Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ashes schmashes

Apparently, Australia will do "everything in their power to boost the morale of their misfiring strike bowler Mitchell Johnson" before the second Ashes Test starts on Friday.

What, they're going to ask him to bowl at no one but Marcus North in the nets?

Meanwhile, I see the BBC's round-up of Ashes gossip reports that "Fast bowler Steven Finn celebrated in style after his side sealed a draw in Brisbane - with a hearty steak sandwich". This is followed by "Full story: Twitter".

Surely the whole point of Twitter is that you shouldn't need to click to read more?

Monday, November 29, 2010

England did not save the first Ashes Test, they failed to win it

I should have written a post earlier today celebrating England's great escape in the first Ashes Test, but it doesn't feel like that.

England have become quite good at escaping from Tests with a draw in the past two years but this time it was their batsmen who did the hard work. Monty Panesar was just carrying the drinks; Graham Onions isn't even in Australia.

By passing 500 for the loss of one wicket, which has only happened six times and never to England, Andrew Strauss's team (or rather the top three) showed how toothless Australia's bowling is and how flat the pitch was. Why couldn't they bat like this first time out? I watched the first two sessions on Day 1 and Australia's bowling was pretty tame. Peter Siddle found inspiration for a spell after tea but that was all.

An Australian friend, my co-author Peter McGuinness, emailed to express his disappointment. "Many Poms are acting stupidly triumphant but this is a Test they should have won," he wrote. "This match was saved not by England's batsmen but by the out-of-character good-length bowling by Siddle in your first innings."

He goes on to add that while Australia conceding 500 for the loss of one is demoralising for Aussies, so it should be for Poms that England could not capitalise on having Australia 180 for five in the first innings or do much in the brief second innings save lower Simon Katich's already poor Ashes average to 33.

"This was a genuine shitty old draw not a moral win for England like at Cardiff," he wrote, and he is right. But five shitty draws mean that England retain the Ashes. Still, I think our bowlers are rather better than they showed in Brisbane. Hopefully with their nerves gone, they will be better in the rest of the series, especially if the batsmen can continue to score easy runs.

One final point: Alastair Cook has taken an immense amount of flak from the British media over the past six months. Some, like Mike Atherton in my paper, have even argued that he should have been dropped a year ago and wasn't worth the air fare to Australia.

There was some basis for this because he had looked very ropey all summer and, until the Oval Test, was scoring as many single-figure scores as Australia's hot-or-frozen batsman Marcus North.

But consider this: in the 12 months before the Brisbane Test, England's batsmen had made 13 Test hundreds. Four of them were by Cook, three of them overseas. Now he has a fourth in 12 months, a Test double hundred no less and the highest score made by an England batsman since Cook's mentor Graham Gooch made 333. If Cook doesn't deserve his place, we must have a fabulous batting line-up....

Nice beaver

First Bernard Matthews, now Leslie Nielsen. Who will be the next giant of 1980s culture to depart this world? My money's on Jim Bowen. Or possibly Gordon the Gopher, whose addiction to crystal meth has surely screwed up his insides.

Nielsen had a brilliant gift for deadpan gag-making, completing the most excruciating delightfully bad puns set up by other actors, none more famous than the "Surely you can't be serious..." "I am serious and don't call me Shirley" exchange in Airplane!

Some other favourites:
  • "We're sorry to bother you at such a time like this, Mrs Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then."
  • "Is this some kind of bust?... "Yes ma'am, it's very impressive but we need to ask you some questions."
  • "It took me two weeks to find Stella's apartment. She'd neglected to give me her address."
  • [offered a cigar he is asked "Cuban?"] "No, Dutch-Irish, my father came from Wales."
  • "What was it we had for dinner tonight?"... "There was a choice of steak or fish." ... "Yes, I remember, I had the lasagne."
His obliviousness was what made the Zucker-scripted lines so funny, his knack of acting, as Jerry Zucker put it, "like a fish in water". His later films, as spoof followed spoof, were pretty poor but that was more to do with the quality of the writing than his acting.

The Naked Gun trilogy was a huge part of my adolescence. With my friend Richard, I watched the video of the original film until the tape snapped even though we knew all the jokes backwards. We knew some of them forwards as well. Familiarity bred contentment.

It perplexed my father, who often wondered why George Peppard had gone into slapstick. What a shame the A Team remake came too late for Nielsen to tackle Hannibal Smith. "Cover me, Murdoch" (cue coat being dropped over his head)...

Friday, November 26, 2010


Watching the start of play on Day 3 in the Brisbane Test just now, the camera picked up and lingered on a round-faced, grey-haired man with glasses who was carefully explaining the rules of cricket to three Chinese friends.

Obviously, anyone who watches the news will have recognised Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister until pretty recently, even if fewer will have known that he is the constituency MP for the area that contains the Gabba, but it was disappointing that none of the commentators were able to, well, comment.

The footage came during a break in play and the cameras, which presumably were held by Australians, lingered for longer than they normally would if it was Joe Public but neither Nasser Hussain nor his commentary sidekick (I think it was Ian Botham) were able to identify him. Nor, one assumes, was a producer able to whisper in their ear.

I shouldn't be shocked, but I am saddened and rather ashamed of the lack of worldliness by Sky's commentary team. No doubt if it was Lily Allen or Kevin Spacey they would have spoken for five minutes about their entire CV.


Bernard Matthews, the king of the twizzlers, has died at the age of 80. On a farm in Norfolk, a million turkeys have their hopes raised of a last-minute stay of execution.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gone in 60 seconds

I had my first piece published on The Roar, an Australian sports opinion website, yesterday. Written before the start of the first Ashes Test, it was all about the importance of taking the initiative early in the Ashes, as this extract shows. The full article can be read here.
It is never too early to throw away the Ashes. In 2002, Nasser Hussain appeared to have done just that when he walked out for the toss convinced that he would bat if he won and found himself uttering the words “I think we’ll field” as soon as he got the call right.

In those few strides, he had become convinced that his batsmen would not be able to handle Glenn McGrath and Co. Within the space of a few seconds, all plans had gone out of the window. Australia cashed in.

To be fair to Nasser, he was probably just surprised he had called correctly, having won six out of his 27 previous tosses, including a fabulous statistically improbable sequence of one win out of 16 in 2000-01. A great captain, Nasser, but a hopeless tosser.

I was speaking to Phil DeFreitas recently about the importance of seizing the initiative early. “Daffy”, who at the age of 20 was given a Test debut at the Gabba in the 1986-87 Ashes, said it was crucial in that match that England’s batsmen passed 400 after winning the toss (helped in no small measure by 40 for DeFreitas).

It gave the bowlers the confidence to attack Australia and from that initial win flowed the series. England have not won the first Test of an away Ashes since.
Eight years later, Defreitas was the older, wiser spearhead of Mike Atherton’s attack as they tried to regain the Ashes. DeFreitas had done his visualisation exercises, putting himself mentally in the right place for the Test. He had worked out what end he wanted and gone through in his mind what he would do with that first ball.
And then, as they walked out on that first morning, Mike Gatting smelt the wind, decided it was blowing in a funny way and suggested to Atherton that they should open from the opposite end.
“I wasn’t happy about it,” DeFreitas told me. “It really threw me. I couldn’t find my line and Michael Slater hit my first two balls to the fence.” And so passed another Ashes series out of England’s clutches before the first drinks break.
The dismissal of Andrew Strauss to the third ball of yesterday's opening day could also be regarded as a momentum-shifter, except that England did not quite roll up and die.

Historians may yet come to regard his ill-judged cut stroke as the point at which England lost the 2010 Ashes, but fifties from Ian Bell and Alastair Cook at least ensured that England are not quite out of the game. By reaching 260, they gave the England bowlers something to work with.

I am foolishly grasping to a recent example from Australian state cricket at the same ground. Last month, New South Wales played Queensland in Brisbane and were dismissed for 262, two more than England. They went on to win by an innings and 90 runs. Time for England's bowlers to follow that.

Welfare hypocrisy

Spot the difference between the first two items on this evening's BBC's Ten O'Clock news:

1) Former Tory MP Howard Flight says that the welfare system gives incentives to the poor to breed and discourages those in work. He says that this is not very sensible. Labour's attack dogs play the "shame and offence" card. David Cameron, spineless as ever, says that the comments were wrong and Flight should apologise. The whole spin on the item is "are the Tories still the nasty party?"

2) Ed Miliband goes to speak to Labour voters and they are filmed telling him that they are fed up with working hard and being penalised while those on benefits have no responsibility. One says words to the effect that "they're encouraged to have children while we can't afford to" (see about a minute into this video). Miliband nods and says that this has to be sorted out.

Am I missing something, or are both stories making the same point? Why is it OK for Labour voters to say there is a problem but not for former Tory MPs? Why can the BBC not link these stories and have a proper debate about it? And when will Cameron grow a pair?

Baby warning system

It appears that my month-old baby has already developed an impeccable sense of occasion when it comes to cricket.

Last night, I stayed up to watch the first two sessions of the Test match, while my daughter slept in her crib, oblivious to Strauss's third-ball trauma and Cook's scratchy fifty and the flamboyant but all too brief innings of Pietersen and Trott.

With eyelids drooping, I decided to turn in at tea but had barely been asleep for an hour when a grizzle emanated from the crib beside the bed, gradually getting louder until it woke me.

After first checking that my baby was all right, I switched on the radio to be greeted by the news that Alastair Cook had just been snaffled by Shane Watson. And so, thanks to the baby warning system, I was able to listen to the next two balls of Peter Siddle's hat-trick.

Not sure if the daughter appreciated them as much as she should - or felt quite the same despair as her father - but at least she can say in years to come that she was listening when Siddle turned the 2010-11 Ashes.

North Korea, east of Delaware

Dear old Sarah Palin proved her presidential credentials yesterday, suggesting that North Korea, part of George Dubya's axis of weevils, is an ally of Uncle Sam.

Slagging off President Obama for the way he is handling the brewing tension after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island (it's just like Nantucket, Sarah), the would-be next Republic president said:
“We’re not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do... Obviously we gotta stand with our North Korean allies.”
Palin says in her new book that it is sexist to call her a bit thick and that her malapropisms don't really matter. It brings to mind the spin by a Bush aide after her candidate was unable to name several world leaders, including the heads of Pakistan and India, during the campaign for the 2000 election.

"He is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant," she said.

Still, the 2012 campaign will be a lot of fun if Failin' Palin goes all the way...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The loneliness of a long-distance Ashes follower

If you want sports nostalgia, you can't do better than Frank Keating. The veteran Guardian writer, now in his seventies, only seems to be wheeled out these days to talk about sport when all the participants are dead, but he does it beautifully.

Take this piece on the Ashes, for instance. Keating recalls his 8-year-old self listening to the 1946-47 Ashes on the wireless while away at boarding school:
"It was the week before Christmas and I swear I can remember vividly still that telling first moment I twiddled through the hiss and crackle, the strident squeals and seashell static to deduce from a faraway voice with a metallic, self‑satisfied colonial twang that Australia had declared at 659 – Barnes 234, Bradman 234 – and England were on the way to a slaughter."
The first Test slaughter is a common part of my Ashes awareness. I was ten when England last won the opening Test of an Ashes Down Under and cricket had not yet seeped into my skin. I'm afraid I have no memories of the 1986-87 Ashes.

Other events from 1986 have stuck: Space shuttle Challenger exploding, I can definitely recall. I'm pretty convinced that I remember the Government announcing plans to build the Channel Tunnel, too (there's a joke in Asterix in Britain about needing to build one, so that is probably why the news stuck). I remember the Hand of God and the Jeremy Bamber murders, which happened in a village close to ours. I remember seeing The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's take on Sherlock Holmes, at the cinema. But I don't know if I took an interest in the Ashes and Gatting's success. For shame.

That was the last Ashes tour that I did not make a point of following and the last that England won. Since then, I have fanatically been glued first to the wireless - and, rather desperately, to Teletext - then to the internet and satellite TV. In three hours' time, I will start the ritual again as England attempt to beat our old friends in their own backyard for the first time since 1986.

It will be a lonely vigil, unless my month-old daughter decides to join me, and I am sure that I will not make it far past lunchtime on any day. And then I will wake when the baby wakes, probably with an hour to go in the evening session, and switch on the TV again, wondering for half a second whether England are still in the match or whether they have again been slaughtered.

Sixty-four years ago, Keating listened to the fourth Test as the slaughter continued and found enough brief joy in a short passage of play to send his mother a brief birthday card with the line:
"Dear Mum, Happy birthday, Bedser bowled Bradman for a duck, Your loving Francis x."
She never threw the card away. Today, children would probably send it as a tweet and it would be lost almost as soon as it was received. How sad.

I end this post with a delightful tale of Keating's about the passions that listening to the Ashes in bed can arouse:
"During that victorious 1987 England trek the Observer published an unforgettable letter from a reader, Vicky Rantzen, who told how her best girlfriend was making love to her husband at dead of night when, just as mutual passion was reaching its heady heights, she noticed something in his ear.

"Ardour dampened, she pulled away and asked him what it was? "Be quiet, woman, I'm listening to the Test match from Brisbane."

Monday, November 22, 2010

All change (apart from US, Brazil, Ireland and Yemen)

There is a fascinating new world view over on the Strange Maps blog, which shows a revised atlas with the countries that have the biggest populations assigned to the countries with the largest areas. A larger, zoomable version of it is here.

China, the most populated country, gets to shift northwards and take over Russia, the largest land mass whose population is only ranked at No 9, which qualifies them to inhabit the space currently held by Kazakhstan. India, with the second largest population, takes over the vast mass of Canada.

Pakistan is given the whole of Australia to occupy, which at least ensures that there will still be winter cricket tours to the Antipodes, although the United Kingdom is now sitting where Niger usually is. Australia takes over Spain, which means that only Mexico stands as a buffer zone between the Ashes rivals. The UK is now occupied by Tunisia, which will upset the Daily Mail.

The USA, the third largest country in terms of population and area, stays where it is, as does Brazil, which is fifth in both lists. Less predictably, Yemen and Ireland also remain where they are. Does that make those four countries the most efficient on our planet? A small crumb of comfort in these troubled times for Ireland, perhaps.

Meanwhile, in a delightful twist, South Korea would take over South Africa, which should suit them fine until they inquire about who their new neighbours are. "So who's moved into Botswana then? Oh fuck, not North Korea again..."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Star Wars in art

The ever-excellent Retronaut has some splendid mash-ups of Star Wars characters in classic art. I wonder where people get the time and talent, let alone the ideas...

Peer silenced for speaking his mind

David Cameron can be quite menacing. Asked about Lord Young's comments yesterday, in which the Tory peer said that the majority of people had "never had it so good" during the recession and that some people did not have a right to state support, Cameron snarled: "I think he will be doing a bit less speaking in future."

Given that Lord Young is only an unpaid adviser to the Government rather than under collective responsibility, I don't see how Cameron has a right to silence him.

I know that Young's comments will be embarrassing for the Government and the opposition and trade unions have been predictably hysterical in condemning him. It would have been better if Young could have expressed sympathy for those who have lost ther jobs and are finding the economic situation tight.

But his basic points were not inaccurate. They certainly were not "offensive" as a Downing Street lackey called them. With interest rates at 0.5%, those for whom a mortgage is their main expenditure have done OK. This recession has been less calamitous for more people than other recessions.

There is belt-tightening and uncertainty, but not soaring costs for the majority. Very few people have had their homes repossessed. Government spending is only being cut back to the level it was three years ago. Some people are suffering and that is tragic, but it is a great shame that Cameron could not simply have said: "Those are his views, he is entitled to express them. It is not the view of me or my Government."

The Daily Mash makes a fair point:
The Tory peer was later forced to apologise for his sadistic, upper-class rightness, adding: "I'm very old. Look at my bow tie. I'm not right in the head.

"I now realise that if your income stays much the same and your biggest monthly expense goes down quite a lot then you're worse off. You don't need a PhD in maths to work that one out.

"And I don't know what I was thinking when I said some people think they have a right to state support. I suppose I must have just thought it was okay because it's a view shared by more than half the Cabinet and the vast majority of the people in this country.

"I'm so old. Can I have a cup of tea now?"

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Couple who met at university to marry"

The Caledonian Mercury has the best take on today's big news:

Two people who went to university together are to get married, it has emerged.

William Windsor (or possibly Wales or possibly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and Kate Middleton, both 28, met at St Andrews University eight years ago.

Mr Windsor is a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF – and also a prince.

Wall-to-wall, dewy-eyed hysterical coverage can be found in every other media outlet.

Win the Ashes, win a beer

Sorry for the delay in posting. Having a new child and the sleep-deprivation that brings has rather affected my energy levels.

Still, the Ashes is only nine days away and my baby daughter and I can start planning to stay up through the night watching England's efforts in Australia. Hopefully she can stop grizzling, even if we win the toss and choose to field in Brisbane.

One of my friends taught his baby to raise a finger at the mention of the words "Ricky Ponting" (an index finger, indicating "out", I'm assuming). I'll have to teach my daughter to chuckle at the words "Nathan Hauritz, Australia's best spinner".

There is a mood of pessimism over the Australia camp. For the first time in 24 years, England have headed Down Under as favourites. But now I hear that an Australian brewery has come up with an incentive to the nation. If the Aussies win the series, Carlton and United Breweries will give a free pint of beer to every Australian.

I'm not sure that weak Australian pissbeer would be much of an inducement to me to cheer on my side, but as a marketing gimmick goes, it could prove costly. With about 15 million adult Australians in the population, it is estimated that the promotion could cost the company £12 million.

Could Carlton and United end up regretting their gimmick in the same way as Hoover, who offered free flights to anyone who spent £100 on their products in 1992 and found themselves £50 million out of pocket? Or might England actually not lose the series and spare their blushes?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pot... kettle...

Rather surprising to see Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems deputy leader, pop up on the Ten O'Clock News to have a go at Phil Woolas, who he said had come "severely unstuck" after being found guilty of smearing his Lib Dem opponent during the election, behaviour that Hughes called "unacceptable".

Perhaps Hughes has forgotten that he benefited from dirty tricks when he was first elected as MP for Bermondsey in 1983 as his team ran a homophobic campaign against the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, that involved billing Hughes as "the straight choice" and wearing stickers saying "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell".

Hughes, who revealed that he was bisexual four years ago, apologised for the 1983 campaign when he was running for his party's leadership and said that he never wanted to see a campaign run like that again. He is completely right, of course, but it might have been better to let another Lib Dem give Woolas a pasting. Glass houses and all that.

Disgraced Phil Woolas not even worthy to be called Mr

Who says The Times has lost its thunder? Within hours of Phil Woolas, the shadow immigration minister, being found guilty of deliberately making false statements about an opponent in his election literature, the following email was sent round to Times staff by the paper's Chief Revise Editor:
"He should not get an honorific as he has been found wanting in the electoral court by High Court judges under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. We remove honorifics for those convicted in criminal cases, and indeed for doctors, teachers who are, eg, struck off the register."
So the MP for Oldham East & Saddleworth (until the by-election) can carry on drawing a parliamentary salary and claiming on expenses while he appeals against the court ruling that he accused his Lib Dem opponent of pandering to Islamic militants, but the Paper of Record has already decided that he is no longer fit to be called Mr Woolas. That must sting. It is, of course, the correct thing to do.

By doing so, not only is Woolas lumped in with crims and bent quacks, he is also treated in the same way as sportsmen. The Times has long ruled that the Rooneys and Hensons of this world are not to be styled with an honorific. It just looks silly.

Which makes me wonder: now that Ann Widdecombe has moved from Parliament to the world of light entertainment, should she also be known as just plain Widdecombe, rather than Ms W?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The woofs to the left....

A delightful anecdote on Iain Dale's blog:
On Wednesday night during a Commons vote, David Blunkett's guide dog took him towards to aye lobby, which of course is the lobby Government supporters normally vote in. Being nice guys, the Tory whips helpfully pointed out he ought to be voting no in the other lobby.

During a vote yesterday afternoon the dog again took Blunkett to the Government side of the committee room. Blunkett proceeded to explain to the assembled that although he was in opposition his dog was still in governing mode!
Some might argue that Blunkett's dog, Sadie, would perform the duties of an MP just as competently as much of the lobby fodder on either side of the House. Probably would charge less in living expenses too.

It was Sadie's predecessor, Lucy, who was famously sick on the floor of the Chamber during a speech by David Willetts, now the universities minister. If only frontbenchers today could match the quality of Lucy's interjection.