Sunday, October 21, 2012

Letter to the editor of The Cricketer

I have just sent this to Andrew Miller, editor of The Cricketer, about the lamentable decline of his magazine.

Hello Andrew

I am writing to invite you to persuade me to change my decision not to renew my subscription to The Cricketer when it expires with the December issue.

When I was six I was given the April 1966 edition of Playfair Cricket Monthly, and have read at least one of that magazine, The Cricketer, Wisden Cricket Monthly, The Wisden Cricketer, or the new Cricketer every month since, even after I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago. The decision to break this sequence is not one I would take lightly.

Of the magazines listed, there is no question that The Wisden Cricketer was the best. Month after month it contained writing of an astonishingly high standard; a must-read for the informed cricket follower. Those parts of the magazine that were not exceptional were still sound and often interesting; from cover to cover it radiated quality and high editorial standards. It hardly ever annoyed me.

I don’t think that first-night reviews are fair, so I have left it until the fifth edition of the new-look Cricketer before commenting. But I can’t think of a sentence that describes the decline in standards since then that does not contain “plummet”.

A closer look at the October edition will illustrate what I mean. First, there is an interview with Alistair Cook, the first published since he was named Test skipper probably, a scoop. The first three questions are OK, but then we descend to boofheadery. “Do you give your sheep names…The Only Way is Essex…sweaty palms”. For God’s sake. A journalistic open goal missed.

Then what do we have on page 17? Everybody who opened the magazine even on the day of issue would already have known about Freddie Flintoff’s putative boxing career. At first glance, I thought that the photo of him in training just about justified it, but I read on to discover that the photo was six years old! To fill a page like that is simply insulting to the subscriber. A couple of years ago TWC would have taken the story and done something with it that was different. A few original quotes at least.

The XI was a feature that I used to look forward to. It always produced something that was quirky, or that I didn’t know. This one could have been entitled “The 11 most-repeated press conference stories you knew already”. Much of the magazine now comes across like this: a frantic attempt to fill the pages with the first thing that comes to hand.

There are also the desperate attempts at laddish humour. At its best Test Match Sofa can be very funny in its original audio medium. But you can’t just write that stuff down and expect it to work. Being funny on the page is difficult. It needs talent and hard work. If neither of those is available, better to give it a miss altogether. The same and more so is true of the Swannipedia. Graeme Swann is a breath of fresh air in the game, which makes this contrived drivel all the more difficult to bear.

Worst of all (we have reached the tipping point now) was the five pages of blokes in dinner suits gurning at the camera (no captions to identify them either, which is lazy) with more say-nothing writing around it. Playfair Cricket Monthly used to fill a few pages of one edition a year with photos of blokes in suits at its annual dinner. Even as a primary school kid I thought this was a rip off in a cricket magazine, and I see no reason to change that view now.

There are too many pages on which the writing is bite-sized; gobbets that tell us nothing. The county review devotes fewer than half the words to each county than the equivalent feature two years ago (and the three pages of would-you-believe it pieces that follow don’t count). The Test reports are shorter, so are many of the book reviews and obituaries. You need to give writers a bit of room.

Of course, not all is bad. Mike Selvey, Michael Henderson and Simon Hughes are always interesting (though I can read Selvey online on The Guardian’s website whenever I want). The piece on the 1954/55 tour was quite well done, but for outstanding writing, we had to wait until John Woodcock on Alan Ross. Benj Moorhead is talented too. Giving him space and his head in other parts of the publication would be a start. The Game section is OK of itself, but I don’t play any more, so am not interested in the fitness and equipment stuff. It effectively shortens the magazine by several pages for me.

So, what I would like to know is what readership is The Cricketer now after? Am I correct in concluding from its content that the future of the magazine been staked on uncovering a new market among twenty-something blokes who emerge from the pub on a Friday night with an unaccountable urge to buy a cricket magazine? If so, the rest of us will quietly collect our hats and depart.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tony Pawson: Kent v Glamorgan, Sunday League, St Lawrence Ground, 3 August 1980

Tony Pawson, cricketer, footballer, fisherman and journalist, died this week at the age of 91, too old even for me to have seen him play for Kent, which he did as a batsman in the late forties and early fifties. I have his autobiography, Runs and Catches, published in 1980.

He signed it for me at Canterbury one day, helpfully dating the signature: 3 August 1980.
I find that Kent played Glamorgan in the Sunday League that day, recording a rare victory in a wretched summer. The great CJ Tavaré scored a century, and Alan Ealham followed a rumbustious unbeaten 81 with the only List A wicket he took in a 16-year career. Classy though—an Alan Knott stumping. As far as I recall, Ealham bowled off spin (though he might even have been a leggie) so slow that the batsman had forgotten he was in by the time the ball reached the other end. The reference to “Old Caps Day” means that there was a reunion of former players (but only those sufficiently proficient to have received their county cap, apparently[1]).

I flicked through Runs and Catches again after hearing that Pawson had died, and very entertaining it is. He was an amateur in the best sense; good enough to have played as a professional had he chosen to do so, not a dilettante taking a better player’s place in the holidays. He averaged 33 in 43 matches across eight seasons (on uncovered pitches, remember; add ten for comparison with modern players). Until his death he was one of the last left to have played against Bradman, which he did for Kent at Canterbury in 1948.

My friend Allen Hunt, an irrefutable source of information about the four decades of Kent cricket before I started watching, spoke of Pawson as an attacking batsman, part of a team that was fun to watch, if not that successful. Allen also said that in the field Pawson was as good as Ealham, Asif Iqbal and the other outstanding fielders in the great side of the seventies.

That he was one of Kent’s more athletic fielders is not surprising; he was one of the country’s leading amateur footballers in the immediate post-war years, an era when that meant something. He won an FA Amateur Cup winner’s medal playing for Pegasus (there’s a great name for a sports team) in front of 100,000 people at Wembley in 1951 and was good enough to play a few games for Charlton Athletic in the old First Division. He scored on debut against Tottenham Hotspur and the Charlton directors showed their appreciation by standing, turning to Mrs Pawson and doffing their bowler hats. Roman Abramovich ought to try that with the Chelsea wags. Pawson was selected for the Great Britain team in the Stockholm Olympics of 1952 (they lost to Luxembourg).

The “catches” in the title is a pun; it is a rule of publishing that all sports books must contain a pun in the title and this one is less excruciating than most. It refers to Pawson’s later career as a fly fisherman, which had not reached its apogee when the book was published. In 1983 he was a member of the England team that won the World Championship. There is also a chapter on his military career, fighting the Germans across north Africa and Italy.

After he finished playing he became a journalist, reporting on cricket and football for the Observer, combining the writing with a full-time career in industrial relations, one of post-war Britain’s more challenging vocations. He was still reporting on one sport or the other every weekend when I met him. Though more recent than his playing career, his description of the world of journalism would seem Dickensian to readers younger than 30.

Copy had to be dictated down the phone from the ground. The first problem was to find a phone. There was usually just one line to the press box, invariably guarded by the most bad-tempered of the local reporters. At Canterbury there was often a harassed reporter in the queue for the public phone box beside the pavilion; I was profusely thanked by Rex Alston, freelancing for the Daily Telegraph, when I let him in ahead of me one day in the late sixties.[2]

Reporting on a Northern Ireland v England international at Windsor Park, Belfast, Pawson had identified a post office near the ground and paid the postmistress to keep a phone booth free for him at full-time. He had not allowed for the line of policemen present at the end of the game to prevent anybody from going down the road in which the post office was located. Deploying the bodyswerve and turn of pace that had served him so well on the wing for Pegasus, he darted through the thin blue line and his report made the early editions.

Tony Pawson was very friendly that August day 32 years ago, and chatted for some time about the book and the Observer, the future of which was under threat. What a life he seems to have had, unBritish in the way that he showed that it is possible to do several things well.  He was given the OBE for services to angling. It could have been cricket, football, business or journalism.

I doubt that there is anybody left alive who played for Kent in the forties.

[1] The awarding of county caps, a somewhat arcane system undermined by the frequent of movement of players  around the counties but retained by Kent, should be the subject of a post at some point.
[2] Rex Alston was the only man whose marriage was announced in The Times after his death, but that’s another story.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A present from India

My Island Bay correspondent has been to India, and she returned with this intriguing gift for me.  
It is a group portrait of the Baroda College XI of 1936/37.
Baroda was a self-governing city in Gujarat, in the north-west of India, ruled by its Maharajah, the head of the Gaekwad family. At the centre of the front row of this group is Shri Yuvaraj Pratapainbrao Gaekwar.  So kingly does he look, that the single-letter difference in name must be a typo. Alone of those photographed, he holds a hat (possibly a homburg). Besides Gaekwar, only the College’s principal, SG Burrow, and the Hon General Secretary, Professor SV Shevade, wear ties, though several cravats are sported. White shoes are worn only by Gaekwar and the equally regal looking Sirdar WN Ghorade. All this must mean something.
Curiously, Gaekwar is described as “Capt. Randle Cup”, while PK Pandit, three along on the front row, is simply “Capt”. This, and Gaekwar’s rotund appearance, suggests that his centre-front-row status is down more to his aristocratic lineage than to cricketing ability. This was common in higher levels of Indian cricket at this time. The Indian team that had toured England a few months before this photograph was taken had been led – nominally, at least – by the Maharajah of Vizianagram,  who scored 33 runs in six Test innings and did not bowl. He is always mentioned when nominations are sought for the title of worst player ever to play Test cricket, though it would be hasty to dismiss the claims of Geoff “Thriller” Miller in this regard.
There are further signs of the complex stratification at all levels of Indian society at this time. Those seated are each accorded an individual “Mr” in their title (obviously excepting the two titled fellows already mentioned). Those standing share the collective honorific “Messrs”.
Photographs like this would have been hanging on the walls of every public school in England at this time, and no doubt the ethos of Baroda College in the 1930s was to create Indian copies of the young Englishmen whose mission it was to keep as much of the map as possible coloured red.  Yet ten years later, India was independent and the Maharajah of Baroda’s feudal backwater was swallowed up in the new Republic.
A later Maharajah of Baroda (the old titles were retained, but not the power that went with them) was guest summariser on Test Match Special during India’s 1974 tour of England. The other commentators called him “Prince”, which was no doubt meant respectfully, but rather created the impression that somebody’s pet labrador had wandered in.
What happened to these young men? Did they spend the rest of their lives as anachronistic relics of the imperial past, or did they adapt, as Indians seem so able to do, becoming leaders in the new democracy? There is no clue on the internet; searches for Baroda College and a sample of the names on the photograph draw blanks. Baroda itself has been renamed Vadodara, though the old name lingers on in various contexts.
The Central College Cricket Ground is in regular use still, according to Cricket Archive, though it has not seen a first-class fixture since the Ranji Trophy final of 1947. It would be nice to think that one of those young men, at least, has survived into their mid-nineties and sits on the boundary’s edge, thinking of the time when he was in the XI, and put on his blazer and his cravat to have his photograph taken with the rest of the team.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...