October 7, 2016

One afternoon at the Cricket Writers' Club

The organisation's 70th annual lunch provided food for thought about where the game is going, and then some

One of the most significant pieces of writing about cricket in recent weeks has been a media statement by Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove Charlie Crowhurst / © Getty Images

Notes from a melodious and occasionally fantastical September song: Mitch Santner in Green Park, defying a rampant Ravi Ashwin with Gowerian elegance and Bradmanian footwork… Toby Roland-Jones at Lord's, gift-wrapping Middlesex, my Middlesex, their first County Championship since this column was introduced to the bare necessities of parenthood - and with a bloody hat-trick to boot.

Ryan Sidebottom on the same summer-beaten turf, celebrating a bonus point as if it was an untainted Olympic gold… being in Madrid for the final day, guiltily rooting for Somerset while flat-batting away score updates from London, Devon, Hereford, Salisbury and Australia, convinced that watching as-live three days later was feasible (and failing miserably)… ordering enchiladas from a Bangladeshi waiter in the city's former Jewish quarter while exchanging raves over Shakib al Hasan - then incurring his gentle disapproval for wearing a Pakistan 2003 World Cup shirt.

No less heartwarming, for all that, was this column's acknowledgement - at our 70th annual lunch - of the importance of the Cricket Writers' Club (originally the Empire Cricket Writers' Club; Media Club would be more accurate now). With membership booming as never before (400-plus), it is also the only such institution that offers a plausible excuse to reject adherence to the Groucho Marx Theory: never join a club prepared to accept someone like you.

Of the major absentees from a spiffing do at Merchant Taylors' Hall in London's legendary Threadneedle Street - a thoroughfare now crammed with those artful dodgers and merchant bankers whom our governments thank so generously for causing the global economic recession - none left a bigger hole than the late Tony Cozier, that beacon for fair and passionate campaigning journalism. Missing, too, was the understated, kind and equally perceptive John Woodcock, dubbed the Sage of Longparish but Wooders to one and all. Now 90, still writing for the Times after 63 years, he had fallen heavily in his thatched Hampshire vicarage the previous Friday. Happily, the luncheon brochure contained what can only be described as "Wooders interviews Wooders".

"More than anything TV has changed [cricket reporting]," he declared. "On the Times, we were expected to write about what went on out on the field and very little else, none of it having already been seen on the box." Much as one hates to protest, TV has also helped our credibility. Instead of being first with the news, getting it wrong and getting away with it, we now watch replays in the pressbox and get it right (if not necessarily first).

Key to proceedings was the opening speech by Mark "Stanley" Baldwin, the estimable CWC chairman. Half a century ago, England v Garry Sobers or even Hants v Lancs received as much coverage as the FIFA World Cup finals that were being staged in Limeyland. These days effball rules supreme to a soul-destroying extent, making every cricket reporter shudder. The job, moreover, is far more taxing, demanding endless tweets and updates and news stories in addition to the considered close-of-play summary. But for the strenuous efforts of this site to uphold the importance of flannelled tomfoolery to the boys and girls at Disney, the problem would be infinitely worse.

"It's the greatest game in the world by miles" is Stanley's mantra, delivered in just the sort of mild-but-adamant tones you might expect from a thoughtful Bristolian. That pre-lunch rallying cry flowed from head, heart and soul. "As a profession I don't think cricket writing has ever faced the huge challenges it faces now... lack of space in newspapers, lack of interest from editors, huge cuts to staffs, lack of proper payment. But it's no good moaning about it.

"I applaud ECB's radical, responsible and imaginative response to the crisis in the coverage of the domestic game. Other sports are already looking hard at the lead ECB has taken in [making the ECB Reporters Network possible], and I truly believe that by continuing to work together, the board and this club can do a hell of a lot more yet to make the network a leading promotional force for good in English cricket.

"And it's in the interests of all of us in this room that this is done. We all depend on the profile as much as the profitability of cricket for our jobs and in that sense it is up to every one of us, from administrators, players and coaches to media and media officers, to buy into this collective need to promote the game in imaginative ways. For most of this club's 70 years, cricket has never really had to worry about ensuring its promotion. Newspapers national, regional and local almost all spent money sending reporters and photographers around the country and around the world, largely without questioning either the base costs of doing that or the expense accounts, but that situation no longer exists."

How curious, then, that the most important piece of cricket writing of these past few, earth-twitching weeks in Blighty was a media statement from a late invitee to that CWC feast: Rod Bransgrove, the businessman and club chairman who brought Tests to Hampshire and bold, progressive ideas to the game.

"We should be in no doubt about the risks of doing nothing," began his assessment, released two days later, of the proposed new T20 competition for eight city franchises. Unlike some, he does not believe this radical step is tantamount to beheading Old Father Time and feeding his entrails to the pigeons at the Nursery End.

That a mere 2% of Britons aged 7 to 15 cite cricket as their favourite sport is depressing enough. Even more terrifyingly, this same group are likelier, apparently, to recognise the WWE wrestling star John Cena than Alastair Cook

According to ECB research, while roughly 9.4 million UK citizens are interested in cricket, well under 1% are actually members of one of the 18 first-class counties. That a mere 2% of Britons aged 7 to 15 cite cricket as their favourite sport is depressing enough. Even more terrifyingly, this same group are likelier, apparently, to recognise the WWE wrestling star John Cena than Alastair Cook.

"Many blame the absence of cricket on terrestrial TV for this situation, and this may indeed have played a part," Bransgrove continued, before delivering a right to the jaw. "But this ignores the trend of young people watching 'traditional' scheduled TV less. It is also somewhat ironic that Mr Cena's fame has been established whilst WWE has been broadcast in the UK exclusively via satellite."

Bransgrove, it should be noted, was by no means the only non-media type among the 306 diners at Merchant Taylors'. Also present was Paul Farbrace, Trevor Bayliss' chum and closest aide: still cherry-cheeked, still as cheery a cricket person as this column has ever known, still bubbling with boyish glee over the national team's rich promise and tradition-pulverising approach to this fabulous trivial pursuit of ours. England, the most adventurous, frightening one-day team on the planet: did we ever imagine in our wildest fantasies that we would ever utter such a sentence without reaching for a question mark?

One of the many awards (which for the first time included one for the womenfolk, won by Charlotte Edwards) was for book of the year, which went to that arch-internationalist Scyld Berry for The Game of Life. "Skid" started out in the 1970s at the Observer, serving the Sunday paper for many years before joining the Sunday Telegraph midway through a career dominated by a quest for justice, where he pulled off the extraordinarily rare trick of transforming himself into a top-notch ethical newshound. No active journalist so warrants the game's thanks.

Then there was the bald eagle on the next table, Mike Selvey. Despite whistling out Roy Fredericks, Viv Richards and Alvin Kallicharran on his first morning of a brief run as an England swinger 40 years ago, "Selve" is loved instead because of the insights gleaned by Guardian readers for the past 32. In August, cost-cutting bred bad news: his contract would not be renewed. That he never once had the security of a full-time position says all you need to know about his independence of spirit.

Did compassion alone earn him the Peter Smith Memorial Award? He would not have been the first such choice by any means. Honouring the late Daily Mail and News of the World cricket writer and press officer, this trophy has been presented since 1992 to those who best promote the greatest game - hence the inaugural honouree, David Gower, who had just been dropped from the Test XI to nationwide fury. Others include Richie Benaud, Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup winners, that peerless county reporter David Foot, that magnificent photographer Patrick Eagar, the county groundsmen, and naturally, Wooders himself. Selve deserved it regardless. Nobody has better analysed bowlers.

Floating around our table before dessert, meanwhile, was the reigning world heavyweight cricket-writing champion, Mike Atherton, another proud CWC lad whose take on the so-called "good egg" clause in those new England contracts would make mustn't-miss reading in the Times a couple of days later.

"The last thing a captain or coach should want," asserted Athers, "is a dressing room full of yes-men and goody-two-shoes types, eager to please and happy to oblige, no matter what is asked of them. A certain independence of spirit, a questioning attitude, and a desire to challenge authority should be encouraged. That is, after all, what often separates the best from the rest."

As this column would have told its new students had it not been ill, if that's not a nourishing slice of incisive, thought-provoking journalism as well as a gem of a payoff paragraph, the Chief Rabbi's a Catholic.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nutcutlet on October 9, 2016, 10:14 GMT

    Get well soon, Rob! At least it's apparent that you enjoyed the supper at the CWC and paid handsome homage to some of the great writers who have informed, enlightened and entertained the largely silent devotees of our game in recent years. I would, in addition to those mentioned in this dispatch, highly commend Paul Edwards' musings and literary responses to watching the county game.He is far more of a writer than a mere reporter because he knows that his readers are all capable of digesting the bones of the day's play from a scorecard without choking. Nonetheless, cricket writers need to be our guardians more than ever these days. They have the network to dig deeper into what undertows are in motion. There is a huge amount of suspicion about the workings and motives of the ECB. I have not spoken to anyone who reveres the county game that is in favour of the City-based t20 bash. It will throw away a loyal following of the CC in favour of passing traffic that may well be illusory.

  • ronnie22 on October 8, 2016, 19:38 GMT

    I doubt there was any applause for the ECB's "responsible and imaginative response" to the problems at Durham because there wasn't one. It sounds like a good deal of mutual back-patting. George Dobell's excellent article is more to the point and also included in any discussion should be the plethora of regulations imposed on ordinary clubs struggling to make ends meet and to continue enthusing and putting out teams.

  • Tests-are-best.Bounderno:6 on October 8, 2016, 12:18 GMT

    Good writing about cricket is one of the joys of our wonderful game and there is little doubt that of all sports, cricket literature is way out in front. But when it's bad it's awful. If there is a story in this article it is difficult to define, lost in the clutter of aphorisms.

  • MichaelHall on October 8, 2016, 10:22 GMT

    You appear to praise the Hampshire chairmans if city based leagues are the answer. Why? No one explains this. I agree with need to promote, bring in international stars for our T20 but why does it need to be city based outside existing long supported teams? Improve competition with promotion and relegation I understand but do exclude the existing counties and large areas of the country which are unique to English Cricket.

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