Thursday, 21 March 2013

THE KING AND I



For some reason, I never much liked the sentence “I am a ___,” no matter which word or phrase completed it (I’m sure people that know me have a few choice – mainly profane – options to hand, but I’m talking about careers or other forms of identity). It always seemed so fixed, so final, so definitive, and I had always liked eluding definition. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not, as Arctic Monkeys put it. 

The other day, while trudging through a conversation’s introductory small-talk, someone I’d known for two gulps of lager asked me what I did (I presume he meant for a job). “I’m a cricket writer,” I said, without much thought. No sooner had it left my mouth, however, than I wanted to qualify it, de-glamourise it, be accurate – “It’s not regular work and I’m barely making ends meet”; “I’m freelancing at a time when journalism as a whole is struggling to pay the bills, what with all the free content on the web”; “I’m a chancer, a bum”; “I’m constantly having to think of ideas, pitching them to stressed editors, badgering stressed editors, annoying stressed editors, looking for other editors”. It feels like hard work, alright, but not like a job.  

Old friends at Moddershall may also say that if there was one thing I was expert at, it was avoiding work. At times, I’ve followed that famous maxim of Mark Twain: why put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after that. But it’s not true that I’m work-shy; I’m merely trying to avoid work that I dislike doing – which, given that I dislike most of it, is proving quite difficult. A real effort, in fact; pretty much a job.

Anyway, in January 2011, having finally submitted my PhD thesis (ten years, much extenuation) and while waiting for the viva voce exam (a two-hour interview with internal and external examiners, the latter an expert, to ensure you haven’t copy-pasted it off t’internet), I got involved as sports editor with a Nottingham magazine, Leftlion, my sole purpose being to wile away some time watching Notts from the comfort of the press box before the July Judgement Day arrived (it arrived the following January after Professor Beasley-Murray, University of Vancouver, also decided he didn’t like work, and went AWOL). That and the odd free lunch.

That summer, I watched two days of the season opener against Hampshire and perhaps spent another dozen days down there, the highlight being seeing Trescothick make an imperious 80-odd in the same game that Kieswetter and Hales both made big, though less impressive, hundreds. While the standard was high, it was, apart from the T20 games, all snoozily low-key. Blasting Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’ over the PA system (mandatory at T20) at a ‘Champo’ game might truthfully describe the few hundred sloppily shaven, biscuit crumb-covered men dotted about the ground, just out of range for small-talk with any other living soul whatsoever, but would, on balance, probably have been a tad incongruous. 

view from Trent Bridge press box
In any case, I grasped that this county reporting malarkey was a perfectly pleasant way to make a living (several hacks think Trent Bridge’s press box the best in the country, due to its perfect viewing angle and, crucially, having the canteen right behind it), even if it lacked real big-stage excitement. Last year, however, I got to feel what cricket writing could really be like as I covered the England versus West Indies Test down by the Trent for Spin magazine.

After two days of sedate pre-game press conferences with coaches, skippers and the Duracell enthusiasm of Sky Sports’ Tim Abrahams, the game, at last, arrived. I awoke as excited as if playing a title-decider or cup final. Nottingham basked beneath some late-May sun – it had rained for a week either side of this six-day period – and I, King Slugabed, eagerly caught tram and bus across the city, walked over the bridge through the buzz and swell of slowly lubricating supporters (even before 10am), had my ECB accreditation swiped, then went up to find my seat, fire up the laptop and, well, get some complementary food. Nom, nom.

The chalk-and-cheese difference in the bleachers from County Championship to Test was replicated within the press’s inner sanctum: where a county game might have ten there (couple of the broadsheets, local press, cricinfo, press officers for the two teams, OPTA), here around 70 of the 92 seats were taken. There were the Oxbridge-educated ex-internationals: Mike Atherton and Ed Smith (Times), Derek Pringle and Steve James (Telegraph), Mike Selvey and Vic Marks (Guardian); there were the correspondents, Peter Hayter, Stephen Brenkley, Paul Newman, the red-toppers John Etheridge and Dean Wilson; a couple of Caribbean scribes; reporters from press agencies (AP, AFP, Reuters) and websites and the other magazines; owlish Wisden editor Lawrence Booth; ECB employees; sponsors reps; plastic zebras; a scorer with a microphone, helpfully dispensing statistics. TVs were on and a masseuse right behind me soothed the probably-already-quite-relaxed muscles of MCJ Nicholas as he whispered his probably-minor stresses to her.

Notts had provided stewards to ensure there was no movement within (or traffic in and out of) the press box when the bowler was operating from our end, Radcliffe Road (which was, y’know, roughly half the time…). The lugubrious Pringle, keen to avail his massive heft of the masseuse’s kneading skills, tried to beetle along the row between deliveries, only to be admonished by some sergeant-majorly volunteer who set about explaining why the hacks couldn’t move. “Yes, thanks, I get it,” Pringle fired back, tersely. “I did play the odd game, you know. Here and there.” 

Pringle bowls at someone...
Nasser Hussain would bob in between commentary stints, open his laptop, keeping himself to himself; Bumble occasionally shuffled in to sit next to his ghost writer, feeding him opinions and generally grinning (apropos of drawing breath); Mikey Holding dropped in now and then, soft-shoed and cool; Beefy remained up above somewhere. The canteen was full of people I had spent idle days watching when I ought to have been researching Peronist Argentina: Mark Butcher, relaxed as a pussycat, playing finger drums on the table; Alec Stewart carefully unfolding his napkin, neat and tidily in character; Michael Vaughan, asking if he could borrow the salt and pepper. Aggers, Tuffers, Wardy, Simon Hughes buzzed through.

It was, I guess, an intimidating experience. Your eyes cast around for friendly faces, looking – hoping – for small-talk. I had an ice-breaking device (no, not an ice-pick) or two, however, inasmuch as I’d been collating questionnaires from cricket writers, which gave me an excuse to approach the seemingly more approachable characters. Amiable men I’d seen on the county beat – Andy Wilson and George Dobell – struck up conversation over lunch. I soon got into the swing (although the ‘work’ is much more intense, as the game seems to skip by) and was even able to steal 10 minutes with the doyen of Caribbean broadcasters, Tony Cozier, receiving a comprehensive answer to the question Id bundled into his day about why West Indies had so many players of Indian descent. While people are too busy to spend too much time away from their computers or microphones to chit-chat, I was, by and large, welcomed. I was even asked to do a Two Chucks 20-second slot on cricinfo after a close-of-play ‘presser’.

Fortunately, Spin also asked me to cover the (rain-ruined) Edgbaston Test, in which, you may recall, former Leek professional Tino Best broke the world record for highest Test score by a number 11, coming within five runs of a hundred. It was here that my other ice-breaker – a project about Minor Counties cricket’s acts of giantkilling – afforded me the chance to chat with Geoffrey Boycott, twice part of a Yorkshire team downed by amateurs: Durham (pre-first-class) and Shropshire. He very generously gave me 25 minutes of his time and, listening respectfully to my questions, was far from the strident, shouty curmudgeon he can occasionally seem on TMS. Nor did he make any excuses about poor pitches or dodgy umpiring. “No, no. We were just rubbish”. 

Edgbaston press box
Yet perhaps the highlight of it all came amidst the long Edgbaston rain breaks. Having stockpiled my plate at the buffet, I found an empty seat next to an unattended, equally full plate. A mouthful or two of pasta later the inimitable figure of Sir Vivian Isaac Alexander Richards sidled up and sat down beside me. Viv! 60 years old and still with the figure of a middleweight boxer, he happily indulged my questions (I was being self-consciously blasé and casual about shooting the breeze with arguably the greatest batsman of the modern era). I got round to Tino, mentioned I’d faced him, said he didn’t get me out. Viv didn’t look particularly impressed. I told him I was a little afraid, mainly because Tino seemed capable at any moment of bowling a beamer off 19 yards, and I asked whether he himself – despite the gum-chewing gunslinger’s swagger, no helmet required – had ever been afraid. He finished what he was chewing. “Man, you face individuals like Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee, those guys, you going to be a bit afraid. But if you let them see it, oh boy, you’re a dead man. You gotta walk out there proud, in a fashion that says ‘I am Vivian Richards’, you know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. I knew because I had played over a hundred Tests before my thirteenth birthday and, more often than not, had walked into bat saying to myself “I am Vivian Richards” (perhaps the reason why my default release shot was to try, with scant success, whipping length balls over mid-wicket).

Walk out there proud. Yeah.

This was my second offering for ‘Barnfields Buzz’, my club’s newsletter. The first is here. Once again, the column appears to be twice as long as it should be. Next time, I promise… 





1 comment:

Lou said...

Nicely written article. I wouldn't be able to speak to Vivian Richards if I met him.