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Journo Talk 1: Jarrod Kimber tells me to get real

I am hoping this might turn into a semi-regular feature, in which proper cricket journalists talk about their jobs while I grow increasingly jealous and bitter.

First up, it’s ESPN Cricinfo’s Jarrod Kimber. 

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By Sam Blackledge

When Jarrod Kimber replies to my e-mail, I feel a twinge of excitement.

This could be it, I think. My ticket to the inner sanctum. Another step closer to the dream.

Then I read his answer to my first question: ‘What advice would you give to a budding cricket journalist?

“Find a niche,” he says.

“Just being a cricket writer isn’t going to get you anywhere unless you are lucky enough to pick up a gig with a newspaper, and even then you probably need to be known for something to get a foot in the door anywhere.

“You need to specialise in something and be known for that, because cricket is so big, so vast, that trying to make it without something you are known for would be very hard.

“So your best bet is to find something that no one is covering or focusing on, and do that.”

Translation: good luck, kid.

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In the space of a few years Jarrod has gone from the enfant terrible of cricket blogging, littering the web with snarls of ‘fucken’ this and ‘Christ’s sake’ that, to an established – if not quite establishment – journalist.

He insists the potty-mouthed voice of Cricket With Balls, the anarchic site where it all started, was just a character.

“It was never really going to cross over to the mainstream,” he says.

“The way I write now is probably more like how I wrote before I wrote about cricket: long form pieces, telling stories.

“If anything it just took me a long time to come back to that in cricket, partly because I created this other identity.

“But also things change. I’m a father now, I’m almost ten years older than when I started.

“I also learnt too much about how the cricket administration sausage was made, which meant I stopped being comfortable making the players into villains.

“I still have the character of Cricket With Balls, and am working on a novel in his voice, but for now am happy with how I am writing.”

The contents of the sausage were revealed in Death of a Gentleman, the 2015 documentary Jarrod made with fellow reporter Sam Collins.

They set out to explore the future of Test cricket, but stumbled into a murky world of secret ICC meetings, questionable financial governance and intimidation.

I ask Jarrod whether, given the growing awareness of corruption, drug abuse and dodgy dealing, sports journalists are now required to think more like news reporters.

“One of the things I love about writing on sport is that you always get the chance to write about other things within it,” he says.

“Business, power, race, politics, all of it is right there.

“The problem with many sports writers is that they started working when their job was turning up at a ground or a press conference and reporting what happened.

“You would hope the future involves more sports writers breaking stories and not fearing retribution (which does happen), that more people look into the bigger picture, not just the day-in day-out nature of it. But you could say the same of pretty much all of society.

“Sport is corrupt. It is poorly run. The best interests of the sport are not being looked after and there are tonnes of stories out there.

“Sport has never been this corrupt, and there are more sports journalists than ever before.

“Instead of just regurgitating content they should be questioning people and organisations.”

I became slightly obsessed with Jarrod and Sam when they teamed up as ‘Two pricks at the Ashes’ and later ‘The Chuck Fleetwood-Smiths’, trying not to corpse their way through a series of video blogs from Test grounds around the world.

Their mock homo-erotic relationship, and the simple fact that they appeared to be having the most tremendous fun, brightened up many a dark winter night.

These days Jarrod is still hovering around the boundary edge, soaking up the atmosphere and putting the cricket into perspective with typical panache for readers of Cricinfo and listeners to his TalkSport podcast.

I’m interested to know whether, like many news reporters, the cricketing press pack are worried about the way the industry is heading.

“I think clickbait is dying a natural death at the moment,” he says.

“It will be replaced by something else, perhaps worse. The listicle is the thing now, but even that is not as full-on as it was a year or two ago.

“Long form has actually had something of a comeback, and I would say now there are more long articles written about cricket than at any time in history.

“I think what will go from cricket writing is match reports being the major form of writing.

“We can see the highlights now easier than ever before. What we need is the analysis, the context and the story.

“The best match reports often did this, but there is no need to give the entire story of a day’s play anymore, just take out what matters.”

Twenty20 has revolutionised the modern game, but it’s not just players and coaches who have had to adapt their approach.

Jarrod says a T20 match report is “about as important as a fart in a mooncup”, and believes journalists must keep pace as the game continues to evolve.

“The sport will dictate the changes and the writers and editors will follow,” he says.

“There won’t be many in the media leading the way, just like the administrators don’t lead the way.

“The sport leads, the rest follow.”

Follow Jarrod on Twitter here.

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Ronald and me

CRICKET England 9THE obituaries, whenever they come, may begin in similar fashion. Born in the West Midlands in the 1980s and brought up in Birmingham, he developed a love of cricket at a young age. A determined individual with a baby-faced complexion, his worst enemy was his own self-doubt. It turns out Ian Bell and I have a few things in common. Unfortunately that’s where the comparisons end. Bell is now the 12th man to play 100 Test Matches for England. At the time of writing, I haven’t even played one.

Every cricket lover has a few heroes, but die-hard fans develop much deeper and more complex relationships with the men in the middle. Bell made his first class debut at the age of 17, three years older than me, as Warwickshire began to emerge from an almighty hangover following the champagne-drenched success of the mid-90s. It was clear that Bell had all the talent, but in a narrative that would become familiar to England fans a decade later, it was a frustrating beginning. I would sit in the members’ stand at Edgbaston watching him compile the most technically correct 20-odd before nicking a length ball outside off stump to the keeper. It became a bit of a running joke, almost as if he was embarrassed to possess so much talent and didn’t quite know how to use it.

As Bell became established the inevitable England calls came, but he never seemed to rack up a huge weight of championship runs, relying more on his potential. Praise offered to youngsters early in their career can often end up as an albatross – in a quote so often cited that it may not even be accurate, the one and only Dayle Hadlee said Bell was “the best 16-year-old I’ve ever seen.” If Dayle has not dined out enough on tales of backyard cricket with younger brother Richard, the bars of Christchurch will surely echo to the tune of ‘I told you so’ long after Bell finally hangs up his pads.

Our man shuffled nervously on to the international stage in 2004 and endured a well-documented struggle in the following summer’s Ashes, a timid new boy in the playground, out-thought and out-fought by the big bad Australian bullies. Many things would have been different if England had lost that series, not least that Bell may have disappeared back into the Edgbaston shadows like so many before him. Jim Troughton, anyone?

Over the next few years I grew up, morphing from a timid teen into a slightly less timid 20-something. University, the clichéd move to London, the first office job, the burgeoning relationship. I followed Bell’s progress from afar as he went through his own growing pains, glad that I didn’t have an army of angry fans venting their spleen online every time I slipped up.

So much of what I saw in the development of Ian Bell, I saw in myself. The puffed-out chest, the ill-conceived attempt to grow a little beard; transparent attempts to become a man, to impose himself on a world which was scary but which he so badly wanted to conquer. He couldn’t rid himself of the Brummie accent or the shy interview demeanour, but he knew he had the talent and backed himself to reach his goal.

Cricket - Second Test - Day Three - Bangladesh v England - Shere Bangla National StadiumSlowly but surely, almost unnoticed amid the management hokey-cokey and Pietersen histrionics, he became a senior player. He even won the fans round, shedding the ‘Sherminator’ tag and gaining the much more glorious moniker ‘The Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice’. My friends and I still refer to him simply as ‘Ronald’ (as in ‘sounds familiar’: ‘it rings a Ronald’), his middle name and a strangely fitting epithet for a man who, despite the fact that he will be remembered as one of the most gifted sportsmen of his generation, is still just a kid from Coventry made good.

Last summer, as he took a break between the Champions Trophy final and a career-defining Ashes series, I saw Bell visiting his teammates at a Warwickshire second XI match. He arrived in a pricey-looking 4×4, accompanied by his wife and young son and exuding a palpable aura. His mere presence prompted awed whispers and impressive glances from the sparse crowd.

There was no denying it – the young Bear had become a superstar.

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A perfect match

Most relationships can be mapped out in significant moments. First date, first kiss, first argument, first time you split the cost of a bus ticket.

We have all of that, and more. But we also have cricket.

We met that glorious summer when Vaughan and Flintoff’s fearless England banished the ghosts of 18 years.

Those were the days. Nervous energy, crazy haircuts, prima donnas taking on the world – plus a constant supply of beers, a never-ending binge.

And that was just the drama students we were prancing around with at the Edinburgh Fringe.

She knew nothing about cricket at first. We went to the pub where I ran through the rules, perched on too high stools, battling the background noise and football fools.

We spent all night in that dirty old joint. She didn’t understand why it was called silly point.

As the famous Edgbaston Test reached its thrilling finale, I was involved in a different kind of theatre. I had let hope go, switched off my radio and headed in as the Aussie tail-enders edged them closer to the win.

For Old Trafford, we were nestled in a corner booth in one of those awful sports bars, all neon lights, stodgy burgers and mounted fake guitars.

We craned our necks up at the plasma TVs as an exhausted Steve Harmison fell to his knees. He couldn’t break through the defensive wall, and it remained one all.

We took the lead on a Cornish clifftop, not far from where, eight years on, we would eventually settle. If not yet with 2.4 children, then certainly with Sky Sports HD and a broken kettle.

This time she waited for Brisbane as I paced the house, listening to Hussain, Gower and Strauss on what could be, what might have been. She endured the sleep-deprived mood swings, made soothing noises, as Clarke won the tosses and Johnson destroyed us.

The last time England surrendered the Ashes, we lived up north. The Humber rolled by and we struggled to find who we wanted to be. Now we run down to a different kind of sea; a different kind of her, and a different kind of me.

We tie each other in knots debating edges and hot-spots. What next for Flower? What now for Swann? And Jimmy, and Matty, and so on, and so on. And one other problem – where do I begin? “Honey, I’m home! We need to talk about Kevin…”

Such talent, such grace, such a fragile, bashful mess. He could have been the greatest, still could yet. When he first showed up, I loved his cheeky grin. But age has built up barriers to keep the baddies out; and creases in his face, to keep his ego in.

Over breakfast we question what the future holds. Pass the jam, mind the cutlery. Stokes or Woakes? Chopra, Ballance? Finny, Rooty, Buttler-y?

We hope to see the day when one of our own strolls through the Long Room, greeted by a roar. “Make way”, they’ll say, “and hold the door. The incoming batsman – the latest of the Blackledge clan at number four.”

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The Ashes: Karma, pride and the pantomime press

England were completely outplayed in the first Test at the Gabba, and deserved their heavy defeat. But this is a long series, and Alastair Cook’s side have a history of bouncing back. They will need to draw on that over the coming weeks.

On the pitch, the match was won by the Aussie bowlers. Mitchell Johnson was quick and hostile, Harris and Siddle were steady and accurate and Nathan Lyon exploited a bouncy Brisbane pitch and scrambled English minds.

Away from the action, the traditional hostilities between these two old foes have resumed with a bang. Stirred up by Darren Lehmann’s radio rant, the Aussie media – in particular Brisbane’s Courier Mail – went for Stuart Broad. They refused to name Broad, referring to him simply as “a 27-year-old English medium pace bowler”. The paper attracted some fierce criticism for this approach, particularly from rent-a-quote Shane Warne, who described it as “ridiculous” and “childish”. This from the man who named Ian Bell after a character in American Pie and asked Paul Collingwood if his MBE stood for “Must Be Embarrassing”. The legendary leggie seems to be suffering a sense of humour failure in his old age.

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I would argue the Courier Mail’s “campaign” was a bit of fun, and actually turned out to be a marketing masterstroke. Editors spend hours scratching their heads over how to entertain and engage their readers, while increasing the reach and circulation of their paper. Very few campaigns in regional media are unique, and most “off-diary” stories are simply recycled ideas. After his eye-catching front pages had been seen around the world, the Courier Mail’s editor, Christopher Dore, issued a po-faced “defence” of his editorial stance. He described Broad as a “wickedly good cricketer,” saying his “dastardly deception” had cost the Aussies the previous series. You can almost picture Mr Dore rubbing his hands together and sniggering behind his desk. The whole thing could not be more of a pantomime if Christopher Biggins had popped up at silly mid off.

Perhaps more relevant to the rest of the series were David Warner’s comments on the third evening of the first Test.  “England are on the back foot,” he said. “It does look like they’ve got scared eyes at the moment. The way that Trotty got out today was pretty poor and weak.” Trott’s dismissals in both innings were disappointing, bounced out in inevitable fashion by a rampaging Johnson. It’s a technical problem, highlighted by some excellent bowling. Poor? Definitely. But scared, and weak? As the words came out of his moustachioed mouth, Cricket Australia’s press officer visibly cringed, perhaps recalling Warner’s history. Punching an opponent in a bar. Ranting at journalists on Twitter. Skipping a match he was due to play in to spend a day at the races.

Warner had his day in the sun at the Gabba, backing up his words with a belligerent century. I’m all for players breaking the trend for bland, media managed press conferences. But perhaps he should concentrate on his own game, and leave the “poor” “weak” English to concentrate on theirs. As that great sage Andrew Flintoff once observed, “This game has got a funny way of biting you up the arse.”

As England’s top order came crashing down on Friday afternoon, TV producers raced into the archives to sift through the folder marked “collapses we have known”. After Mike Atherton’s side were skittled for 46 by Ambrose and Walsh at Trinidad in 1994, the selectors kept faith with the same batting line-up for the next Test, the theory being “you got us into this mess, now get us out of it.” Alec Stewart scored two centuries, Angus Fraser took eight wickets and England won. Almost 20 years on, Alastair Cook finds himself in a similarly tricky spot. For the last three Ashes series England have largely had things their own way. Now their backs are against the wall and they must show what they are made of.

An afterthought: Towards the end of the match a stump microphone caught Michael Clarke telling James Anderson to “get ready for a broken fucking arm”. This comment is being reported in isolation and blown up by English newspapers. My view is that all sorts of things get said on the field in the heat of battle, and the players on both sides give as good as they get. No big deal.

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The Ashes: A winning habit

THEY say familiarity breeds contempt. Too much time spent in the same company – whether it’s chattering work colleagues, bickering family members or the same old strangers on the bus every morning – will eventually drive you mad. But in recent years the England cricket team appears to have discovered that the team that tours together wins together.

As the Ashes hoopla kicks into gear again, less than three months after the last series ended under the Kennington floodlights, this seems like a good time to reflect on how far England have come in the last 20-odd years.

In November 1990, Graham Gooch’s side arrived in Brisbane hoping to recapture the little urn. Gooch was injured and sat out the first Test, forced to watch as his side were bowled out for 194 and 114, losing by ten wickets inside three days. They lost the series 3-0.

Four years later they were back, with just two surviving members from that hammering  – Michael Atherton, now captain, and Alec Stewart. England lost the Test, and the series 3-1.

In 1998, Atherton and Stewart swapped captaincy duties and returned for a third shot at glory on the old enemy’s turf. This time they brought along two more battle-weary warriors from the previous tour, Graham Thorpe and Darren Gough. England escaped with a draw thanks to an almighty thunderstorm on the final day, but surrendered the series 3-0.

Stewart, who by this time must have claimed himself a regular window seat on the flight down under, took his final Ashes bow on the 2002 tour, with only Mark Butcher and captain Nasser Hussain remaining from the ’98 team. Hussain famously won the toss on the first morning at Brisbane and chose to bowl, firing the starting pistol for a 4-1 defeat.

In 2005, of course, everything changed. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff discovered that winning was actually quite fun when you got used to it, especially when you could legitimately hit Ricky Ponting in the face.

Amid the champagne-soaked euphoria following that now legendary series, nobody seemed to much care about the future. So along came Brisbane…and the old curse struck again. From the team that started the 2002 series, only Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard remained in 2006. They watched Steve Harmison bowl the first ball to second slip, but neither of them would still be there at Sydney to witness the fifth nail in the whitewashed coffin.

These days, with England bidding for a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, it’s easier to list the players who have not survived the period between Australian tours. Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Anderson are on their third trip in a row. Of the XI that ground the Aussies into the dirt at the Gabba in 2010, only the retired Strauss and Collingwood are missing from this year’s touring party.

England have slowly but surely turned themselves into a cricketing family, a dynasty whereby as one player retires, another comes in to fill his spot – just as Steve Waugh’s Aussies used to do, in fact. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – they have yet to settle on a permanent replacement for Strauss at the top of the order and they don’t seem to know who should bat at number six – but it’s a world away from the touring merry-go-round of the 1990s.

Central contracts, better fitness regimes and an all-round professionalism have all contributed to England’s rise over the last few years. But one of the most important factors, often overlooked by fans and commentators looking for a quick fix, is consistency of selection.

There is talk that this England side – which will surely be judged in hindsight as being a golden generation  – is growing old. But don’t be surprised if the trend continues and most of them are back in Brisbane in four years’ time to compete for the urn yet again.

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The Ashes: A future without Flower

IN his autobiography, Playing With Fire, Nasser Hussain said his greatest fear for English cricket was what would happen when Duncan Fletcher moved on.  It is now more than six years since “the man behind the shades” parted company with the ECB, and many will find themselves experiencing a similar anxiety over the void that could be left by England’s latest enigmatic Zimbabwean coach.

Andy Flower took on the role in 2009, following the Peter Moores debacle, and was powerless to prevent England’s immediate capitulation in Jamaica, a result of frazzled minds and a lack of leadership. Since then Flower has overseen three consecutive Ashes victories and home and away series wins over India, either side of England’s rise to number one Test team in the world.

Like his predecessor, Flower has developed an inscrutable persona that gives nothing away and a protective shield around his close-knit group. As the press pack grows ever hungrier for a story away from the action, the vicious circle is squared. But Flower’s rare, brief and considered interviews often say more than endless hours of Sky Sports waffle and tabloid speculation ever could.

When the TV cameras caught up with him in the Oval darkness at the end of the fifth Test, as his players and their respective offspring cavorted and gurned their way across the outfield, Flower was his usual calm self. Paying tribute to his players and particularly his captain, he threaded some well-timed remarks neatly through the gloom up to the glowing media centre.

“There’s more to leadership than funky field placings and stuff like that,” he said. “I think Cook’s strong leadership was a key. The players need to trust and respect their leader. He is a man they all look up to and he has a certain conviction and inner strength that will serve English cricket well.”

Flower could just as easily have been eulogising himself. If Fletcher brought England out of themselves and taught them how to enjoy winning, with all the pedalos and open-topped buses that followed, Flower has moulded them into a mature, professional outfit with that “conviction and inner strength” that he showed himself so often as a player.

But how long will it last? Having relinquished control of the one-day side last year, reports are now suggesting Flower will quit for good after the Australian tour. When pressed on the issue during the Oval celebrations, he said simply: “We’ve got to enjoy the moment and not look too far ahead.” It was the diplomat’s response, the equivalent of the embattled MP’s “We’re doing all we can.”

It was not so long ago that English cricket fans, and moreover their representatives in broadcast and print, were simply happy to see their side winning. At the turn of the century, a 3-0 Ashes win would have been scarcely believable. On Monday several back pages chose to dwell on the bad light and inflexible umpiring that denied what would have been a hugely flattering 4-0 scoreline. The fact is, England are good, approaching very good, and have been so for quite some time now. Expectation levels have risen. Performance must follow suit.

If Flower does decide to hang up his laptop in a few months’ time, ideally toasting his departure with a fourth consecutive Ashes urn, he should be thanked and congratulated for all he has done. The ECB, now shorn of outgoing managing director Hugh Morris, will doubtless already be considering his likely successor.

Ashley Giles could take the logical step from one-day coach to full honours, but may be too inexperienced and lacking the toughness and spark required. Graham Gooch might stray the other way – a popular and familiar figure but could he innovate and bring a new approach?

From there the list of names roll off an increasingly familiar merry-go-round. Whatmore, Arthur, Buchanan, Kirsten – perhaps even a return for Fletcher himself. Whoever is chosen, if and when Flower steps aside, will have a tough act to follow. To call it a poisoned chalice would be misleading – the England coach would do well to drink from such a vessel as he ducks, dodges and dives to avoid the venomous darts coming at him from all angles. If one of them hits its target, he could always call for a review. But that’s another story.

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The Ashes: The dreaded yips

EACH day thousands of cricket fans all around the world write millions of words about the twists and turns of Test match cricket. Other than a select few who have made the transition from the crease to the press box, most are speaking from a position of relative ignorance. You can watch all the cricket you like, but you will never really feel what it’s like to play at the highest level.

On the first day of the final Test at The Oval, this merry band of naive bloggers – myself included – found themselves in a rare position of empathy as Simon Kerrigan and Chris Woakes took the field. Having watched England cultivate such a successful, settled side over the last few years, it was quite a shock to the system to see two young, untried bowlers making their debut in an Ashes Test. There will have been a few red faces among the aforementioned player-turned pundit corp on Wednesday as the team was revealed – not least those who had confidently written in that morning’s paper that Chris Tremlett was set for a return to the fold. Beware the leaking source.

Kerrigan’s platter of head-high full tosses and slow long hops were brutally taken apart by Shane Watson, suddenly transformed from walking wicket to playground bully. The crowd winced and looked on with pity. If you have ever bowled a spell at any level of cricket in which things have gone horribly wrong, you will know exactly what Kerrigan was going through. Particularly if, like yours truly, you specialise in spin.

Every new match starts full of hope. The captain throws you the ball and you have a blank sheet. Anything could happen. You try to land it in the right spot, just to find your rhythm. But before you can settle you’re craning your neck to watch another six sailing into the trees. You try to fire in a quicker ball, but it pitches halfway down, maybe bouncing twice on the way. You give the next one some air, but overcompensate and send down an airborne missile. In my first over of this season with a new club, having not bowled since the previous year, I launched a floating beamer towards the batsman’s head. No harm done, no ball called, sheepish apology offered. Did I mention the batsman was a girl?

It is difficult to understand or explain the mechanics of this peculiar phenomenon known as “the yips”. The one thing that can’t cure it is trying harder. Your grip tightens on the ball, your release point changes, you start modifying your run-up, never a good idea when you’re in the thick of the action.

One of the most famous examples of the chronic yips is Steve Harmison’s delivery to kick off the 2006-07 Ashes. The delivery went straight from Harmison’s hand to his captain, Andrew Flintoff, at second slip. Looking back on the moment that many believe defined that entire series, Harmison said as he stood at the top of his mark he didn’t want to let the ball go, and had no idea where on earth it might land. In the final of the 2001 C&G Trophy, Leicestershire’s Scott Boswell suffered an outbreak of the raging yips. He sent down a 14-ball over. Six of the first eight balls, including five in a row, were wides. Boswell was reduced to a YouTube footnote.

When the yips get you, time slows down. Your action feels alien, like you are a newborn baby learning how to walk. When you do let go of the ball, you automatically take a step back, just in case the batsman should choose to send the ball hurtling back in your direction.

Each boundary is met with silence from your team mates. There might be the odd “keep your head up” or “back on it now”. But there is nothing anyone can say. You turn crimson. You feel like you’ve turned solid.

Getting out for a duck, an area in which I also have plenty of experience, is unpleasant and embarrassing. But at least you can walk off the field and bury your shame in your kitbag. In the midst of attack of the yips, the bowling crease is probably the loneliest place a cricketer can be.

Simon Kerrigan is, by all accounts, a quality bowler, and may well go on to have a long and successful career. If there is a positive side to his first day on the job, it’s that it gives hope to club cricketers all around the world who have ever stood at the end of their mark thinking “what next?”

Chin up, Kegs. It happens to the worst of us.

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The Royal baby and cricketers’ middle names

THE Royal baby finally has a name. George Alexander Louis. Perhaps in 20 years time he will appear on a cricket scorecard as G A L Windsor.

With all the many wonderful modern innovations the sport has adopted in recent years, a few old traditions have fallen by the wayside. Growing up I would obsess over equipment, statistics, conditions and commentators. But nothing takes me back to my misspent youth quite like a line of cricketing initials.

There are the regal-sounding ones. P C R Tufnell. I D K Salisbury. C E L Ambrose. M J K Smith. Look at those letters. They are beauty in its purest form.

There are names that say so much about the player. Mark Ravin Ramprakash – liable to the occasional rant. David Ivon Gower – posh boy. Brian Charles Lara – Prince among men. Tino la Bertram Best – show pony.

Sometimes a cricketer can be defined by his middle names. Bob Willis was christened Robert George, adding ‘Dylan’ in homage to the old rocker.

The likes of W G Grace and R E S Wyatt are still known only by their initials, years after their deaths.

Abraham Benjamin de Villiers went with the much shorter, and cooler, AB. Owais Alam Shah has the advantage of being pronounced the same way whether using initials or full name. And don’t even get me started on Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas.

Some cricketers choose to switch things around and confuse everyone. A good quiz question – which 1980s England opening batsman had the initials C W J? It was of course Bill ‘William’ Athey. When England’s current number three first broke into the Warwickshire side, a friend of mine took a perplexed look at the scorecard bearing the legend I L J Trott and exclaimed “Ian who?”

In this era of short attention spans and exploding stumps, nobody has the time to examine the small print in The Times, looking for such eccentric, irrelevant details. But there are signs that the trend for superfluous monikers is returning. In the first Ashes Test at Nottingham this year, three of Australia’s top five batsmen had three first initials. Christopher John Llewellyn Rogers perhaps has a future with Glamorgan. Edward James McKenzie Cowan has a hint of Scottish about it. And as for Steven Peter Devereux Smith – like the tenacious all-rounder himself, it’s neither one thing nor the other.

S C J Broad and N R D Compton are carrying on their family names, Stuart’s C from his father Chris and Nick’s D from grandfather Denis.
Perhaps the young prince could follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, MCC member Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh KG KT OM GBE AC QSO GCL CC CMM PC ADC(P). Apparently he was a leg spinner in his day.

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The Ashes – Office ball games

WHEN you have been obsessed with a particular subject for as long as you can remember, what do you do when everybody else starts taking an interest too?

During the summer of 2005, many English cricket fans who thought they were part of a small, elite group suddenly realised they were not alone. For so long football had dominated the back pages – and often the front pages too – as we griped and moaned about how the real beautiful game never gets a look in. When Ashes fever gripped the nation, everything was different. Jonathan Agnew recently observed that the way people watch cricket in this country changed that summer.

Luckily for us precious die-hard fans, those nice people from Sky were kind enough to come along and remove cricket from “normal” TV, restoring once more the sport’s long-held image of elitism that it had worked so long and hard to shed.

My company recently moved into a new office, and within clear view of my desk there are two large plasma screens. This is not uncommon in a newsroom – we need to keep abreast of any breaking national stories. But just before the first Test began, both screens were re-tuned to the newly and entirely pointlessly re-named Sky Sports Ashes.

Weekdays during Test matches have now become something of a personal war of attrition. One one hand, I have a busy and demanding job which requires concentration throughout the day. On the other hand, the Ashes is on. Every time the bowler reaches the top of his mark, my eyes shift inevitably from my PC screen to focus on the bright light in the middle distance. I don’t even have to turn my head.

Then there are my co-workers. The editor-in-chief of my newspaper’s sister paper is a cricket nut. Obsessed with the game. This I can cope with. This I can identify with.

His news editor operates on a similar level, but seems strangely able to focus on his work even when Australians wickets are falling above our heads.

The guy sitting directly opposite me is Canadian. Yesterday he told me he made an effort to watch the cricket when “Stuart Smith” was batting, but struggled to understand the scoring system and found it all a bit boring.

Our chief sub-editor is a rugby man, but recently revealed that he is a demon bowler for his Twenty20 midweek team.

At the other end of the scale, there are those who can’t stand the game. Our crime reporter pulls a face whenever it is mentioned. The web editor doesn’t like the sun, or going outside at all, never mind any kind of sport. Arriving on Monday morning, he greeted me by asking: “Is that the end of the cricket now then?” When I said there are nine more Tests to go before January, each of them five days long, he sighed.

Then there are the Johnny-Come-Latelys. When our head of news discovered my love for the game, she mocked and called me a geek. But as the first Test was drawing to its dramatic conclusion, I received an excitable message asking how my nerves were holding up.

Wading into the growing debate, one of our trainee reporters described cricket as “just rounders in a straight line, innit?”

I don’t yet know how I feel about my colleagues’ sudden interaction with my lifelong passion. Sometimes I want to jump out of my seat and shout “You don’t understand! You weren’t there at the beginning! It wasn’t always like this, you know! Do the words Mark Lathwell mean nothing to you people?”

But for now I will content myself with the thought that I know more about what’s going on than most of them. And if any of you are reading this in the office, which I expect you are, my message is this: Please don’t change the channel. I promise I’ll get back to work. Just one more over.

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The Ashes: First Test day 5 – Out of range

SOMETIMES it’s the things we don’t witness, rather than the things we do, which stick in the memory. On the final day of the second Test at Edgbaston in 2005, I was standing outside a small theatre in Edinburgh waiting to take part in a dress rehearsal for a play. Glued to my portable radio, I was beckoned inside as Australia got within 12 runs of victory with one wicket remaining. That’s that, I thought. While the greatest Test finish of the modern age was playing out in my home town, I was prancing around a dark Scottish studio pretending to be Franz Kafka.

A week later, I missed the entire final day of the Old Trafford Test. Having avoided the score, I sought out an Edinburgh sports bar for the soundless highlights as the Aussies scraped a draw. I still see Ricky Ponting’s giant plasma face looming over me in my dreams.

I heard the end of that year’s Trent Bridge Test perching on a steep cliff in deepest Cornwall, before actually managing to find a screen – this time back at university in Hull – for the last rites.

At the start of the ill-fated return series in 2006-07, my main memory is wandering around East Yorkshire trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to find a pub showing the cricket in a town of football and rugby league. The rest of that series has been erased from my mind. Can’t think why.

In 2009, I thought my bad luck had ended when I made it to a couple of days of the Edgbaston Test. I even had a ticket to the fifth day at The Oval, which was shaping up to be a victory parade for the home team. But they were too good. Swann, Harmison and Andrew Flintoff’s famous run-out of Ricky Ponting ensured a fourth-day win – and I missed it all, again, stuck on a slow train from Cornwall to London.

This year I vowed it would never happen again. I invested in Sky Sports, and was all set for a thrilling summer stuck to the sofa while all the other children played outside. But having closely followed the opening four days of the first Test, I was dragged away at the crucial period.

With Australia eight down and needing 100 to win, I set off on the road to a family barbecue. No matter, I thought, TMS will keep me informed. The ninth wicket fell and we lost signal. Out of range for the best part of an hour, I was fearing the worst. We arrived at our destination and immediately asked our host how the cricket was going. “Abysmal”. 20 to win.

We sat in the garden, the faint sounds of Aggers and co drifting out from the kitchen. When the final wicket fell, a confusion of DRS, hot spot, snicko and an overturned decision, I didn’t know what to do. For the last four days I had been yelling, screaming and punching the air at the fall of every wicket. At one point my neighbour was heard to remark “It sounds like you’ve got the Barmy Army in there.” And now, at the most crucial time, I was surrounded by in-laws who have at best a passing interest in the game.

I stuck another sausage in a bun, reached for the ketchup and allowed myself a smile. It’s going to be a long summer.

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