Brian Viner: Wisdom from an age when cricket held centre stage

'The trouble with watching Test cricket nowadays is that life keeps intervening'
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The Independent Online

This has been a wonderful Test match, and I have been riveted to it - between unriveting myself to attend to other demands, such as entertaining the 18 five-year-olds who arrived on Saturday to celebrate my son Jacob's birthday. Thus it was that Marcus Trescothick reached his double-century in the middle of a raucous game of pass-the-parcel, while the standing ovation accorded to Alec Stewart on his way to the wicket unfolded just as the tail was being roughly pinned on a part of the donkey where no self-respecting donkey would want a tail.

That's the trouble with watching Test cricket nowadays; life keeps intervening. It's the reason why names such as Trescothick, Thorpe and Vaughan will never be as evocative to me as Boycott, Edrich and Greig, or Lillee, Thomson and Marsh, or even Walters, Walker and O'Keefe. For never again will I be able to lose myself in a Test match as I could while a teenager, when five summer days could pass with nothing - apart from seeing to the odd zit - to deflect me from the cricket.

Perhaps when I am a portly old grandad that time might come again, but I doubt it, and at the end of the day's play I certainly won't be tirelessly bowling a tennis ball at the garage door in the attempted manner of Mike Hendrick trying to dislodge Rick McCosker.

Even the tea-break conversations fascinated me, and I can remember - not as if it were yesterday, but maybe as if it were the day before yesterday - a pipe-puffing Peter West chatting to the old Surrey and England batsman Andy Sandham, then pushing 90 and nearly blind, during tea at The Oval in England's fourth Test against the West Indies in 1980.

They were talking about great captains, in particular Don Bradman. Then West asked the old boy how highly he rated the captaincy skills of his BBC colleague Richie Benaud. Sandham peered myopically at him. "Benaud?" he said. "Don't think I know anything about him." It was a sweet moment, which apparently caused great mirth for those in the commentary box. Benaud had retired in 1964, but it was still long after Sandham's time.

I thought again about that exchange last week, when I read that West had joined Sandham in the celestial pavilion after a decent knock of 83. I remembered him with particular affection, because around 1987, when I was first trying to get a career in journalism off the ground, I wrote to the BBC comment-ator requesting an interview.

I had trawled through a copy of Who's Who, and written to 50 famous people whose home addresses were listed. My brilliant scheme was to write up the interviews, then sell them to some publication, thereby creating a portfolio with which I could dazzle the editors of national newspapers who would then fall over each other in the unseemly rush to hire me. Needless to say, it didn't quite work out like that, partly because hardly anyone replied. Nine answered and of those nine, four agreed to meet me.

Jonathan Miller and Melvyn Bragg (may the gods bless and protect them and keep their hair luxuriant) were two; Brian Johnston and West were the others.

West had been the Barry Davies of his day, commentating on myriad sports for the BBC. Not a lot of people know, incidentally, that West, Davies and the ITV football commentator Brian Moore all went to the same school, Cranbrook in Kent - obviously the timetable there comprised double maths, history, RE, double commentary, physics.

But he also presented Come Dancing, chaired numerous panel shows and, according to last week's obituaries, finished second in a News Chronicle poll to find the television personality of 1953 (he was pipped by Benny Hill).

I remember him, however, mainly as the face of the BBC's cricket coverage, in which role he was roundly abused by Bob Willis in an interview after the famous Headingley Test of 1981. For some reason Willis remained furious with the media even after England had so memorably beaten the Australians, and West very publicly copped his anger.

"Come on Bob, you've won a Test match, taken 8 for 43, can't we find a happier theme?" West eventually implored. It must have tickled him towards the end of his days to see Willis himself wielding a microphone as part of the media establishment.

By then I was no longer in touch with him, but we corresponded for a few years after our interview, which was published - oh, rhapsody - in Gloucestershire Life magazine. I have a copy of his 1986 autobiography, Flannelled Fool and Muddied Oaf, in which he wrote, "to Brian, may your ambitions be realised". That they largely have been is down in some measure to him and his kindness. I hope he's got fabulous seats up there for the last day of the Oval Test.