Desert Island Discs is older than one-day cricket, Test Match Special and covered pitches. It was born on the BBC Forces Programme in 1942, the same year as Mike Brearley, one of the 20 or so cricketers to have been stranded on the island with eight records, a book and a luxury, the works of Shakespeare and a Bible. The format was devised by Roy Plomley when the thought of being swept away to a desert island would have had great appeal in a country at war, but it has endured for almost 80 years and an invitation to appear on the programme has become better than a place on the honours list for some.
The first cricketing castaways were Denis Compton and Bill Edrich in 1951. They were also the first of the programme’s guests to be shipwrecked together, so linked were they in the public’s imagination as the Middlesex Twins. Jim Laker was next, just a few weeks before his 19-wicket slice of history at Old Trafford in 1956. Laker’s appearance is one of the earliest of which a small audio segment survives. He complained that too much cricket was being played, a perpetual refrain of cricketers through the ages.
Laker has been followed by many of the game’s great and good: Hutton, Bedser (luxury – a razor), Fingleton, Constantine, Worrell, Sheppard, Cowdrey, Boycott (a telephone line into a sports newspaper), Greig, Randall (a bath with warm water), Brearley, Trueman (a pair of binoculars), Gower (video cassettes of Rumpole of the Bailey), Edmonds (Royal Jamiaca cigars), Botham (fishing rod), Imran Khan (a shotgun and clay pigeon trap), Bird, and Flintoff (a family photo album).
Cricket has been better represented than any other sport by a distance and commentators feature strongly too: Arlott, Alston, Johnston, West (a set of gardening tools), Blofeld and Agnew (a lawnmower plus fuel). Indeed, in the 21st century there have been more appearances by broadcasters than players, if we assume that Jonathan Agnew’s invitation was not in belated recognition of his four Test wickets. Perhaps this reflects cricket’s shrinking profile behind the paywall, or just the changing taste of the presenters and producers. Does the exclusion of other interests from cricketers’ lives, as they are required to focus single-mindedly on the game from an early age, deprive them of a hinterland and make them less interesting people?
No woman cricketer has been sent to the island since Rachael Heyhoe Flint (a ukulele) in 1969. Of cricket’s Crusoes, only Arlott has appeared twice, in 1953 and 1975. Sadly, neither recording is currently available. When he was first cast away, Arlott’s luxury item was a second-hand bookshop. Twenty-two years later his priorities had changed – he requested champagne instead.
John Major was more ambitious than Arlott. His island contained a full-scale replica of The Oval. Host Sue Lawley was clearly grumpy about this, her tone suggesting that she regarded it as the Desert Island Discs equivalent of Mankading, but she felt unable to overrule the incumbent prime minister
Major chose Arlott’s commentary of Bradman’s final Test innings at The Oval in 1948 as one of his records. The writer Geoffrey Moorhouse, he of The Best Loved Game, did the same. Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones also picked Arlott, but commentating on Laker in 1956. Henry Blofeld had Arlott on the “freaker” at Lord’s in 1975, spliced with the Johnston/Agnew leg-over commentary from 1991. Agnew also chose this, but the prize for the most self-regarding selection of cricket commentary goes to Colin Cowdrey, who intended to spend blissful evenings under the stars listening to a description of his century against South Africa at The Oval in 1960 by Arlott and Richie Benaud (who made his BBC debut on the radio that summer). Another immodest choice was by Alec Bedser, who requested the Alec Bedser Calypso by Lord Kitchener and the St Vincent Street Six.
Only two guests wanted the means to watch cricket while on the island. Predictably, Dickie Bird was one. Less so Frank Worrell, who desired a projector with film of old matches. If audio of just one of the lost programmes could be rediscovered, it should be Worrell’s; he died too soon to leave much spoken record of his life and wisdom.
Wisden is a popular choice of book among cricket folk, but it pays to word the request properly. Cowdrey asked for the 1956 edition, so that if he tired of hearing about himself on the radio he could read about his success on his first tour of Australia in 1954–55. Bird asked for the latest edition, but Boycott and Bedser both demanded the complete set. Tony Greig said that he wanted enough Wisdens to write a book about his career, so Plomley allowed a range dating back to when Greig was an eight-year-old.
The most cricket-focused selection of all (although Tim Rice’s luxury was a cricket bag) was by a footballer. Gary Lineker chose Wisden and a bowling machine (he thought that there would be willow trees on the island so he could knock up a bat himself), and picked the BBC cricket theme Soul Limbo by Booker T and the MGs as his favourite record.
What do the discs say about the cricketers who choose them? Often nothing that we did not already know. Geoff Boycott’s favourite disc in 1971 was My Way. Tony Greig’s choices read like a playlist from Family Favourites in the late 1960s or early 1970s, though it does cement his transnational reputation for being all things to everybody: Vera Lynn singing There’ll Always Be an England was followed by Kenneth McKellar with Scotland the Brave. This was some years before Greig discovered his Sri Lankan aunt.
Ian Botham had his mates supply a good proportion of the music – The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John – but also picked pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Elgar. The Sun Has Got His Hat On was an apt choice by Derek Randall, who also opted for the team song of the 1972 Australians, Here Come the Aussies. To the tune of Chelsea’s “Blue is the Colour”, the Aussies trilled such deathless lyrics as: “We’ll play on through the English rain.” Randall also upheld the tradition of choosing a cricketing calypso with The Bumper Song by The Bumpers, which he dedicated to Jeff Thomson at the start of the 1977 Ashes.
However, Randall was outdone by Fred Trueman, who produced a recording of the Yorkshire team of the 1960s singing a number called Tables and Chairs, essentially an estate agent’s inventory backed by what we will loosely call music. Trueman chose Harold Macmillan’s memoirs as his book. We know that Fred was a Conservative supporter, but would he agree with the former prime minister that in the 1950s the British had “never had it so good”? “Never ’ad it so ’ard more like. Let ’im bowl 2,000 overs a season and see ’ow good ’e felt. I do not know…”
The most highbrow music selection (discounting that of Neville Cardus, there more as a music critic) was by Learie Constantine in 1963. He chose Massanet, Beethoven and Saint-Saëns as well as two tracks by Paul Robeson, who, like Constantine, was a campaigner for racial equality, and there was the inevitable calypso.
Imran Khan, who appeared in 1991, might have been reconciling himself to a life in politics with his choices of I Can See Clearly Now, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Or was he simply harking back to the more carefree partying days of his youth?
Perhaps the two standout performances on Desert Island Discs are by Phil Edmonds and Andrew Flintoff. There are dozens of cricketers with more distinguished careers than Edmonds who have never came close to an invitation to the island. That he did so was due to the admiration of Michael Parkinson, briefly host of the show after the death of Plomley. Parkinson introduced Edmonds in 1986 by saying that the Middlesex spinner should be England captain, an opinion that his guest made no attempt to disagree with, though neither did he dissent from his wife’s description of him as “an intolerable prat”.
Edmonds described how trying he found the “childish behaviour” of his teammates, and shows no sympathy for press intrusion in what he calls their “supposed private lives”. Such disregard of the team ethos would not be tolerated now but it is a surprise he got away with it even back then, considering that the programme was broadcast just as he set off to spend four months with his teammates in Australia. Edmonds also makes clear that his choice of I Just Called to Say I Love You was not intended as a rapprochement with Mike Brearley – he said his fractious relationship with his captain was like “falling out with a myth”.
It became apparent that Edmonds had what many modern sports stars lack: perspective drawn from life experience. He described how his family was ostracised from colonial society in Zambia for offering support to Kenneth Kaunda and the independence movement, only to see those who had shunned them rewarded when Kaunda took power. It is our loss that Edmonds has not spared some of the time commentating that he has spent on making, losing and re-making his millions since retiring.
A few months later, Parkinson had Edmonds’ wife Frances, who had become famous for her warts-and-all tour diaries – on the show, jollily declaring that one of the attractions of isolation on the island would be getting away from “Philippe Henri”. But two of her music choices were the same as his, and her luxury Bollinger ’69 would complement his Royal Jamaica cigars perfectly.
When Kirsty Young introduced Flintoff in 2015 it was as “Freddie”, which was how he had identified himself to her. During the interview she coaxed the more thoughtful, vulnerable Andrew to come out of his hiding place in Freddie’s shadow. He spoke, without self-pity, about his issues with alcohol and depression. The music choices were Andrew’s not Fred’s. There was Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra (“I don’t like this boom-boom music”). He was one of a minority of castaways to choose a novel (To Kill a Mockingbird), simply because he enjoyed it.
This was Desert Island Discs at its best, allowing the listeners to learn more about a person and seeing beyond their public image. Freddie has had deserved success with his TV career since he was cast away, but it would be good to hear from Andrew from time to time.