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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Of Didcot and the Demon, the cricket journalism of Alan Gibson

Even before the jetlag had worn off on my recent trip to the frozen north, I was off to Waterstone’s to buy Of Didcot and the Demon. It’s a delight.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Gibson’s reports in The Times of county matches from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties. I’ve spent many days at the cricket that were less entertaining than Alan Gibson’s learned, funny, elegant, idiosyncratic reports on them in the following morning’s paper.

On-field events were not necessarily his main focus. Plenty of reports in this collection make no mention of the game until several paragraphs in. A Gibson report would often begin with an account of his journey to the ground, an often tortuous one at the hands of British Rail, leaving him stranded on the platform of Didcot station at about the time play was due to start.

He had a fondness for the game’s spear carriers, and seemed to prefer to write about what was going on near the wings than what was happening downstage centre. His favourites were identified by the names he chose for them, and their achievements would be assiduously recorded, however insignificant they might be. Chief among them was the eponymous Demon of Frome, Somerset’s medium-fast bowler Colin Dredge. A Dredge 34 not out against Surry in 1982 took up half the report, Viv Richards’ 181 not out a few lines.

The stirring deeds of tail-end batsmen generally were a pleasing weakness of Gibson’s. On Dredge again:

Dredge, looking every inch a Frome opening batsman, was bowled, although he had played one stylish stroke which staggered the infield and produced four byes.
He was good on boring batting too. PJK Gibbs, the Derbyshire opener, was a regular target:

The evening was enlivened by a characteristic innings from Fireman Gibbs, who had scored one in half an hour when I stopped counting.
As befits a man with a first (in history) from Oxford, he was not afraid of scattering literary and classical allusions around:

This morning was commandingly, but, as it turned out, delusively attractive, like a fairy woman of the Hebrides, or a call by Boycott.
But his writing was much more than a collection of one-liners. His profiles of cricketers past and present showed not only a deep understanding of cricket, but also the ability to discern the character of men through the way they approach the game. His piece on the Graveneys, Ken, Tom and David, is the best of these.

A Yorkshireman by birth, Gibson spent most of his adult life in the west, and places that I know well crop up throughout. At the start of the book we find him newly married to his second wife, a young woman from the BBC, and living in Queen’s Court, Clifton, the big, sweeping building that resembles an ocean liner aground on the Victoria Rooms.

In the late seventies the Gibsons moved to High Littleton in north Somerset, and the village pub, the Star, began to feature regularly in his reports:

I left High Littleton with some reluctance, for the Star were due to play the Butcher’s Arms in the final of the Chew Valley shove-halfpenny competition.
For seven years my route to work took me through High Littleton, past the Star. I would always think of Alan Gibson and fortify myself for the unequal daily struggle with the youth of north Somerset by recalling some of his best lines.

Alan Gibson was also a radio commentator, one of the best. My ideal line-up of Test Match Special commentators would be Gibson, John Arlott and Don Mosey, troubled men all. His radio career came to an abrupt end at the Headingley test of 1975, when he turned up worse for wear for a late afternoon commentary stint.

And there’s the problem. The impression you get of Gibson from his writing would be that of a genial, contented man, and that could not be more misleading. He was an alcoholic, prone to serious depression. His eldest son Anthony Gibson, who put this collection together, writes a narrative at the start of each year’s selection. It is an affectionate, honest catalogue of his father’s decline, which by 1985 found him back at Queen’s Court, but now alone and living on whisky and tinned corned beef.

I last saw him either that year or the next. He was in his early sixties, but looked twenty years older as he shuffled on the arm of the catering manager from the Hammond Room at the County Ground, Bristol (he preferred writing in bars to press boxes) to his taxi. The business of reporting was almost beyond him (and the exasperated sub-editors of The Times) at that stage, but he could still turn out a memorable line, such as this about one of his regular cast members, Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby, bowling for Dorset against Somerset in the 60-over knock-out competition:

Wingfield Digby looked much the same, with those long legs consorting so oddly with his short strides in the run-up, like an evangelical curate approaching a session with the Bishop of London.
The beauty of the writing is matched by the book’s presentation, 315 large-format pages on high-quality paper, superbly designed with a fine selection of photographs. This is the work of Stephen Chalke’s Fairfield Books. Chalke has done more than anybody to maintain cricket’s literary tradition in the face of the digital revolution, and deserves thanks and admiration for returning the words of Alan Gibson to print.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One Lynne Truss, there’s only one Lynne Truss...

...For you might be forgiven for thinking that there were several. There’s Lynne Truss the TV reviewer (in The Times in the nineties). Also Lynne Truss the novelist (I’ve just finished Tennyson’s Gift, a novel predicated on the concurrent presence on the Isle of Wight in the summer 1864 of Lewis Carroll, the young Ellen Terry, her husband GF Watts (the artist) and the eponymous Poet Laureate, among others). Not forgetting Lynne Truss the radio playwright. Obviously, there’s Lynne Truss, preserver of the apostrophe for the nations (Eats, Shoots and Leaves), not to mention the Lynne Trusses the broadcaster and the award-winning columnist.

And then there’s Lynne Truss the sportswriter.

I remember being surprised when Lynne Truss started to turn up on the sports pages in 1996. Not as surprised as she was, apparently. In May 1996 the sports editor of The Times invited Truss to join the team covering Euro ’96, the biggest feast of international football held in England since the 1966 World Cup, and an event the existence of which she was, at that point, unaware.

Truss speculates that she was seen as “a trundling wooden horse freighting a few new readers into the sports section”. No doubt the expectation was for nothing more than for a few columns of light relief among pages of serious football analysis. If so, it was a considerable underestimate of a writer who, a few short years later, would have the intelligentsia of the English-speaking world whooping with joy over semi-colons and parentheses. Compared to that, getting a few laughs out of blokes in lurid shirts chasing a ball about was like asking Michelangelo to distemper the ceiling.

The result was so pleasing that her foray into the sports pages was extended into the following domestic football season, and from there her range spread, embracing everything from world heavyweight title fights at Madison Square Garden to the Ryder Cup and (her favourite) the World Darts Championship. She recalls her experiences in Get Her Off the Pitch!, her memoir of her press box years, which I have just finished.
Her presence was not always welcomed by the hacks of the sports pages, though she took to cricket writers more easily than many of the others:

cricket writers are generally quite tall, very amusing [I recognise myself already], a bit Aspergers [ah...], and well informed on highbrow topics like art and music [well, up to a point].
She puts the hostility she encountered down to simple misogyny, but I think that it was because they’d read her stuff and were annoyed that, though she might know about 1% of what they did about their sport, she could still write about it better than they could.

Take her account of the Cricket World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia at Edgbaston in 1999 (the one where Allan Donald forgets to run so handing the match to Aussie). She describes the events of the day perfectly adequately. But she also captures the increasing tension as only a very few could, still in her deceptively conversational style:

Six balls left in this semi-final. Nine runs required. The contents of our brains are starting to dribble out of our noses. I am pressing wads of tissue to all the orifices of my head. Fleming bowls to Klusener, and he smashes it as if he were playing baseball. It’s a four. A four! All one can do is whimper, watch it fly, absorb the cheering, and keep trusting the Kleenex.
Truss admits her ignorance about cricket freely. When she took her place in the Headingley press box for the Ashes test of 1997 she had to ask what all the talk of “Headingley 1981” was about.* She may not understand cricket (she is heavily dependent on the radio commentary to make any sense of what she witnesses), but she gets it completely:

But the main reason I could never feel comfortable about cricket is that there is clearly no substitute for a lifetime of enthusiasm. It can’t be faked or mugged up, no matter how many times you pick up CLR James or Neville Cardus...This stuff has to go deep, you see.
And:

One of the attractions of cricket, surely, is that it requires a lot of thinking about afterwards. In fact it’s a sport that largely takes place after it’s finished, in the splendid and reassuring comfort of the inside of one’s head.
I don’t think it could be put better than that.

Lynne Truss gave up sport for punctuation when she concluded that she had no capacity for the massive recall of obscure facts that sports journalists and fans have, and that her emotional memory (“the sturdy means by which I navigate my life”) got in the way.

It’s touchingly simple. One week you are a Spurs Fan so devoted to Dimitar Berbatov that you get the Bulgarian national flag tattooed across your face; and the next week, when he’s signed to Manchester United, you go out and buy a balaclava. You don’t dwell on it, that’s the main thing. You might shout "Judas!" at him on his first re-visit, but then you let it go. I suppose you are too happily occupied recollecting every Leicester-Liverpool score since the dawn of football. Or maybe you are too busy studying a straggly frond in your goldfish bowl for the hundredth time today and saying "Blimey, that’s attractive. Is it new?”.

If you get the chance to read anything by Lynne Truss, take it, even if it means ransacking her dustbin for old shopping lists.

*England’s most famous test victory against Australia. Australians who saw it have “Headingley ’81” engraved on their hearts as Mary Tudor did "Calais".

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why I can’t take Sunil Gavaskar seriously as a T20 commentator

Sunil Gavaskar was a great player. In my team of test players who I have enjoyed watching the most, he would open the batting with Gordon Greenidge. His 221, chasing 438 to win at the Oval in 1979, was one of the finest innings I have seen (saw it on TV, having attended the third day of the game):

http://www.cricketarchive.com/Archive/Scorecards/39/39662.html

But when I listen to him commentating on the T20 World Cup, in the West Indies currently, I can’t take him seriously, and here’s why:

http://www.cricketarchive.com/Archive/Scorecards/35/35184.html

It was opening day of the first World Cup. England played India at Lord’s, batted first and racked up 334 for four , an immense score at the time, quite the equivalent of 400-plus in a 50-over ODI today. They were 60-over matches, but there were no fielding restrictions, no powerplays, and as I’ve explained before, one-day cricket remained a stately affair in those days, first-class cricket with a slightly fast pulse.

The innings was built around a Denis Amiss century, and Chris Old scored 51 at the end of the innings at a timewarp strike rate of 170.00.

So how would India, with the great Gavaskar opening, go about the chase? Would they risk all from the start, or would they build towards an all-out onslaught in the second half of the innings? What a wonderful start to the World Cup it would be if they got even close.

He batted throughout the 60 overs for 36 not out.

I shall repeat that for effect.

Thirty-six not out.

It was as if Sir Edmund Hillary had looked up at Mount Everest, decided it was a bit steep, and gone for a cup of tea instead. Unwilling to compromise his dignity by essaying unorthodox strokes, Gavaskar opted for practice instead, no matter that 25,000 people had paid in expectation of something wonderful.

His teammates tried to lay the blame solely on Gavaskar, but the total of 132 for three does not suggest that all caution was thrown to the four winds (and did it occur to nobody to run him out?). Only Gundappa Vishwanath, a batsman incapable of truly dull play, scored at more than three an over.

India, more than any of the cricketing nations, did not take one-day cricket seriously in those days, when 90,000 would fill Eden Gardens in Calcutta for the most irretrievably dull test match. That changed, literally overnight, when India surprised everybody, but most of all themselves, by winning the 1983 World Cup, a victory that initiated a chain of events culminating in the Mardi gras that is the IPL (S Gavaskar commentating).

You can tell, even now, that his heart isn’t in it. Today, there were two games that imitated the pattern of that match at Lord’s, the teams batting first scoring a very high total that almost immediately became beyond the teams batting second. He kept talking about the need to keep the scoring rate up, and to take risks, when what he really wanted to say was “Keep your bat straight, play yourself in, give nothing away and improve your average. Like I did.”

And that is why I can’t take Sunil Gavaskar seriously as a T20 commentator.