Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The mystery of the missing tweet

Never mind the Pakistani bowlers and their bookmakers, the big cricket scandal today emerged on Twitter: Kevin Pietersen announced that he had been dropped by England for the upcoming one-day series with Pakistan (several hours before England's scheduled announcement) and called the decision a "fuck up"

The tweet has since been deleted and no doubt KP will be rapped on the knuckles, but almost as intriguing as his pottymouth is the last part of his tweet: "Surrey have signed me for l..."

Like the death note of a murder victim in a Sherlock Holmes story, the tweet mysteriously cuts out there because of Twitter's 140-character limit. It leaves us wondering what on earth Surrey have signed Pietersen for?

Did he mean to write "Surrey have signed me for l...oads of money" or "...life" or "...less than they paid Andrew Symonds" or "...lunchtime entertainment" or "...lambeth's hottest new drag act"?

I really think we should be told.

An 111 wind

Spot the difference:

From July 2009: Labour Government tests a new "111" phone service for non-emergency health care. This is four years after spending £40 million on the trial of a "101" phone service for non-emergency police calls that was scrapped. Yes, £40 million - how??? Anyway, this 111 malarkey gets slagged off by the British Medical Association and a lobbying group called Parents OutLoud for introducing a new layer of confusion.

From August 2010: Coalition Government announces trials of a new "111" phone service for non-emergency health care. It is widely praised by the NHS and the Patients Association.

Probably shows where my head is, but when I read these stories my first thought was that 111 looks a lot like "ill". A famous piece of Brian Johnston commentary came to mind when he read out the cricket scores and announced: "Yorkshire 232 all out, Hutton ill... I'm sorry, Hutton 111."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Is fixing a cricket match really so bad?

On May 29, 1646, a cricket match was held at Coxheath, Kent. Samuel Filmer and Thomas Harlackenden played against four men of Maidstone, with a dozen candles as a wager on the result. Filmer and Harlackenden won, but the Maidstone men refused to pay up and it went to court, thus becoming the first recorded instance of an organised cricket game.

Bear that in mind when reading the stories today about "cricket's darkest day" and the Pakistani betting scandal. Gambling has always been in cricket's blood. Indeed, staking money on the game was one of the main reasons it flourished, with wealthy patrons in the 17th and 18th centuries founding teams to take on others and win them money.

An Act of Parliament in 1664 set a limit of £100 that could be staked on cricket. By happy quirk, that is worth about £150,000 today, which is the amount that the News of the World offered to get in on the latest betting ride.

The claim is that two Pakistan bowlers were offered money to bowl no-balls, that is illegal deliveries, at three points in the match with England last week. Gamblers in India stake huge sums on such insignificant events and if rigged there is the potential to make big money.

And yet what is really so bad about what they did? So-called spot-fixing on specific incidents, as opposed to match-fixing when batsmen deliberately get themselves out or bowlers allow themselves to be hit around for a few overs, does not alter the result of a match or even its course. Those three no-balls happened during a period when England were otherwise under the cosh from Pakistan's bowlers.

Who is really cheated by the odd paid-for no-ball? Only the bookmakers who offer odds against it happening and the punters who stick money on it but given that betting is illegal in India, can anyone really feel sorry for them?

Is a deliberate no-ball any worse than a batsman not walking when he knows he has edged a ball? Or fielders trying to intimidate umpires into giving a decision they know is wrong with furiously bellowed appeals? Or bowlers picking at the seam of the ball to make it move more? Those actions cheat the paying spectators far more than the odd deliberate no-ball.

And why should players face life bans for taking money to throw a match, when the administrators of the game are making oodles from the sometimes less than upright decisions they make. As Malcolm Conn writes in The Australian today, it is far worse that umpires can be forced to stand down because players don't like them or that administrators who call for investigations into Zimbabwe Cricket's finances can be edged out. Administrators chase dollars without any thought for where the money has come from (in the case of the now jailed Allen Stanford) or what impact there will be on the global game (in the case of the Indian Premier League).

Indeed, one reason why Pakistani heads may have been turned is because so much money is being made elsewhere. The top players in the Indian Premier League earn £1 million for seven weeks' work; a Pakistani central contract is worth about £30,000 and their players are banned from competing in the IPL because of the poor diplomatic relationship with their neighbours.

The game stinks. It has always stank. Those involved in the present betting scandal should be banned for life if found guilty, but let us not pretend that their morals are any worse than those who run the game.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Where's Officer Dibble when you need him?

Gosh, the power of being in Government. Only a few months ago, Nick Clegg was a mere leader of an opposition party who could only do things like protest at the war in Iraq and call for Trident to be scrapped.

Now he is Deputy Prime Minister and while the boss is away in Cornwall, Clegg has been trusted to handle the big issues facing our nation, such as women putting cats into dustbins.

He handled it smoothly this week, expressing just enough shock and outrage without crossing over into Blair territory and calling it "the people's pussy".

Mind you, what is so wrong about cats being in dustbins? It never hurt Top Cat.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Naming rights

Welcome to public life, Florence Rose Endellion Cameron. There will be some who mock the Camerons for naming their latest child after a village in Cornwall near where she was born - it's a bit Brooklyn Beckham - but not me, especially since my middle name is McFarlane (it's a family thing).

Endellion is sweet enough as a middle name and at least it carries personal meaning. From now on, whenever young Florence is asked about her unusual name, she will have a more interesting story than explaining that she was called Sarah or some other run-of-the-mill name because her mum just liked it.

It reminds me of Barney Williams, the Canadian rower who was Oxford's president in the Boat Race a few years ago. He was so chuffed by Oxford's win that he gave his new-born son the middle name Hammersmith, which was probably better than calling it Mortlake or Harrods Depository.

Endellion is also rather better than some of the North Cornish villages and towns they could have given to her. Bude, say, or Bodmin. Padstow is no name for a girl.

The name is a corruption of Endelienta, a Cornish saint whose godfather, according to legend, was King Arthur. Given that Arthur is also the name of her big brother, that could prove tricky to explain.

With my own first child due to be born in six weeks, I probably ought to start fishing around for similar geographical names. Since I probably won't be able to fit in a holiday in Cornwall before the due date, my wife and I shall have to look closer to home in southeast London.

Maybe the little one should be called Lewisham? No, Viscount Lewisham was the spineless president of MCC who failed to stand up for the England cricket captain during Bodyline.

How about Catford? No, that would only get abbreviated to Cat, which is horridly EastEnders.

Charlton? Charlie? Hmmm. Kidbrooke? Kidbrooke Kidd? Perhaps not. Blackheath Kidd has a certain grandeur, or maybe I could call it Millennium Dome Kidd. Perhaps Bodmin wouldn't be so bad after all.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What a swine

Revenge is sweet for Geraint Jones, the former England wicketkeeper who played his part in England regaining the Ashes for the first time in 20 years in 2005 (who can forget that crucial catch at Edgbaston or his partnership with Andrew Flintoff at Trent Bridge?).

Jones lost his place in the England team a year later and now plods along as a county cricketer for Kent but instead of becoming a bore (or even a boor), like so many ex-international sportsmen, Jones has turned his attention to boars instead on his farm near Sandwich.

For the past three winters, Jones has raised pigs from autumn weaners to porkers fit for the slaughterhouse in the spring. He also tends a flock of sheep throughout the year.

We chatted about his hobby last night for an upcoming Times series on sportsmen and their secret passions. Jones sees himself as cricket's answer to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, although without the interest in offal, and I asked him whether he can bring himself to give a name to his pigs.

"Oh yes," he said. "My wife decided to name them after people who have taken my place in the England team. Chris Read and Matt Prior were the first to go to the abbatoir."

Well it beats just bitching about them in an autobiography. Presumably, as my friend Will punningly pointed out, Phil Mustard, who came after Read, also went down well. Eaten with relish, no doubt.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Snooze time

Talking of former teachers, as I was in my previous post a couple of days ago, the catchphrase of another old prof came in to my head just now.

I'm down in Canterbury reporting on a cricket match between Kent and Lancashire which, after four wicket maidens just before lunch, had become something of a snoozefest in the afternoon. That is one of the attractive things about first-class cricket, of course - that it doesn't get in the way of your napping - but the general slothful feeling of the crowd in the past hour brought to mind a wonderful phrase, often uttered by a former French teacher at my old school:
"Do I detect a post-prandial soporific atmosphere?"
I bet no teacher says things like that any more. Shame.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Keith Hargreaves, RIP

You know you are getting old when your teachers start dying. Two years ago, I attended the funeral of the man who taught me to appreciate cricket, English and ale. Yesterday we laid to rest my first Latin teacher.

I say "we" but I almost felt like an intruder at the crematorium. The last time I saw Keith Hargreaves was more than 20 years ago and I cannot claim in any way to have known him. He retired - for health reasons at the far-too-early age of 54 - and taught me only for one year.

Yet you never forget the first flowering of love and it was this bluff Yorkshireman who helped me to fall in love with Latin and, as a result, shaped my schooling, university career and general outlook on life.

A well-thumbed copy of that first text book Ecce Romani - "behold, the Romans" - sits on my bookshelf but I don't need to open it to recite that opening chapter: Ecce, in pictura est puella, nomine Cornelia. Cornelia est puella romana, qui in Italia habitat. Quoque in pictura est altera puella, nomine Flavia. Flavia cantat quod laeta est.

Gripping stuff and that is long before you get on to the arrival of Sextus, the puer molestus, or Davus, the groaning slave.

I remember the silly things about Mr Hargreaves: the string vest that was always visible under his shirt, the way he could throw exercise books across the room with pinpoint accuracy, the blows he would deliver to the back of a boy's neck with a rolled up book if they got their answers wrong.

I remember vividly the day we got on to the accusative plural of the first declension. Puella - girl - was the noun and when one boy was asked to read the accusative plural he pronounced it to rhyme with umbrellas.

"Not puellas," Mr Hargreaves said. "Pu - ell - ARSE."

There was naturally much laughter, to which the teacher replied: "And if you think that is funny, wait until you do the accusative plural of this word." And he wrote causa on the blackboard.

It took a couple of seconds and then the sniggers from the bright kids were followed in time by the guffaws of the less quick. Cow's Arse, of course.

I also remember the day that he made my friend cry. Richard, bless him, was a bit of a daydreamer and when he was asked to translate a word, he had to admit that he did not know where we had got to.

"Richard, what I am looking at is assumo," Mr Hargreaves said.

Except that Richard was a tubby little fellow and, this being 1988, Japanese wrestling was popular on television. He thought that the teacher was cruelly mocking his weight and started to blub. Of course, it was all a misapprehension, but that did not stop the rest of the class calling Richard a sumo for the next few days.

I never knew Mr Hargreaves and he never knew me. I may have come top in my year's Latin tests that first year, but for all he knew as he left the school in 1989 I was just another bright 12-year-old. Other teachers steered me through GCSEs, A levels and a degree in the subject - along with teaching me ancient Greek from the age of 14 - but I will always be especially grateful to the Yorkshireman with the string vest and the perfect throwing arm for giving me that start.

Starry, starry night

Last night's meteor shower has led to some fabulous photos appearing on the web. This was taken over Stonehenge last night by Kieran Doherty of Reuters:

And this above a castle in Bulgaria by Vassil Donev of EPA:

And this in Macedonia by Georgi Licovski of EPA:

Sadly, we see none of this in London because of the skyglow from street lights...

Monday, August 09, 2010

Strolling to victory

To the list of great cricket victories that includes Headingley '81, Calcutta '01 and Edgbaston '05 can now be added Audley End '10 after my charity side, the Kirby Strollers, beat the Gold Bats yesterday in our annual country house match at the fourth time of asking.

It was not without adventure, though. Every captain's ideal scenario is to still have 11 fit men on the morning of a game and that is what I had when I woke. But at 10am one team member cried off sick and another had a row with his girlfriend on the way to the game and was dumped on the hard shoulder, never to arrive. Fortunately, we picked up one local player at the ground, so were only one short.

Not quite a fit team, though. Two were limping with knee injuries before the game began and a third managed to break (or at least severely bruise) the little finger on his bowling hand while warming up. But what joy would there be in amateur cricket if everyone was in peak condition?

The Strollers were founded four years ago when a friend asked me to come up with a way of raising money for the Kids' Company charity. A cricket game seemed a fine idea and I asked the Gold Bats, who are the cricket team of the PG Wodehouse Society, if they fancied being the opposition.

Naturally, we only wanted to play in the best location and so we were delighted that Audley End, an English Heritage stately home, agreed to let us play there. As well as providing a beautiful backdrop, there is a moat for batsmen to aim at. The first game was a thriller that the Gold Bats won only when they dismissed our last man with the very final ball and several hundred pounds were raised for charity from the donations of players and spectators. It has fast became part of the summer.

And yet, try as hard as we could, my team were unable to force a win in the first three years, despite the Gold Bats being of, let us say, a more experienced vintage than the thirtysomethings who made up my team. One of my batsmen was run out two years ago by two fielders with a combined age of 142.

The eyesight may fade and the knees may creak, but there is no substitute for cricketing nous and the Gold Bats have some dogged batsmen - as we discovered when we had them 80 for eight last year but could not take the last two wickets to win the timed match - and some very canny bowlers.

Still, the youngsters finally got a notch next to our name in yesterday's game to make the series 2-1 with one draw. Chasing 170 to win in two hours, we got home with just under ten minutes  and three wickets in hand. I was 12 not out at the close, biffing and running with very little talent or beauty, but the task had been made much easier by having a strong top order with four batsmen retiring when they got to 25 (a key local rule to ensure everyone has a game).

Well done Phil, Nigel, Lee and Gareth for making the bulk of our runs and thanks to everyone on both sides for a) turning up, b) being semi-fit and c) ensuring that the game was played in excellent spirits and with £400 raised for Trinity Hospice and the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

History lessons

In a moment of nostalgia-hunting last night, I decided to google my first primary school, which I left when my parents moved before my seventh birthday. I don't remember much about it except that it was quite a traditional school and the teachers disapproved of my mother having taught me to read before starting.

And then while skimming the prospectus, I came across this line:
"The infant school is housed in a lovely Victorian building, which was built in 1906."
Sigh... Maybe it just took five years or more to move from the architects' desk to construction.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Getting the horn

My wife is due to give birth to our first child in two months so we are trying to fit in a few dates before Life Changes and our social calendar is based upon finding a babysitter who is a) cheap and b) unlikely to let our sprog meet with catastrophe. (Strangely, my wife and I differ on whether a or b is more important).

To the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, then, and a magnificent double bill of Mahler on Thursday with his fourth and fifth symphonies performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, a sort of all-stars team of musicians from 47 different countries (a Travelling Wilburys of the classical world, perhaps) conducted this week by the LSO's Valery Gergiev, one of the scruffy greats of our time (filling the Bob Dylan role, to carry on the Wilburys connection).

The Fourth was nice enough, if a little too meandering and light for my taste, but the Fifth was majestic, from the opening funeral trumpet solo to the powerful rondo finale (again, heavy on the brasswork), for which your appetite is whetted by a stirring stringy-harpy adagietto, and a fabulously noisy percussion section.

If time was spent during the Fourth letting the mind wander (I find the Proms an ideal backdrop for general musing on life), the Fifth, at 15 minutes longer, was edge of the seat stuff. Early in the piece, my wife suddenly grasped my hand and placed it on her bump, where I could feel the future impediment to nights out kicking and moving around quite enthusiastically.

I take this as a good sign. My first child is clearly a Mahler fan. Either that or it really can't stand him.

Cameron taking diplomacy tips from Prince Philip

Barely a day goes past without David Cameron being accused of making a fresh foreign policy gaffe. First there was the one about America being involved in the Second World War in 1940 (a more heinous error than any, I feel, given that he has a first in history from Oxford); then there was the comment about Gaza being a prison camp and the one about Pakistan exporting terror and, most recently, telling everyone that Iran has a nuclear bomb.

I'm only disappointed that he hasn't yet had a pop at the French.

Or, indeed, that while he was criticising the Pakistan security services for their failure to quash terrorism, he did not also mention the money given by Americans to fund the IRA. In any case, the Pakistan gaffe now seems irrelevant in the light of the tragic flooding that has killed so many in their country.

But now, the Daily Mash has revealed the reason: Cameron has been taking advice from Prince Philip on how to speak to foreigners.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "Shortly after taking office, the Prime Minister was briefed by the Duke of Edinburgh on the four basic, untrustworthy foreign types: dagoes, golliwogs, slitty-eyed devils and what His Royal Highness called the 'Olive-Skinned Fez Brigade'. The Prime Minister was given a bullet-point rundown on the key characteristics of each one, including thievery, violence, general laziness and surly ingratitude."
(Unnecessary taste rider: The Daily Mash is a British version of The Onion that satirises the news, often more miss than hit. Any humour expressed is at the expense of the PM and the DoE, rather than mocking foreigners. Except the French.)

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Death (and tapas) in the afternoon

Sunday lunchtime and a special treat for you. The papers reported last week that Catalonia has outlawed bull-fighting, which I think is a crying shame. It must leave the bulls with a curious dilemma, too, a combination of relief that they won't be butchered for sport, coupled with existential angst about their life's role now that they will no longer perform on a Saturday afternoon for an audience. It must be similar to being an actor in Last of the Summer Wine.

I've never been to a bull fight, but wrote about it here a couple of months back and would love to see it one day. I went to a bull ring out of season a few years ago and while unable to see the sport was able to sample a by-product in the form of some delicious bull's blood black pudding.

Anyway, if bull-fighting is to be replaced by something more acceptable to vegans, this gives me an ideal opportunity to reproduce (slightly cut down to save space) a marvellous monologue by Michael Flanders on the cruel sport that is the Andorran festival of olive-stuffing. Read on and enjoy...


FLANDERS: I bought this hat last year when I was on the Franco-Spanish border, in the tiny principality of Andorra. It's worn like this - with the peak at the back - and it is in fact the proud distinguishing mark of the Andorran olivador, or olive-stuffer.

How many of you, as you toy with a dry martini at the bar, have thought of the romance that lies behind the simple stuffed olive, or have witnessed, as I have, the almost unbearable drama of a corrida d'olivas, or festival of olive stuffing.

In Andorra, every boy hopes that he, too, will grow up to be one of the truly great oliveros. Let me now try to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of a corrida d'olivas.

By three o' clock in the afternoon, the stands in the great Plaza d'Olivas are packed and excitement mounts as the band announces the entry into the arena of the olivador. He is closely followed by his assistants, the picador, with his pick of sharpened wood, and the matador, with his small round mat.

They bow to the Presidente Municipale, who gives the signal for the trumpet to sound, and the first olive to be wheeled in. A gasp goes up; for this is no ordinary olive. This is the giant, pendulous oliva brava, specially bred for the ring in the rugged foothills of Andalucia.

A corrida d'olivas is divided into three parts, or tercios - the first, a tercio of quites, or passes. Here, the olivador, keeping the rest of his body entirely motionless, passes the olive from hand to hand, trying to soften up its tough outer skin, in a bewildering series of Veronicas, Naturales, Media Veronicas, Veronicas Reverso.

The trumpet sounds a second time, this time the tercio de banderillos, and now it is the turn of the picador. Planting his feet firmly together in the sand, he holds his pick at arm's length and prods into the olive, trying to determine whether the stone runs true up and down, or whether it is set at an angle, favouring one side, the dreaded oliva revoltosa.

The trumpet sounds a third and last time, for the tercio del muerte. The olivador bows again to the Presidente, saying to him, "I dedicate to you this olive". He then places it on his knee; he takes the pica, raises it high above his head. All is hushed. And then, in one sudden movement, he brings it jabbing down into the heart of the olive. And a great cry goes up of "Olé!" - he has made an 'ole.

But before the gutted olive can fall to the sand it is caught by the matador on his mat, dragged out of the arena, and handed to the estufadores, who are of two types: the estufadores pimentos, and the estufadores anchovas.

No olive is ever allowed a second time into the arena. And woe betide the olivador whose olive is revoltosa. For then, at the moment of pica, the pick, glancing off the angled stone, will jab hard - ungh! - into his own knee.

A cruel sport. Some may think it so. But this is surely more than a sport, this is more than just a vital art form. What we have experienced is total catharsis, in the acting out of that primeval drama of man pitted against the olive.

And as the sun sets over the now empty Plaza d'Olivas, nothing is left but a few footprints in the hot sand, with here and there a tell-tale smear of olive oil. And one is reminded of those immortal words of Garcia Lorca "all lust and life must pass away, to make a cocktail canape."

And this hat - this hat was introduced by perhaps the greatest olivero of them all, Flaminguez. Who, at the very moment of pica, would give a deft twist to the wrist, which sent the sharp olive stone flying high into the air. And this peak is to stop it going down the back of the neck.