I’ve called the fifth Ashes match the ‘ultimate Test’ in The Herald
today. The match decides the fate of the Ashes – held by Australia for
16 years – and, judging from the number of applications for passes,
it’s the only show in town.
It’s been called the greatest series in history, and newspapers,
magazines, websites and radio stations all want their own man at the
Oval. From overseas reporters to fashion writers: there have never been
so many applications. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) insists
on reconfirming passes, even for those who were watching when England
last won the Ashes at home in 1985.
In the hotel breakfast room,
Paul Allott of Sky TV – an England fast-medium bowler 20 years ago –
says: “I’m so excited, I couldn’t sleep. It’s like being a player
again.” In the taxi, the driver turns up Radio Five Live so that we can
hear the cricket interview of the moment on the way to the ground. If
there is someone in the country who has not been asked to voice his
opinion, he must feel very left out.
10.25am. The teams walk out to a chorus of Jerusalem and I get my first ‘network busy’ notice of the day on my mobile.
is going to be a very difficult day. Especially for those in the
overspill press section outside in the sun. On the back row we can’t
see the scoreboard, it is hot and crowded. We are all finding ‘network
busy’ messages on our phones.
Lunchtime. We – as even those most
dedicated to the principles of unbiased reporting call England now that
they are winning – are struggling. More to the point, the food runs out
briefly. Clare Fathers, the ECB media relations officer, offers her
phone to those whose mobiles don’t work. “It’s embarrassing for
Vodafone, one of the sponsors,” says a harassed website man, intent on
filing a report every hour, a summary at the end and two ghosted pieces.
Wendy Wimbush finds the going hard. “Why don’t you listen?” she demands
after an Australian voice demands a repeat of some stats. “Because we
can’t hear through your muttering,” he replies. Press box incidents are
the stuff of legend. I leave the press box after a 10-hour day. Some of
my friends think I have a glamorous job.
“It’s been the most difficult press allocation of my time at the
ECB,” says Fathers as the 80 reporters shoehorn themselves into the new
press box. “In this series we have to deal with enquiries from
television stations in Norway and Japan, a guy from an angling magazine
who wants to write an ‘off the wall piece’, an Israeli sports magazine
and a reporter from Hungary.”
11am. More ‘network busy’ signals. “If we had had the area upstairs,
everything would be fine,” says Brian Scovell, once the cricket man on
the Daily Mail, now the secretary of the Cricket Writers’ Club. “But
Surrey, with a £25m mortgage to pay off, wanted that room for people
willing to pay a lot of money for lunch with a view right over the
‘Hubris’ is the talk of the media village this morning.
It appears in Geoff Boycott’s column and, surely, it must be a word
inserted by one of those university-educated, public school Daily
Telegraph types. Nick Hoult – freelance Boycott ghost – says the word
came straight from the outspoken critic himself. “I had to look it up,”
Nick confesses. For those who did not learn their English in the pit
village of Fitzwilliam, South Yorkshire, “hubris” is “the sin of pride”.
The network is still busy. Rain saves the day for England and the press
box. “Why did the Australian batsmen go off when they’re on top?” the
headlines ask next morning.
The day gets off to a bad start when I leave the family binoculars
in a taxi. The driver is happy to bring them back, but the police, the
security guys and the gatemen think it is a very suspicious manoeuvre
and it takes me 10 minutes to get back into the ground. More rain, but
the Aussies pile on the runs and their five newspaper reporters look
“The last fortnight of a tour is always the worst,” says Andrew
Ramsey of The Australian. “You start counting down the hours – except
we’ve been too busy to count anything but words.” It’s the weekend and
the network is less busy.
Graham Gooch, once captain of England and now a Five Live pundit,
thinks it will be a tight finish. “Bring plenty of toilet paper,” is
his advice. The series is such a mesmerising experience that some of
the Sunday paper writers are still present. Richie Benaud, 74, is 24
hours from the end of his 36-year stint on free-to-air cricket
television in this country.
I’ll never forget his kindness when Jo King, the Channel 4 stats expert, and I started our agency 16 years ago.
In my search for a bookie to back England, I run into the former
England batsman Neil Fairbrother. “If you are going to bet on England,
Ted, you’re saying they will all get out.”
Is his advice worth following? The Hindu in India orders a
front-page piece when England holds on for a draw and win back the
Afterwards there are zero taxis available, so we walk two
miles to the hotel among the singing, dancing, champagneswilling,
amazingly well-behaved fans.
While the players drive around the statue of Nelson and drink in the
glory, I drive home, turn on the washing machine, ask the tree doctor
if he is sure to be here next Tuesday, find a photo booth for pictures
to go with my application for the tour of Pakistan in November and
Back on the road to Leicester for a Twenty20 competition.
Call a travel agent to see if he has a holiday we can fit into the next 40 days before we’re off again.