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.