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Talking to Leo about Jack

Talking to Leo about Jack

Paul Edwards meets Hampshire's Leo Harrison - a lifelong friend of John Arlott

The current press box at Old Trafford is named after Neville Cardus but it was opened by John Arlott in June 1987. On summer mornings journalists climbing the stairs to cover a match can read the plaque commemorating that event: it may inspire them to give of their best; it should certainly remind them of some of the finest traditions of their still honourable craft.

John Arlott was renowned as "the voice of cricket." Phrases like, "his distinctive Hampshire burr" have become cliches and older journos with a gift for mimickry can't resist doing an impression of him at some point in the season, even if their audience includes few people who ever met the man.

What always impressed me about Arlott, apart from his astonishing gift for language, his love of literature and his passion for book-collecting, was his profound humanity. This was a commentator who understood the cricketers he talked about: their strengths and their frailties; their hopes and their fears. His books Vintage Summer: 1947 and Gone With The Cricketers, and his biographies of Sir Jack Hobbs and Fred Trueman reflect his preoccupation with human nature and the way that nature was expressed in the cricket men played. The Professional Cricketers' Association elected Arlott their President in 1968; he regarded it as the greatest honour he ever received in the game.

Yesterday afternoon, surrounded by a host of former Hampshire players, I talked to Leo Harrison, who was one of John Arlott's closest friends. Harrison made his debut for Hampshire in 1939 and played his last match in 1966. He is 88 years old.

"I was fifteen when I joined the Hampshire staff in 1937 and at that time John was a copper on the beat in Southampton," he said. "Because he was a fanatic about cricket, he organised it so that his beat went past the county ground in Northlands Road every day. Then he could look in and watch us - the nippers as he called us - practising. And that's how I first got to know him.

 "When he became famous as a cricket commentator after the war, he always kept in touch with me on account of our previous friendship and he was very good to me. He helped me with my benefit in 1957 and because I appreciated everything that he did for me that year, I gave him a piece of glass engraved by Lawrence Whistler."

By that time, of course, Arlott was a famous public figure: he was writing for the papers almost every day of each summer, he had produced a number of books and his voice could be heard on the radio, observant, insightful, wise, poetic. Yet it seems that he managed to make a distinction between the public man and the private friend.

"In all the letters he wrote to me, he signed his name "Jack Arlott", not "John Arlott"," said Harrison. "He was always "Jack" if he knew you. He was respected by the county professionals because he almost always remained a commentator not a critic.

"I think he would have loved this ground," added Harrison, as Hampshire's batsmen carved out a first-innings lead. "He wasn't a traditionalist in that sense and it's just a pity he didn't live long enough to see it."

And rather suddenly, Harrison reached out and grasped my arm as if there was something he needed to tell me. "Arlott was a great man," he said. "He really was a great man. He was a master of the English language. He could make a commentary interesting without necessarily talking about the cricket at all.

 "I used to go to dinner at his house, and his table, which could hold about ten, was always full up. One of his guests was Neville Cardus. Now John could talk, but Cardus left him standing. No one got up from that table before midnight."

Photo: P.A. Photos


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