Don Topley column: I’m devastated if poem at after-dinner speech offended anyone

Don Topley in the commentary box Picture: Don Topley

Don Topley in the commentary box Picture: Don Topley - Credit: Archant

In his first column of the new season, Don Topley looks ahead to a huge year for cricket - and reflects on an after-dinner speech which made headlines.

Don Topley with Australian cricket legend Merv Hughes Picture: Don Topley

Don Topley with Australian cricket legend Merv Hughes Picture: Don Topley - Credit: Archant

Cricketers all over the country have been in the loft or delving into their garages to seek out their cricket equipment for the new season, with the odd optimist purchasing a new sunhat or sun-cream.

2019 is a World Cup year on home soil, followed by the Ashes! Eoin Morgan and Joe Root could become national heroes and all in front of full stadiums throughout England.

For me, the past winter comprised a brief trip to Barbados for Over 50s cricket, before two marvellous months in Sri Lanka hosting 60 England supporters watching the successful White Ball series and then the entertaining Test Matches, which England won 2-0.

Early 2019, saw a little hibernation as I endured a serious shoulder operation preventing any thoughts of spending time in the West Indies, supporting England. Surprisingly, England were hammered in the Test Match series - it was the first England Supporters tour I have missed in almost four years.

Don Topley at Lords Picture: Don Topley

Don Topley at Lords Picture: Don Topley - Credit: Archant

As many of you will know, I have spent almost 40 years giving my life to the game of cricket as a professional player, international coach, cricket commentator and 24 years as a school master teaching the game. It is a sport I love and nurture so that generations of young people can enjoy the fruits of a game I love dearly.

It was in that spirit I recently gave an after-dinner speech at the Brasenose College Sporting Dinner, Oxford University, which has been the subject of critical national newspaper reports.

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The newspapers reported that many ladies walked out of the dinner in disgust at a poem I read, and the media reports also suggested I didn’t talk about my life in cricket. I do not recognise these accounts. I did not see anybody leave the room, and following warm and generous applause, nobody mentioned any issues to me, despite ample opportunity to do so in the college bar afterwards and the following morning.

What I can confirm is I recounted stories of my cricket career: as Zimbabwe coach at the 1992 World Cup when they defeated England, my successful Essex playing career, playing with and against the greats of the game, and how the game has changed from my era, including the popularity of women’s cricket. In many of my stories, I do a number of impressions including Richie Benaud, Graham Gooch and some South Africans.

I always read cricket-themed poems at the end of my speeches with the intention of entertaining. I certainly did not read out all of one of the poems bowdlerising the few verses I did read - but I accept, in hindsight, that this was still not enough to remove the risk of offence.

I have formally issued an apology, but the damage has been done. I am extremely disappointed with those newspaper reports and with the BBC who have subsequently decided to cut ties with me in reliance on media reports alone.

I agreed to give this after-dinner speech as a favour, at the eleventh hour. I did not receive a fee or any expenses for me appearance. Five hours drive to Oxford and four hours back the next day, only to learn this story nearly two weeks after the event.

I therefore feel disappointed at the readiness of people to disregard all this and instead focus on a few unintentionally offensive moments of an after-dinner speech.

Maybe my humour is of a different era, but I am devastated if I offended anyone. We do live in a different society today as previously people would immediately challenge you or have a quiet word, but today anyone can whip up a frenzy on social media and can do it anonymously too.

I have been overwhelmed by the many supportive comments associated with the national online articles. I have also received many emails, tweets and letters suggesting you would hear worse at a ‘Best Man’s speech’.

My commitment to the integrity of the game is a matter of public record. Inspiring the next generation of young cricketers has been my passion and, as I mentioned in my speech, I am excited that women’s cricket is the fastest growing sport in the UK.

My focus in the coming months will go into my work organising the Minor Counties Cricket Festivals for young cricketers at the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, which, this year, proudly celebrates its 20th anniversary. At a time when participation in cricket is declining and interest in the game is waning, finding more solutions to generate interest from youngsters makes me incredibly proud of what the 320 talented cricketers annually achieve at MCCF.

Now where’s my sunhat at sun-cream!

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