An unlikely new anti-hero

As you may hear until you wish you are deaf, players are always complaining that they have to play too often.

TED CORBETT

Phil Tufnell in his new role on TV. — Pic. AP-

MAY 19: English cricket finds an unlikely new hero. Or should I say anti-hero. Remember Phil Tufnell? He's the spin bowler with a 40-a-day cigarette habit, a wish to down a couple of pints a night and the habit of stirring up authority. Well, a month ago he is invited to a romp in the Australian jungle with half a dozen celebrities and promptly declares he is retired to the chagrin of Middlesex who reckon to get at least the remainder of the season from this talented if temperamental star. In the jungle with our Phil there is a girl who tells us just after the late night television news how the weather will be, a lady who helps people redecorate their homes for yet another television programme, a grumpy television chef, a big, jolly black footballer and a couple of girls from the land of the soap opera but whose main claim to fame is their frequent appearance on the front pages of the tabloid Press because of the unconventional nature of their love lives. Our Phil is also one who steps outside the bounds of the orthodox. He is the same lad who alternately produces brilliant left-arm spin bowling for England and tantrums that will rank high on the Richter scale. On the programme, which appears every night for two weeks, he grins a lot, makes a number of philosophical remarks and finally ''wins the heart of the nation'' — as the newspapers say — by eating a handful of grubs from the diet list of the Aborigines who inhabit Australia. That is long before white people turn it into a land where big cricketers can cuss and swear at their opponents and become the best in the world. Tufnell collects 25,000 pounds sterling for his efforts in the grinning and eating stakes and returns to England to find that he is likely to be one of the highest paid celebrities of the year. His new jobs include a place on the sports quiz show They Think It's All Over, his own twice a week programme on two radio stations, a regular spot in the Lashings club side — with Henry Olonga, Shane Warne and other outcasts — and a suggestion that he may be the new face of cricket. Total earnings well over a million pounds sterling with plenty of more suggestions about a book, newspaper columns and his life story, which is rich in incident. Better than slogging round the county circuit, earning a crust or two, being ignored by the Test selectors and arguing over the terms for another contract or early retirement. The Surrey chairman John Soper calls Tufnell's leap to fame the best thing to happen to cricket for years and he is certainly, however briefly, the best known super star since Ian Botham in the mid-1980s. He even changes Nasser Hussain's habits of a lifetime. "I hate reality television," Hussain says, "but because it is The Cat I am glued to every moment.'' Of course, in the way of the Tufnell life, nothing goes smoothly. His former Test colleagues dredge up all his worst moments, his quick temper, his batting failures and his total lack of confidence in his own ability. Apparently he regularly indulges in a monologue which questions every bit of his cricketing ability and makes the partner who shares his room — before Lord MacLaurin insists they have a room apiece — a victim of 24-hours-a-day reality introspection.

May 20: As you may hear until you wish you are deaf, players are always complaining that they have to play too often. Tours are too long, there are too many Tests, one-dayers come once a day... but you don't need reminding of their constant whinge. So imagine the shock and surprise when Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick all turn out at Chelsea Football Club's Stamford Bridge ground for a match in aid of Stewart's testimonial year only three days before the first Test. They will argue that it is a knock-about match, that it is easy money and that Stewart, whose benefit a few years ago brings him a third of a million pounds sterling, needs the extra cash as he will soon be retiring. Two things are wrong here. One is the sheer determination with which players reach for every penny available — although I have a personal experience which shows Stewart being far from greedy — and the second is the iniquity of the benefit system. The sooner that is abolished the sooner English cricket becomes a fully adult game.

May 21: Now that the arrival of the Pakistani team is imminent Lancashire Cricket Club decide to provide a Muslim prayer hall; although, strangely enough, there is no church for those Christians who feel the need for heavenly guidance when events go badly on the pitch. There is also talk of such an Islamic religious room at Lord's as — at long last some people will say — cricket begins to realise that it has to provide for those who are outside their normal ken. Oddly, enough the idea comes from one Martin Lorimer, a keen Lancashire supporter and a minister in the Methodist church round the corner.

May 22: The England and Wales Cricket Board try to provide an audience in the future by inviting hundreds of schoolchildren to the first Test against Zimbabwe and they make plenty of noise, as kids are apt to do. Only a few minutes into the game and the ECB switchboard receives an irate phone call from a spectator who demands that a loud speaker announcement must be made telling the noisy children to be quiet. ''It just shows what we are up against,'' sighs one of their forward looking officials.

May 23: It is a happy time for those who enjoy a phone call, a text message or an email to register a protest. The rain and the dark force England off the field on the first day just as the broadcasters at Channel 4 decided to cut play. Thirty emails pour into their message board demanding that the commentators resume even though there is no cricket, but Channel 4 decide that such is the lack of action that they will stick with one of the favourite game shows. The second night when the game show takes over as play is again extended beyond the normal finish time there are more than 100 emails. Channel 4 have been given an extension to 2005 which means that feelings are going to run high if this happens regularly. They offer assurances that there will be no cut off until 45 minutes after play is due to end but it leaks out that the channel have tried to get the ECB to abolish the tea break. "Not likely," thunders the Board spokesman, "it's traditional." I wonder what will happen during the next round of contract talks. Will the BBC bid? They are not showing much interest at the moment. Will Sky offer to throw open their four dedicated sports channels? They may; but the law of he land says that big sporting events like the Tests, the Grand National and the Boat Race must be shown on terrestrial television. Rumour says that Rupert Murdoch will buy Channel 5 and use that for cricket but he is in denial and, with audiences rated at only 1.5 million cricket may not be able to attract any channel.

May 24: So the first Test finishes in less than three full days and we all turn our thoughts to Chester-le-Street with its beautiful new ground, the castle on the top of the hill in the background and an enthusiastic bunch of supporters from as far north as Scotland. Two clocks count down the days to Durham's first Test and, although the rain may be colder so far north and a chill wind often blows across this newest Test venue — No. 87 worldwide — it is expected to be a roaring success. Durham's bosses are reported to be willing to set aside a section of the ground so that those protesting against the tour — rather feebly at the moment — can make their voices heard rather than threatening to run on the field and interrupt play. You see, there are some advanced thinkers in cricket. Surprising when England have not used a new ground for 101 years.

May 25: Dermot Reeve, once a dedicated party animal, is now happily settled down with wife and new baby that he names Jude, in memory of his favourite film star, Alexander after his father, and Benaud, after someone he admires. Neat, isn't it?