Someone needs to question cricket's whiter than whites...

And that someone is Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's man in Zimbabwe, says Angus Fraser
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The Independent Online

"They've banned Aggers," was the cry among England's cricket followers last week, when Robert Mugabe's government attempted to put a block on media coverage of the current tour of Zimbabwe.

"They've banned Aggers," was the cry among England's cricket followers last week, when Robert Mugabe's government attempted to put a block on media coverage of the current tour of Zimbabwe.

Nine British media organisations were refused entry to the country, but it was the absence of Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's bubbly but forthright cricket correspondent, that caused most alarm. But Aggers wasn't going on the back foot. He went on BBC breakfast television to say that the media ban presented a golden opportunity to the England and Wales Cricket Board to pull out of this controversial tour, and he couldn't believe the board would pass up such a chance. He has never been afraid to ask the tough questions, and give the critical opinions many former players working in the media would rather avoid. Aggers has been at the centre of controversy before - most notably when he highlighted England captain Michael Atherton's role in a ball-tampering controversy.

"People criticised me for the stance I took [calling for Atherton's head]," says Agnew. "They said the political correspondent at the BBC would never call for the Prime Minister to be sacked. But the criticism came from those who did not totally understand the seriousness of ball-tampering and they seized on someone from the BBC expressing an opinion rather than the issue. But I am happy with the stance I took. There must be some who look at what they wrote or said and cringe."

Agnew acknowledges that the topic "divides the press box to this day". He says: "Atherton was upset but we get on very well now, although we never discuss the matter." Aggers may not have felt it at the time, but by coming through this stressful period - he rates it as the toughest in his broadcasting career - he proved to be an independent journalist who was not afraid to express his views. It also proved that he could handle serious issues, as well as chocolate cake and jolly japes.

"People listen to [the BBC's commentary] Test Match Special (TMS) thinking that my job is all about cheeky streakers running across the ground, pieces of cake sent in by listeners and cups of tea. It isn't. There are a lot of major issues to address and the Atherton debate showed people I was prepared to deal with these."

No player in the current side will have played against Agnew; some are probably unaware that, for several years, he was one of the leading fast bowlers in the country. Agnew was a decent bowler before he retired from cricket to pursue a career in the media. In another era, he could have played more for England than the three Test matches he did, but the best days of his career coincided with those of Ian Botham, Graham Dilley and Phillip De Freitas. I played in the same team as Agnew on one occasion - in the MCC versus Champion County match in 1989. Aggers had the reputation on the county circuit of being one of the game's characters and I quickly realised why. Paul Parker, the MCC captain, was taking the game very seriously and before the match he went around the dressing room asking the bowlers where they would like their fielders placed to each of the batsmen. Parker came to Agnew, who said: "Paul, this is the first time I have bowled this year. I'd just be happy to hit the cut strip."

It is this mischievous, dry and slightly ironic sense of humour, along with the work he did as a journalist - Agnew worked for the Today newspaper before it went bust - which attracted interest from the BBC. It has allowed him to seamlessly fill the void left by Brian Johnston, as the lead commentator on TMS.

Agnew's career on Radio 4 got off to a wonderful start when he instigated that unforgettable piece of commentary about how Ian Botham "didn't quite get his leg over". Johnners ended up in tears and it is one of the most played pieces of broadcasting around.

Agnew has a wonderfully easy manner about him and is always trying to lighten things up. Off air, he is not always the happy-go-lucky chap you hear through your radio, but he has the ability to put what is going on behind the scenes to one side and do his job.

Despite the confident exterior, Agnew can be sensitive. The movement of sportsmen from the field of play straight into plum jobs in the media continues to anger those in the press box who have patiently worked their way through the ranks of journalism. Their reaction is understandable and many of their doubts are legitimate. Trained journalists question whether former players are capable of doing the job, and feel that many of them attempt to protect their former colleagues, rather than ask them tough questions. Such accusations cannot be aimed at Agnew, but he still takes offence to comments which are critical of former players joining the media. One such incident, at September's Cricket Writers' Dinner in London, led to him offering to resign his membership from the club.

"I am proud to be a former player and I am proud to be a journalist," says Agnew. "This is why I get upset. Yes, there are some former players who aren't as forthright and diligent as they should be, but there are plenty who have added a lot to the coverage of the game."

Aggers certainly has.