole section – 120 of its 1,500 pages – to the numerous Twenty20 domestic leagues that now attract more viewers than all the world’s test matches put together. But Swanton would continue to recall Patsy Hendren or Jack Hobbs batting in the 1930s and Arlott obscure county grounds at Horsham or Ebbw Vale where he could “hear the players talking to each other”. As one Wisden contributor writes, “the world changes, cricket changes, but nostalgia is always waiting”. 

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket
Stephen Fay and David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £20

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2018
Edited by Lawrence Booth
Wisden, 1,500pp, £55

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right