Friday, May 27, 2011

No DIY this weekend...

Looks like most of the country will be spending this weekend in front of the TV with the curtains drawn. It's arguably the biggest weekend of sport ever scheduled, even if some of us wonder why people care so much about chavball, which as well as the Champions League final between Manchester Superinjuncted and Barcelona at Wembley has play-off finals.

In rugby, there is the Premiership final between Leicester and Saracens and the Magners League final between Munster and Leinster. And then on Sunday England play the Barbarians at Twickenham.

In cricket there is the Test match in Cardiff and the Indian Premier League final, in tennis the French Open (come on Andy), in golf the European Tour's flagship event at Wentworth (Luke Donald aiming to become world No 1) and in vroom-vrooms there is the Monaco Grand Prix. For those who like wheels but not engines, cycling's Giro d'Italia finishes in Milan on Sunday.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Munich in the morning for the final two days of the rowing World Cup regatta, where all of Britain's crews progressed from today's heats, most of them winning them. I'm tipping at least eight golds on Sunday from what is promising to be Britain's most successful Olympic sport in 2012. Trouble is that with all the other sport that is on, will I be given any space to write about it?

The 12-year-old girl who beat me and then the world

Last week, Claire Vigrass completed a career grand slam in the sport of real tennis, adding the world singles and doubles titles to the full house that she already holds in the British, French, US and Australian Opens. In terms of dominance, she is Britain's greatest sportswoman, albeit in a sport with a relatively small base.

I've taken an interest in the growth of Claire's career because seven years ago she and her sister gave me and my father an absolute spanking on the tennis court, beating us 6-0 in a doubles competition. She was 12 years old at the time.

I don't know if you are familiar with the noble sport of real tennis. It's the twisted mother of the version Andy Murray plays, only done indoors with sloping roofs that you can hit the ball along, jutting-out bits of wall that you can aim for a wicked ricochet off and netted windows into which you can win a point by striking the ball.

It's like tennis if imagined by MC Escher. One theory goes that the reason for its bizarreness is because Henry VIII was a keen player and every time he lost a point he just claimed that there was a new rule that meant he had actually won. Only Calvinball is more bonkers.

Anyway, I've been playing this sport for about 15 years (once breaking into the top 1,000 in the world rankings no less) and when eight years ago I entered a doubles tournament with my father, a pretty nifty lawn tennis player in his day, we had some confidence.

Up against us in the first round were a 12-year-old girl and her sister. Mentally, we started making plans for round 2. Bad mistake, they played us off court. I'm not sure we even won a point, let alone a game.

To cap it all, these schoolgirls did not even smile. Every perfect return, every pin-point volley or winning serve was met with the same grim expression. Even when they got a lucky break, the ball clipping the net and flopping over, they did not acknowledge their fortune with a grin. It was ruthless, bloody, win-at-all-costs determination. Now I think of it, I don't think they dropped a set all tournament.

A couple of years ago, I met Claire again while she was training at Lord's. She has become a beautiful, charming woman, but as the results at the world championships show, where she won the final 6-1, 6-4, she clearly still retains that killer determination.

I just hope she has learnt to smile while winning. What is the point of doing sport if you don't enjoy it? Or is that the view of a loser?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peerless eccentric

The Earl of Onslow died at the weekend, which is a great shame for fans of eccentric members of the aristocracy. Onslow was one of the 92 hereditary peers who were saved the axe that fell on members of the House of Lords in 1999, but he was in favour of an elected Upper Chamber, once saying that he yearned for a House of Lords
"in which there will be no more place for a descendent of someone who got pissed with Pitt the Younger than for a man who once adorned the Cabinet in the useless position of secretary of state for prices and consumer protection".
I agree with the Earl about not giving peerages to useless Cabinet members - see Lord Prescott - but I would far rather have as a legislator someone whose relative once got pissed with Pitt than an elected senator.

The great thing about hereditary peers in my view is that they do the job purely out of a sense of duty and because of the cheap wine on offer in the Palace of Westminster rather than out of any need to campaign for my vote by making promise they won't keep.

I'd have an Upper House made up only of hereditary peers and an assortment of appointed national treasures from politics, the arts and industry (Stanley Johnson, Michael Palin, Floella Benjamin and Paddy Ashdown, say. And perhaps the bloke who used to run M&S.) Leave elections out of it. Look what elections have done for the House of Commons.

Onslow, who was occasionally a popular guest on Have I Got News for You, delightfully always referred to himself as "a disloyal Conservative", which strikes me as the very best politician to be.

He also once hosted a Radio 3 series on a variety of music styles including rap, acid jazz and thrash metal, introducing it each week with "It's time to get tripping with me, Lord Onslow".

We need to be governed by more politicians like this.

Less height, more prestige

Heard a lovely quip from an MCC member at Lord's last night about the England cricket captaincy being divided between Andrew Strauss (centre in this pic and Test captain), Alastair Cook (left and ODI captain) and Stuart Broad (right and Twenty20 captain).
"Does the height of the captain vary in inverse proportion to the importance of the job?"

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Don't say Christmas dinner... we're not the Daily Star"

With the news that the Heffmeister is leaving the Daily Telegraph, will this mean a slackening of standards? Simon Heffer's style notes are required reading for anyone who, like me, gets a bit cross at poor grammar and dodgy spelling.

As a tribute, the Guardian has linked to Heffer's huffiest email to Telegraph staffers. Some of his comments are delicious, including...

There have been so many literals this week that I suspect some of you either never could spell, or have given up trying. Perhaps my favourite was "hocky mom", followed by "plumb compote" (bring on the lead poisoning). While it is good to provide the customers with amusement, it should be intentional.
The style book also reminds us that our readers tend to eat Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner; this is not the Daily Star. Unless we are referring to a repast that is specifically to be held in the evening, be careful to refer to Christmas lunch in all those mouth-watering articles you are preparing about festive food.
Somebody actually allowed a piece of copy through this week with the adjective "posh" in it (it was not a reference to Mrs Beckham, and nor was it being used satirically). It was lucky this was spotted and removed before a nasty accident occurred. I repeat: we are not the Daily Star.
If we are setting quizzes for our readers, do try to ensure the right answers really are right. A test for would-be immigrants managed to get the voltage figure for this country wrong. It also said that one had to be 16 to enter the lottery which, as several readers pointed out, appeared to be hard on those aged 17 or more. The answer "16 or over" would have been better.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Is Osama bin Laden your neighbour?

As a former property journalist, I'm still on some PRs' mailing lists. Got the following from an estate agent (realtor, sorry) in New York that seems to have a slight sense of proportion failure...
"With the OSAMA BIN LADEN termination, we can celebrate the end of an era where hopefully his death marks some closure for those affected by his monstrous actions, which may indeed be all of us. The cost of this monster’s activities have to be in the Trillions in our estimations. We are somewhat amazed that his neighbors had no idea of who they were living next to, although living in Manhattan this is not an entirely new concept."
They then link to their blog, which has the post titled "Is a Osama Bin Laden your neighbour?" and the following commentary. I particularly like the "on the up side, Bin Laden created lots of jobs in the airline security industry" line.
"He was found in a heavily guarded, large compound in a suburban neighborhood in Pakistan, Abbottabad. Is it just me, or isn’t the world standing in utter disbelief that not ONE of his neighbors knew who lived next door? And if they knew, did they decide to remain silent?

"Are we here in the USA as gullible? Haven’t we heard enough stories about when a mass murderer is caught neighbors interviewed admit to being completely clueless? Do we not want to know who our neighbors are? Does nobody watch ‘Desperate Housewives’?

"So, dear real estate dwellers, I am asking you PLEASE to get to know who your neighbors are. If you see lots of armed guards, this could be a sign of something odd…. try to find out sooner rather than later. As it turns out, sometimes your neighbors can be very, very bad people responsible for the death of thousands.

"While the Abbottabad neighbors may have protected the identity of Osama because he killed a few thousand Americans, maybe they had forgotten how this single indiviual is also responsible for the deaths of HUNDREDS of thousands of Muslims, and how single handedly he was the worst possible public relations for Muslims around the world causing HUNDREDS of millions of innocents needless pain.

"And if none of this is motivating enough, think about the cost of Osama bin Laden to New York City real estate…..the security sign in desks, the airport check-ins, the additional policing, etc, etc. If anything, he helped create thousands of jobs, but the cost to all, especially those who lost their lives, is imeasurable.

"SO PLEASE EVERYBODY AROUND THE WORLD, AND IN NEW YORK CITY ESPECIALLY: find out who your neighbors are, be friendly, be kind, but if there is any suspicion that they may be people causing our society harm, let us know….pretty please?"
Christ. I'm not sure I need to add anything else...

Three in one: Latin, history and cricket

Imperator Anglorum est omnis divisus in partes tres, as Julius Caesar might have written if he was a modern day cricket writer. And I'd like to think that is the path he would have taken, not least because English Twenty20 cricket is sponsored by a drinks manufacturer called Rubicon.

Caesar knew a bit about three men doing one job, which is the situation facing the England cricket captaincy after yesterday's announcement. In 59BC, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed a triumvirate or three-man alliance to organise Rome's domestic cricket tournament. The Romans were mad keen on cricket, as this photo of a set of stumps proves.

Pompey was six years older than Caesar, had several notable successes behind him and was undeniably posh. Andrew Strauss, the Test captain in cricket's new triumvirate, is Pompey.

Caesar was also posh but tried to hide it (by going to darts contests at Ally Pally, probably). He had promise but his best victories were ahead of him. He is Alastair Cook.

Which makes Stuart Broad, who will lead the T20 side, our version of Crassus, who was in Caesar's triumvirate because he controlled the money, which sort of sums up Twenty20.

The Roman triumvirate didn't end well. Crassus was bumped off early after a super-over decider against the Parthians and Caesar and Pompey had a massive barney, resulting in both of them losing the confidence of the selectors. Octavian took home the ashes.

It might all be happier for the triumvirate running English cricket. Broad and Cook don't seem to be over-run by a desperate need to topple Strauss and Andy Flower, the England team director, said yesterday that he hoped everyone could be mature about it. It may work.

What is certain is that while Cook takes on the one-day side with a modicum of leadership experience behind him as captain of England Under-19, MCC and the England senior side when Strauss skipped the tour to Bangladesh last year, Broad has been given the reins with no captaincy experience to his name. That does not mean that he will fail - and I wish him well - but he has never had to think about running a side in this way.

As I write in The Times today, Broad may not even have captained a school team. I spoke to Frank Hayes, the former Lancashire and England batsman who is master in charge of cricket at Oakham School, and he could not recall any match. “He may have done in his early years, but not the first XI,” Hayes said.

Paul Cook, a batsman who has played a bit of second XI cricket for Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and now captains Lincolnshire, was made captain instead. Hayes told me that Cook was simply the more natural leader, although Broad "was always destined to play at a higher level".

Broad was a footsoldier when Oakham played Bedford School in 2003. A young Alastair Cook made a double hundred for Bedford that day, but he had already been marked as a Future England Captain.

Broad had not, but maybe that is something to do with the bias that selectors tend to have in favour of batsmen rather than fast bowlers when picking a captain. Broad will be only the second fast bowler, after Andrew Flintoff, to captain England since Bob Willis in 1984.

That does not mean that the experiment will not work. “Stuart knows the game backwards," Hayes told me. "He’s been a thinking man’s cricketer since about the age of 12. He is a good leader and he loves the game. He has a natural exuberance which is great for English cricket and in my view he is just the man for the job."

We shall see when England play Sri Lanka on June 25 and Broad becomes the 85th England captain whether that hunch pays off.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Bin Laden, twittered

A selection of random thoughts yesterday on the killing of a tall man with a beard, as bashed out on my Twitter account.

* Well that's not a bad way for Barack Obama to kick-start his re-election campaign. Hard to see the Republicans topping the Bin Laden op.

* I hope that in the unlikely event of Henry Cooper and Osama bin Laden being in the same place, Cooper is punching him repeatedly on the nose

* Now that Bin Laden has gone, does Piers Morgan, also guilty of doing awful things in New York, become the most disliked man in the world?

* Apparently Bin Laden compound didn't have a phone. Was he blowing Al Qaeda 's budget by voting too often on Strictly Come Dancing? A Widders fan?

* Apparently he was living 800 yards from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst. Good work, guys. Thanks for handing him over

* Good news for Julian Assange, he moves up one place on the FBI's most wanted list.

* Unless she was 6ft 6in tall or wearing heels, I doubt that Mrs Bin Laden would have made much of a human shield.

* Disappointing how small and uncool Obama's Situation Room is compared to Jed Bartlet's. More like a broom cupboard.