Inside Story: Laptop before wicket
With World Cup action beginning in the West Indies tomorrow, newspaper cricket correspondents are poised for their moment in the sun. Tim de Lisle selects his First XI
Monday 12 March 2007
Cricket fans love their newspapers almost as much as the game itself. They need them to follow the county game, which, unlike Premiership football, still goes largely untelevised. They need them to see which players are close to England selection, a subject of endless fascination to the aficionado. And they need them to have someone with whom to disagree. The game needs them, too. It takes so long that, even when you've watched a whole day's play, you still want someone to make sense of it. Some correspondents go a lot further than that: more than most sports, cricket has the variety, subtlety and drama to inspire fine writing. And although the game went online early (1993) and with great success, the bulk of the best writing is still in the papers. The leading correspondents are literate, influential and highly durable: 10 of the following 11 have been in situ for longer than any current England player.
CMJ has spent a lifetime working in cricket, but he still lists it as a recreation in Who's Who. Poached from the Telegraph in 1999, he flies the flag for the career journalist in a field crawling with ex-players. Has a floating role at the World Cup since The Times's designated one-day cricket correspondent is his No 2, Richard Hobson.
CMJ made his name on radio, where his crisp, kindly tones have been part of the BBC's Test Match Special for 35 years. He has succeeded his mentor, the legendary E W Swanton, as the voice of the establishment, but is less snobbish, more readable and has a sharper news sense. These days, he even does vodcasts, with some aplomb. He is the author of umpteen books and the father of a cricketer, Robin, a championship-winning all-rounder with Sussex.
CMJ gets teased for his powers of organisation: while writing the Complete Who's Who of Test Cricketers, he is said to have left the whole of New Zealand in a taxi.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Former swing bowler who played for England while still at Cambridge University. Independent-minded (he started on this paper), he has a laid-back style, stronger on observation and technical insights than syntax. Tends to leave the one-day stuff to his bright young deputy, Simon Briggs, but is out in the Caribbean in his capacity as the only English correspondent to have played in a World Cup final: it was in 1992, against Pakistan, and Pringle still maintains that if he had been granted a big lbw appeal, England would have won. (He even believes that they can reach the final again this year, unlike most of his peers.) Heads a celeb-heavy squad including Mark Nicholas, Simon Hughes, Geoff Boycott and the England batsman Alastair Cook.
Pringle's other passion is obscure indie music: he is such a good customer of Rough Trade, the Notting Hill record shop, that they asked him to help to choose tracks for a recent compilation.
Selvey has been in the job 20 years, and somehow combines it with being the father of 10-year-old triplets. Solid county bowler who had one great day for England in 1976. Had a hard act to follow in the sparkling Matthew Engel, but has pulled it off by fully reinventing himself, as signalled by his hair - once flowing, now non-existent.
Selvey captains a literate team that plays its shots right down the order: his deputy, David Hopps, could easily be a chief correspondent elsewhere. Selvey himself wields a sharp simile; is more outspoken than his immediate rivals (he has firmly pooh-poohed England's World Cup chances); and writes a fine weekly column, especially when explaining the business of bowling. Bowlers always say that it's a batsman's world, but this doesn't seem to have stopped them from nabbing the best writing jobs.
Newest recruit among the main correspondents, with the most recent playing experience - he was a match-winning seam bowler for England and retired only in 2002, when he startled Middlesex members by making the leap from dressing-room to press box in mid-season.
As a bowler, he always delivered the same ball, targeting the off-bail; as a writer, he has learned to mix it up and has developed the knack of seeing inside a player's head. Particularly good on Andrew Flintoff, who bowls much like he did and can bat a bit as well. Fraser sits on an International Cricket Council committee and helped to bring in two recent reforms to one-day international cricket - powerplays, which have revitalised it, and supersubs, which briefly threatened to ruin it.
Also a summariser on Test Match Special, where he has the rueful air of a man who still half-expects to have to bowl all day with a niggling injury.
THE DAILY EXPRESS
The Daily Mail is famous for its consistency, while its old rival the Express lurches from one crisis to the next - but when it comes to cricket, the Express is the more settled of the two. The Mail has had many cricket writers since the late, great Ian Wooldridge and its most recent incumbent, the capable Mike Dickson, is about to revert to tennis. Meanwhile, Colin Bateman has been at the Express since 1987, the longest continuous stint of any current cricket correspondent. Not to be confused with the novelist of the same name, Bateman is genial, low-key and much respected. "Nothing gets past him," says one admiring rival. He scooped the pack on Duncan Fletcher's appointment as England coach in 1999 and broke the story that there would be an open-top bus parade in 2005. Last June, he wrote of the England team: "You can only live on past glories for so long ..." If only they had been paying attention.
It's not easy to make a mark as a cricket writer on the red-tops, where even the rollercoaster fortunes of the England team tend to get lost somewhere between the racecards and the latest eseential piece of football transfer gossip, but Etheridge, known as Iggy, is one writer who manages to stand out. He went to school with Alec Stewart, England's most capped cricketer, and made an early impression with a scoop naming the players who had signed up for Mike Gatting's rebel tour of South Africa in 1989. He has mastered the art of capturing a complex game in one-sentence paragraphs, writing chatty, vivid narratives: "This is the story of how a cricket team went from an embarrassing rabble to beating the world champions three times in a row ..."
THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
His father Francis, a poet and professor of Anglo-Saxon, named him after a character in Beowulf. (Scyld is pronounced "Shild".) Has vast experience after starting as cricket correspondent of The Observer at the age of 24 and working for all four Sunday heavies. Displays the classic Sunday quality of concentrated intelligence, looking at forces beyond the game, finding out where players come from and what shaped them. He reads cricket so well that he can make general remarks in the middle of a Test match without looking silly by Monday evening. Forms a strong double act with Mike Atherton, one of the sharpest ex-player columnists. Berry is a fine choice as editor of next year's Wisden. Recreation: "Being at home".
THE SUNDAY TIMES
A skilled operator who knows the inside of a newspaper better than his rivals - he was a sports sub-editor on The Times before switching to writing. His repertoire runs from books on the history of fast bowling to ghosting Graham Thorpe's memoirs to features so robustly constructed that they can carry the weight of his paper's colossal headlines. Inevitably known as Oscar, Wilde has a boyish demeanour that helps to disguise a well-honed pen.
Particularly good at spotting patterns in the England team and their opponents by trawling the web for evidence: has established that most games in the Caribbean are won by the team batting second, so this World Cup may well come down to which country is best at chasing a target. If CMJ were to retire, Wilde would be a leading contender for the Times job.
Genial character who captained Oxford and Somerset, and played for England as an off-spinning all-rounder. As a writer, he is low key and wryly perceptive. As a summariser on Test Match Special, he makes astute points but is best known for his laugh, which is rustic and contagious. His first Test as a correspondent, England vs West Indies in Jamaica in 1990, was also mine. We sat together at the back of the box, getting more and more excited as England headed for a shock victory - so much so that we failed to spot the glowers of disapproval from colleagues, who traditionally refrain from any applause, let alone whoops of delight.
THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
Energetic multi-skiller, and he needs to be: some weeks he is called upon to do a match report, an interview, a diary and an opinion piece. A former general columnist on The Northern Echo, he is particularly trenchant on the running of the England team. The other day he wrote that Duncan Fletcher, the coach, and David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, had a "mutually suspicious" relationship and needed their heads banging together - "or firing". Has a strong running mate in Stephen Fay, the veteran business and sports writer. Brenkley also shone last summer on Cricket Writers on TV, a 90-minute Sunday morning show on Sky that at first glance looked like a bid for the lowest viewing figures of all time, but turned out to be quite watchable.
NEWS OF THE WORLD
Gruff old-schooler who has been NoW cricket correspondent since 1986, and rugby correspondent since 1979. Universally known by his surname, Norrie is well respected by the players: he has been ghost writer to Darren Gough, a close friend of Graham Gooch, and, at one point, agent for Angus Fraser. Avowedly anti-establishment, he lambasts administrators for their "farcical" schedules and "pathetic" appeasement of Zimbabwe. He works closely with Richie Benaud, the commentator and cricket deity who has had a News of the World column since time immemorial. During the Brisbane Test match in November, Benaud and Norrie were walking to the press overspill area when the crowd broke into an ovation. Benaud sat down and said, with characteristic dryness, "I bet Norrie has never had a reception like that."
Tim de Lisle is a columnist on Cricinfo.com and a former editor of Wisden; www.timdelisle.com
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