It was the early 1970s and legendary Test Match Special commentator Brian “Johnners” Johnston mused aloud, above the crackle and thrum of a Test match, how much he’d like some chocolate cake. “A lovely lady” was quick to respond, recalls Henry “Blowers” Blofeld, and delighted the team that included him, Johnners and John Arlott by sending in a gooey, calorific treat to the studio.
Arlott, a dreamy and much-loved commentator given to poetic flashes still fondly remembered and revered, joked during the same match (no one can be sure of the date) that he’d like something more “useful” like, well, some champagne, perhaps. This prompted Fortnum’s to send over a case. (A subsequent request for caviar fell on deaf ears, sadly.)
But still, more than 30 years before Great British Bake Off, a legend was born – what we shall call the Test Match Special Cake Off. And now the team is sent scores of them during a five-day Test. They’ve even been given one in Bangladesh, and Blofeld – who’s been a Test Match Special voice since that first cake arrived in the box – talks warmly about the “rather nice Englishwoman” who flew from England with a cake to Dunedin in New Zealand.
“If legend were to be believed, Brian never got through any of his commentary, ate 14 slices and permanently had his mouth full of cake that day, which simply isn’t true,” Blofeld says loyally about his friend who died in 1994. “But it’s certainly true he liked cake. It really started something. As soon as he said it, the women of Great Britain went to their kitchen, marked out their long run and started sending them to us.”
Blofeld, for whom the feminist movement seems something of a mystery, puts the date at 1974. No one at the BBC is sure when it started. But now the small commentary box is always adorned with delicious slabs of gateau. Even the Queen “supervised” a cake for them in 2001, laced with what Blofeld said was a healthy portion of “royal brandy”.
“It was Twitter before Twitter,” says Jonathan Agnew of a tradition that put the programme in closer touch with its many millions of listeners. TMS, as it’s known, with its traditions and nicknames, perfectly reflects the gentle idiosyncrasies of cricket. And let’s not forget that it’s a professional sport where tea is one of two official breaks in play. Tea and, of course, cake.
“Brian Johnston would be thrilled we’re still being sent cakes,” says Agnew, but he’s quick to point out the magic of TMS goes beyond baking. The team insist on keeping the commentary box window open at all times, to allow listeners to engage with the gentle sounds outside, the lapping applause and crack of leather on willow.
And when they’re commentating in the heat of an Ashes series in Australia, describing the action to listeners huddled in the cold dead of an English winter night, the audience is always kept firmly in mind. “I modulate my voice. I’m a bit softer,” says Agnew. “I know I’m in bed with a lot of people late at night. It’s actually quite an intimate thing.”
Followed by millions at home, TMS has a huge foreign audience too, mainly thanks to the internet. However, Agnew is worried about the renegotiation of the broadcast contract in 2019 – specifically that so-called “geo blocking” may stop people listening online overseas. “It would be ridiculous, denying people all over the world, in Africa and Borneo, from enjoying Test Match Special,” he says. “We all want the game to thrive and flourish. I understand it’s important to make money out of the game but this would be dangerous.”
Agnew, a highly respected authority on the game, who played three Tests for England, is taking time out of an extremely busy day to chat to RT in the commentary box on the third day of the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Harry Judd, the drummer from boy band McFly, has already dropped in for a visit and Blofeld has performed a rap with the cricket-loving band, the Duckworth Lewis Method, during lunch. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more English and eccentric.
On this day alone the programme’s hosts, Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, had made them a lovely chocolate cake and another had been sent in featuring pigeons (Blofeld often talks about pigeons.) There’s also a Geoffrey Boycott bingo-themed cake on the producer’s table to honour the game fans play trying to guess at Boycott’s favourite phrases – such as “My mum could have caught that in her pinny”.
“I never heard about this cake tradition,” says Australian fast bowler turned TMS commentator, Glenn McGrath, looking perplexed, patting his stomach and turning away from the temptation with the self-control of an ex-athlete. “It seems very English. But I’m in a good paddock with my diet and can’t go near it.”
“They never send cakes in Australia,” chips in Phil Tufnell, the cheeky-chappie former England left-arm spinner, A Question of Sport panellist and a TMS summariser. He’s partial to “a nibble here and there” but admits none of the team could eat all the cake they’re sent or they’d all be “the size of houses”. He’s a fan of the brownies and pork pies that they’re sent and always shares the treats with the print journalists downstairs.
“I love this job,” beams Tufnell. “It’s the best seat in the house – and you have the best brains watching it. It’s great to turn up in the morning. TMS is why I fell in love with cricket, driving to the sea with my family, hearing it on the radio, everything at peace with the world. It’s the sound of the summer. I only hope someone won’t send in a dodgy cake.”
One person who won’t is singer Lily Allen – a passionate cricket fan and friend to TMS who always brings her pal, former England captain Michael Vaughan, a strawberry pavlova when she’s at Lord’s with her husband Sam.
But producer Adam Mountford, who enjoys a slice of cake, is keen to steer conversation away from the subject. “I don’t want people to think we sit around eating cake all day, but it adds to the variety. We can’t spend the whole day discussing a forward defensive stroke. We’re a serious sports programme that covers professional sport with huge expertise, but cricket takes a long time and we convey the rhythms of the day. It’s like life – there is the serious but also room for something less serious.”
Mountford sits in front of a computer, head-phones clamped to his ears, an eagle eye on Twitter, feeding stats and info to the team. On the day I visit, he’s particularly proud of online audience figures (excluding radio) of 800,000 for the previous day’s play.
TMS received a massive boost in the exhilarating 2005 Ashes series when Sky snapped up the TV rights, sending many without subscriptions to the radio. “People love TMS when it rains because of what we fill the airtime with,” he says. “There’s never a tedious day of cricket. You never know what’s going to happen, but these people are the stars.” He points to his team. “There’s an Old Etonian [Blofeld] and a gruff Yorkshireman [Boycott]. Some people don’t like Geoffrey but you can never ignore him. It’s about the range of topics and personalities. I get to work with all my heroes. We know what this show means to the audience. People picked us up at Everest base camp once and I’ve heard stories about mountaineers climbing a sheer cliff and telling climbers below them what the score is.”
No one can be in any doubt about how loved this programme is. But of course, when it comes to the real competition – about who makes the best cakes – opinion is sharply divided inside the box. “Of course it’s Yorkshire people,” chips in Vaughan, who played for that great county, which sadly won’t be hosting an Ashes Test this year. “They make the best cakes and of course they have the best tea. No doubt about that.”
Test Match Special is on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and Radio 4 LW