Pure farce or brilliant drama?


Ray Illingworth (left), Fred Trueman, Brian Close and Geoff Boycott (not in picture) got together to have a painting done by an artist.-N. SRIDHARAN

JULY 18. I know I ought to get out more, but I cannot resist rushing home to see most of the 20-20 quarter-finals on television; and what a wonderful reward awaits. Three of the games are tight, results in the balance until late, but one extends beyond the normal playing hours into the hours of darkness. Surrey leave the pitch at the Oval thinking they win their tie with Warwickshire. But, the umpires miss the point of all Duckworth-Lewis matches; that the target score is one short of the victory total. When Warwickshire point out the mistake, rapid phone calls bring a verdict from the England and Wales Cricket official in charge. A bowl-out will decide who goes to the day-long festival next month. Then the real fun starts. It takes 24 deliveries from a number of players who, shall we say, already celebrate the result with a beer in their dressing room and whose accuracy is way off the scale. Finally, Surrey, the masters of this tiny form of the game, go through when Tim Murtagh hits the stumps for the second time. "Pure farce," sneers one posh newspaper writer. Brilliant drama, I say, and well worth my curtailed visit to the shops.

July 19. Yorkshire are not just the county with the most championships in their records. They are also the team who in their great days don't need opponents to start a fight. Jack Bannister, fast bowler turned commentator, recalls going in to bat at No. 10 for the second time in the match before lunch on the second day as Warwickshire are about to lose by an innings and plenty. He finds the whole Yorkshire side arguing about why it takes so long to force a result. Now, at a time when the majority of the team are born outside the county, their dressing room may be more peaceful but old quarrels continue among the former giants. So it is good to report that recently Fred Trueman, Brian Close, Ray Illingworth and Geoff Boycott — who have all fallen out in the past 40 years — get together to have their picture painted by artist John Blakey. I hear it is a touching moment when the four meet, even though they contrive to quarrel over the punctuality of Trueman, who lives just down the road from the venue. At various times in my life I am close to these four giants of the game — with an aggregate of 258 Test caps — and spend time in the homes of all of them, except Close, on the other side in a charity game when I am 16. I'm glad to see that they bury the hatchet for this great cricket portrait of togetherness, knowing that they will waste no opportunity to fall out again.

July 20. On the eve of the first Test I reflect on a sad fact. In the longest run-in to a Test series in history it seems that every one of the players have their say, the two coaches Duncan Fletcher and John Buchanan give their reasons for believing their side will win, and the stars of yesteryear from Brearley to Benaud tip their fancies. But none of the Englishmen will say that England will win. They all hedge their bets. "If Harmison bowls well, we have a chance against the world champions," is typical of the sort of writing we see in the past week or so. Each one pays tribute to the greatness of this Australian side, says how difficult it will be for England to win, emphasises how long the Aussies hold the Ashes; but as for a ringing endorsement of the England cause, forget it. What a shame. Where is the patriotism, the blind faith, the expectation of glory? Lets trust the England players feel differently, that they go out at Lord's, the sacred gift of the gods to cricket as well as its perpetual home. Funnily enough, Kevin Pietersen agrees with me. He wants Lord's to be a Pit of Hate — as a former colleague of mine dubs the pavilion at Old Trafford after a particularly nasty reception for a failing Lancashire side — but somehow I don't see the MCC members hurling abuse at the Aussies, trying to trip them up as they walk through the Long Room and making sarcastic remarks about Damien Martyn's hair-do. At the moment there is just too much politeness, too great a wish to make nice judgements and, frankly, not enough prejudice. MCC may not approve of the way tickets are traded but even my hotel lift has a notice advertising their sale. This Test must be important. Every caf� in the vicinity of Lord's fills with the sounds of Sydney and Melbourne — "get a bottle of wine and then we can have a proper drink" shouts one tiny lady — and on the way for supper we pass David Boon, Merv Hughes and Geoff Lawson. "G'day," is the greeting of the hour and clearly the men and women with the tickets cannot wait for the action to begin. At breakfast as the men in the red and gold ties of MCC munch appropriately on bacon and eggs there is hysterical laughter from the Australian tour group. They obviously hear the Ashes joke. "How many Poms does it take to fight a crocodile?" Answer: "Eleven. They think its less dangerous than batting against Brett Lee."

July 21. To mark the start of the Test series, and to indicate his displeasure at being dropped, Graham Thorpe announces his retirement from international cricket just as the miserable performance by the England batsmen suggests that they are missing him already. His stubborn batting is first shown at its best against the Australians but many fail to understand just how few times he plays against the old enemy in the last couple of tours. In fact it is just twice in three series. Perhaps his presence is not such an essential factor after all. Ask me — and I find the selectors rarely do — and I suggest that they are on the right lines, that Ian Bell will eventually fill Thorpe's place and that Kevin Pietersen already does.

July 22. Talking of tough Test batsmen, Michael Atherton recently receives praise for writing his own copy; in contrast with the former footballer Gary Lineker who finds himself in receipt of a libel writ when he and his ghost misunderstand one another. Atherton also writes his autobiography — "half way through I find I am a much better typist" he tells me — and now he is 30,000 words into a book on betting, a pastime that fills most of his waking hours as well as providing him with some income from appearances on Channel 4 racing. The book is due out next year.

July 23. Tony Greig, England captain, leading all-rounder of his day, rebel in the Packer era and now commentator all over the world, takes one last look at his e-mail before he sets out for England and stints with Channel 4 and talkSPORT. Instead of notes of good wishes for safe travel and a lovely time with his wife and family he discovers a note from Channel Nine telling him he cannot work for talkSPORT. Why — since he works for the radio station without complaint in West Indies — is a mystery. So too is another banning order by MCC. Chris Waters, the cricket correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, arrives at Lord's to find he has no seat. Eventually, he is allowed to stay after it is pointed out that there are a number of reporters who are there for what is known in the trade as a "jolly". In other words they want to watch the match rather than write about like Chris, who files more than 1100 words a day.

July 24. Fred Trueman tells me a story about the end of his career which I find irresistible. After he plays a final game for England and is about to retire from Yorkshire he goes to live in the house in the Pennines that is still his home. Going for the papers one morning he meets a man who asks if he will consider playing for the village team. Fred is rather amused by the idea and agrees to put his name forward. Apparently his application causes endless arguments within the committee but eventually the chairman and the secretary rule that a message will be sent back by the man who makes the first approach. "Tell Mr. Trueman that we are all right for bowlers at the moment," he is told. "It is batsmen we are looking for." Forty years on Trueman is still chuckling over that piece of Yorkshire reasoning.