A life on the cricket-writing treadmill
It is not usual to begin the review of a book by mentioning where one is writing it, but in the case of Andrew Ramsey's The Wrong Line it seems appropriate. I am in the press box at Bellerive Oval looking out on a damp field and dark sky, awaiting the restart of play. There is a good deal of innocent merriment around me, but most of my colleagues are hard at work: those pages will not fill themselves. The chap to my left is transcribing an interview; the chap to my right has sketched out an elaborate table of the statistics for Australia's top four. Others are filing for online, catching up on highlights, and involved in the arcana of expenses.
For more than a decade Ramsey, aka Rambo, was a familiar face and voice in such environs, a keen cricketer himself who discovered that the "pen was mightier than the slow-turning offbreak", and became a hard-working, hard-travelling second-string journalist for "a newspaper that took little as seriously as itself" - The Australian, coincidentally the same one for which I now work.
The Wrong Line is perhaps best appreciated first as an unburdening. Ramsey ended up fairly scathed by his decade of long tours, lethal deadlines, prickly cricketers and unsympathetic superiors. This is a plainly personal book, and knowing some of the cast of characters does enhance the reading experience.
Unfamiliarity with them, however, need not hinder appreciation of The Wrong Line. Ramsey nourishes no illusions; on the contrary, he starves them cruelly, stripping his trade of much of its glamour and most of its pleasure. He has too much appreciation of the camaraderie of his craft and too rich a feeling for the ridiculous for the portrait to be wholly bleak. But if you wanted to disabuse a youth of fantasies of a sportswriting career, you could do worse than give them this book.
On one hand, it represents a kind of wardrobe account of a period in Australian cricket - 1997 to 2007 - almost unexampled in its success: the era of the Waughs, Warne, Gilchrist, Ponting, McGrath, Langer and Hayden. They are observed thoughtfully, sceptically and none too reverently, especially Mark Waugh, who once audibly advised the driver of a car driving in the vicinity of Ramsey and a group of colleagues: "Speed up and run them down. Bloody cricket nuffies." Taciturn Steve was more pragmatic. "It's a professional relationship and it can't be a friendship," he once told Ramsey. "I hope you don't have a problem with that."
Most vivid of all, unsurprisingly, was Warne, "the patron saint of slow news days". He is seen at his expansive best and petulant worst. Ramsey describes trying to interview Sandy Gordon, the Australian team psychologist, during the 1999 World Cup, only to have Warne snatch his dictaphone away, with the terse instruction: "Don't answer any questions about me. That's an invasion of privacy." Ironically, Ramsey was actually more comfortable with a bit of distance in his relations with players. "You'll learn not to trust the press," Ramsey heard Warne telling junior players on his last tour, "but Rambo's one of the good guys." It was a compliment he could have done without: "Being rated one of the good guys meant, bluntly, that I had failed in my job… In the space of a minute, Warne had confirmed what had long bothered me. I was an uncritical critic."
It's precisely because Ramsey takes journalism so seriously that the most penetrating parts of The Wrong Line are where he gets to grips with aspects of his trade. He outlines how print's rolling deadlines cause corner-cutting: "In the supercompetitive world of the modern media, being first is regularly preferred to being right." As well as almost anyone, he exposes the racket of player columns, confiding that in all his years of ghosting Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain never came up with an idea himself; on the contrary, he would greet Ramsey with a cheerful: "What have you got for me today?"
He describes how cynically many stories are put together in reverse, by the accretion of quotes to support a predetermined view from rent-a-quote "voices": "that group of ex-cricketers who jump at every opportunity to ridicule contemporary players who carry half the old-timers' ability but several times their earning capacity."
"Ideas" from the office finally became the bane of Ramsey's life, and he describes in melancholy passages how he finally expressed his fury with the growing necessity to backward-integrate copy with pre-arranged headlines by dashing off a story about crowd behaviour that would have done credit to Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair: "I opted for what any frazzled reporters with deadlines to hit and priorities to juggle might be driven to contemplate. I dismissively typed out a selection of fabricated quotes that addressed all the stereotyped opinions I knew the paper was after, attributed them to a set of bogus names, and filed them without a second thought. It was only next morning, when all 600 nonsense words appeared as sent on page three, that it dawned on me I had reached an irredeemable low after two decades as a journalist. I had finally subscribed to public perceptions of the profession and published an unabashed lie."
It was this incident that caused him to address, with candour, how the life of the road had become a refuge from personal unhappiness: "While packing a bag and leaving every day behind might offer a quick fix to whatever ails, the hollow call of the road can also prove destructively convenient." At last, he opted out. If The Wrong Line has a fault, it is that this opting out comes so peremptorily that there is almost no chance to reflect on some of the issues the book airs elsewhere.
"What gives you the right to question my place in the team?" the Australian Adam Dale once aggressively asked a group of Australian journalists. "I mean, have you ever played the game at this level?" He is neither the first nor the last to pose this question, and there is more to it than the obvious divide between those who do and those who write. In no game does the action take place so far away from the observer as cricket: the players' vantage is privileged and unique; the observers' can only be speculative and provisional; television, increasingly, poses as the ultimate arbiter, but its partialities and prejudices are merely subtler. This excellent book would have been better still had it stepped out of its chronology occasionally in search of some more definitive judgements about the ambivalent relations between cricket and its chroniclers.
I'd write more here, but the sky has cleared, and play is finally to resume. The noise in the box has descended to a dull murmur, mainly of the scuffling of keys. You know how it is. Cricket to watch. Words to write. Deadlines to meet. Not necessarily in that order.
The Wrong Line
by Andrew Ramsey
304 pages, A$27.99
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer