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How Henry Blofeld almost played for England

Earlier this month, legendary cricket commentator Henry ‘Blowers’ Blofeld – he of the plummy upper-class voice and penchant for counting pigeons and buses – retired from Test Match Special at the age of 77. After the Test match on which he had been commentating ended a short while later, he did a lap of honour of the ground and was given a standing ovation by the spectators. In an age in which a pre-requisite of sports commentary would appear to be having excelled at the highest level of the sport in question, it’s unlikely that we’ll see his like again. It is also highly unlikely that we will ever witness a septuagenarian dressed in a mint-green blazer and scarlet trousers doing a lap of honour in front of an adoring crowd ever again, even at Lord’s.

His father, as is reasonably well-known, provided the name of one of the great villains of twentieth-century fiction; Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was at Eton with Blofeld senior and that is believed to be where he got Ernst Blofeld’s surname from.

But did you know that Henry Blofeld almost played Test cricket for England? 

The records show that he was a promising schoolboy cricketer (he even hit a century at Lord’s, for the Public Schools against the Combined Services) but due to a road traffic accident in his teens – he was hit by a bus while riding his bike – a career as a cricketer was a non-starter. Nevertheless, he did play in 17 first-class matches, most of them for Cambridge University (in typically self-deprecating fashion, he has described himself as “an opening batsman of sorts … the worst Blue awarded since the war”) as well as turning out for his native Norfolk in Minor Counties cricket in the late Fifties and early-to-mid Sixties.

Career-wise, he spent a few years in a merchant bank before going into sports journalism, and by 1963 he was reporting on cricket for The Guardian. It was in this capacity that he went to India to cover England’s 1963-64 tour.

That was one of those sub-continental tours where several of the visiting side were laid low due to either gastric problems or injury in the warm-up games, to the point that by 20th January 1964, the eve of the of the second Test at Bombay, the England squad had just ten fit players (including, somewhat unhelpfully, both wicket-keepers). Wisden would later describe the situation as a “hospital background”. With no chance of anyone flying out from back home at such short notice to make up the numbers – the mid-Sixties were modern but not that modern – the man from The Guardian was told by the England manager David Clark that the pair of them were the only available options, and as Blowers was the younger man by two decades he would most likely get the call-up.

“I replied I would certainly play if needed,” Blowers later recalled, “but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I was damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test ... I suspect that David’s reply was unprintable.” He was told to get a good night’s sleep, just in case, but as the enormity of his situation sunk in he barely slept.

The following morning, it turned out that his batting services would not be needed; England, in this case, did not expect. But only just. One of the sick, vice-captain Mickey Stewart (Alec Stewart’s dad) discharged himself from hospital and declared himself to be fit to play even though he clearly wasn’t. Thus did “the oddest England side ever to have played an official Test” (according to the reporter from the Daily Telegraph) take to the field, with just ten fit players and a tail-end that started with the number six batsman (Middlesex’s J.S.E. Price, who usually batted at eleven, would end up going in at number eight). India won the toss and elected to bat first, and by tea on the first day Stewart was back in hospital and would play no further part in the match; Kripal Singh, the hosts’ twelfth man, was called upon to field for the visitors. They were expected to lose, but curiously India failed to push home their obvious advantage and the match ended in a draw.

For the third Test, help from home arrived in the form of Colin Cowdrey, who had not been selected in the first place because he’d still been recovering from having his arm broken while batting against the West Indies at Lord’s the previous summer. He would score centuries in the third and fourth Tests. The five-Test series ended in a draw, with neither side winning any of them.

Blowers, meanwhile, continued to work in print journalism until 1972, when he joined the TMS team.

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