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...