x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Cricket broadcasting star is the voice of new Abu Dhabi school

Henry Blofeld is promoting the capital's branch of Brighton College, which is set to open in September.

Henry Blofeld, cricket commentator and friend of Brighton College Abu Dhabi, at his home in West London this week. Stephen Lock for The National
Henry Blofeld, cricket commentator and friend of Brighton College Abu Dhabi, at his home in West London this week. Stephen Lock for The National

"Is it dreadful?" asks Henry "Blowers" Blofeld, his upper-crust English accent ringing out loud and clear on this early morning phone call between Abu Dhabi and London.

Blofeld is one of the most distinctive voices of cricket commentary anywhere in the world. More recently, his plummy tones have been heard booming out of radio sets right across the Emirates. He is the voice of a series of three startling advertisements recorded to promote Brighton College Abu Dhabi, the newest school to emerge on the capital's ever-changing horizon.

When I tell him his commercials seem to pop up on the radio with remarkable regularity, he expresses concern that he might be overexposed. He needn't worry. In fact, the campaign has the capital's chattering classes - a key demographic if this new venture is to establish a significant presence in Abu Dhabi's competitive education market - chattering.

The first independent (for that, read fee-paying) school to be established in the southern English county of Sussex, Brighton College opened its doors in 1845. In more recent years the school has carved out a reputation, in the UK at least, as a high-flyer in academic circles. It claims to have achieved the best A-level results of any coeducational facility in England in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Abu Dhabi branch, a joint venture with Bloom Properties, will welcome its first intake of students in September.

Blowers forged his link with the school's Abu Dhabi adventure this year, during one of his regular sorties to the capital. He is the honorary president of the Emirates Palace Gentlemen's Cricket Club and regularly turns out as pitchside commentator for Lashings CC, an all-star touring team of ex-professional cricketers who play most of their season on the village greens of England, but decamp to Abu Dhabi once a year to play on the lush grounds of the seven-star hotel.

"I thought the whole business of the school was a wonderful idea. It seems to me that Abu Dhabi is the gateway to the East. This is where all the influence in the world today is going and I thought the idea of [putting a branch of Brighton College there] was terrific," says Blowers. "Then I met Brendan Law, who is an extremely impressive figure." Law is the headmaster of Brighton College Abu Dhabi.

Law is also, according to Blofeld, "going to leave absolutely nothing to chance". A gentle nod, perhaps, to the little more than a hundred days left until the school has to start delivering on its promise to be the best in Abu Dhabi. "His thinking about the whole project is tremendous. It deserves to succeed and I am happy to help."

Blofeld spent his own school days at Sunningdale, a small preparatory school in the south-east of England, before moving on to Eton and finally to King's College, Cambridge. And while those famous names suggest someone who, by his own reckoning, was "born with a silver spoon in his mouth", the reality is closer to a few years spent studying at the school of hard knocks.

Blofeld was kept in check at Sunningdale by Miss Paterson, the kind of "robust woman" who is often found stalking the hallways of England's private schools. "Had she been born on the other side of the fence she would have been at least a regimental sergeant-major," he says.

Then it was onwards to Eton and a promising few years as a more than half-decent schoolboy cricketer. Promising that is until his last term when, in a moment of lost concentration, Blofeld rode his bicycle into the side of a bus. It was an horrific accident that left him unconscious for 28 days and hospitalised for many more. He was lucky to survive the ordeal, let alone dust himself off and take up his place at King's.

But Blofeld lasted only two years at university. "I think when I went up to Cambridge I wasn't a terribly whole person in a funny sort of way.

"I always did as little work as I could and enjoyed myself as much as I possibly could. This was a combination you could get away with to some extent in those days ... but you couldn't do it at King's."

He stayed long enough to earn a "blue" for his cricketing achievements - the accolade given to only the highest achieving athletes at the university - although Blofeld modestly writes it off as a "bad" blue.

"I was never going to go on and be a professional cricketer," he says. "Perhaps I might have done if I hadn't had the accident." King's valued academic achievement over sporting endeavour and turfed Blowers out when his exam results didn't pass muster.

Cut adrift, Blofeld used some family connections to secure a job at a merchant bank in the city of London, where he floundered. "They were," he says, "the worst three years of my life." Desperate to escape the world of high finance, he started writing about cricket for The Times of London in 1962 and then, a decade later, began his broadcasting career for the BBC.

Now, close to 40 years since making his radio debut, Blofeld will be back in the box for at least 20 days of test match cricket this summer, commentating on England's duels with India, the recently crowned champions of the one-day cricket world, and Sri Lanka.

Sadly though, Blofeld, 71 years young, thinks his broadcasting days might be numbered. "I'd like to think I could do two or three more years, but I don't know if I will. You have to stop while people still want to hear your voice," he says.

Plenty still do, of course. His clipped tones may be a throwback to another era, but his sharp sporting mind remains undimmed by the passing years. Indeed, in certain circles, he is as much of an English institution as afternoon tea.

In the winter months Blowers takes a one-man show out on the road to the provincial theatres of the UK, where he talks - he is rarely lost for words - about his upbringing, and his life and times with the great and the good, including Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Ian Fleming.

He maintains that Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, "pinched" his family name for 007's archenemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a recurring character possessed of perhaps the most famous Persian cat in the world. Fleming was at school with Blofeld's father.

Blowers expects to be back in Abu Dhabi this year for a brief visit at the conclusion of the English cricket season in September, and is keeping his fingers crossed that he will return once again early next year when, if all goes to plan, Pakistan will play England in a test match and one-day series in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Pakistan Cricket Board has yet to make the final decision on where the games will be staged - Sri Lanka is also in the bidding to host the matches - but the signs are not unpromising.

"I hope I might get selected to commentate on those games. That would be rather lovely," he says.