Back at the centre of attention


The football season has begun, but Manchester United's captain Roy Keane (centre), Gary Neville (right) and Chief Executive David Gill (left) took time off to watch the proceedings at Old Trafford.-AP

AUGUST 15. The revival of interest in the old game is not just in the 23,000 people to see the last day of the Test but in the amount of space it commands in the national newspapers. Each day a summary arrives on my desk in the press box. At the start of the football season, which normally gets maximum space in sports pull-outs and all over the back page it is cricket that has the attention. Paula Radcliffe, the darling of athletics, wins the World championship marathon and so redeems her misery in Athens a year ago and her failure in the 10,000 metres. She finds herself relegated to second place behind cricket. So the summary contains 54 pages devoted entirely to one day of the match at Old Trafford. Each of the 80 seats in the press box is in use. I can remember the last day of many a Test when you had time to talk to every member of the press before lunch. Now with newspapers, magazines, websites and the like there is hardly time to talk to them all between the start at 10.30 and the finish at 7 p.m. Incidentally, the days of electronic scoreboard means the information gets up slower and slower but the guys working the old-fashioned board at Old Trafford are so quick that I reckon they beat the record holders at the Oval, now replaced by a newer, slower computerised board.

August 16.Spin is at the heart of cricket. I mean the sort of spin that comes from the laptops of public relations officers. The England and Wales Cricket Board try to pretend that the decision to leave the six England players out of the Cheltenham and Gloucester semi-final teams comes from the counties and say how grateful they are to those who put the exciting Ashes series first. This googly is detected before it is half way down the pitch. Jack Simmons, Chairman of Lancashire, complains that he believes Andrew Flintoff ought to be in their team to play Warwickshire and that the Lord's officials ought to get in touch with him. Now this complaint raises a nice point. What is more important: the Ashes or the needs of the counties? This year alone the Ashes ought to come first, simply because their return is so important to the future of cricket in this country. Remember what Graham Gooch says. "Nothing is more important this season than the return of the Ashes." Not just that. None of the England players concerned — Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, the England captain, Matthew Hoggard (Yorkshire), Ashley Giles and Ian Bell (Warwickshire) and Kevin Pietersen of Hampshire — take part in a single match as their counties reach the semi-finals. If they step back into their side someone has to be left out. Unfairly. He may even play a big part in getting his team so far. I think it is better all round that the Test players rest. As much as anything because I want that wonderful series to continue at the level we come to expect after the first three Tests. Although I am not sure if the old heart will stand the strain much longer.

August 17.Of course I have a glamorous job, travelling the world, meeting the stars, seeing the best cricket, watching a wonderful Ashes series unfold. But sometimes the job comes back and bites me. We decide that the easiest way to travel from our home near Peterborough to Edinburgh and back to Southampton for the Cheltenham and Gloucester semi-final — a round trip for more than 1,000 miles — is by train. When we try to climb aboard the train to Edinburgh there is a hold up even though we have allocated seats. We soon find why. Inside are five families who clearly book seats for adults and take all their children with them. We manage to struggle to our seats but for the next four hours — well, you can imagine the chaos — kids climbing all over us, spilling water, rushing to see what is on the food trolley, all in that way children have when they are having fun. My partner Jo King and I leave the train with headaches and sit around all evening complaining about the bit of bad fortune that means we will be more comfortable if we drive that huge journey. Luckily we are brought back to earth at The Grange ground in Edinburgh the next day by the sight of a tiny man, clearly born without arms or legs, sitting patiently in his wheelchair hoping that one of the cricketers will be good enough to leave his dry dressing room, venture into the drizzle and sign his autograph book. I think he is sitting there, waiting in vain, but, even though he has every reason to feel life deals him a bad blow, still smiling.

August 18."We are in the middle of the driest summer I can remember," says an old pal from an Edinburgh newspaper as we stand under a tree that drips rain, as the sky is solid with grey cloud and as the game between Scotland and Australia dies before our eyes. What a disappointment, not just for the Scots, winners of the qualification tournament for the World Cup in 2007, but for all those 4,000 people who buy every available ticket three months ago, for the umpire who dreams of giving out Ricky Ponting, for the ground staff, for the caterers, even for the helpful people running the game. They stay cheerful to the end perhaps because they cannot complain in the face of three tenors who sing Scottish marching songs with great gusto even though they are standing in the rain with no small risk of electrocution as the wet grows round their feet.

August 19.The big argument of the week concerns television rights for the next four years. They will be entirely with Sky, the satellite channel, who charge a monthly fee. The ECB sign up strictly for the money, even though Channel 4 win many friends by their coverage over the last six years, not to mention winning an award for their stylish programmes. Now that cricket is on a roll, due to the excitement engendered by the Ashes series, enthusiasts for the game are waking up to the fact that for four years it will cost them money to see their favourite game, David Collier, the chief executive of the ECB, concedes that when the four years are over his bosses will have to reconsider the contract — which they sign before he takes charge — and the columns of newspaper letter pages are full of complaints. I admit to a prejudice.

Part of my income comes from Channel 4; none of it from Sky so you can judge this opinion on that basis. I wonder how much longer cricket will have a big audience. If you look at the parallel case of Rugby Union in England, you will see that less than two years ago the side wins the World Cup — by a narrow margin in Australia and against the Australians in the final — and now they have lost all that momentum after bad results, the loss of their coach Sir Clive Woodward and injuries to their star Johnny Wilkinson. It is not impossible cricket will slide down the same slippery slope.

August 20. Graham Thorpe, who retires from Test cricket when discussion about his place in the England side reaches its height at the start of the Ashes series, publishes his autobiography Rising From The Ashes on September 7. It comes with the timing you might expect — on the eve of the Oval Test with the fate of the series still in the balance — from a batsman who scores most of his runs by choosing the exact moment and place for his strokes. He also decides to quit the game at all levels. "My time has come," he says sadly.

August 21.Briefly Tim Arlott, son of the immortal John, is working in Paris as the head of the Reuters bureau. Liam Botham, son of the immortal Ian, is to retire from Rugby League after a neck injury. Liam tried cricket and Rugby Union without finding a niche in sport even though he had his father's enthusiasm behind him all the way. Ian's daughter Sarah works with him as a production assistant at all the many Sky television commentary games. Will Liam join the firm? We'll see.