Once upon a time, there was no IPL, no ICC and Sachin had not even scored one hundred, never mind a hundred hundreds. But those faraway days, when life seemed less complicated, when we could actually get through an hour without a score update from Uxbridge, are still there deep inside us, shaping our cricket culture, shaping how we talk about the game, shaping our (dare I say) our lives. And nobody was more central to the experience of following cricket in England in the decades after the war than Brian Johnston.
Though born 100 years ago, An Evening with Johnners reveals the avuncular Old Etonian to be a prototype for many today’s new media innovators. Like the voices of Test Match Sofa, Johnners was never a professional cricketer, but a fan with a deep love of the game, a respect for its history and a natural aptitude for broadcasting. Like The Two Chucks, he sought the humour that courses through cricket and was always happy to risk a rap on the knuckles if it meant getting a laugh. And, like us bloggers tapping away at our keyboards, Johnners had a life away from the game that added a perspective not always found in those who make a seamless progression from professional player to professional pundit.
The book is a transcript of his one man show that toured theatres in the early 90s, playing to sell-out houses. There’s anecdote after anecdote about a life well lived, a life in which fun was not a diversion from work, but the work itself – a happenstance for which Johnners never ceased to be grateful. There are tales of light entertainment radio shows full of the kind of English eccentrics who seemed to be attracted to Johnners like the ball is attracted to Phil Hughes’ outside edge. There are accounts of stunts undertaken for the edification of listeners huddled round wirelesses that are little more than the kind of jolly japes that the likes of Johnners would always get up to in the Upper Sixth Remove dorm – and enjoyed with exactly the same mix of fear and pleasure. And there are lots and lots of reminiscences of the commentary boxes of Arlott and McGilvray, of Trueman and Bailey, and, naturally, of Aggers and the leg over.
Brian Johnston has been gone nearly twenty years, but this book, suffused with a Wodehousean joy in language’s ability to provoke laughter, shows that his spirit, indeed, his high spirits, live on and the world of cricket is all the better for that.