Fifty not out for cricket joker Aggers

IT'S not some on-the-field heroics that have secured BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew's place in sporting immortality but a minute of commentary-box mirth.

IT'S not some on-the-field heroics that have secured BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew's place in sporting immortality but a minute of commentary-box mirth.

It happened at The Oval at the end of an England v West Indies test match. Reeling after being struck by the ball, Ian Botham fell over the stumps despite a valiant effort to stay in.

BBC radio summariser Jonathan Agnew proffered the double entendre that Botham “just couldn't quite get his leg over”. Legendary commentator Brian Johnston - formerly of Eton, Oxford and the Grenadier Guards - struggled on for a few seconds before he could contain his giggles no longer and dissolved into barely audible whimpers.

“Aggers, for goodness' sake stop it!” he managed to utter through tears of uncontrollable laughter.


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It happened 15 years ago, but this little piece of radio magic was so infectious that it lives on. Only last year, BBC Radio Five Live listeners voted it the best sports commentary ever. You can hear it on www.bbc.co.uk/fivelive/sport/bestcommentary/

Jonathan Agnew says it will undoubtedly pop up in Chelmsford on Saturday, when the flavour of the BBC's Test Match Special show touches down at the Civic Theatre. Joining Aggers for an evening of anecdotes and chat are former England captains Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting.

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The production goes under the name Rain Stops Play, and Aggers has just chalked up his 50th appearance. Fifty not out, then . . . “That's right. Haven't had one of those for a while,” laughs the fast bowler-turned-broadcaster.

“I much prefer the atmosphere to after-dinner speaking, where everyone seems to be drunk and it's quite an intimidating atmosphere, so I don't do it anymore - whereas the theatre is full of people who want to have a really good time.”

It's become a trend for some of the audience to leave cakes at the stage door for - a spin-off from the days of the late Johnners. Once, on air, he complained he had missed his cake at tea during a match. Listeners began sending cakes to the Test Match Special team, and it's been taken up by some Rain Stops Play devotees.

Does he get browned off by the repeated attention given to that classic commentary?

“No, no. I was very lucky that happened, really, because it was my first year and I was completely unknown as far as the Test Match Special audience was concerned, so to be involved in something that very quickly became folklore was obviously good for getting my name on the map, even though it wasn't very good at the time.

“Brian Johnston was seriously miffed at the time; he thought it was being unprofessional and that he'd let himself down, and he stomped off into the night, taking the producer with him, and I thought I was in a bit of trouble, actually. But the next day it was replayed and he loved it.”

You didn't deliberately bowl him a googly to set him going, did you?

“No, no. It wasn't my line. Someone mentioned it to me during the teabreak beforehand - 'got his leg over' - and we were having a laugh about it. Johnners was being slightly risqué; bad light had stopped play, and we were messing around a bit, and it just came out. The look he gave me . . . he was utterly devastated. It completely took his breath away.”

And did you get your wrist slapped?

“If you listen carefully, you'll hear (producer) Peter Baxter saying 'Will somebody say something?' - hissing it through clenched teeth. So he wasn't terribly happy, but after it happened and people kept playing it and the letters started coming in we knew it was going to be OK.”

The sport nowadays seems pretty healthy on the world stage, but what about the county scene? Is it crying out for reinvigoration?

“I think it does need it. It's lost its identity. There are all sorts of reasons why, not least because not all the good players play in it any more.” England's stars, for instance, are on central contracts that in the main reserve their energies for internationals.

“You get overseas players coming and going, and not really having any identity with the club. In the '80s, when I think club cricket was at its strongest, you had world-class overseas players who felt they were part of the club structure: Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee, Clive Rice, Imran Khan all belonged to a club. That's all gone.

“I think two divisions hasn't helped, either - you used to be able to see every county playing (during a season).” Now, domestic cricket's myriad competitions, leagues and sections take some getting used to. “You've got to simplify it so people can follow it. I don't think the standards are bad, although I do worry about the standard of bowling.”

Speaking of which, his 1988 book “8 days a week” highlighted the strain placed on county bowlers. The issue of burn-out is a current talking-point, but Jonathan isn't convinced the amount of cricket is the problem: he blames the plethora of meaningless one-day matches.

He cites the Champions Trophy now under way in India, and in which England makes its bow on Sunday. All the games are one-day day-nighters, and the final (should England qualify) is just five days before the side's first pre-Ashes warm-up game in Australia.

It's a “needless tournament that no-one wants to play in. To stage it six months before the World Cup is madness”.

The England touring side in the 1950s was playing more cricket than its modern counterpart. But today's players would say, “and they're right, that the one-day games are more exhausting, more intense.

“There's always travelling involved: you play one game, pack up the next day and fly a long way. Arrive somewhere; play the next one - maybe have a day-nighter and get to bed at two. Up at six and fly off again. All that is hard work. It's the scheduling and structure that's got to be sorted out, not the amount of cricket that's played”.

Rain Stops Play is at Chelmsford Civic Theatre on Saturday, October 14. Box office 01245 606505.

MEDIA commentators are paid to have firm opinions, and Aggers doesn't disappoint.

The recent ball-tampering farce “showed the law's unworkable”. Pakistan should have played on and sorted out the issue later, but he could understand the anger at being called cheats.

“It was all a mess and you could have sympathy on all sides: sympathy for the umpires, who did their jobs, though perhaps they could have gone about it in a slightly more conciliatory manner. But that's not Darrell Hair's style - and he's been completely shafted; unfairly so in my view.

“And the spectators suffered because no-one knew what the hell was going on for hours and the game was called off needlessly.”

Is cricket a victim of the speed at which it has grown? It's very successful commercially, but is the organisation still lagging behind at some levels?

“I think that's the case in virtually all sports administrations, isn't it? Look at the Football Association, look at tennis - they all seem to be pretty shambolic. Cricket did suddenly burst on to the public consciousness last summer (2005), so perhaps it did take some people by surprise.

“But we'll never have that summer again. If people are going to expect every match to be like those, they're going to be very sadly disappointed.

“So cricket's got a bit of a battle ahead if it wants to keep on board those people who came along last year. It's got to be made entertaining; it's got to be good value for money.

“Unfortunately security these days is annoying; they've got to keep it a pleasure to go to a cricket match. You get treated like a terrorist going into the ground; every bit of liquid or fluid is confiscated from you as you go in. You want to buy a bottle of wine at the ground? Well, a bottle that will cost you a fiver at Tesco's is on sale at 30 quid. All those sorts of things could well backfire very quickly. You do need security, obviously, but it's got to be the right type.

“I drink decaffeinated coffee and there's never any at the grounds, so I take it in and they even confiscated that from me. Well, they did once. That gets my goat a bit. The wine example is just disgraceful. You deny people the right to take their own alcohol into the ground, confiscate it when they walk in, and then you fleece them to that sort of extent when they're in there. Disgraceful!”

Does he ever tell the decision-makers?

“Yes. They quite often listen. They've got far more wide-ranging responsibilities than keeping the BBC cricket correspondent in decaffeinated coffee, but I think it's important they hear the views of people. We go in through the turnstiles and see the way the public are treated.”

In his new book, sportswriter Simon Barnes cautions the sport against alienating its core audience by moving further towards “highlights cricket” - televisual formats built on rapid sixes and fallen wickets.

“I absolutely and completely agree, and I've had a long argument with the ECB about precisely that. And they have changed things, to an extent. My argument was about the music at the one-day games, where it was all crash, bang, wallop. You got a blast of Mama Cass singing something, shaking the windows, and these horns blowing.

“They said 'We're trying to get new people.' But I know from my experience playing cricket that the people you've got to attract are the parents, because they're the people who will bring their kids along - instead of trashing it down so an 11-year-old thinks it's great, because the parents are going to hate it and go and do something else.

“The 11-year-olds, if they're out with their mum or dad, will have a good time anyway. Cricket isn't about yelling and screaming and blasting horns all day.”

IN a month or so Jonathan Agnew heads down-under to cover the Ashes series for the BBC.

“It's a bit annoying from an English point of view that Australia have had a lovely long time off. They'll be fit and firing, whereas our blokes are all a bit knackered. But you never know.”

Aggers is providing expert analysis and discussion as part of the Beeb's coverage. As well as TV highlights of the Ashes and one-day internationals, the BBC offers an interactive service. Starting on BBCi each day at 10pm, fans can catch the major action before the main highlights programme airs in its regular slot: after Newsnight on BBC Two on weekdays, and at about 11pm at weekends.

There will be comprehensive radio coverage with Test Match Special on BBC Radio 4 LW and Five Live Sports Extra. Live radio coverage and ball-by-ball text coverage will be online at bbc.co.uk/cricket

The series begins in Brisbane on November 23 and ends in Sydney on January 6.

After the drama of the Ashes, Jonathan has the World Cup in the West Indies in the spring. “I tend to be away for three months every winter,” he says. “I've got a very understanding wife and family!”

Aggers facts

Born: April 1960

Lives: Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

1978: Debut for Leicestershire

1984: England debut against West Indies

Appears for country three times

1990: Retires at end of season

1991: Appointed BBC's cricket correspondent

Family: Two girls of own, aged 21 and 18, and two teenage stepchildren

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