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.