Monday, December 31, 2012

A sports-writer's year, part 3

As the most marvellous year for British sport comes to an end, the final part of my look back at the events I was lucky enough to cover... 

All links take you to the Times paywall I'm afraid, but anyone who ventures beyond for their quid can get access to my far more talented colleagues' writings for the next 24 hours.

September Straight from a Lord's conference room to Woolwich, where my Paralympics began with watching a 70-year-old Australian grandmother reach the final, then back to Eton Dorney to see a gold medal for GB's coxed four; swimming, wheelchair basketball and the fascinating sport of boccia - bowls for those with cerebral palsy - followed, then sailing and wheelchair rugby, but already half the mind was on events later in the month as I handled the report on the US Ryder Cup wild cards.

The obligatory piece on the wives kicked off Ryder Cup week in Chicago, one of the few events where the build-up lasts longer than the competition. Among the various preview pieces, I enjoyed interviewing Dave Stockton, the American putting guru who was working with Rory McIlroy. America's God squad were more get-in-the-holier-than-thou (a line that's just occurred to me, wish I'd thought it at the time) but the spirit of Seve saw Europe to victory from 10-4 down. Just as well we binned the scheduled piece on "how Olazabal ballsed up the Ryder Cup". Writing a piece on the American media reaction was fun.

October A bitty month with lots of small pieces on things like the continuing row over Kevin Pietersen's rehabilitation, some rugby reporting and an interview with William Fox-Pitt about chickens. Spent an amusing hour with Graeme Swann talking about darts, babies and how to win in India.

Also interviewed Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Jonny Bairstow and Steven Finn ahead of England's cricket tour as their sponsors got their money's worth. Only one of them came back with reputation enhanced. The month ended with a rare dip into athletics as Charles van Commenee's successor was named.

November I wasn't sent to India but filled my boots writing about it anyway. Was quite pleased with this feature on the players who had won there before, which included some gems about security risks, playing charades and handling dodgy prawns from Graeme Fowler in particular. Tipped England to win, by the way (hurrah!), but said their fast bowlers would be the difference (less hurrah).

It was a good month for interviews. Was delighted to speak to Peter Wilson, the Olympic champion shooter, who was charming and funny, and to Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimmer, who talked about his battle with depression and his hope of returning to the form of his teenage years.

But one of my fondest memories of 2012 was interviewing Sir Chris Chataway, the former distance runner, about the Great Pea-Soup Smog of 1952, running with Roger Bannister and being the first person to win the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year.

Also interviewed the three British sailors who were about to head off solo around the world in the Vendee Globe. As I write, two of them are still going and should finish in early February, but Sam Davies lost her mast early in the race. Cannot see the attraction of doing such a thing, but I admire their bravery. The month finished in Cardiff, watching Wales get spanked by the All Blacks. England were the next victims...

December I thought I was meant to be in Cardiff again for Wales v Australia. Fortunately I had misread the rota and someone corrected me before I hit the M4. Out of nowhere, England fashioned the most extraordinary win - no, thrashing - of New Zealand, with Manu Tuilagi having a hand in all three tries as they refused to buckle after the All Blacks scored two tries early in the second half. It was a real pleasure to be at Twickenham that day and as someone who has high regard for Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, it was amusing to think that some of the more negative Sunday journalists would have had to rip up their planned hatchet job on him.

The month ended with the usual bag of oddities: the Varsity rugby match, Shane Warne wanting to come out of retirement, an interview with a woman curler about her love of the bagpipes and continued monitoring of the Vendee Globe, but it was nice to end with a few happy memories: a piece-in-quotes about Katherine Grainger's Olympic gold, an interview with the head of GB Paralympics and 1,000 words on The Times's team of the year: Team GB.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A sports-writer's year, part 2

Continuing a look back on the excuses I gave for not being a better parent in 2012...

May To Belgrade, where Britain's rowing squad won 12 medals in the season's first World Cup (and where they were distracted at the start line by the presence of a nudist beach, populated as they always seem to be only by fat middle-aged Serbian men); then my first and only visit to the Olympic Stadium, where Hannah Cockroft, despite various transport traumas that meant she had no time to warm up before a Paralympic test event, became the first athlete to break a world record in the arena.

I had that rarity for me of a scoop, in which a high-up bod in the IOC told me that there were big worries about transport chaos at the Olympics (which turned out to be unfounded) and slipped in a bit of county cricket reporting, before heading to Lord's for the Test match against West Indies.

Shoehorned a West Wing reference into a piece on James Anderson and asked why all West Indies fast bowlers sound like they are named after Dorset villages. Whatever happened to Shannon Gabriel? Also wrote a piece about cricket and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. Probably didn't work for most people but I get bored by the straight up and down cricket pieces in other papers.

The month ended with more county cricket, but before that there was a trip to Lucerne for the second rowing World Cup, where the men's four smashed the world record. A good omen, but with 18 different countries winning medals in the end, it suggested the Olympic regatta would be an open affair.

June Began the month away from sport, doing a feature behind the scenes at In The Night Garden Live, the stage show for toddlers, but then it was off to Munich for the final rowing World Cup before the Olympics. The men's four lost to Australia, which boded well since, curiously, Jurgen Grobler's Olympic gold-winning crews, going back to 1992, have never won at the final regatta before the Games. The reason why they do so well, I explained in a feature a week later, was down to Jurgen's Alpine boot camp.

I was at the Oval for the one-day international, but the focus wasn't on the cricket. Instead, there was a sombre mood in memory of Surrey's Tom Maynard who had tragically died that week.

Then came Wimbledon, where I was on plucky Brit watch for the first few days. James Ward showed flashes of brilliance (this would be the last we'd hear of him in 2012), and Heather Watson looked instantly at home on Centre Court. I saw Caroline Wozniacki lose in the first round and sat next to the man from the Mail in her press conference as he tried a couple of times to get her to blame it on Rory McIlroy, and put cheese in my ears to block out Victoria Azarenka's squawking.

July Week two of Wimbledon seemed to be all about the Germans for a while, but normal service was resumed. I was on Centre Court for a magnificent semi-final between the ever-so-slightly smug Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and was back to hoover up the sidebars for the final, where Federer beat Andy Murray.

A flying visit to a cricket match in Canterbury was followed by the drive up the M6 to Blackpool for the Open Championship. I wrote preview pieces on Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Luke Donald, but the interview I remember most was with Greg Owen, a journeyman pro who had briefly led the Open when it was last at Lytham but now, aged 40, sat outside the world's top 200. After back surgery and near-misses galore, he came through qualifying with a final round of 61 to reach his first major for six years and made the cut.

I was sent out to report on the last group of Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell on the final day, but Scott choked and McDowell never got going, handing the title to Ernie Els. And so we headed towards the Olympics, with people still saying it was going to be a huge failure and Tom James, the GB bow man in the four, suddenly missing training with a heart issue. Eep.

The regatta at Dorney began with New Zealand's men's pair smashing Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell's world record, but the British crews progressed easily enough through their heats and hearts were warmed by the remarkably slow progress of Hamadou Djibo Issaka, dubbed the sculling sloth from Niger.

August A magical month, so hard to precis. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won Britain's first gold; the men's eight almost sacrificed a bronze medal in a push to try and get gold; the lightweight men's four were pipped to silver by South Africa; emotions overflowed as Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins won gold and as Alan Campbell got Britain's first medal in the single scull for 84 years; Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking and then the men's four completed the regatta with two more golds.

So that was week 1 of my Olympics, just the nine GB medals to witness, and more was to come down at Weymouth, where I saw Ben Ainslie win his fourth gold and Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson just knocked into second place in the Star by a cruel late gust. More silvers followed for Nick Dempsey in the windsurfing and for the men's and women's 470 classes. The contrasting reactions of Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, gutted with their second place, and the jubilant Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell suggests the girls may have the determination to do better in Rio.

And that, I thought, was that for my Olympics, except at the death there was a delightful twist, an unexpected mission to cover modern pentathlon in Greenwich Park, where I saw Samantha Murray win Britain's final medal of the Games. Great sport, modern pentathlon, shame we only ever cover it once every four years.

But this marvellous month was only half-over. I had a eulogy to write on Sid Waddell and then the whole Kevin Pietersen farce, an unwelcome backdrop to an interesting Lord's Test, defeat in which cost England their No 1 ranking.

No time for days off, amid pieces on Thatcher, London Zoo and previews of the Paralympics, I ended the month back at Lord's, where Andrew Strauss announced that he was standing down as England captain. His press conference ended in spontaneous and heartfelt applause from the normally cynical press, who genuinely regretted his departure. It was a month of emotion and strange happenings, but September would bring some even more extraordinary stories...

Friday, December 28, 2012

A sports-writer's year, part 1

It has been a rather busy year. As a sports writer for The Times sent to cover some of the most extraordinary stories of my lifetime it has also been an extremely privileged year, but at the same time an exhausting one, with the cuttings pile showing that I've had 613 bylines in the paper in 2012.

Some might say it is more quantity than quality, and at times it has felt like I have been ploughing out the words rather than having time (or talent) to finesse them - hence the lack of blogging here - but hopefully a few decent pieces have been returned.

There were plenty of fabulous stories that I did not get to cover. I didn't write a word on the Tour de France or the US Open tennis and was busy with the Olympics when Rory McIlroy was winning the US PGA, a tournament I covered in 2011.

I handled the England cricket team's disaster in Dubai at the start of the year but not the miracle in Mumbai at the end of it. The only time I set foot in the Olympic Stadium was for a Paralympic test event, although I did get to report on 15 of Britain's Olympic medals at Eton Dorney, Weymouth and Greenwich Park.

That only shows what a year this has been in sport, since I can hardly claim to have missed out. My year has taken in a Wimbledon final, the Open golf, the greatest Ryder Cup comeback, the All Blacks beaten at Twickenham, two Lord's Test matches and the resignation press conference of Andrew Strauss. And, of course, the first London Olympics for 64 years.

As this year ends, I'll be posting a few of the highlights of the year, separated like Gaul into three parts, with links to how I covered them. Yes, it is all behind a paywall but for your quid not only do you get what I wrote but you get 24 hours' access to all my more talented colleagues. There is a reason why The Times has been sports newspaper of the year for the past two years.

Some may see this as a bit of an indulgence, perhaps, but if my toddler daughter stumbles across this blog in a few years time it will at least explain why I was never there during her second year.

January The year began well with a prediction that Britain's rowers would win nine medals at London 2012 (spot on, for once), then it was off to the Middle East for the rest of the month with the England cricket team, where the Barmy Army struggled in a "dry" country, England struggled against Saeed Ajmal's illegal-or-not action and Younus Khan misread the Trottsra.

The first Test in Dubai was lost by ten wickets, and it was on to Abu Dhabi, with the spaceship parked at third man and kids playing in the dust outside. The puppyish Monty Panesar was back in the side but the batsmen were still clueless against spin and were dismissed for 72.

While out there, I also squeezed in an interview with Ben Ainslie about the Olympic sailor forming his own America's Cup team. I've interviewed Ben half a dozen times this year: for such a super-talented sportsman he is tremendously down-to-earth and decent.

February Back in Europe in time for the Six Nations and the first of two trips to Paris to cover France against Ireland. The first attempt was abandoned ten minutes after the scheduled kick-off because of a frozen pitch. Having been in 30C heat a few days earlier, it was quite a shock to be sitting outside at 9pm in -10C, but give me a frozen Paris over the burnt desert any day.

March It was back to Paris three weeks later for the rematch (a 17-17 draw) and then on to rowing with the Olympic trials and an interview with the 40-year-old would-be Olympian Greg Searle.

In between, I wrote about Sachin Tendulkar finally ending a year-long wait for his 100th international century and was at Twickenham when England's pack demolished Ireland to end a satisfying first Six Nations for the new coach, Stuart Lancaster.

April Possibly the most eventful Boat Race there has been. I was in a following launch as the flotilla slammed on the brakes to avoid killing an idiotic protestor. After the restart, Oxford suffered a smashed oar after some dubious coxing and Cambridge romped home. Alex Woods, the Oxford bow, collapsed with exhaustion and had to be taken to hospital. As I had written in an interview two days earlier, it had taken Woods ten years of study at Oxford to earn that seat in the boat.

I have never been to Augusta, but with the six-hour time difference and late finishes I often get called on to assist our golf correspondent on the final day from my sofa. This year, I had to knock out a passable profile of the winner, Bubba Watson, in about 20 minutes. What our cuttings database doesn't show is the profile I also filed on Louis Oosthuizen, whom Watson beat in a play-off, just in case...

Keeping up a trend of trying to spot future Olympic champions, I interviewed Ed McKeevor, the canoeist with forearms like Spanish hams. Gold would be his by the end of the summer.

Then it was off to Boras, a town east of Gothenburg, for a few days to cover women's tennis as Judy Murray's Great Britain Fed Cup team were beaten by Sweden, but Laura Robson showed her immense talent in defeat.

I remember over dinner one night the four-strong press pack debated how big a story it would be if Andy Murray ever won a grand-slam title. The biggest since 1966, we decided, yet only good enough, it turned out, to come third in Sports Personality of the Year...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sports Personality: a second dozen

I lost interest in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year when it became less about sport and more about personality (around the time, I imagine, that they changed its title from Sports Review of the Year).

The programme of my childhood involved footage of sportsmen scoring goals and tries, hitting boundaries, volleying tennis balls, jumping over things, rather than celebrating.

It came from the era of Grandstand, when you could sit in front of the TV all afternoon and watch anything from squash to weightlifting and all that mattered were results, not opinions.

I know I'm just a grouch, but I have little interest in footage of people waving bouquets and biting medals. I want clips seen through a wide angle, rather than zoomed up the scorer's nostrils. And above all I do not want "novelty" acts. This is sport, not entertainment. If I want to see someone play the saxophone (sorry, Zac Purchase), I'll go to Ronnie Scott's.

However, the discussions around SPOTY and who should be on the shortlist always make for an entertaining debate.

After last year, when not a single woman was nominated despite there being several female world champions, the drawing up of the shortlist has been taken away from sports editors (especially the one from the Manchester Evening News who nominated the non-British Patrick Vieira and Dimitar Berbatov) and given to an expert panel.

And this is the dozen they have come up with: Nicola Adams (boxing), Ben Ainslie (sailing),Jessica Ennis (athletics), Mo Farah (athletics), Katherine Grainger (rowing), Sir Chris Hoy (cycling), Rory McIIroy (golf), Andy Murray (tennis), Ellie Simmonds (swimming), Sarah Storey (cycling), David Weir (athletics), Bradley Wiggins (cycling).

Not a bad list, is it? Wiggins is the bookies' favourite but you could make a good case for any of them. Eleven are Olympic or Paralympic champions; one is golf's world No 1 and winner of the money list on both sides of the Atlantic; we have Britain's first ever winner of the Tour de France and our first winner of a tennis major for more than 70 years. All would be worthy winners.

And yet in this wonderful year of sport, there are glaring omissions. Here are 12 more athletes who would also be worthy winners of SPOTY.

Laura Trott: Holds the Olympic, world and European titles in the omnium, cycling's version of the decathlon, with six different disciplines. Also won Olympic and world gold in the team pursuit. Not bad for an asthmatic born with a collapsed lung.

Jason Kenny: Displaced Chris Hoy in the Olympic sprint event yet shook off the pressure to win gold. Also won gold in the team sprint.

Ian Poulter: The heartbeat of the Europe Ryder Cup team, arguably an even better sporting event this year than the Olympics. It was Poulter's putting, with five birdies in a row, that started the fightback from 10-4 down and he went on to win his singles too.

Anna Watkins: Katherine Grainger deservedly gets all the attention for getting an Olympic gold after three silvers but her partner in the undefeated double scull deserves half the credit. Watkins is the only person in the Britain squad to beat Grainger in the past ten years of national trials.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning: Call this one entry, but Britain's women's coxless pair won the country's first Olympic gold in any event and won it in style. A seemingly effortless Olympic record in their heat, followed by a final where they never trailed and led by clear water after barely 90 seconds.

Peter Wilson: Won Britain's first shooting gold for 12 years. Also broke the world record for the double-trap earlier in the year. One of the great undersung achievements.

Alistair Brownlee: Five times a world champion triathlete, Brownlee went into the Olympic event as favourite and sealed the deal. His brother, Jonathan, claimed the bronze medal and then succeeded Al as world champion. It was, as you may have heard, a good Olympics for Yorkshiremen and women.

Charlotte Dujardin: Won team and individual gold medals in dressage, setting world records in doing so and proving that a horse really can dance to the music from The Great Escape.

Anthony Joshua: Olympic superheavyweight champion despite relative inexperience and a tough draw at London 2012. Turned down a £50,000 offer to become a professional, saying he puts medals above money.

Heather Watson: In winning the Japan Open, she became the first British woman to win a WTA Tour singles title since 1988 (Watson wasn't even born until 1992). Became the first British woman for ten years to reach the third round of Wimbledon (losing to the eventual runner-up) and ended the year in the world's top 50. A case could also be made for Laura Robson.

Alastair Cook: Maybe a late run to the line with last night's victory in Mumbai, but Cook has shown for the past two years that he is England's most reliable batsman. Averages 67 since the start of the 2010 Ashes, in which time he has made nine of his 22 Test hundreds, an England record. Has captained England in four Tests and made four centuries.

Frankel: And why shouldn't a horse win the prize? After winning the Queen Anne Stakes was given a rating of 147 by Timeform, the highest mark ever given to a horse in the company's 64-year history. Retired undefeated from 14 races - only one horse since 1900 has done as well - and now heads off to a life at stud, charging £125,000 a lay. Bradley Wiggins can't demand that.

So there you are, 12 more to mull over. Who should be moved from the B list to the A list? Who have I missed out? And hasn't this been a wonderful sporting year?

And the especially blissful thing? No footballers...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ninety years of the BBC

Auntie possibly does not feel much like celebrating her 90th birthday today. Attacked from the left and the right, damned as the protector of paedophiles and the tormentor of the innocent, her integrity doubted and her reputation for trustworthiness undermined, the BBC is certainly going through a tricky period.

There are many who would like it dismantled, who object to being forced to pay £145.50 a year - "the most regressive and ruthlessly collected of all government imposts", according to The Spectator's Charles Moore - but for many more it is fabulously good value, far more so than those other public services we are taxed to fund, and that's not just because they employ my wife.

What a bargain we get: the Today programme, Only Connect, Test Match Special, University Challenge, Doctor Who, repeats of Dad's Army, Rastamouse, In the Night Garden, almost anything on BBC Four, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the Proms, PM, QI, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Carols from King's, The Good Life Christmas special and Susanna Reid looking coquettish on the Breakfast sofa. Yes, even Newsnight.

So happy birthday, BBC, from a fan.

Earlier today the wonderful Rose Wild, custodian of The Times archive, tweeted an extract from the newspaper in 1922 on the founding of what was then the British Broadcasting Company.

"At the beginning," Sir William Noble, chairman of the company, said, "broadcasting will be conducted purely from a social point of view." Lord knows what he would have made of Twitter. News, weather and concerts were its main output. "It may be that later we shall arrange for speeches written by popular people to be broadcast," Noble added.

Within two months, the BBC had given over an entire night's programming to a broadcast of Wagner's Die Walkure, save for a few children's bedtime stories from 5-5.45pm. Those were the days.

Interestingly, having looked at the cutting beyond Rose's extract, it was not envisaged that this new technology should be a threat to newspapers. Noble said that broadcasting should stop at 1am so as not to tread on the toes of morning papers and not begin again before 5pm in order not to take custom away from evening newspapers. If only the internet could be the same...

"We want broadcasting to be an incentive for people to buy more newspapers," he said. "We hope that by giving them a brief synopsis of events, we shall whet their appetite for news and induce them to buy newspapers."

The Times, incidentally, thought that the word broadcasting was "an inelegant term". Guess we're stuck with it now.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Commentating off the telegram

The England cricket team are in India and the bulk of the press pack are also there getting ready for the first Test on November 15. Not Sky Sports, though, who plan to do their commentary "off the telly" from a studio in West London after deciding not to pay the Indian cricket board's late demand of £500,000 as an extra fee for using facilities.

Reporting from afar is nothing new. I was looking at the Times archive of England's first Test series in India in 1933-34 and noticed that below a match report of the drawn second Test in Calcutta, presumably sent by an agency, there was a piece from Our Cricket Correspondent that begins:
"The reflexion [sic] of anyone who was hitting a golf ball into the bumps and hollows of Mid-Surrey yesterday when he heard that the match in Calcutta was left drawn was that the English team to win the match might well have scored a little faster in their first innings."
The correspondent then gives his opinions on a match of which he had obviously not seen a single ball nor have heard much, if any, radio commentary. The BBC began live cricket broadcasting in 1927 but it was not until the summer of 1934 that Howard Marshall did the first ball-by-ball commentary on home Tests.

Perhaps the World Service, which began in 1932, might have carried a short report, but I suspect that the Times correspondent of 1934 wrote his piece "off the telegram".

If Sky are working from home, the BBC's Test Match Special, which has been on the air since 1957, has come to an agreement with India and will broadcast from there. It is unclear whether they paid the £50,000 that they were demanded for a commentary box, but the important thing is that they will be there in India, bringing all the sounds of the crowds, the interviews with players on the outfield and Geoffrey Boycott's anecdotes about arguing with Indian brigadiers that people love.

I am one of their fans, have been since childhood, which is why it was disappointing to get wrapped up in a Twitter argument with Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's cricket correspondent, yesterday over my support for a venture called Test Match Sofa, which is owned by The Cricketer magazine, and does commentary of cricket matches off the television.

With less of the decorum and respect for authority that the BBC has, the Sofa is either a fun, anarchic, fresh way of doing commentary or it is a disgraceful sign of the way the world is going. It is not to everyone's taste and the commentators acknowledge that. Their reading out of tweets and their jingles for players would not be heard of on TMS. They even have women commentators.

I like it, but I also like Agnew and the others on TMS. He is a fine broadcaster with a warm, inquisitive interview technique who should be used more often by the BBC on other sports and other occasions, as Brian Johnston was. His gentle joshing with Geoffrey Boycott is always great radio.

That the Sofa has been kind enough to have me on as a guest on a handful of occasions - not frequently, as Agnew claimed in an attempt to undermine my impartiality, but maybe just into double figures over three years - does not mean I favour them. I would happily go on TMS if invited, although I have been told by one moderately famous friend who was invited on the Sofa that it had been made clear to him by Agnew that if he did so he would never be allowed on TMS, which seems petty. He has since been on TMS, lucky him.

I do, however, support the Sofa's right to exist. Agnew argues that them doing ball-by-ball commentary contravenes the exclusive radio rights that the BBC has. The Cricketer argues that in the internet age the situation has changed, that they are doing no more than allowing fans watching a game to share their witty thoughts with others online and has challenged the ECB, English cricket's governing body, to make a legal case for why they should stop.

Although the ECB made several pleas to The Cricketer on moral grounds - won't someone please think of the money that you could be denying to the grassroots if the BBC pay less for their next bundle of rights and so on - they have stayed away from this for six months or so and no lawyer's letter has come. What the Sofa is doing is apparently not illegal.

I can see why Agnew is protective of the BBC's primacy but the difference in audience sizes is massive. The Sofa is not a threat to TMS but it offers something different to those who are turned off by the BBC, who can't access TMS overseas or perhaps just want a change occasionally (one person on Twitter said they listen to the Sofa when England are fielding and TMS when they are batting).

Agnew says it is a rights issue but if so it can only be a good one for the BBC. Next time they negotiate a contract with the ECB they can refuse to pay as much since they feel they have less exclusivity. The BBC's remit should not be about funding cricket, it should be about getting the best deal for their listeners (the BBC, incidentally, pays nothing for their TV rights to the Boat Race, which attracts 7 million viewers, but no one talks about the devastating effect that has on rowing at Oxbridge).

In addition, TMS, as well as the experience of former players, trained commentators and 55 years of built-up authority, has the significant advantage of being there. Their access to the game, their facility to transmit the atmosphere, to speak to players immediately after play and to have first shot when big stories break mid-match (while the Sofa team are oblivious because they reading tweets) is what gives the value of their rights and why the prospect of the Indian board shutting them out if they didn't pay a ransom was awful.

Anyway. This has been a festering grievance for a while, but it boiled over this week when Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the much-admired and loved TMS commentator and former Times correspondent, wrote a column in our paper in praise of TMS that began by calling the Sofa team "predators", "ghastly" and saying that the sooner they were "nailed" and "swept offline" the better.

For a man who is regarded as a very fair and broad-minded journalist, who is more encouraging of young triers than some of his peer group, it was expressed with surprising vehemence and many who like the Sofa voiced their anger on Twitter.

Beware giving legitimacy to a twitstorm, but Andrew Miller, the editor of The Cricketer, demanded a right of reply, which our paper gave him in the form of some quotes to me in a news piece.

I'm sure Miller knew that some of his quotes were provocative. If Agnew was piqued at the suggestion the BBC should have checked their rights contract with India to see if they could actually get into the ground for their rupees, he exploded at the claim at the end that Brian Johnston and John Arlott, the godfathers of TMS, would not have got on to the programme if they were young BBC men now and would have been on the Sofa instead. It was a charge Miller made again in a piece in the Mail.

Agnew quite fairly observes, by the way, that CMJ was giving his own opinion in his own newspaper and Miller should not have seen it as the voice of the BBC. However, those who were angered by the "predator" comments interpreted it as such, so closely linked is he with the programme. Agnew has had every chance to distance himself and TMS from that opinion but has not done so.

Reading his tweet that he "became extremely angry by some outrageous claims, not least that Johnners wouldn't work for TMS today", I replied to Agnew that what Miller wrote was not that he wouldn't but that he couldn't.

There is simply not the pathway into the best seat in broadcasting for an Old Etonian, Oxbridge japester these days. If the first two categories didn't bar him now, the fondness for practical jokes probably would. Nor would Arlott, a former policeman and poet, a friend of John Betjeman, who was suddenly given a chance to commentate on cricket when he was 32 and so a magnificent career was born. Their way in was granted by patronage and the good fortune of being in the right place after the war.

That does not happen these days, which is why a comedian like Andy Zaltzman, the nearest perhaps in humour and background to a Johnners among modern commentators, goes on the Sofa.

And so it began. A fair battering followed, Agnew suggesting that Johnston would go into local radio and then somehow be picked up by TMS, even though plenty of talented local commentators get no further than a stint on unfancied one-day games or reports on Five Live, plus the BBC keeps saying it is going to do away with county coverage.

That's fine, that is his opinion and I look forward to the day when Zaltzman is saying "Hello and welcome to Lord's" from the TMS prime chair.

I just find the whole row very saddening. Both TMS and the Sofa, in differing ways, are producing content as cricket-lovers, giving publicity to a sport that badly needs it. They should be, if not on the same side, then at least not on warring ones. I respect both of them and I wasted far too much of yesterday being upset at the bulldozing I got from someone who cannot accept there may be a differing point of view.

So I'll leave you with this comment, from the 1935 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, in the Notes by the then editor Sydney Southerton:
"The cricket season of 1934  [was] unpleasant... The whole atmosphere of cricket in England was utterly foreign to the great traditions of the game. I deplored the attitude of a certain section of the Press in what seemed to me an insane desire constantly to stir up strife... We constantly read during the Test matches, not so much how the game was going, but rather, tittle-tattle of a mischievous character, which in the long run prompted the inevitable question: are Test matches really worth while?"
Southerton was referring to the rise of a tabloid culture and maybe Agnew would lay his charges on the Sofa's carpet, but the same could be thrown back at him since his battling without conciliation on Twitter is fostering the same strife. We should all be better than this. We all love cricket. Why don't we just get back to reporting on it rather than squabbling with each other? Or are Test matches not worth while?

Friday, November 02, 2012

A new start?

I haven't written a blog in almost six months. Partly because I had no time during the busiest summer of my life as a sports writer, in which I was privileged to cover everything from Wimbledon to the Ryder Cup via two Test matches, three rowing regattas, the Open and a couple of multi-sports events in London, and partly because I seem to be spending more time than is helpful for private writing on that modern-day Tower of Babel that is Twitter.

Taking half an hour to write something of length, let alone long enough to do proper research and form reasoned opinions, seems impossible, even if I waste just as much time reading and replying to tweets. I wish someone would uninvent Twitter.

Still, that is the way the world is going. Many of the blogs I used to read often are either now dead, in hibernation or updated sporadically. And many more might still be thriving but I just don't feel the need to go and read them. There seems to be a widespread blogging boredom.

But from time to time I probably will have things to say that need more than 140 characters in which to say them, so I have decided not to kill off the Vole completely. God knows whether it has been missed, although it had a few loyal readers who were kind enough to say nice things, but I will try to blog every once in a while, especially if you encourage me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Basil Easterbrook, forgotten legend

Some blog posts have no real point or timely purpose. They just contain random thoughts that might amuse. This is one of those.

I went googling this afternoon, as hacks with stories to research do these days. I presume in the old era of Fleet Street such a search would mean a trip to the British Library, perhaps with a few snorters in Ye Old Stabbe on the way back. Indeed, as recently as 2001, when I was working briefly on the then largely internet-free Daily Telegraph, I remember asking the chief sub how I could check a fact and being given the phone number for the library. I presume even the Telegraph has moved on now.

Anyway, I was hunting information about batsmen who have made 1,000 first-class runs before the end of May, since Somerset's Nick Compton has passed 900 and may yet get to four figures before the month is out. If he does - and surely by me drafting a feature on those who went before him, it has ensured that he will fall short - he would be the first man to do it since Graeme Hick in 1988 and only the third since 1938. It is a bit of a cricket nerd's wet dream.

Compton and his runs have no further role in this post, but while hunting precedent I came across a couple of pieces written in the 1970s for Wisden Cricketers' Almanack by one Basil Easterbrook. It was a name that rang some distant vague bell and having liked what I read, I went hunting for more information.

It turns out he was one of those hard-working regional pressmen who are sadly a dying breed these days. Rarely bylined in the nationals, he was nonetheless a familiar and respected member of football and cricket press boxes around the country and always to be seen when England were playing at Wembley or Lord's.

He was also the source of some excellent anecdotes and since my main purpose in life is to gather such humorous stories, I may as well paste a few of them below.

From his obituary in The Independent

"Like most of his generation, he was unenthusiastic about the advance of commercialism but he was once put in charge of the Press Box hospitality at Worcester by a new and happily naive sponsor. The hacks were duly impressed on the first lunchtime when a bottle of Chablis arrived at each seat. Easterbrook beamed.

"The next day more wine arrived accompanied by a fly-past from the Red Arrows. Challenged to top this, on the last day, Easterbrook smiled and pointed out of the window to where, under the shadow of the cathedral, the groundsman's hut had gone up in flames."

And: "Ordered on one occasion to spell out his words more concisely and clearly when dictating a report over the telephone he began, carefully: 'This is Basil V. Easterbrook.'... 'What league is that?' asked the copytaker."

From an article on Keith Miller

"In 1953 when Miller led Australia against Yorkshire at Sheffield, Easterbrook was just about to leave for the match when the manageress told him that Mr Miller and Mr Lindwall were still in their room. The Australian team coach had gone and Easterbrook knew it would not be easy to find taxis in Grindleford, a small, picturesque village.

"Australia were in the field, Miller would have to lead the team out and Bramall Lane would be packed. Then Easterbrook recalled that the local funeral parlour had a limousine. He hired it, they got to Bramall Lane with the gates closed on 30,000 and minutes to go before the start. Miller, furiously changing in the limousine said: 'Pay the cab, Bas, and collect it from Davies [the Australian manager].' But Davies refused to pay the £2.

"In 1972, Easterbrook was at the Old Trafford Test against Australia when Miller came by and thrust £5 in his pocket: 'That was for Grindleford, Bas.' When Easterbrook protested it was too much, Miller said: 'Well, Bas, there's been inflation and it's a long time.'"

And then this, written by Easterbrook in the 1971 Wisden: 

"There are many of cricket's best untold stories in the making of a duck. I remember one occasion when Yorkshire were playing Oxbridge. A wicket had fallen. Slowly gracefully from the pavilion emerged a slim willowy figure most beautifully attired - the next man in. His flannels could only have been cut in Savile Row; his boots were new, his pads spotless. On his head, set at a carefully cultivated, devil-may-care angle was a multi-coloured cap. Clipped round his neck to protect his throat from the rude winds of early May which do not spare even university towns, was a silk scarf.

"On his way to the crease he played imaginary bowlers. With wristy cuts and flicks, perfectly timed drives, and daring late glances and hooks he despatched the imaginary ball to all parts of the ground. "The Yorkshire players watched his approach in silence. He eventually arrived at the wicket and looked around, imperiously, like a king come to his rightful throne. He took guard, and then spent a full minute making his block hole, shaping and patting it until it was ready to his satisfaction. Another look around the entire field - and he was ready to receive his first ball.

"Freddie Trueman bowled it and knocked two of the three stumps clean out of the ground. As our young exquisite turned languidly and began to walk away, Freddie called to him sympathetically, 'Bad luck sir, you were just getting settled in.'"


Friday, May 11, 2012

Rain/frost/incompetence stopped play

It's a fairly pleasant, sunny afternoon at Chelmsford and a cricket match has suddenly broken out between Essex and Kent. This came as a surprise for me, having seen little more than drizzle for the past two days. Indeed, my entire season has been pretty much washed out.

As I wrote in this morning's Times, 2012 is shaping up to be one of the wettest cricket seasons on record, up there with 1879 (described as too wet even for coaching), 1888 ("June was detestable, July indescribable", according to Wisden), 1903 (almost half a metre of rain fell in the season), 1912 (June and July had twice the annual average rainfall, August was worse) and 1954 (lost revenue cost the counties £1.6 million in today's money).

On the first day of the match I am covering this week, there were fewer than ten overs possible between showers. Yesterday, there were only ten balls. That is still ten balls more than I had in the entire match between Surrey and Durham two weeks ago, which was abandoned without any play, while Monday's one-day game at Lord's looks arid by comparison as only two hours were lost.

For a sportswriter, I'm not seeing an awful lot of sport this year. Even when the weather is hot, the players are not. In January, I was in the UAE to cover England's Test series against Pakistan, in which thanks to our boys' inability to play spin, four days of the series were not needed.

In February, I was sent to Paris to cover the Six Nations rugby match between France and Ireland. The temperature plummeted to -10C and it was called off ten minutes before the scheduled start because of a frozen pitch.

And then there was the Boat Race, which was completed despite the best efforts of fate, which threw a swimming protester and a broken Oxford oar into the mix.

I'm starting to wonder whether I might be a bit of a sporting Jonah, chaos following wherever I go. At this rate, expect an asteroid to strike Wimbledon, the Open golf to be washed out by a tsunami up the Irish Sea and the Olympics to be terribly inconvenienced by a plague of locusts.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Nice to sink you, to sink you nice

Of all the Titanic tie-ins at the moment, the most inspired surely has to be Titanic with Len Goodman – or Dancing on Iceberg as Jon Holmes memorably described it on Radio 4. The Strictly Come Dancing judge was once a welder for the company that built the unsinkable vessel, albeit fifty years later, so seemed the ideal choice to present a three-part series on the disaster in the absence of Leonardo di Caprio or Captain Birdseye.

The decision raises the intriguing prospect of other reality show/history programme crossovers. Later this summer perhaps we can expect to see Bruno Tonioli bring his trademark effervescence to a series on the anniversary of the Battle of Midway or maybe Gok Wan explaining the after-effects of Hiroshima in a programme called Does My Bomb Look Big in This?

Surely Sir Brucie would be an ideal host for a night of programming next year about the 50th anniversary of Pol Pot becoming leader of the Khmer Rouge – Strictly Cambodia – and feelers are already being put
out to see if Louis Walsh and Dermot O'Leary fancy co-hosting a series on when the American civil rights movement went violent: The Malcolm X Factor.

The series that everyone wants to see, though, would be about those irritating parasites who caused widespread distress in the 14th and 21st century. Yes, brace yourself for Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan
presenting Britain's Got The Bubonic Plague.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Give an inch and they'll take 2.54cm

Oh dear, John Hemming is being wacky again.

The amorous MP for Birmingham Yardley, who according to his patient wife has had 26 affairs despite resembling one of the less trendy 1980s Open University professors, has tabled an Early Day Motion about metrication.

Mr Hemming, whose wife last year ended up in court for stealing his mistress's cat, is upset that "reports in the BBC and other media outlets" have referred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer "coming down like a tonne of bricks on wealthy people who sell properties through offshore companies to avoid stamp duty".

He wants us to use "ton" instead, observing that not only is the imperial spelling more British but it is heavier - about 16kg heavier - than a metric tonne. We are, apparently, "understating the Chancellor's commitment to action" by spelling it thus.

Hemming then calls on the media to cease metrication "before people end up being exhorted not to give another 24.5 millimetres rather than not giving another inch".

Which would be a better point if there were not actually 25.4mm in an inch...

So far, his motion has attracted only one signature, his own.

OK, so he is just trying to be witty and there may be a serious point buried in there, except that this solitary stand against a rogue "-ne" suffix has cost the taxpayer £443. That is the figure extrapolated from the estimated annual cost of EDMs of £1m according to the House of Commons library.

The bulk of that cost, about £776,000, comes from having to print and publish them, although I don't know why in this day and age it can't all be done online.

An EDM is one of those tools by which MPs raise matters of national or local concern in the hope of getting them a wider airing. In fact, they rarely achieve anything more than a bit of local press for the MPs who sign them, which is why some refuse to bow to pressure groups who demand their signature. Very few ever lead to a debate (from 1979 to 1994 only four did, but this has picked up to a couple per year if backed by a ton - or tonne - of support).

So, Mr Hemming has cost the taxpayer £443 in making his silly point which no one but he supports and which will not lead to any change. You would have thought that he could have made the same point on Twitter for less money. Still, if it keeps him out of the sack for ten minutes...

The Times, by the way, will be sticking with its style guide which says we should use "tons" only in a historic context (although curiously allows the metaphor "tons of help"...).

Friday, March 16, 2012

Waiting for Sachin. Now what?

Every so often someone at the BBC has to go through the tapes prepared for broadcast after the death of a major royal or former Prime Minister and check that the people they have interviewed have not died. There was a close call in 2002 when someone spotted just before transmission that Lord Longford was singing the Queen Mother's praises despite having shuffled off his mortal coil a year earlier.

I thought about that this morning when Sachin Tendulkar finally made his 100th international century for India, 370 days after his 99th, and newspapers and television stations began to push out all the material they had started to compile more than a year ago.

I've been trying to keep The Times's stats bundle on Tendulkar updated through his 33 hundredless innings, but amid the reams of commentary and hours of footage that are being pumped out around the world today there might be the odd error that gets through. A reference to something that was accurate in March 2011 but is now an anachronism, a talking head interviewed who is now silent.

Indeed, as Ali Martin of The Sun noted on Twitter, this has already happened. The BBC are showing praise for Tendulkar's achievement from Andrew Strauss, which was clearly filmed at a sponsor's event last November. A little misleading of the Beeb...

Between Tendulkar's 99th century, made the day after a tsunami struck Japan, and his 100th, Libya's government fell, Prince William got married, Ratko Mladic was arrested, Alastair Cook got married, the US space shuttle programme ended, Syria went psycho, Greece flirted with financial oblivion, four cricketers were jailed for corruption and England became the world's No 1 Test side.

Three great but evil men died - Muammar Gadaffi, Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il - and a whole Test XI of former cricketers, including Basil D'Oliveira, the Nawab of Pataudi and Graham Dilley. Time rolled on swiftly while Tendulkar was becalmed on 99.

I spoke to Mark Ramprakash in January, two thirds of the way through Tendulkar's barren patch in terms of innings played, and we discussed the lengthy - but not that lengthy - drought that the Surrey and former England batsman endured in 2008 when trying to move from 99 to 100 first-class centuries, a landmark that will probably never be reached again given how few first-class matches are played by international cricketers (even Tendulkar is only on 78 fc hundreds).

The expectation and attention on Ramprakash was far less severe than it has been on Tendulkar, but it still brought pressure. Like Tendulkar, Ramprakash had reached 99 hundreds at a great lick, with six in the space of nine innings. And then form deserted him.

It would be three months - half the county season - before he made another century. Every day he showed up at a ground, there would be Sky Sports to ask whether today would be his day. It grew wearying.

And then suddenly the wait was over. Ramprakash made 112 at Headingley and celebrated rather quaintly with a cup of tea and a slice of fruitcake with his mother in the pavilion (I feel for her, like Tendulkar's family, having to travel round to watch the elusive landmark).

"The next day felt like an anticlimax," Ramprakash told me. "I'd had three months of being asked the same question, so there was excitement and relief, but then you wonder: 'what next?'."

What happened next for Ramprakash was an unbeaten 200 in his next innings, 178 in the one after that and 127 two innings later. The monkey off his back, he could score freely again. I fully expect Tendulkar to embark on one of the most fruitful periods of his career, starting on Sunday against Pakistan.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sod the Ides of March, have a wee dram

Today is the Ides of March, that day when the soothsayer in "a tongue shriller than all the music" warned Caesar that it might be a good idea to bunk off work.

It's hard to see Shakespeare being used to flog anything these days, so I was delighted to discover this advert for Scotch Whisky in the British Newspaper Archive, taken from the Western Morning News in 1927. We should bring back adverts that use line drawings rather than photos!

Particularly fabulous is the sales pitch that Scotch can be used as a remedy against influenza. The drinking advice is also quite wonderful, too: "Scotch Whisky can be taken at the strength and in the volume best suited to the individual constitution, the time and the climate."

If only alcohol today could be sold with a "drink what you want, when you want, you're a grown-up" message.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Once in Rahul Dravid's City

It was a classy end to a classy career. In a press conference today in his home town of Bangalore, one of the finest Indian cities, Rahul Dravid, one of the finest Indian batsmen, drew stumps on his playing career with a few self-deprecating words and praise for those who came to watch him.

If it were not for the fact that he has intelligence, humility, integrity and a genuine love of the game and respect for its fans, Dravid would make a fabulous cricket administrator.

Such virtues would count against him in the snakepits of the BCCI or ICC, although sitting by him at the press conference were two other former India players turned administrators who share Dravid's values: Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble. They breed decent men in Bangalore.

Who knows where his new career will take him, but when India next play a Test match, in Sri Lanka this autumn, it will be without the man who has been the rock of their middle order for 16 years.

I was there at the beginning, sitting in the Compton Stand at Lord's, when this skinny kid came out for his Test debut at No 7 with India in a bit of difficulty at 202 for five. He stayed at the crease for more than six hours, making 95 before edging a ball from Chris Lewis to the wicketkeeper.

Though frustrating for him to fall shy of a hundred on debut at Lord's - something only five men, including his fellow debutant in that match, Sourav Ganguly, have done - Dravid's resistance showed his remarkable temperament. It was the first brick in the construction of the Great Wall of India.

Dravid may be turning grey at the temples but he has stayed skinny, not piling on the pounds like some of his team-mates. He never lost his monstrous appetite for runs, though.

He faced 31,258 balls in the name of Indian Test cricket and was dismissed by just 254 of them. Only three others have faced even 23,000 balls in Tests; Dravid's aggregate of 13,288 runs in Test cricket is surpassed only by Sachin Tendulkar.

How blessed India has been to have twin supernovas batting together for so long. Together, they put on a record 20 century stands in Tests for India and Dravid shared a further 68 partnerships worth 100 or more in his 286 Test innings. He may not be everyone's choice as the man to bat for their life, but he is surely the man you wanted at the other end.

His finest hour (or seven and a half hours) was no doubt the 180 he made at Calcutta in 2001, sharing a stand of 376 with VVS Laxman that grasped victory in a long-dead Test against Australia, one of only three times in history a side has won after following on.

But there are plenty of other great innings to cherish. We saw a lot of Dravid's best in England, where he made six of his 36 Test centuries. There was the 148 at Headingley in 2002 that set up India's first win in this country for 16 years, his 217 in the very next innings at the Oval (I was in the Laker Stand for that), or the 117 he made when pushed into opening at Trent Bridge last summer, batting for all but 15 minutes of India's first innings.

That was a miserable tour for India, but Dravid remained their ray of light, averaging 77 in the Test series - more than twice the next man. In what turned out to be his final Test match here, he opened the innings and carried his bat to the close for 146, one of six men (including Len Hutton and Herbert Sutcliffe) to bat undefeated through a Test innings at the Oval.

His farewell press conference was as respectful and modest as you would expect. "I just knew the time was right," Dravid said. "You know deep down that it is time to let the next generation take over."

I hope they measure up to Dravid not just in quantity of runs, but in the way they approach the sport. "It was about playing with dignity and upholding the spirit of the game," Dravid said. "I hope I have done some of that. I have failed at times but I have never stopped trying." Is there a better manifesto for life?

He ended by praising the average Indian cricket fan. "The game is lucky to have you and I have been lucky to play before you," he said. No doubt the affection is returned.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

An afternoon in Paris

The pretty girl stopped suddenly in front of me as I walked beside the Seine. With a gasp, she bent down and picked up a chunky gold ring. "Is this yours?" she asked.

Wondering first why she might think that I have such little taste, I answered in the negative and walked on, ignoring her repeated shouts. I had read about the Parisian gold ring scam before and didn't want to waste my time, although it might have been interesting to let it pan out before, perhaps, throwing the ring into the river.

Paris holds several happy memories for me. It's where my wife and I got engaged in 2004, in a corner of the Tuileries gardens, and we were there two years ago when my wife was two months pregnant with our daughter. Last weekend, I went alone on business, to cover the France-Ireland rugby match that was called off because of a frozen pitch ten minutes before the scheduled 9pm start.

There are worse places to be when the temperature is several degrees below zero than Paris and having arrived several hours before kick-off I enjoyed a bracing long walk beside the river, past the ring-scammers and the tat-salesmen, flogging what they claimed were ancient manuscripts from green bins for a handful of euros apiece.

I made the mistake of visiting Notre Dame, when I should have headed up to Montmartre for the singing nuns at Sacre Coeur. For all the beauty of Notre Dame's facade, it has been vandalised inside by tourist parties, who churn through the aisles looking at nothing yet photographing it all.

Why do so many people need to record every moment of their life in photographs? Can they not see a church as a place of contemplation, of spiritual uplift? You do not need to be religious to find peace in a church, but in Notre Dame none exists. Just a constant snap, snap, snap. Religion through a viewfinder.

I spent all of ten minutes there and headed for another temple where the visitors at least use their own eyes. Down the river to the Musee D'Orsay, a greater treat than the Louvre, with its fine collection of impressionism and sculpture. A marvellous array of bottoms and breasts (if a month early for an exhibition on Degas and the Nude), of portraits and pointillism.

An exhibition on 19th-century orientalism (then meaning the Middle East and north Africa, not the Far East) caught the immediate attention, almost as immediate as Manet's La blonde aux seins nus and I finished with the Signacs and Seurats, admiring the patience and focus needed to conjure a spectacle in dots. But I'm drifting into Pseuds Corner territory...

North, then, via a decent onion soup and a barely passable spaghetti bolognese, to the Stade de France for the rugby. It may have been -6C when I got there, with the mercury heading quickly down, but we had no inkling that the game would be off. They had tested the pitch the day before, we were told, and all was fine. What they did not mention was that the inspection had been mid-afternoon rather than at 9pm when the game would start.

Sat in the stand, fingers turning blue, word came via Twitter that the match was off. No it hasn't, I replied. I'm here, the band is standing in the middle and there has been no announcement. Such is modern journalism and age-old customer relations that you have more chance of getting the news from someone watching the TV in London than you do from being there.

At ten to nine, those watching the game on TV were told the match was off. It took 20 minutes before any such announcement was made in the stadium and when it came it was met with whistles and jeers. Mind you, the French jeer even when a match is being played, even when their own team is about to kick.

The pitch was frozen in patches, making it dangerous to play, yet still no one had told the band. They stood there, shivering, until 9.30pm before being allowed to march off. The temperature had dropped to -10C by then and the press had moved indoors to write their post-mortems.

A wasted trip? Not really, I can hardly complain at the company paying for me to spend an afternoon looking at Renoir's nudes ...

Thursday, February 02, 2012

They'll be banning Bloody Mary next

It baffles me how some people go in search of things to be upset about. You would have thought that there are plenty of genuine inequalities in the world that Kate Green, shadow equality minister, could choose to bring up with the Government, but today she used parliamentary time to lobby for the removal of a beer from the Strangers Bar in the Commons.

A bar, incidentally, into which she says she has not set foot in almost two years as an MP, but which sells beer at a taxpayer-subsidised £2.70 a pint. Those of us who have to pay getting on for £4 elsewhere in London might suggest that there are other forms of inequality she should be worried about.

The beer, one of those guest ales that pubs buy in from time to time, was called Top Totty - which is surely better than Middle-Ranking Totty, as Tracey Crouch, a Tory MP, tweeted - and offended Ms Green not just for its name but because the label on the pump features the image of a cartoon bunny girl and has such advertising phrases as "stunningly seductive" and "voluptuous hop aroma". So she got it banned, for that is what Labour MPs exist to do.

It's not witty or even that classy - isn't that the point of guest ales? - but it was apparently a good beer and other MPs, including women, liked to drink it. Top Totty was first stocked in 2007 and sold out in three days, which is surely good news for the small brewer that makes it. Not any more.

What next? Should all copies of The Sun be banned from the parliamentary estate because of page 3? Or how about taking on other offensive drinks? Spitfire tastelessly glorifies conflict; London Pride neglects other parts of the country and as for Bishops Finger...

Nor should we stop at beers. Cocktails are definitely offensive (if we must use a filthy body part then give it the unisex renaming of Genitails) and surely it is time to ban the Bloody Mary out of respect for Catholics.

Incidentally, when I worked in Parliament more than ten years ago, the Strangers Bar used to make the best Bloody Mary in London. "You want it cooked?" asked the barman. Cooked meant it came with extra Tabasco, lime and Lea and Perrins. Curry in a glass.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

From off spin to spin-offs

What did cricket writers do in the days before Twitter? They probably read books, wrote poetry, knocked off a crossword puzzle or two, drank plenty and even, God forbid, spoke to each other. Now we fill the duller moments by bashing out half-baked thoughts in 140 characters or less.

I resisted Twitter for a long time and have perhaps embraced it too enthusiastically since I took it up nine months ago. A colleague here admonished me for filling up his timeline, although I try to give good tweet, sharing amusing thoughts (amusing to me, anyway) or odd bits of information rather than the bland statements others make (why do some people need to tweet "good morning", for instance, or tell me that they feel peckish?).

Sometimes an idea on Twitter is too good to waste on one tweet or gets a life of its own when others comment on it, which brings us to #WestWingSpinOffs, an idea I had while discussing with a friend what might have happened to Nancy McNally, President Bartlet's National Security Adviser, after Matt Santos entered the White House.

The West Wing is one of the greatest programmes ever made but after seven seasons the avid fan is left wanting more. What we need are spin-offs. Good spin-offs, mind, like Frasier or Torchwood, not another Joey or the bizarre AfterMASH, a spin-off featuring Klinger, Mulcahy and Colonel Potter after they left Korea (I'm not joking ...)

So what's next, as Jed might say? Well, in case you are a Hollywood producer looking for fresh ideas, here are the West Wing Spin-Offs I and a few Twitter friends came up with. If you're not a West Wing fan, most of these won't mean anything and you probably gave up reading this by now.

All fresh (and better) suggestions gratefully received.

  • The Nancy McNally Mysteries, in which she, Donna and Elsie Snuffin solve crimes in New England
  • Butterfield and Co: the hilarious farce of a former Secret Service head who retires early to run a gentlemen's outfitters
  • Confessions of a Scruffy Hack: Danny Concannon's late-night chat show
  • Quincy and Bing: a Friends/West Wing crossover in which a lawyer and a statistics analyst, both played by Matt Perry, are room-mates
  • Stop It! A new gameshow in which contestants see how long they can put up with Donna's bird tapping at the window 
  • Marbury and McGarry (deceased): Lord John Marbury tries to sort world peace, aided by Leo's ghost who only he can see (hat-tip @jedmiliband)
  • Where's Mandy? A panel show in which a guest tries to find where Mandy Hampton has disappeared to this week (hat-tip @arjones77)
  • Big Block of Cheese Day: The US economy cracks as those in power spend weeks tucking into a good Camembert (hat-tip @alan_curr)
  • Ball Against the Wall: A game show featuring Toby Ziegler. Can you beat the master at his own game of bounce? (hat-tip @eddie_corrigan)
  • Weatherman: Will Bailey ends droughts across the world by screaming to the skies for rain
  • CJ Cregg vs the World (featuring Taylor Reid and Big Bird) (hat-tip @paulframe85)
  • The Ziegler Follies: The speechwriter travels the world looking at whimsical structures (hat-tip @zyohnnymac)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Learjets and the shark-sellers: the two sides of Dubai

England's cricket tour of the UAE has limped on to Abu Dhabi after the stuffing they received from Pakistan in the first Test. Before we moved along the coast I got a chance to see a bit of the unknown side of Dubai.

I've been to the Dubai half a dozen times for work but it is not the sort of place I would ever choose to visit on holiday. Andrew Flintoff loves it, which tells you all you need to know. I've found it crass, boring and rather depressing, a stream of hotels, malls and nightclubs, none of which really appeal to me (why do people always talk about Dubai as a great shopping destination when the products are generally more pricey than back home?)

However, there are people I respect who like Dubai, not least my friends Toby and Lindsey who live out here, so with their guidance I ventured away from the strips of concrete and the hotel bars (£6 for a pint of Hoegaarden, by the way - God knows what Flintoff spends out here).

Down by the creek, where passengers are carried from bank to bank on precarious-looking wooden abras for the cost of a dirham (about 20p), we found a rickety platform on the water's edge where we ate meze and drank a delicious lemon juice and mint concoction.

As the wind picked up, shaking our platform, and a Hitchcockian swarm of birds came diving for scraps of bread, it felt a world away from the bland sterility of the rest of Dubai. Tourists were few and far between.

On we went, deep into "Little Pakistan", to Dubai's Billingsgate, the fish market where under a vast corrugated roof, dozens of fishermen sold their catch. Barkers tried to tempt you to their stall as squid jostled with crab and swordfish with shrimps for space in the wheelbarrows that porters wheeled round the narrow gulleys.

A whole tuna and a kilo of shrimps bought for the barbeque, we then took them to a separate shack where they were cleaned and gutted for a handful of dirhams. Outside, a few small sharks were laid out on the concrete walkway and a gaggle of locals gathered for what seemed to be a bidding war.

It was a fascinating display of noise and passion, the exact opposite of our trip the next night, when we were taken to Meydan, the great Dubai racing centre, for an evening with the horses.

Meydan is a majestic stadium, the stand of corporate boxes and seats looking like a grander version of Stansted airport. In front, the horses paraded before the race, patted as they passed by their wealthy sheikh owners. The place smelled of money and luxury.

And yet the racing was disappointingly sterile. No roar from the crowds as the horses thundered past, no gasps as the favourite slipped back or cheers for the 20-1 outsider who took the post. Barely any noise at all.

This is what happens to racing when you remove the alcohol and the gambling. I'm sure some betting must have gone on, punters using their mobile phones to access websites based overseas, but the lack of evident passion or concern for the result led to an immensely sterile atmosphere.

This is the anomaly of Dubai. The wealthier you are, the more soulless life seems. The immigrant population who built these edifices may live in penury, but they have passion and enthusiasm. I found myself envying the fishmongers and pitying the sheikhs. All the money in the world, but no real reason for being alive. In the battle between the Learjets and the shark-sellers, I'm on the side of the men who fish.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Postcard from Dubai

Dubai is a city of skeletons. Everywhere you look, particularly around Sports City where I am covering England's cricket tour against Pakistan, you see half-built shells of buildings. High-rise concrete frames waiting for the gaps to be filled in, yet no sign of anyone working.

No one has worked on them for quite some time. The skyline is full of unmoving cranes. One hopes that they are not leased by the day. This is a stagnant economy, a tourist resort built both literally and figuratively on sand.

If you search online for images of Sports City, all you will find are CGIs. It will look great when - if ever - it gets built.

It is a curious place to be watching cricket, although there can be no complaints about the stadium where the Test match starts on Tuesday or the ICC Global Cricket Academy down the road where England have been practising.

The facilities there are first-class, designed to replicate conditions around the world. The main square is laid half with soil from Lahore and half from the Gabba in Brisbane. The outdoor nets have been imported from other countries, including English clay wickets, while the indoor ones have different surfaces to allow you to practise on spin and pace-friendly pitches. It is an oasis surrounded by acres of neglect.

We're deliberating what to call the two ends at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium (right). Possibly the Building Site End and the Unbuilt Mall End. In the near distance, a canal network has been dug, with elaborate but unfinished Venetian-style bridges poured in concrete but undecorated at regular intervals. A scaffold-clad block of would-be Italianate villas stands dusty and ignored.

“All buildings in Dubai are either half-built or they are fantastic,” an expat said to me last week, but Dubai has long had a dichotomy. This is my fifth visit, having been to a few rugby sevens tournaments and the sevens World Cup in 2003. They are always great fun and a huge piss-up, which contradicts the stories you hear of people being thrown in prison for being drunk.

The Dubai Sevens is the only sports event I have been to where they check your bags for alcohol as you leave the ground – drink all you want in western company but don't touch a drop in front of the locals. There is similar hypocrisy in attitudes towards sex. Public displays of affection are frowned on, you are told, but in certain hotel bars and even as you wait in line for a taxi the amount of very evident prostitution is shocking.

A near-slave workforce from Asia has created this country out of nothing – the UAE only came into existence 41 years ago – but now there is no money to complete their works and many of the workers are unpaid and unable to return home.

Dubai has an Ozymandias feeling to it: a multitude of vast and trunkless legs of concrete. Shelley's poem could sum up the Dubai of the future: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” It is indeed an odd place to play cricket.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Citizens (back) on Patrol

OK, so the return to blogging hasn't quite taken off as instantly as I thought last week. I was waiting for a suitably weighty subject on which to give an opinion, so which shall it be: the Ed Miliband rebrand? David Cameron telling Scotland to shove off or stop whinging? The New Hampshire primary? HS2?

No, there's only one story that has grabbed my interest, grabbed it like a Moroccan carpet-seller grasps a window-shopping tourist, pours him a cup of sweet tea and manages to sell him a rug that he doesn't have room for, and that is the impending remake of Police Academy.

Police Academy was part of my childhood. More even than Ghostbusters and The Goonies, perhaps second only to Star Wars, the Academy films were the ones I would stick in the video player again and again. David Graf's gun-happy Tackleberry, Bubba Smith as the mild-mannered florist Hightower and Michael Winslow's sound effects copper Jones were my heroes.

The early films had all the right ingredients to appeal to teenage boys
  • loveable failures as the heroes
  • comic-book baddies who either have mullets and pencil moustaches or are bully-boy jocks
  • slapstick
  • car crashes (you can never go wrong with a police car on its roof, lights still rotating)
  • a reformed druggie (Zed) who spoke like the Tasmanian Devil
  • a dominatrix with pneumatic breasts
  • a very tall character and a very short one sent on patrol together
  • an absent-minded man in charge with a goldfish fetish and no idea of what is going on
  • someone trapped outside naked with only dustbin lids for protection
  • someone impersonating the bad dubbing of martial arts films
  • and, of course, the Blue Oyster.
Even now, if you whistle the first six notes of a 1970s tango called El Bimbo to men of a certain age you will get a sudden smile and, if they are of a certain orientation, perhaps a wink as they recognise the music played whenever someone was lured into the over-the-top Village People gay bar.

The Police Academy films tailed off quite a bit by the time you got to the sixth and seventh in the franchise - for some reason, it was never as good when Steve Guttenberg left, even those his character, Mahoney, was insufferably smug - but if New Line, who have bought the rights, can avoid taking the remake too seriously and keep it as a borderline camp, puerile visual comedy, they could be on to a hit.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A new year, a revived blog

Look, I know it's been a while since I last wrote anything on here, months in fact. Muammar Gadaffi was still alive when I last blogged, but never leaving any comments as usual.

Blame overwork, blame the baby, blame Twitter for absorbing far too much of my spare time, blame Ed Miliband, blame our switch to Googlemail for the office email which means that I have to log out of the system if I want to blog, blame the Coalition, blame Jonathan Trott, even blame it on the boogie although I really shouldn't.

But we're at the start of a new year and a few people - maybe the only people who ever read my wibblings - have asked why I don't blog anymore, so perhaps it is time to start again. I'm fed up with constricting my thoughts to just 140 characters.

I have a few resolutions for 2012 - lose weight, be happier and more patient at work, try to be a nice person, break 95 on the golf course, write a book, hold a catch, read books, teach my daughter to read books, teach my daughter to hold a catch, learn poetry, stop picking my nose, go to church more often - but like most resolutions some of those will be quickly jettisoned.

I will try to keep this one, though. In 2012 I shall start blogging again and I shall try do it often, a few times a week at least. All encouragement gratefully received. Happy New Year.