September 4, 2003

A tour book with a difference

Roving Reporter: Steven Lynch at The Oval

Peter West: died on Tuesday aged 83

As South Africa got off to a flyer at The Oval thoughts in the press box turned to absent friends. Peter West, who died earlier this week, did some of his best work in the BBC's box in the days when it was precariously perched on top of the pavilion here. With a seemingly permanent smile, and a nearly ever-present pipe, West always seemed so at home in front of the camera that it was a surprise to learn that he was always asking colleagues how he was faring.

David Frith, the founder editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, recalled a slightly peeved West asking why his name had been left off the caption for a magazine cover in the early '80s that depicted Ian Botham and Clive Lloyd. "All you could see was the back of Peter's head. I suppose in a small way that backs up the stories about how insecure he was."

Like many in the media, David Lloyd - the one from the Evening Standard not the ex-England-coach turned Sky pundit - remembers West fondly. After he retired from the BBC, West fulfilled a long-held ambition by covering the 1986-87 England tour of Australia for the Daily Telegraph. "He was a lovely bloke," said Lloyd. "That was my first tour too, so I remember it well. I've got lots of great memories from it - and Peter features in most of them. He was such a nice, genuine character."

That was a great tour from an England point of view - Mike Gatting's side won the Ashes, and two one-day competitions to boot - but it wasn't all fun for West off the field, however. I had a vague recollection of his tour book, Clean Sweep, containing the odd pop at the Telegraph sports desk - but a quick re-read revealed almost daily conflict, culminating in a therapeutic two-page letter (never actually sent, which is often the best way) giving the then sports editor a blast.

Edited highlights include: "I have received your latest letter and noted that as seems to be customary you begin it with a complaint from a reader ... do you happen to realise that I have now been in Australia for seven weeks, filing every bloody day and never a day off, and, apart from sending congratulations on what you term my [Bill] Athey analysis, you have not yet been able to tell me that you have actually liked a single thing I have written ... I would ask you to remember that just an occasional touch of the carrot can mean a lot."

There's more - much more - in the same vein, which makes it rather an unusual tour book. The desk's daily demands must have clanged several bells with other journalists, and serves as a reminder of those not-terribly-distant days before e-mails and global-roaming phones, when overseas communication was by peremptory telex or a late-night phone call ("Towards midnight, Sportsed calls from London. I am disappointed to hear that he thinks Brisbane is eight hours ahead of GMT, when in fact it is ten ...").

In case you're wondering, the cricket does get a look-in, with the occasional shaft of West wisdom - such as this one, from the second Test at Perth: "[Steve] Waugh finishes with 5 for 69 after bowling unchanged for almost three hours. He looks an extremely promising cricketer." Waugh was still 30 months away from a Test century, but West had the vertical hold on the old crystal-ball just right.

Interestingly, the Telegraph's own obituary of West omits that tour book, although it does mention his autobiography and his book on Denis Compton. He also wrote two earlier tour books, but anyone might be forgiven for missing them - West's 1986-87 tour account was more than 30 years after his previous effort, on Jim Laker's triumphant Ashes series in 1956. My copy of that one bears the brief inscription "Salutations! Peter West". And The Oval press box saluted him today.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.

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