Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

About Me

Friday, 6 November 2009

Sticking two fingers up at my carbon footprint


*****The following took place between 4am on Thursday the 5th and 4am, Friday the 6th November*****

4am - The alarm clock goes off. As I turn my phone to silent and step out of bed I am hit by the familiar pang of dread that accompanies every morning of a day in which I'm required to board a plane.

After a shower and dressing in half darkness I gulp down some tea and leave Fe sleeping. It's cold outside and dark. I contemplate never coming back. The headlines in the newspapers that a plane carrying 300 Fulham fans has crashed. It's pathetic really. I've flown 43 times in the last three years. You'd think it would either get easier or that I would grow some.

5am - I pass two drunken couples on the walk down Lavender Hill to Clapham Junction. After getting my ticket I find myself in familiar territory. i.e. waiting for a train to Gatwick that is showing no signs of arriving. It's delayed and for a few worrying minutes I am transported back to February and my failure to get to Jamaica.

6am - No need for additional stress as the train arrives late but well within time. I meet up with Dave and Fergus (a fellow Fulham fan) by the designated help desk. Me and Dave get our boarding passes and match tickets and the Spanish lady behind the counter calls Fergus, Fergoose. A nickname is born.

With our plane scheduled for a 7.30am take off there's enough time for Dave and Fergoose to grab coffee and breakfast. I opt for a double vodka and lemonade.

7am - The flight is memorable only for the fact that for once I go without valium. I don't want my day to be clouded or my emotions held in check. It's only a 2hour flight after all. Dave tells me I should look out the window when I fly as it provides a constant reminder of the reality of the situation. It's a good point.

8am - Still flying. Still not looking out the window much.

10am (Italian time) - I arrive with a bang. Several of them. I'm starting to suspect that those who fly charter planes aren't quite at the top of the piloting calibre tree. What do they do during the week when they're not flying football fans across Europe? Is there such thing as a part-time pilot? A freelancer?

Does this particular pilot dream of the day he can stop stacking shelves at Tesco? Does he imagine the moment he tells the night shift supervisor where to stick that last packet of Nutty Corn Shreds before storming out to work for a reputable airline with a proper uniform that commands respect and where he doesn't have to foot the dry-cleaning bill.

Judging by the crunching landing and the way the plane bounces to halt our pilot could do with more flying time or a reality check.

Disembarking I survey my 23rd country and immediately experience the crazy Italian driver stereotype. The bus driver taking us to customs seems to be having a running battle with a guy carrying another plane's luggage.

Meanwhile a bloke behind with sunglasses and a cigarette on the go drives his vehicle with both hands off the steering wheel. Somehow he conveys an attitude of nonchalent aggression. He looks like he could be the older brother of Paolo Di Canio.

11am - Armed police in all manner of pretty uniforms are lined up waiting for us. Without moving, speaking or breaking off from looking ever so slightly camp, they direct us to our coaches.

Before the journey I had been warned about two things to keep an eye on. Italian fans and Italian police. The first will stab you in the bottom. The second will hit you over the head with a truncheon.

Safety had been entrusted to the baton wielders. The convoy of five coaches was thus led into the heart of Rome by two cop cars that wouldn't have looked out of place in an Inspector Clouseau movie. If Clouseau had been Italian and not French, of course.

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12am - Dropped of in the middle of Villa Borghese gardens. I know this because I just looked it up. The jobsworth on the coach warns me and Dave that if we return any later than half past three the coaches will leave and we will have to brave the journey to the ground without anyone preventing the natives from stabbing us in the bottom.

1pm - With camera in hand and stab-proof pants on, me, Dave and Fergoose walk towards the river Tiber. I also know this because I looked it up. We walk past a Piazza and down a couple of random streets before we find ourselves a 'local' restaurant far from the beaten track. Bottom stabbing aside we are all keen to immerse ourselves inthe local culture for a few short hours.

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2pm - Three pizzas and six beers heavier we depart seventy five euros lighter. Stung by the exchange rate and a waiter who sussed us the minute we walked into the joint.

3pm - I get within two streets of the Vatican before the thought of missing the 3.30pm deadline forces us all to beat a hasty retreat back to the coach. En route we stop off to buy pancetta, Italian wine and a couple more beers. I deliver a passionate and rousing five minute account of the journey on talkSPORT.

4pm - I am told by the jobsworth that the reason why the coaches didn't actually depart at 3.30pm is because the police are waiting to undertake body searches on everyone. Although from my vantage point they seem far more interested in smoking cigarettes than they do conducting pat downs.

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5pm - Dusk is falling by the time we leave. We are driven through town to the Stadio Olympico. Pleasure is derived from the fact that a) all traffic is halted to allow us uninterrupted passage to the ground b) the Roma fans that we pass swear at us c) we are safe and can laugh at them rather than fearing for our lives and our bottoms.

And before you know it we arrive.

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6pm - An hour til kick off. A chance to go through the FFC songbook. Clear the lungs. Test the acoustics. Make our presence known. For once we actually manage to outsing our opponents.

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6.10pm - Could really do with a beer now. The football hooligan of the 80's has a lot to answer for. No alcohol allowed on the flight, the coach and now the ground. Even some of the bars in town had shut up shop. Didn't they know Fulham fans are the best behaved in the Premier League?

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7pm - The first half passes with Fulham well on top. A goal to the good and looking comfortable. As long as the ludicrous decision to give Haangeland a yellow card is the only decision the referee gets wrong we might even get more than the point we were hoping for.

The only other downside is an altercation with an inbred Fulham fan located right in front of us. After being asked to sit down so as to not block the view he refused

"It's Europe, not Craven Cottage" he blustered. As though being in Europe somehow made him invisible thus allowing those unfortunate enough to have to sit behind his stinking, yellow toothed form clear view of the action. "Everyone's standing up!" He cried. Forcing everyone in the vicinity to slowly look around to try and locate another person standing.

Momentarily unsure of himself he then repeated his "It's Europe!" line of argument as though we hadn't heard him the first time, no doubt hoping that after the fifth or sixth airing my brother would turn to me and remark "Oh, I get it, he's saying that it's Europe, and not Craven Cottage. Therefore we should either all be standing or just put up with him blocking our view. Because that's what happens when you watch football in Europe."

But this didn't happen. Instead Dave just told him off in much the same manner a primary school assistant would admonish a slightly backward child who had just coloured in his own face with crayons.

We moved along one seat for an unobstructed view and the buffoon's 'friends' looked a bit shame faced and gave off a 'here we go again' air of resignation.

8pm - The decision not to allow alcohol pays off and the destruction of the Stadio Olympico is averted following one of the most bent displays of refereeing ever witnessed. The pain of dropping two points at home in the last minute of the game against the same opponents is revisited. Two men sent off, a deflected shot that levelled things up and we are faced with a very long journey home with nothing to show for it.

9pm - But first we have a nice hours wait in the cold to get through. At least the moron in front chose to sit down for that second half. Although at times I could have done with something to hide behind. It's a sad end to a day that hasn't finished yet. Another two hour flight beckons. Oh, lucky me. Time to put a brave face on things.

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10pm - The hour drive back to the airport flashes by. The warmth of the coach and the extra layers I've put on leave me feeling drowsy. I sleep most of the way. Upon reaching our destination I realise I will have to leave behind the wine bought earlier in the day. Then as we pass through customs the last of the duty free shops shuts for the night.

11pm - An unexpected delay at the airport. I ask the guy selling drinks for wine. His supervisor tells him not to sell it to me.

12pm - Dave and I drop 5MG of valium. As we slouch on our chairs and Dave eats M&M's (which the supervisor was happy to sell to us) big drops of rain start to splatter against the windows. It's dark, it's wet and outside it's cold. It's time to go home.

1am - Finally take off. An hour later than planned. With lights dimmed and the valium taking hold I let my head rest on Dave's shoulder. Hopeful of sleep. But any chance of this is rudely ended as the plane suddenly drops and lurches to the side. Startled, my eyes immediately flick open and I instinctively reach for my brother. His eyes are now also wide open.

Turbulence strikes. Repeatedly. And not just any old turbulence either - the worst I've ever experienced. The plane shudders and rocks and an audible groan rings out from the passengers after one particularly bad jolt makes the plane shudder and dip alarmingly.

The stewardesses are caught out. Everyone has been. The head steward grabs the intercom will all stewardesses get back to their seats now!!!!! But half way through barking this order the plane is broadsided by another burst. It overbalances him and the surprise in his voice is broadcast to us all 'will all stewardesses get back to their seats noooooooow!!!!!'

Panicking Stewardesses do nothing for my state of mind. With one hand grabbing my brothers knee and the other the seat in front all I could think of was Jesus Christ Fulham , haven't you put us through enough today?!

2am - Thankfully (and by thankfully, I mean, thank you god, I am down on my knees praying to you here) after ten minutes the turbulence subsides. I look back on the moment before my flight when I opted to take valium as one of the greatest decisions I've ever made. The part time pilot speaks to us over the tannoy to apologise for not warning us about the impending storm we were about to fly into. It was down to the delay at the airport. Apparently we missed the worst of it.

2am (UK time) - We fail to miss the worst of him, however. Another bumpy landing followed by a skid or two signals the fact that our plane has landed. For a minute I feared the turbulence had returned. *Note to pilot* If your journey is delayed. Recheck the f*cking weather forecast in the area you are about to fly into. That is all.

3am - Without any baggage in the hold Dave, Fergoose and I waltz through customs and head straight for the carpark. Fergoose kindly drops us both off at our houses.

Despite the hour and the fact I have work in the morning I pour myself a small glass of Angostura 1824, switch on the computer and read The Guardian, The Independent and BBC Sport's
version of events. I've always like the Beeb.

4am - Valium + physical/mental exhaustion + shot of the finest Angostura 1824Rum Trinidadian dollars can buy = deep, sweet sleep.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

When time becomes a loop

It takes something a bit special to get me out in Brixton after dark on a school night. The evenings comprising of dodgy deals on Coldharbour Lane & tops off acid-techno action at Club 414 are of a decade long gone. While even the more respectable memories of late nights at The Dog Starr and Mass are starting to dim from memory.

These days the only reason I have to be in the area is my weekly game of 5 a-side football and on the much rarer occasion a band is playing at The Academy that I like. And last week, for the first time in over a year, it happened, as Orbital came back to town.

I’ve never really been at the forefront of the music scene, nor any scene for that matter. The only time in my life when I felt part of whatever was going on was during the grunge years 1992-1994. It was a fleeting love affair. Then as university beckoned, I left most of my mates as they moved onto the dub trip, and moved into electronic music and hands in the air clubbing.

It’s a genre guaranteed to end a conversation in a pub. A few months back I was chatting with some workmates about our top five albums of all time. The obvious bands cropped up for people of our age and sensibilities i.e. The Smiths, Stone Roses & The Beatles. All of which provoked debate and sparked memories that we could all relate to despite growing up in different parts of the country.

But when I mentioned two of my choices, silence reigned. They had nothing to say. Because if you’ve never listened to electronic music how can you help me answer whether Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 1985-1992’ made more of an impression on my life than Underworld’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’.

What wasn’t an argument was the choice of the number one electronic album to make my list. Orbital’s Brown Album was on constant loop throughout my first and second years at university. Hearing certain parts of that album still transports me back to 1994, lazily lying down on my bed, daylight streaming through the windows, a book or comic in hand, and a lecture going on somewhere without me.

Since those halcyon days I’ve seen the band seven times in total. Including what was supposed to be their final gig at Brixton Academy in 2004. That evening had been a bit of a disappointment and failed to stand up alongside the epic evenings at Glastonbury in ’99 & 00. While listening to ‘Chime’ on the stroke of midnight to welcome in 1997 is a memory I’ll try hard never to forget. And now a year after my other favourite band, Smashing Pumpkins were resurrected, Orbital were back.

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Tickets had been purchased months in advance and I met up with two old friends who had also spurned the majority and opted for dance over dancehall. I met up with Jamo and Dicky at a bar in Coldharbour Lane before we made our way to the gig. Walking briskly past the throngs we snaked our way in and were standing at the bar with minutes to go before the band came on.

It was great to be back at the Academy. I saw my second ever gig there back in 1989 when Transvision Vamp were headlining. Throughout the 90’s I spent the evening before my A-Level English exam watching The The, got trampled in a mosh pit before Rage Against The Machine had even started singing, got hooked on The Verve when they were supporting The Pumpkins and seen Orbital numerous times.

And now we were back. And though it might have just been because we hadn’t been to a gig for a while, but both Jamo and I noticed differences straight away. He had earlier remarked that his walk to the pub was notable for its serenity. For once it would have once been a ‘take your life in your own hands’ journey. But now the rude boys on the street weren’t quite so prevalent.

Similarly, inside the Academy the atmosphere was less edgy than in the past. Where were the hordes of punks fighting in a pile like they did during Faith No More back in 1993? This time, Jamo noted with a degree of regret, when you bumped into someone they immediately apologized rather than try and lamp you one.

It was all summed up rather neatly by an exchange I heard whilst waiting for the bar. Squeezed next to two chaps in their late 20’s I couldn’t help but overhear this depressing conversation.

Man 1: I’ve got a bit of an earache to be honest
Man 2: So what do you want to get then?
Man 1: Just get me a water.
Man 2: Okay
Man 1: Actually, I’ll just share yours if you’re getting one.
Man 2: Do they sell bottled water?
Man 1: Not sure
Man 2: Well if they do I’ll get one as well.
Man 1: Okay. Ooh, maybe I can get a single Martell on ice.
Me: (To myself) *Good grief*.
Man 2: Don’t think I’m going to stand too close to the stage. Feel pretty knackered.
Girl behind bar: What are you after?
Man 2: Two waters please.
Man 1: Oh, if you were getting one, I would have just had some of yours.
Man 2: Oh well.
Man 1: Do they sell earplugs?
Man 2: Do you sell earplugs?
Girl at bar: Yep.
Man 2: I’ll have two pairs please.
Bloke behind bar: (to guy standing to the right of me) What do you want mate?
Man 3: Nine pints of lager.
Me: Now that’s a round
Man 3: Yep.

To be fair I did then go on to buy myself a glass of red wine. But before I had a chance to group myself in the same bracket as those I’d spent five minutes silently slating, Orbital arrived.

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It might have been the red wine speaking but it turned out to be the most enjoyable Orbital gig I've ever been to. The first half an hour featured some absolute classics. And Brixton has sorted out its sound system so the place was literally vibrating. My nose included. We had a great spot close to the stage but with enough space to drink and dance around.

Indeed the positioning was so perfect Jamo had no trouble finding us after popping off to the loo and Dicky was able to get another round in without spilling it over half the crowd on the walk back. With the band playing a blinder it was a turning into a top night.

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Two hours later and with only one technical breakdown leading to a loss of sound, apology from a Hartnoll brother and the scratching of a roadies head, the night drew to a close. And despite an early start for us all we went to another bar round the back of Coldharbour Lane.

We were all in good spirits. And joy of joys it turned out that this place had a pool table. Has anyone else noticed the lack of pool tables in pubs these days? Dicky and Jamo had a quick game, then I took on Dicky, it would be unfair of me to mention that I 7-balled him. I’m far bigger than that. I then beat a chap who turned up and was giving it the big 'I am', before taking on a friend of his.

By this time quite a group of his friends had turned up and as they could see me winning took it in turns to try and put me off. I was taking it all quite good naturedly although the following day Jamo told me he was getting ready to fight them all.

It all went down to the black and to one of those shots that would normally have a part time pool player sweating. The black ball was positioned near the centre of the D, the white ball too close to the cushion at the other end for comfort. The balls too straight on to each other and I had a baying crowd in my eyeline. With chirping in my ear and Jamo behind me rolling his sleeves up I was thankful for those red wine confidence boosters as I smashed it in, drained my drink, walked off to pats on the shoulder from the vanquished and smiles from the gallery.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Dealing with swine flu; the NHS way

I found myself walking around the corridors of the legendary St.George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London this week. It’s the scene of some of the greatest births to have ever occurred in this country i.e. my sister and also my friends newly born son, Luca. And before I got myself hopelessly lost I stumbled upon this sign by the main reception.

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Nicely done NHS. At least we don’t pay for it I suppose. Is it possible to feel robbed when you haven’t lost any money? The whole thing reminds me of an old Muppet Show sketch. Statler and Waldorf are complaining about the show.

Statler: Well we certainly got what we paid for tonight.
Waldorf: But we paid nothing.
Statler: And that’s what we got!


However, if this method of healthcare proves successful and swine flu cases begin to drop the NHS might actually start implementing the same procedures for all forms of illness. Got a pain in the abdomen? Bugger off home! Got a dislocated shoulder? Put a plaster on it. Cancer? That’ll teach you for smoking.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The return of the long-forgotten goosebump

I don’t know whether it was the non-stop bitter drinking, the exposure to 48 hours of incessant sun or the glorious giddiness that comes about after watching England win The Ashes, but ever since I awoke last Monday with a big grin on my face and the thought “Thank god I’ve got today off.” I’ve struggled for inspiration.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time since trying to work out just how I explain the events of the weekend before last and what it means to me. But my brain just isn’t working properly. I’m at a loss. I’m a bit brain dead. A bit befuddled. The words aren’t coming out as I’d like and outside of "yeaaarrgghhhhh!!!!!" I’m not sure what I want to say.

So instead of reading my take on Graeme Swann sealing the triumph and the subsequent wild celebrations why not just watch it instead.



Celebration time was 5.48pm on the Sunday afternoon. Within ten minutes of when I'd kind of tipped the series to come to a conclusion. So many reasons to feel smug! Even though Fulham couldn’t add to what turned out to be a miraculous weekend I didn't let it affect my great mood.

Days one and two have already been discussed. But day three more than lived up to what was soon to follow. Opting to leave proceedings early at the Pilgrim Pub in Kennington on the Friday night to ensure I would wake up the next day fresh was one of my better decisions.

But unlike Brisbane when I left my mates in the pub the evening before the first days play of the series. I was about to witness the end of this particular chapter of Ashes history as a punter and I couldn’t be more excited.

Helped, of course, by the fact that England were in the ascendency thanks to Stuart Broad, my lord. I needed no excuse to get up out of bed by 9am and with 06/07 Barmy Army shirt on my back, flip flops on my feet. man-bag over my shoulder and trusty ‘Brooms Head’ cricket hat on my head I was soon set.

I met up with various friends and family members outside the ground and excitedly made my way into the stadium. I could have foregone the queues by flashing my ECB pass but so caught up in the moment I wanted to experience all that a paying punter goes through. And this meant an ever more thorough rub down by the attentive security guard; but more importantly merchandise! I always buy a Barmy Army shirt for the tours I follow and considering I’d watched nearly the whole series I stopped off at the Barmy Army stall to pick up a new shirt.

Ten minutes later I was sitting in my seat in Block 16 of the Bedser Stand with the first beer of the day in hand, my brother and friends alongside me and in a completely relaxed frame of mind. For the tenth time this summer I watched the opera guy sing his rendition of 'Jerusalem' as the Australians ran onto the pitch. I gazed up at the big screen to see the all too familiar replays of Ashes contests of the past. But this time I joined in with the growing roar that greeted the two English batsmen as they appeared our of their dressing room, ran down the steps and onto the ground.

For this was different from the opening passages of play I'd seen this summer. For this time I was at play with my professional hat to the side. A fan at the cricket with a half drunk beer before the clock had struck 11 in the morning. I was a bloke watching cricket in the sun and it felt good. So good that when the final strains of jerusalem rang out I cast my sight across the ground, taking in the fans and all that surrounded me and it gave me goosebumps. It's been a while since that happened.

For the first session of the day I basked in all that you take for granted while watching cricket. The guy next to you who confidently says 'good shot' every time the batsman gets anything on the ball. The bloke who whistles or groans anytime a batsman is forced into a defensive shot on the back foot. Or the women who get bored after the first couple of hours and just start nattering away about what their kids are up to. It was all good stuff.

The remainder of a truly glorious day was then spent doing what people do when they've got nothing else to do but sit in the sun and watch cricket. Drink! And make those unfortunate enough to be sitting anywhere nearby suffer.

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The poor lady sitting the row in front of me will be delighted to hear that karma came good. As within a few hours I was waking up on my sofa fully clothed with the TV blaring and a full body sweat on. You know when you wake up after a days drinking and feel so horrendous that getting back to sleep is an impossibility? Well I went through every position a prone body can go through before sleep once again came my way.

The following morning promised more of the same. But as England had once again had the better of things the day loomed large with the distinct possibility that I could actually witness The Ashes come home. No hangover in the world could prevent that from puting a smile back on my face and I dragged myself out of bed once more to meet a new set of fresh faced friends ready for a big day at the cricket. And if I needed any reminding of how big a day in English sport this could be I got it from a succession of beaming and animated faces - joyous that their one days cricket a year could offer such a monumental possibility.

And after two early wickets spirits were high that England could wrap things up in the day. We settled down to some serious sun-tanning and waited for the procession of Aussie wickets. At the stroke of midday drinks were called for with a chaser of 'one more wicket before lunch, please'.

But it was not forthcoming and with Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey looking comfortable at the crease those oh-so familiar fears started to resurface. Every delivery allowed to go through to the keeper elicited a sigh. Every single or scampered two brought forth a quick scan at the scoreboard & recalculation of the target. Every boundary evoked a groan and a comment along the lines of "I feel sick" or "they're gonna bloody win" / "this would be worse than Adelaide" or "I'll never watch cricket again". It was Lords all over again.

But then, a full three hours after our last wicket, Michael Hussey hit a quick single to Freddie Flintoff at wide mid on and called Ricky Ponting through for the run. I couldn't have been in a better position in the ground to see it being 180 degrees to where Freddie was fielding as he flung down the stumps with Ponting short of the crease. Cue bedlam. And when Michael Clarke went six balls later to another farcical run out the mood in the camp had improved immeasurably. For now The Ashes
were certainly coming home and boy, were we going to celebrate.

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Another partnership between Hussey and Brad Haddin did have us all chewing what fingernails were left. But that had more to do with wanting to see all the action that day. It would have been an anti-climax to have to come back the next day for half an hour or so. How things had changed.

With the clock going past five in the afternoon I was aware but uncaring of events at Craven Cottage. And with five wickets remaining it looked like play would continue to the fifth day. But thankfully Steve Harmison and Graeme Swann had other plans. And Harmison's two in two sparked scenes in the stands that reminded me of more positive moments of my Adelaide experience and led to a stage in the game never before experienced.

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And so we settled down to wait. With pictures and videos being taken at regular intervals we chattered animatedly amongst ourselves and with new friends in and around our seats. We high fived, we sang songs, we saluted Stuart Broad (again) and then, with 12 minutes to six on the clock, Graeme Swann approached the wicket, bowled the ball, Michael Hussey prodded forward and nickec an inside edge onto his pad and to the fielder stationed at short leg. And we all went a bit mental.

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And after the England players hugged on the field and we hugged in the stands both sets of Englishmen applauded each other. Fireworks popped, arms were raised, cheers were made and we all waved goodbye to Freddie.

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And he waved right back.

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And after a couple of hours spent at a nearby pub that was about it. More amazing drunken cricket memories to add to the bank. Another day to be talked about long into the future and long into the night. Another cross in the book of things to do before you die - or kids get in the way.

And yet, as I made my way back from the ground, as I sat at my desk during the following week, as I rode the bus to and from work I couldn't escape a nagging feeling. A feeling that maybe this story wasn't completed on that Sunday afternoon at The Oval. A feeling that while one chapter has come to an end this particular book hasn't been closed. And it won't ever be closed and put away until one more thing happens that I'm there to see for myself. And hopefully that thing will happen at in someone else's backyard at the end of next year. Anyone say, "The Ashes 2010/11"?

Because, after all,

"We won the Ashes at The Oval
We won the Ashes at The Oval
We won the Ashes at The Oval
And we'll win it at The SCG"

Friday, 21 August 2009

Mixed emoticons

Forgive me if you've heard this one before..........A friend of mine called Alex had a trip to Australia planned. He was to set off from England, take in the sights of India and parts of Asia before arriving in Sydney around Christmas time where he'd stay with his best mate Damien.

As with most trips of this magnitiude it took a lot of planning a long time in advance. And Alex was delighted when he realised that England would be playing the final Ashes Test of the 02/03 series in Sydney a day after he got into town. The minute he found this out he was immediately on the phone to Damien to ensure he arranged tickets for the both of them. Day two at the SCG. What a way to finish off the holiday of a lifetime and welcome in the new year at the same time.

As the months ticked down to departure he received regular reassurance that the tickets were to be forthcoming. Damien worked in the city and was confident he could source two seats at the corporate end of the scale. Alex boarded his flight to India with a spring in his step.

A three month tour followed taking in the greatest sights India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand can offer. But at no point did Alex ever lose sight of what he really wanted. A ticket at the SCG watching Australia versus England.......You can pretty much guess the rest.

With weeks to go until he got to Australia Alex received the news he was most dreading. Damien hadn't come good with the tickets. Despite having a year to arrange he'd relied on friends even less trustworthy than he'd ended up being. Alex would not be one of the 45,000 going to the ball.
By the time Alex and England rocked up in Sydney the series was lost. But despite the 4-0 scoreline there was something riding on the contest for the feeling within Australia was that this was to be the legendary Aussie captain, Steve Waugh's last ever Test match. And on day one of the match, the time Alex arrived in Sydney, England were making a game of it at last.

And so it came to pass that the day that Alex was supposed to be at the SCG he was in fact watching it on TV on a sofa in a house in Sydney, a stones throw from the cricket ground, close enough to hear every cheer, gasp and roar from the capacity crowd as Steve Waugh struggled to hold together the Australian first innings.

For England were by now on top. Andy Caddick and Steve Harmison had reduced Australia to 200-odd for five after England had posted 362 in their first innings. But Waugh was playing in his final Test at his home ground in front of his own people and he was not to be denied. With the clock ticking down he moved into the 90's and with just one over left in the day was four short of a historic hundred.

As the crowd starting stamping their feet and banging their fists on the advertising hoardings that final over was about to be bowled by the off-spinner Richard Dawson. He didn't know it at the time but though it was to be his final Test match he was moments from writing himself into the history books.

As Alex got comfortable on the sofa the first three deliveries were defended. But amid deafening noise the fourth ball was hit for three runs to leave Waugh on 98 but stranded at the non-strikers end. Adam Gilchrist found himself on strike and he became an immediate hero by sneaking a single off the penultimate ball of the day.

By now Alex had only to open the window above his head a notch to hear the crowd baying for their local boy to hit the runs to register the most famous of all his 32 centuries. Dawson approached the wicket and turned his arm over. Momentarily the noise was silenced as the ball travelled through the air, it dipped, bounced and Waugh cut it away majestically to the boundary for four and his hundred.

Both English and Australian fans went crazy and back in his former friend's living room Alex watched on TV. Then after a suitable pause to take in all that had just happened the legendary cricket commentator, Richie Benaud said the four words that drove home just what Alex had missed that day. "Best days cricket......ever."

I've dined out on that particular story for a few years now. And today I lived it for myself. For after watching an intense but relatively uneventful morning session I was left The Oval today under dark clouds. With covers on the pitch I walked the short distance to the Pilgrim Pub on Kennington Lane where I was to produce a live show for talkSPORT between 4-7pm.

I left my dad, sister, brother-in-law, friends and work colleagues at the ground and made my way to a pub the other side of the gas holders, synonymous with Surrey Cricket Club. So close that I could hear the crowd roar every time a wicket fell; at least it meant I never missed a wicket on the television. Eight times I looked up at the screen on cue; in one magical session of Test match cricket. It was the definitive session of the summer. And I was in the pub.

Oh woe is me, WOE IS ME!!!!!!!!!! How could it come to all this? After winding my way across the planet and back watching England get pounded by the Aussies I had to go and leave the ground then. Ah, who am I kidding? I've got tickets for tomorrow and Sunday. And for once I'm not working which means I can drink a beer, cheer at the top of my voice, punch the air, shout and dance and get act thoroughly unprofessional as England, hopefully, win the Ashes in front of my eyes. Bring it on muthaf*ckers!!!!!!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The ageing process

Sitting on the steps between the press box and the punters in the Vauxhall Road End you'd have been forgiven for thinking I was watching a public hanging. With hands wringing and nails a'biting I spent most of the day peering up at the heavens or with my eyes fixed superstitiously on the bowlers run up convinced that if I concentrated enough then so would the batsmen.

The morning session was as tense as I can remember seeing in the flesh. Sure, there have been many instances in the past that has seen me nervously pace around the living room watching a valiant rear guard action. Hell, my life seems to have been spent pretty much doing nothing but. But I couldn't recall ever actually being at a single days play with so much riding on it. And I couldn't remember ever feeling quite so ill during a days play either.

And it wasn't just a final game, winner takes all Ashes win that occupied my mind on the short journey to the ground. With friends and family attending the first four days I attempted to envisage a perfect scenario whereby everyone English would be catered for but that wouldn't involve such perfect weather to make batting too easy for the Aussies. It was more difficult than you'd think. Especially when bringing the toss into the equation.

The big fear was that under blameless skies, Ricky Ponting would win the toss and the Aussies would be out of sight by the end of the first days play. Thankfully he called incorrectly but this just added to the tension. For the last time England won the toss and batted they made 102 and were out of the game by lunch. That was last week. Even my memory isn't so bad that I could forget that.

So I spent the first session with head in hands (between deliveries) and a refusal to get carried away as England went to lunch on top. In this respect I was well served. As is England's want, a promising situation was thrown away as they lost wickets at regular intervals. But such is the weakness of the English mentality some solace was garnered from the fact that at least we were making a fight of things.

By the end of the days play both sets of former player turned pundits were making a good case for England's 306 for 8 not being too far off a par score. Much notice was taken of the way the pitch appeared to be breaking up and offering big turn so early in the match. With runs on the board England, some were saying, were in the box seat.

But until we see the Aussies bat all judgement will be rested. Even if 350 is a par score I can't see them making much less. All of which would set things up rather nicely in a game that now looks destined to end in a result either way. Tonight, I suppose, I will go to sleep reasonably content that England live to fight another day. Which says a lot about my expectations as an English cricket fan.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

5.55pm on a Sunday afternoon

It's a time of the week that immediately brings to mind images of Harry Secombe boring half of England senseless on the old ITV show Highway. It was a rival to BBC's Songs of Praise and featured the former Goodie singing Christian songs on hillsides up and down the country.

Every week its signature music would set off an alarm in my adolescent brain that said "homework can not be put off any longer". I would drag myself off to my bedroom to pore over crumpled pieces of Science or English papers that demanded attention. Before then putting my feet up on my desk and reading a comic.

The stresses that the spectre of unwritten essays held over me meant it took years before I learnt how to enjoy my Sundays. The dread of the upcoming schoolweek and the hungover regrets from preceedings nights out made even Formula One an appealing way to take ones mind off things.

But times change when you work six days a week; for now any day off is enjoyed to the maximum. It's no surprise that everyday things like newspapers, TV, lunch or football are elevated to elysian status simply by putting the word Sunday in front of them. However this particularly Sunday may prove a little different as two opposing worlds are destined to collide and the fallout could be quite devastating.

For this Sunday, my mental health and nervous system will be tested to the limit as Fulham play Chelsea at exactly the same time that England attempt to wrestle The Ashes off of the Aussies. And although my body will be at one of the spiritual sporting venues I call home my mind will not be at the other. I will be watching England versus Australia at The Oval but I will not be listening to Fulham versus Chelsea at Craven Cottage. I simply cannot take it.

The chances of Fulham emerging victorious are even greater than England beating Australia. With Fulham 6/1 and England 10/3 the chances of both winning are.......I don't know, I can't work it out. Anyway, it's not going to happen. So I'll try and cut out the events at Craven Cottage by limiting myself to half-time and full-time updates. And I'll direct all my attention to the action on the field in front of me.

I don't know what's going to happen this weekend but I do know this. I've been dreading the cricket ever since Headingley, that Fulham were lucky to score a late equaliser in the corresponding fixture last season, and that it probably won't be a good idea to call me at 5.55pm on Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

How low can you go?

Every time Graham Onions bowls he tricks me into thinking he's about to pull up. After roughly six or seven paces he looks as though he's about to slow down. Never the most fearsome or in-your-face of fast bowlers he appears to run in with everyday thoughts running through his mind before suddenly a thought pops into his head. “Did I leave my daughter on top of the fridge?”

It’s enough to make him slow down but before he comes to a standstill and the batsman gives up his guard another thought flashes into his brain. "No wait, I don't haev a daughter. Or a fridge." With all well in the world again he continues at a regular pace to complete his delivery.

Despite having the best English bowling average in the series it looks as though Onions will be one of the fall guys after the Headingley debacle. It was a performance so inept that in a lifetime of watching English sporting disasters this is one without precedent. I’ve never watched a game of Test match cricket that was over by lunch on the first day. Statistically, it’s unlikely I ever will again; although Bangladesh are due to tour here next year.

All of which is probably my fault. Posting a blog heralding the greatest days in my cricket life was always going to tempt fate. And days one and two at Headingley more than matched the worst I’ve ever encountered. For this was worse than the tedium of Brisbane, was devoid of the animal carnality of Hamilton, and the pain lasted so much longer than it did in Antigua. Although the same can possibly not be said for my dad.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be in the press box for the astounding 4-4 game at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Liverpool. 3-1 down on aggregate, Liverpool somehow managed to drag themselves back into contention at 2-0 up. But the second half saw a revival from Chelsea who appeared to have put the tie to bed as they went 3-2 ahead on the night with just 15 minutes to go.

A good night’s entertainment then began to tinker with the boundaries of reality as Liverpool hit two goals inside three minutes. With nine minutes remaining they needed one goal to cap off the most incredible night of sporting drama in the history of the game. It was at about this point that I had actually stopped enjoying the game. Things had taken such a turn for the extraordinary I couldn’t take it in. I found it impossible to feel emotion for the match was entering unchartered waters. It was bordering on the surreal.

As it was, Chelsea scored once more to secure the match and soothe my sanity. But memories of this game came flooding back while I watched England steamrollered by the Aussies. After England were dismissed by the slip cordon inside two sessions our bowlers somehow managed to perform even worse. They put on the most ludicrous display of bowling ever seen. It was a bowling display that actually defied belief. For the second time in six months I found myself watching a sporting competition that required a deeper range of emotional ability than I possessed.

It really was that bad. But was it bad enough to top the worst days cricket ever seen? Sadly no, I honestly hope I never see anything that can knock that particular days cricket off the top of the list of worst witnessed.

AUS v ENG, Adelaide, Day Five – England start the day one wicket down and a lead of over 100 runs. They end it on the receiving end of a six-wicket defeat and are 2-0 down in The Ashes.

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ENG v AUS, Headingley, Day One – England go into the game 1-0 up in the series and within two hours need to win the remaining match to retain The Ashes.

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WI v ENG, Antigua, Day One – Game abandoned within an hour of play while three family members are on a plane on the way to watch the game. You couldn’t make it up.

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AUS v ENG, Melbourne, Day One – England win the toss and bowl in the most bowler friendly conditions imaginable. In driving rain & heavy cloud cover England are bowled out for 159. Rudi Koertzen then fails to give Hayden out who was plumb LBW. The following day he goes on to make 153 to change the course of the match.

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NZ v ENG, Hamilton, Day Three – England score 199 runs in the day against England ‘A. At the end of day press conference Kevin Pietersen bizarrely described his 131-ball knock of 43 as his best in an England shirt. This was greeted by widespread jaw dropping silence.

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Monday, 10 August 2009

It's just not cricket

You know the world's turning on its head when at a time that football crowds are widely felt not to be as vocal as they used to be cricket fans are being slammed for being too boisterous. England supporters were recently rounded upon for booing Ricky Ponting to the crease; while the general boozy nature of cricket crowds these days also came under attack. The Australian captain is apparently too good a player to warrant such abuse. While the fans were seen to be letting themselves, the sport and England in general down by their overtly partisan, boorish and dare I say it.......working class attitude. “It simply wasn’t cricket, darling. The fans were behaving like football supporters!”..."Gasp!"..."There was swearing and everything!"

What most observers failed to pick up on, or opted to ignore, was the decidedly tongue-in-cheek nature of the abuse dished out. This wasn’t a returning Wayne Rooney to Goodison Park, nor a fat Frank appearing at Upton Park. Rather it was an English crowd giving stick to an opponent who hails from a country we can’t get enough of.

There wasn’t a hint of vitriol in affording Ricky Ponting this 'welcome' as the fans highlighted just what standing he has in the game. It’s not rocket science that any man who has scored over 11,000 Test runs and 8 centuries against England might just be the danger man, a man who could single-handed rest the Ashes away, a man to be targeted.

You can bet your last Aussie dollar that Michael Hussey would swap the lukewarm lethargy that surrounded his welcome with that of his captain. It says a lot about the man that Ponting is still regarded as a character worth bothering with. The crowd wouldn't know a Marcus North or Simon Katich if they were pulling pints at the bar. The lack of a Gilchrist, Warne or McGrath leaves just two comedy villains, and there’s no point telling the 12th man to keep his arm straight when all he’s doing is carrying the drinks.

But I'm not so naive to suggest that everyone in the crowd was gently jibing Ponting. Sure there would have been some whose vision was obscured by the descending red mist. For long memories aren’t needed to remember the claimed 'catches' against India, the apparent encouragement of his sides bullying manner and the perceived ungraciousness of his character. But they would hardly be the only ones who think like that. For let us not forget that Ricky Ponting has more than his fair share of critics back in the homeland.

And while we're focusing on that particular hemisphere let's look at the attitude of the Aussie fans, shall we? Glenn McGrath has been saying that Oz supporters would have never doled out such inhumane treatment to Andrew Strauss. Don't make me laugh. I can still hear the crowing that accompanied Steve Harmison every time he was thrown the ball during the last Ashes series overseas. I can still picture the Gabba crowd laughing at Simon Jones after he wrecked his career on the outfield. Hell, the Perth crowd once threw beer cans and a punch at John Snow while he patrolled the boundary. And any fan that has spent an afternoon at the cricket at the Adelaide Oval will know how it’s possible to keep one eye on the cricket and another on incoming missiles from the Aussie fans.

Nobody knows all this better than the Barmy Army. A group that have come in from a pummelling from all quarters and hit from pillar to post in the past week in a manner that the England bowling attack are becoming all too familiar with. Apart from the fact that their members apparently refused to get involved in the booing they were blamed with pretty much all that is wrong with the game in this country. All this despite the fact that even after travelling across Australia watching that 5-0 reverse in 06/07 they spent the final session in Sydney cheering on both sides. Hell, if they didn't boo then they're hardly going to start now.

And what's wrong with a bit of booing anyway? Racism, violent & homophobic chanting are understandably unacceptable in any walk of life. But booing? Really? What's next for the chop? Tutting? Booing would almost be seen as a term of affection on most inner city street corners.

All of which detracts from the recognition of the special place in our hearts that the Aussies are held in this country. The rivalry starts on the field and ends on it. We're not talking about the nastiness associated with our sporting rivalries with Germany, Argentina or Scotland. Australia is a country that we love to beat, love to poke fun at but also love to visit. The Aussies and English share a history, a sense of fair play and whenever possible a beer.

We also share a sense of humour. For if you had closed your eyes as Ricky Ponting stepped onto the Edgbaston stage you'd have almost be forgiven for thinking Captain Hook was going into bat. For the treatment dished out to him was nothing more than pantomime. On the field he was playing the part of the villain. Of it, one moron aside, he's immediately afforded the respect due to any human being.

At the end of next year it'll be an Englishman's time to don the black cape, cover one eye and put a parrot on the shoulder. You would have thought those moral custodians of the high ground would have realised and appreciated all this. For is their anything more upper or middle class than a visit to the pantomime?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Well that's my first born's name sorted then.

“When Ponting was dismissed yesterday my mate text me to say that he had just made his 6 month old baby start crying by screaming ‘Get out you Aussie b@stard’ as loud as he could… this is absolutely what the Ashes is all about.” - An email from a fellow cricket fan midway through the Lords Test.

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And so after three and a half days of complete and utter England domination over the pitiful Aussies (I’ve waited a long time to be able to say that) I awoke on the morning of the fifth and final days play with an all too familiar sense of dread.

My night’s sleep had been wracked and ruined by images of last wicket stands, furrowed English brows and Aussie fist pumping. My evening had been spent with a small grey cloud hovering inches from the top of my head. A fall into full-scale depression loomed heavy on the horizon.

The reason for this dire mood was brought on by the double dose of daytime drinking and a sixth wicket stand of 185 between Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin. It threatened to ruin my weekend, my summer, my life and my love of cricket.

Seriously. If Australia had fought back to win that game I don’t think my enjoyment for the game would have recovered. I’m not exaggerating here. That would have been it for me. I’d have put away the scorebook. Hung up the box. Turned my back on the Barmy Army. Burnt my Wisden collection. Resigned as producer of talkSPORT’s weekly cricket show. It was that bad.

And I was not alone. I started receiving calls from friends who were only ringing for me to reassure them that England would still win the Test. Reassurance was the last thing they went away with.

My phone and hotmail began getting cluttered with texts and emails almost mourning in tone.

“Mate, put my mind at rest and tell me the Australians cant do it. They can’t can they?”

“holy shit am I wrong or may they win this game?”

“It is quite sickening, i dont think i will ever be able to speak to an Australian again if they win it. Typical of England to put us through this.”


By the time the sunlight streaming through my curtains awoke me on the Monday morning the Australian target of 209 was nothing short of a formality. No matter that if successful the target would be the largest ever reached in 150 years of first class cricket. My spirit was at a seriously low ebb.

It had all been so different. The first three days of the Test were blissful. Waking up to the promise of a full days cricket made me feel like a schoolboy who’s evaded the bullies on the walk home. But now the thought of journeying to Lords made my heart hang heavy. I couldn’t shake the thought that the series could almost be over. For a defeat here at Lords would signal the end of The Ashes. It was Adelaide ’06 all over again.

It really was a case of one extreme to the other. The 45-minute trek to Lords while England had the upper hand was a joyous thing. At peace with the world I would stop off at Clapham Junction for a coffee and a copy of the Guardian whose sports pages would be devoured en route.

With sunlight basking down on me as I exited St Johns Wood I was at ease with the world amongst the throngs of people who were paying about the same amount that I was earning to be there. I swapped smiles with granddads and excited kids, yellow shirted Aussies and even warmed to the suits on a jolly talking loudly, uninformed cricket chat with work mates equally keen to have their thoughts aired and heard but equally unwilling to listen.

The buzz of bypassing the huge queues to enter via gates reserved for those with special passes. Strolling past the member’s gate, the npower girls, the betting boxes and the ‘posh’ hamburger stalls to the cool shade of the Compton Stand and the rickety lift to the best view in the house.

But now things had started to change. Now the Aussies had a sniff and suddenly the journey wasn’t so rose tinted. I forewent the coffee and the paper. I didn’t want to read about how we were about to throw it away all over again.

I sat on the tube from Waterloo to St Johns Street with real hatred for the Aussie chap who boarded the train at Westminster and sat down opposite me. Dressed in thongs, boardies, a yellow training top and with white sunnies his was a style I’d seen many times before without blinking. I wanted to tell him how much his casual outlook on life was in such stark contrast to my own. How defeat would hurt me. To let him know that this could be it! But what was the point?

My walk from the station to the ground was a subdued affair. The beautiful weather conditions seemed to be goading me. Reminding me it was the Aussies who’d be most pleased to see the sunny skies. For the first time in the Test the security at the gates were not afforded a smile and a good morning welcome. I didn’t notice the npower girls, didn’t check out the odds for runs scored in the morning session, didn’t soak up that feeling you get just before play starts and everyone is trying to work out where they’re supposed to be sitting.

Instead I took my moody ass up the media stand lift and into my glorious position just to the left of the bowler’s hand where I proceeded to pace around as nervous as an expectant father.

Speed drinking the tea I had just poured myself I quickly realised sitting down wasn’t an option. I looked around for something or somebody that could inspire me to believe in. Something that would make me feel better, put me at ease and convince me that everything would be alright. Thankfully for me and for England there was something. He was out on the pitch and he went by the name of Freddie.

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Not for the first time in my life I thanked god for Freddie. Jimmy, Swanny and the rest got a mention as well. But thank god for Freddie. It was an ‘I was there’ moment. The day he rolled back the years to deliver ten straight over’s that swept aside any Aussie resistance.

Four years after I watched him bowl from the Pavilion End at The Oval unchanged throughout a session to turn an Ashes game in England’s favour he only went and did it again. I was there then and I was there now.

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After a stunning first over from Jimmy Anderson set the tone a wicket in Freddie’s first over accounted for Haddin and went a long way to settling the nerves. I can’t say I was enjoying myself – that wasn’t going to happen just yet. And while Johnson and Clarke were still at the crease nothing could be taken for granted. But suddenly it started to occur to me ‘we might actually win this after all!’ And within an hour and a half this was exactly what we did.

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It was a sweet moment. One I’ll remember with fondness whatever happens throughout the remainder of the series. It might have been England’s first win at Lords for 75 years but it was also the first time I’d seen them beat the old enemy since a consolation win at The Oval in 1993. Sixteen years is a long time to wait. With three games to go I’m hopeful I won’t have to wait anything like as long. But then I’m thinking from the position of a 1-0 lead. I know my positive outlook is only one session, or 6th wicket partnership, away from suicide watch.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Postscript

I'm going to get a T-Shirt printed. It will say 'I was there when the Aussies followed on'. Okay, so Strauss decided against enforcing it. But that's just a mere detail. For who'd have thought that day two at Lords would surpass day one?

With Darren Gough heading back to talkSPORT towers just after lunch it meant I had an afternoon at Lords to myself. In my own private booth. A steady supply of tea, cake and Aussie wickets.

After that early burst by Anderson had left the Aussie boys 10 for 2 it looked as though Hussey and Katich would steer them back to safety. But a once in a lifetime (if you're English) evening session swung the game back our way.

I had originally planned to stick around til 4pm and head back to the office. But as the wickets started tumbling I kept delaying my departure. In the end I left just after 6pm with the Aussies 7 down. I wanted to stay longer but I had dinner with Fe and drinks with friends to get back for. It's a hard life.

Any questions that I had witnessed one of the best days cricket on the first day were subsequently answered by day two. So what are the best days crickets I've seen in the past four years travelling round the globe? Here they are.

1. AUS v ENG, Adelaide, Day Two - (KP and Collingwood hit big runs as ENG dominate - Langer departs late in the day to spark wild scenes amongst the English support)

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2. AUS v ENG, Adelaide, Day One - (KP and Collingwood hit big runs to spark hopes ENG can hit back after Brisbane defeat)

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3. ENG v AUS, Lords, Day Two - (Eight AUS wickets in one day as AUS struggle to avoid the follow on)

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4. NZ v ENG, Wellington, Day Five - (First ENG victory, meet Billy Corgan, nuff said)

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5. WI v ENG, Antigua, Day Five - (WI hang on for famous draw despite steady loss of wickets. Nail-biting cricket throughout)

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Hopefully by the end of this series, or even this Test there will be a new favourite day at the cricket to add to that list.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Lording it up.

With broadcasting equipment slung over both shoulders and with my face flushed from two and a half days in the sun I made my way from the Swalec Stadium an over after lunch on day three of the first Ashes Test. Australia were in the ascendency (of course) but England had hit back with three morning session wickets and with two new batsmen in there was a chance we could restrict them to a score not a million miles away from what we had managed.

Turning my back on the action signalled two things. Firstly, another false dawn, as the Aussies steam rollered our bowlers for the following 24 hours. Secondly, the end of my proud run of consecutive Ashes days attended. Taking in six different grounds, over 20,000 miles travelled and two different countries (Australia and Wales) visited I walked away from Cardiff feeling a melancholy that my innings had come to an end. In reflective mood I wondered whether my life will ever allow me to watch 25 consecutive days of Ashes cricket again. And whether I would ever want to.

A week later I find myself at Lords. The home of cricket for everyone but me. My home of cricket will always be The Oval, or maybe my parents back garden, where I spent my summers pretending to be the 80's England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor. Wearing my dads oversized brown garden gloves I spent hours playing throw and catch against the wall above my kitchen window. I'd hurl the ball at such an angle that would require me to dive full length to my right to pouch the ball one-handed in front of a delighted imaginary slip cordon of Beefy, Gower and Lamb.

Then, if my dad, or another willing relative or friend of the family was available, I'd hand them the ball and practice my off-drives and flicks off my legs against either fence. The small size of my garden determined my strengths and weaknesses as a cricketer. I learned how to bat straight and catch to my right. Any stray shot square of the wicket would either go over the fence or destroy the plants. Hook shots and expansive lofted drives back past the bowlers head were a definite no-no unless I had a good supply of tennis balls. While back on wicket-keeper duty a throw to the left of the kitchen wall while wearing my make shift gloves would only result in me diving head first into the rose bush.

But back to the cricket. The real cricket that is rather than the numerous games played in my mind. For at no point during those days in the back garden did I ever envisage that one day I'd trek around Australia watching England getting battered and bruised from Brisbane and beyond. Keeping my spirits high despite the constant capitulation. Forging out a new career that would surpass the one I was already proud to own. And putting in the miles that would mean that when the time came when the boot was on the other foot I would have earned the right to enjoy it all that much more.

I remember my dad saying he felt sorry for Manchester United fans following their treble triumph. Nothing, he said, would ever come close to that success. Ten years on and I'd say that statement still holds true. Imagine, if you will, that you became a Man Utd fan off the back of that season. Forever more every success would be held up against the triumphs of 1999. How can it ever compete? Last season when Fulham managed to avoid relegation I derived a greater sense of enjoyment that my red work colleagues got from seeing Man Utd win the title.

And so to Lords. On day one with England one down, two hundred on the board and one of my favourite cricketers in Ravi Bopara at the crease I was basking in the best days cricket I'd seen in years. The boundary boards had taked a battering as Cook and Strauss flayed the wayward Aussie attack. Surely Australia hadn't bowled as badly in fifteen years. I was loving every minute of it.

Looking back only days one and two at Adelaide could compete with what was on show. Both on and off the pitch that weekend will live long in the memory. Although it made the last day defeat that much harder to bear as the Ashes were all but lost in horrific and historic circumstances. Our dreams and hearts broken by Aussie cricketers and American maidens. Payback, I figured started here. But that would be too easy wouldn't it? And so it proved as England went on to lose wickets at regular intervals. Bad technique and good deliveries did for Cook, Bopara and Pietersen. Poor play did for Prior, Flintoff and Collingwood. Initiative firmly handed back to the opposition.

And when three wickets fell within the first fifteen minutes of the second day my feelgood factor seemed a lot further away than a single session and one half. But this being England and this being the Ashes it was never, ever going to be easy was it? Enjoy the good times a wise man once said. And with Ponting back in the hutch, the Aussies 49 for 2, nearly 400 runs shy of England first innings total, with heavy cloudy overcast skies covering Lords, and with four fast bowlers keen to get the ball in their hands, its time to sit back and enjoy watching the Aussies squirm from my private booth in the space age media centre. I can't think who deserves this more. Me or them.

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Not that I took any enjoyment from an on field injury. But this is the moment that Hauritz dislocated his finger attempting to catch Strauss - the England captain strode down the wicket and smashed one straight back at him.

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Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Enjoy the good times

“I never thought I’d see the day when Dizzee Rascal was blaring out of the speakers at Lords while English women won the cricket World Cup”

Most of the advice I’ve received in my 34 years has been lost to time thanks to a poor memory and an inclination to drift off for one sentence in every three told. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve started telling a joke only to forget the punch line at the crucial moment. The anecdotes I do remember in their entirety are put on a revolving door of retell, the audience might change, but my stories never do.

But thankfully some things do stick. The words of wisdom my dad used to say to make me get back on track after I'd fucked up something school or life related. "Pick yourself, dust yourself down, and start again". Invaluable. He also used to say "80% of success is turning up". I think he stole that from a Woody Allen movie but Woody wasn't ever there on the numerous times I got myself in a hole. And over time I realised it to also be true.

Then there are the ultimate truths learnt on my own personal life journey. I look forward to one day reading my own sons 'blog to find him proudly retelling pearls of wisdom such as "You can never have too many potatoes". "Damn straight" he'll say. “Anyone who takes longer than five seconds to explain why they support their football club of choice is a glory-hunter.” FACT. Or, "Life is like an onion, you peel a layer away, day by day, and inside you cry a little". I still laugh at that particular gem. It was once scrawled on my brother’s wall by an adolescent girl friend, tortured by her unrequited love for him. What bastards we were and probably still are.

But not all life creeds are vegetable-related. One such motto, which has stuck a chord, was uttered recently. I have worked alongside Steve Morgan for a number of years. Through dark times we struggled on car crash radio only to find ourselves on far smoother waters. Whilst basking in the glow of buoyant listener figures and admiring colleagues (who spent their time longing to be on the show rather than laughing at it) he turned and urged me to 'enjoy the good times'. As someone I regarded as a peer but also someone with more experience of the industry I took it on board.

On the surface it seems the most obvious of statements for what else do people do but enjoy the good times? But I knew that in the media industry there are too many variables, too many audience monitors, too many rising stars and falling egos for anything to last forever. And so, when it's good, enjoy it, for if there is one ultimate truth in life it is that nothing lasts forever.

And so it was with this in mind that I spent the last couple of weeks in as near state of bliss that can be achieved with morality intact and the police happy to let things continue as they are. I was employed, on very reasonable terms, to produce live coverage of the Twenty20 World Cup. Two weeks of two-times a day, intense, world-class wham, bang, thank you ma'am, cricket.

For the purists it isn't really cricket at all lacking the nuances, guile and attritional of Test cricket. And while I sympathise with this way of thinking I can't help but feel the dissenters are not only shooting themselves in the foot but are in a state of denial. In the interim this form of cricket is here to stay and I'd argue that it isn't necessarily sounding the death knell for Test matches anyway. There's a lot to admire from the shortest form of the game and possibly a lot to learn. In terms of close finishes, audience enjoyment, fast pace action and sheer outrageousness this game is hard to beat.

And so it was that I found myself for a glorious fortnight in the best seat of the house alongside some of the biggest names in world cricket like Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Lloyd, Darren Gough, Graham Thorpe, Farokh Engineer, Jeremy Coney & Kepler Wessels. On top of this I was working with some equally legendary figures from the broadcast world. Just dipping in and out of their off-air conversations was a treat. I learnt a lot. And, for the most part, made sure I did just what I had been told to do. Enjoy the good times for life doesn’t get much better than this.

In the years to come when I look back at the tournament it’ll probably be random moments that will no doubt spring to mind. It’s not always the obvious moments that pop into the brain and improve the mood when slouched on the bus on the way to work. But then there are the moments where you are immediately aware it’s one you will never forget.

One such occurrence, of many, took place while watching England's must win game over Pakistan. I was sitting in the recently completed OCS Stand at the Brit Oval. Five to ten yards to the right of the bowlers run in to the crease. Darkness was falling and Pakistan were crumbling under the English onslaught. I was glued to the action as we had to win to get through to the next round. To my right sat Darren Gough, shouting into the microphone. To Darren’s right, one of my favourite England cricketers and Surrey legend, Graham Thorpe and the South African broadcaster, Neil Manthorpe. Behind them all, my favourite cricketer ever, Alec Stewart was larking about.

So engrossed in the match and with headphones on I didn't immediately realise that Alec Stewart was in the room. He was trying to put Thorpey off as he commentated. All very unprofessional I know. As producer I probably should have booted him out the room. But with England on top and the mood relaxed and from the best seat in the house I surveyed the scene, my schoolboy hero's whacking each other over the head with media guides and generally acting like schoolkids, England on the verge of the next round at the cricket ground I've spent more time at than any other, it hit me that I really am a lucky, lucky guy. And that I should make damn sure I got the most out of these occasions.

And there were several more like this. For a cricket nerd like me it doesn’t get much better than the moments I spent deep in conversation about the game with West Indies cricket commentator Tony Cozier or, the drive up to Nottingham with Kepler Wessels talking about the mood within the Aussie camp. Finding out that Clive Lloyd is as great a guy as he was a cricketer – and he was some cricketer. Watching as Clive, Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell reminisced about high jinks on tour, was nearly as entertaining as it used to be watching them play and nearly as disconcerting as when the media centre started to shake when the Indian fans celebrated a wicket.

Then there were the hours spent chatting (and listening) in rapt attention to legendary BBC commentators Andy Smith and Ron Jones about their times working alongside the characters that made up the game while I was growing up. The moments I couldn’t wait to show off about to the few people I know who actually follow the sport. Like when Anil Kumble ordered in stackloads of curry for the team to enjoy. Or when Sunil Gavaskar did the same thing!

It’s not often in life that you get a burst of happiness and it’s even more of a rarity to get that at work. But this is what happened on more than one occasion. Usually as a bowler was running in, the commentators abuzz to the right of me, the sun radiating onto the pitch in front and with a whole not so lazy game ahead. Good times, good times indeed.

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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The opposite view of things

Prior to heading off to the Caribbean I was forced to shell out £136 to fix my camera. It’s a camera that has served me well over the last three years and this was the first time I had to pay out to repair it. However the thought did cross my mind that I should just buy another one as its technology had finally been overtaken by cheaper, smaller brands. The sheer bulkiness of its size being the other drawback and meant I had in the past missed out on several photo’s simply because I couldn’t be bothered to rummage around getting it out of my bag.

So the following is a selection of photographs featuring events that I may have mentioned in previous posts or that needed evidence to render them worthwhile to talk about. Some were taken on my camera-phone but mainly they are Marks and which have only been put online.

So let’s start at the bottom because any country that sells something called Crack Butter is all right by me.

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Regular readers will remember Mark’s decision to eat a roast lamb and potato pizza in New Zealand. Well this time round he went for an apple crumble and ice cream dish served in the shape of a flower. Beautiful.

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One of the ‘colourful’ characters from the Aussie tour was once again in attendance. And true to form Chardonnay spent the entire tour off his head. Whether shouting inane ramblings at unfortunate fielders stationed in the deep, staggering around various Barmy Army events or falling asleep in the outfield during the celebrity Twenty20 match he kept everyone entertained in the worst possible way.

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And here’s a photo of the type of car that kept all inhabitants awake for the duration of the election season in Antigua. Great memories.

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The Windies tour was an opportunity, for want of a better word, to fly in a propeller plane for the first time in twenty years. My journey was soothed by the presence of West Indies legend Colin Croft who sat next to me throughout the journey. It meant my freak out moments were reduced considerably and I almost enjoyed myself.

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Here is a photo of one of the many frogs that lived peacefully outside our accommodation in Barbados. Let’s hope it wasn’t an epileptic.

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I had noticed the amount of red-eyed people that inhabited the West Indian isles and had put this down to the common use of the dreaded weed. But after seeing this advert I was forced to rethink my shoddy stereotyped views.

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Whilst in Antigua we spent a legendary night with a group of top Bristol lads and we ended up spending most of our fun times out with them in Barbados too. So here’s a picture of us behaving reasonably well

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And here’s one of us behaving badly.

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And here’s one of Dave helping Stuart climb a palm tree.

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It was with the lads that we spent one fantastic day, one of the best of the entire holiday, doing exactly what everyone should do in a foreign country. Mixing with the locals playing beach cricket and football.

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The following Friday we went to a local haunt for fresh seafood, reggae and locals and we got all of them and plenty of rum to boot as we celebrated Mark’s birthday.

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Great days and great photos that bring it all back and make me want to head home and open the expensive bottle of rum I bought in Trinidad. The only problem is that I honestly can’t work out how to open it. Answers on a postcard please.

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