Chasing the tale
From first ball to last, Julian Guyer, who reported on every international of the summer, charts the sweet agony of success.
Thursday, May 26, London This is the first of 141 days of international cricket - have I got the stamina for this? One of the joys of living not far from the Finchley Road is the ease of getting to Lord's. You just hop on the No. 13 bus, one of the last Routemaster services, and you are there. Except today, when tube problems cause mass overcrowding. Walk instead. On the way, pass two actors, Michael Simkins and Christopher Eccleston. One for sorrow, two for joy? No, that's magpies. I arrive at Lord's in decent time for the first Bangladesh Test and take my usual seat in the spaceship. Briefly enjoy immense feeling of tranquillity.
Saturday, May 28, London The Bangladesh coach Dav Whatmore is admirably courteous after a crushing defeat, despite mounting cries in the British press to strip his side of Test status. Reveals he reads only one paper, "a tabloid - The Times".
Thursday, June 2, Durham Everything slightly out of kilter as Test is starting on a Friday. Reporters are told we cannot use the new press box today as work is still going on. The ever-helpful Clare Fathers of the ECB insists it will be ready tomorrow. Doesn't say how, just that it will be ready. Come Friday, it is ready. Career in elective politics beckons for "Fathers, Clare", though being handed a fire-evacuation procedure notice on entry is a touch disconcerting.
Thursday, June 9, Arundel To Arundel, for the Australians' tour opener against an XI put together by the Professional Cricketers' Association. If going to any cricket match is an act of escapism, a game here has an air of fantasy about it right from the moment you walk through the gate within a gate on the castle wall. Acrobatic displays by a Spitfire briefly interrupt the picture-box calm and prompt more than one ironic cry of "it's war".
Am reminded of how spoilt we are at Test matches. But, on a blissful evening, it's actually pleasant to be working in a tent with no television. Brett Lee takes a wicket first ball. Ominous. Australia take their run-chase to the penultimate ball. Sods. Don't misunderstand. My annoyance is born out of professional inconvenience not patriotic sentiment. Chris Tremlett distinguishes himself with 1 for 17 from four overs of lively pace bowling.
Saturday, June 11, Southampton England beat Hampshire at the Rose Bowl but the day is notable for the sudden and unexpected addition of a 12-overs-per-side beer match. This is received with something less than unalloyed joy in the press box, where some mutter about the Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove, although it turns out it was England who wanted the extra game. Peter Willey makes it clear what he thinks by refusing to stand. So the Hampshire dressing-room attendant does square leg at both ends - brilliantly.
Sunday, June 12, Portsmouth Have gone home to Portsmouth. Go for a walk along the seafront on a beguiling night where the sky's blue and black colour is of the kind you'd get if an old Cardiff rugby shirt ran in the wash. The Isle of Wight appears to be fastened up by an illuminated zip.
Just as I come level with St Helens, where a very modest wicketkeeper called Guyer used to play for Portsmouth, two boy racers turn the road between the ground and the beach into their personal drag strip. But soon the rhythm of the wash on the shore is the only sound you can hear. There's no cocktail like ozone, memories and HSB bitter.
Monday, June 13, Southampton England beat Australia by 100 runs. Not a sentence many of us thought we'd ever write. Yes it was only a Twenty20 game, yes Australia are coming off a long break but imagine the mood if England had lost by 100 runs.
Saturday, June 18, Bristol Have just witnessed the biggest upset of my life, bar none, in Cardiff. Bangladesh have beaten Australia, who began the game at an unbackable 500-1 on. David Lloyd summed it up well on Sky. "On the Richter scale it's off the Richter scale." The day starts strangely when we are told by the Australia press officer that Andrew Symonds has "sustained a niggle" in the warm-up but to an unspecified area of his body. This is then amended to flu, and finally we get somewhat closer to the truth when we are told he is being left out for breaking team rules.
This is all very weird, not that Symonds has been out on the town for a drink the night before, something already known to our Australian colleagues, but the cloak-and-dagger routine from the usually ultra-professional Cricket Australia media machine. We are then given some nonsense about how all the subterfuge was to help "facilitate" (awful word) the start of the game, which shockingly, starts at precisely the same time it would have done had Symonds been playing.
Just as strange is Ricky Ponting's decision to bat first on winning the toss. It indicates a surprising lack of ruthlessness - or is he merely trying to get some batting practice in? Either way his habit of walking across his stumps is soon exposed by Bangladesh who also field brilliantly.
Then the collapse we are all waiting for, like Godot, never comes. Mohammad Ashraful provides the greatest example you can imagine for the argument that cricket is a game for all shapes and sizes with a run-a-ball hundred that could scarcely be more dashing if it was made by Errol Flynn. Apparently his mother was concerned her son was too slight to take on Australia. But come the last over he's out and they still need seven to win. The sensible thing is just to make sure they get something off the first ball. Instead Aftab Ahmed, himself barely over 5ft, strikes Jason Gillespie for a huge arcing six towards the River Taff. A single off the next ball and the meek, well if they haven't inherited the earth, then Sophia Gardens is theirs for the day. Whatmore, a living embodiment of that line in Kipling's `If' about treating the twin impostors just the same, is the calmest man in the ground.
But after writing up the game there is still work to be done. Belinda Dennett, the Australia press officer, says she will ring me later in the day if there are any developments on Symonds with the understanding I will pass the information on to my British colleagues. Belinda rings around 11pm. There will be no decision tonight. Pass this on. Get another call nearer midnight. There might be a decision. Pass this on. Another call. We will make an announcement in the morning. Definitely. Call it a day at 2am.
Sunday, June 19, Bristol Symonds is banned for two games as Australia suffer their most extraordinary defeat in 24 hours and third in a week. Steve Harmison and England have one of those days in the field exemplified when Damien Martyn cuts Harmison to Kevin Pietersen at third man. Pietersen then produces an astonishing counter-attack, blacksmith forearms and squash players' wrists, before Jon Lewis, on his home ground, hits the winning runs. Are England using up all their luck before the Ashes?
Wednesday, June 22, Durham The Australian players have been spooked by a ghost at Lumley Castle, according to The Sun. What makes the story simultaneously more credible and more incredible is there are Dennett quotes supporting it.
Tuesday, June 28, Birmingham Washout at Edgbaston but not before Simon Jones hits Matthew Hayden with an off-target shy at the stumps. That's a fair enough tale in itself but an ECB official is spinning a story to several newspapers to the effect that Hayden swore at a child on his way through the guard of honour. No one knows for certain what happened. But day-night games compress already tight deadlines and no reporter wants his office phoning up the next day saying "why haven't we got the Hayden swearing story the oppo have got?" Fortunately, as a press agency man, I don't have to get involved because there is no on-the-record quote and anything we do citing an off-the-record source has to be far more important than this.
Thursday, July 7, Leeds Everyone in a press box carries with them the knowledge that what they do is ultimately unimportant, that words like `tragedy', `slaughter' and `murder' (as in an unedited football report I saw years ago, which began "Barnet were literally murdered") rarely, if ever, have a place on sports pages. Here, at Headingley, in one of the additional one-dayers that had little intrinsic merit in the first place, the point is made fresh by the news of the London bombings.
Still, old habits reassert themselves soon enough and Angus Fraser (of The Independent and the ICC's cricket committee) faces endless abuse for his part in the creation of `powerplays' and `substitutes', which somewhat crazily make the toss more important than it already is. There are many sound reasons for not being involved in an organisation whose activities you have to report. Having the mick taken out of you at work will do for me.
Friday, July 8, London Get off the train at King's Cross. The scene is familiar enough, except all the passengers are going one way. The dust seems thicker, heavier as I leave and run into some photographer mates all going about their business. Become an auxiliary news reporter. Talk to fire officers and make notes about the pictures of the missing pinned to the safety fence. A Muslim lady lays a bunch of flowers. It turns out her daughter, who gets on the tube at King's Cross to go to school in Hammersmith, had a lucky escape. She wasn't feeling well that morning so stayed at home. The mother is from Paris, so I speak to her half in French, half English. A television reporter joins late and cuts in, clearly believing the woman's daughter is dead. Afterwards he asks: "Did I get the wrong end of the stick?" He did but it was understandable. Although I'm not far away from the office in Fleet Street, the newsdesk want the quotes quickly so I dictate a report over the phone. It's just like old times, but at the same time nothing like old times.
Thursday, July 21, London Perhaps the most fevered day I've known at Lord's. Some people have spent all night camping out for a ticket, a scene more reminiscent of Wimbledon than Lord's. The atmosphere is beyond excitement before the match starts and reaches something close to hysteria after Australia are bowled out for 190. Certainly the reception the England players receive as they walk back into the pavilion is so rousing you do fear for the health of some MCC members.
The air of unreality is heightened by news of what appears to be a failed bomb attempt in London just a fortnight after the July 7 attacks. Then, Glenn McGrath runs through England's top order, which is a vaguely reassuring reminder of how things used to be, even if 17 wickets in a day isn't. The press box is full to bursting as the MCC communications department proves one of my pet theories about life being a series of inverse correlations. Despite a growth spurt that would shame the makers of Baby Bio, the department somehow fails to accredit the correspondent of the Yorkshire Post - a publication whose commitment to cricket is as constant as the northern star - on the grounds that it is a "regional paper". Cue concerned looks from the men from the London Evening Standard and the Manchester Evening News.
Sunday, July 24, London England collapse in the face of McGrath and Shane Warne, with only Pietersen - whose background perhaps makes him immune from the dreadful diffidence which seems to afflict so many of his English-born colleagues - making any reasonable stab at defiance. (But why was he taking singles with the tail at the other end?)
McGrath's children join him for the post-match press conference as, we later discover, do a couple of interlopers for whom admission represents part of a 'prize.' Michael Vaughan still refuses to say outright that England can win the Ashes. How significant this is I'm not sure. Reminded of the story about the long-serving Chinese premier Zhou Enlai being asked what he thought of the French Revolution. "It's too early to tell," replied Zhou.
Sunday, August 7, Birmingham The most maddening, tense and infuriating session of cricket - and that was just in the press box. If you ever wanted proof of the professionalism of the Australian press corps it was that they were quite keen for England to win, as they did not want to rewrite the reports they'd already sent through for the first editions of their papers.
My job requires me to send a piece as soon as the game finishes, which means there were three different articles (covering each possible result) on my screen and, rather like one of those plate-spinners, I try to keep all of them updated while watching the game at the same time. Incidentally, there is some talk afterwards of the last dismissal falling to a so-called disputed catch but Michael Kasprowicz, to his immense credit, does not complain about the verdict. Andrew Flintoff's consoling words to Lee at the end of the match must rank already as one of the classiest sights of the summer. Earlier, Warne was almost manic in his desire to tell `Freddie' he'd played well after his fantastical 73.
Tuesday, August 9, Manchester England players answer (or fail to answer) your questions; Warne makes statements. Today he tells us that Andrew Strauss is the "new Daryll", after Daryll Cullinan, Warne's famous South African bunny. Priceless.
Monday, August 15, Manchester Confronted by the bizarre sight of thousands of people walking away from Old Trafford long before play starts. One of the AWCs (Award Winning Columnist) in the press box loftily pronounces, "Well, what's going to happen today?" To which the AFP reporter, showing previously unknown speed of thought, replies: "I don't know, that's why I've come." After Edgbaston, an almost tame climax. Well, there were only two outcomes possible this time.
Tuesday, August 16, London Return to the office where I'm greeted by an excited colleague who runs up to me and says: "I know all about Simon Jones and reverse-swing." The colleague in question is French.
Wednesday, Aug 24, Nottingham Sledged quite beautifully by Warne at a press conference. When my old tape recorder starts playing rather than recording, Warne turns to me and says: "First day on the job?" I am back where I started as a lad in Portsmouth, having the mick taken out of me by a flash sod from Southampton. Anyway, I'm a lot better off than one of my colleagues who gets knocked over by a television camera tripod that topples, camera and all, and smashes into his shoulder. "Only 55 more to go," says Warne.
Sunday, August 28, Nottingham There are still some people out there who think your job finishes more or less when the games does. Today, a few of us leave the ground at 10.30pm after hanging on for the result of the Ponting-Katich disciplinary hearings. Whatever happened to "win with grace, lose with grace"? As for Ponting, well maybe the smartest thing Vaughan did all series was refusing to have it played under the Australian's "spirit" straitjacket and instead simply settle for the Laws of Cricket and the playing conditions. Unless you are someone like Michael Jones - the former All Black flanker who refused to play on Sundays and the most outstandingly moral sportsman I've met - claiming the moral high ground will rebound on you at some point.
Anyway, it suddenly hits me that these last three matches are the most majestically thrilling I've ever seen and maybe ever will see. And, apparently, I've only been in the job five days.
Saturday, September 3, Lord's The C&G final and a chance to see some old friends from Hampshire in the press box. Hopefully my loyalties don't show in my copy and I incur the mild displeasure of Shaun Udal afterwards by putting it to him that many people outside the county believe Bransgrove has "bought" success. But the simple fact is that without him Hampshire probably wouldn't exist and his initial investment came at a time when putting money into a county cricket club was regarded as a supreme act of faith. But that's what those with a visionary touch do. The rest of us fall in love with something for what it is; a far smaller group fall in love with something for what it might become.
Sunday, September 4, Ascott House, Wing, Buckinghamshire "Hello, I'm Dick and I'm captain of the Wylde Oates. Thanks for playing." One of the few downsides of my job is that normally most weekends are taken up reporting rather than playing sport. Thanks to my AFP colleague Matthew Buxton, an Oates regular, I am keeping in an all-day match in the picture-book grounds of a Rothschild-turned-National Trust property. We are the away team for this game against the Hottentots. Your diarist is one of the few players on each side who is not either something in the City or someone who speaks with the kind of accent considered essential at Rada before the arrival of Albert Finney. But inverse snobbery is no better than the real thing and once the game starts the cricket is all that matters. After a late finish at Lord's, I fail to see the first ball but ultimately seven byes out of a total of 268 isn't too shabby. But some things never change. Afterwards several people say "you'll be stiff tomorrow" as if imparting the wisdom of Solomon. I know. Every keeper knows.
Tuesday, September 6, The Oval There are few things more likely to provoke anger than a sports reporter complaining about his working conditions. We, who pay nothing, are on the whole grateful for the positions we hold. Nevertheless there is consternation when we see that the windows of the new press box are covered with a gauze-like substance, white on the outside, after complaints that the bowler's arm was disappearing over the sightscreen. It is like looking through a tea strainer or at one of those magic eye pictures. Your view is slightly improved if you bob your head from side to side like Amir Khan.
Saturday, September 10, The Oval All of us would be considerably richer if we had a pound for every time someone said: "What do you do when it rains?" In the case of CMJ, my Oval neighbour, he is looking through a copious series of notes and cuttings ahead of a radio interview he is conducting with Michael Grade, the BBC chairman. One piece suggests Grade is a "bit of a schmoozer". CMJ asks me: "What does schmoozer mean?" I try to explain but clearly don't make too good a job because I find myself having to dissuade him from the belief that Mr Grade would be happy to be called a `schmoozer'. Don't hear if the dread word is used. Anyway, that's what I do when it rains. I advise CMJ on Yiddish.
Monday, September 12, The Oval Be careful of what you wish for. My fondest hope ahead of the Ashes was that the series would still be alive come The Oval. Well, it's the last day and my `dream' has come true. Wendy Wimbush, the press box scorer, keeps us supplied with a constant flow of statistics despite wanting to avert her gaze (or should that be gauze) every time Pietersen plays and misses. But Pietersen is the cricketing embodiment of Shaw's dictum that the "reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself, therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." Say what you like about his hair, his origins and the rest, the central issue is that Pietersen can play. It's a cruel exit for Warne but he still fronts up afterwards. That's typical of an Australian team whose main media officer, Jonathan Rose, is one of the best around. Eventually leave the ground after 11pm and then it hits me, again. This is the best Test series I have ever covered and probably ever will cover. It's a strange feeling, somewhere between euphoria and loss.
Tuesday, Sept 13, Fleet Street Am now the only cricket reporter who can say he watched England's victory parade from his office. Fleet Street is still big, it's just the papers that got small. Try not to think about how many words I've written this season as there are still some more to come. But then there always are.
Julian Guyer is a reporter for Agence France Presse and is based in London.
This article was first published in the October issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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