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Authors: Peter Baxter

Tags: #cricket, #test match special, #bbc, #sport

Can Anyone Hear Me? (8 page)

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Meanwhile, in a small wooden hut of a press box, a heap of radio equipment had alarmingly burst into life during the morning session, with a voice demanding, ‘Hello, Bruce. Are you there?'

There being no Australians on hand, the members of the British press insisted that I, as the radio man there, shut the thing up. I found the right switch and replied to the studio that I didn't think Bruce was there. The man asked me for a score and subsequent calls followed, which eventually resulted in me making my debut on Radio Launceston with fairly regular reports.

In mid afternoon Bruce turned up and hailed the studio to tell them, ‘Sorry, mate, me car went crook.'

The response came back, ‘That's all right. Some kind old gentleman's been helping us out.' I was 35.

By my next visit to Tasmania, which was not until 1990, the Tasmanian Cricket Association had moved their main ground to the Hobart suburb of Bellerive, on the other side of the Derwent River from the city centre. It had become a Test venue barely a year before, though it was still fairly short on grandstand accommodation and the press were in a Portakabin.

It has become the practice to have England play ‘An Australian XI' in Hobart as the last match before the first Test in Brisbane – as contrasting a pair of climate conditions as the Australian board can come up with. I see that in 1990 on at least one day of the game I went from the city across the
harbour by ferry, but the ferry times are more geared to shoppers and workers visiting town than people going the other way, so it was not an ideal arrangement – a pity, because it was a pleasant way to travel.

Here it was that Jonathan Agnew set up a leg-pull on Simon Heffer the columnist who was covering the tour for the
Daily Telegraph
. A feature piece about him had appeared in the
Tasmania Mercury
and so Aggers persuaded all the prettiest girls he could find round the ground to approach Heffer for his autograph, culminating with a fetching lass who we had all admired, who operated the pie van. It was long after she had come into the press box for the great man's signature that he realised that he was the subject of a prank.

For Aggers that tour marked something of a debut. I was splitting the BBC reporting and commentating duties with Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who had just announced that he would be leaving the BBC in the spring to take up the job of
Daily Telegraph
cricket correspondent. So, as I embarked on the tour I was trying to come up with a suitable successor to do that job for the BBC.

In the departure lounge at Heathrow, I was talking to Aggers, who was about to fly out as the
Today
newspaper's new cricket correspondent, only weeks after finishing his playing career. I had used him for a few things on the air and so I suggested that he might like to consider going for the BBC job. ‘Oh, no,' he said, ‘I've got far too good a deal from
Today
.'

Within a fortnight, the paper had betrayed him by writing a piece he had declined to do and giving it his by-line. I tried again. His reaction had, perhaps unsurprisingly, changed, ‘You can put my name in the hat,' he told me.

My actual hand-over to Christopher on the tour was not
perfectly timed. I was quite keen to get back home for Christmas for once, and for similar reasons CMJ was keen to delay his departure. We ended up with a game – against Victoria at Ballarat – falling into the inter-regnum. I turned to my putative cricket correspondent, Aggers, furnishing him with various pieces of equipment, all carefully labelled. I was not too worried, as he had worked at Radio Leicester over a few winters and was fairly technically minded.

In the event, he admitted later, his shyness made him have the BBC phone moved to the groundsman's hut, rather than perform in front of his press colleagues. He ended up sharing the space with a rather ferocious looking dog, but evidently considered this the lesser of two evils.

On England's next tour of Australia, their game against Victoria was played at Bendigo. Thanks to their having been knocked out of the one-day international series, the game was extended to four days. Here I was persuaded to join the commentary by the local radio station, KLFM. They operated from a miniscule box at square leg, where they had also persuaded the former Australian captain, Bill Lawrie, to take part.

On the Sunday evening I was asked if I would go into the KLFM studios to take part in ‘a discussion programme'. The host was the station manager, who led the way in his car. I followed in my own vehicle, so that I would have transport for the return journey.

Sunday 22 January 1995

I followed him through a maze of streets to an apparently deserted railway station. It seemed that KLFM inhabited its buildings – ticket office, stationmaster's room and ladies' waiting room. In fact, the ladies' waiting room turned out to be
the studio, though I gathered that there were plans for other of the station buildings to be developed.

Brad, my host, pointed out platform 2 across the still-operative Bendigo to Melbourne line. ‘That's where we used to be,' he said, indicating a small hut.

The Ladies' Waiting Room had a little old lady in it – waiting. It turned out she was waiting for her husband to finish presenting the ‘Christian Hour' of religious music interspersed with homilies. They were the only other people in the place and the ‘Christian Hour' had in fact already run to an hour and a quarter, because we were a bit late.

The ‘foyer' had a large signal lever emerging from the floor. ‘What would happen if we pulled this?' I asked.

‘Change the points, I guess,' said Brad.

He invited me to see their ‘master control' and opened a cupboard to reveal some technical equipment.

‘No engineer?' I asked.

‘Aw, there's one on call,' he said. ‘He can be here in half an hour.'

Thereafter the two of us were on the air for an hour or so, chatting and playing the odd bit of music.

This sort of one-man operation is not, apparently, unique. On the drive from Melbourne to Sydney one year, I picked up the local station from the small country town of Yass, New South Wales. The presenter from Yass FM apologised to his listeners for a break in transmission. ‘I had to go and get some CDs from my ute,' he said.

One
night in Bendigo a few of the press were in a local pub when a hen party came in, giving a bride her last night on the town. We gathered that the groom's ‘bucks' party' were doing the same. One of our number asked, ‘What happens if you run into them?'

‘Aw,' said the bride, ‘Bendigo's a pretty big place.'

It really isn't.

Queensland have not played a first-class fixture with England at their headquarters, the Gabba, since 1986. For the match in 1994 Simon Mann and I headed a hire car west of Brisbane for about a hundred miles.

We took the steep road up the Great Dividing Range and there, perched on top of the hill, was the pleasant, apparently quiet and conservative city of Toowoomba. After checking in and sending a couple of pieces over to London on the phone, we went out to look for the cricket ground – a venture we were very unsuccessful with, despite stopping a few times to ask. As it was getting dark, we gave up.

Happily, the next day, giving myself an early start, I had less trouble. We all got very excited when a nineteen-year-old called Andrew Symonds made a century for the home side and we discovered he was born in Birmingham. However, he poured cold water on any suggestion of an English affiliation. ‘I'm a dinky-di Aussie,' he said. Nevertheless he was happy to take his place the following season in the Gloucestershire team with an England qualification and the England selectors then tested his resolve by picking him for an England ‘A' touring team. He withdrew to declare himself again an Aussie.

Also during the game, Mike Gatting – who incidentally made a double hundred in the first innings – took a blow in the face while fielding. He might have expected attention from the physiotherapist back in the dressing room, but as he
headed that way it was rather to find that member of the support staff, Dave ‘Rooster' Roberts, rushing onto the field as twelfth man.

One other thing I can remember there was waiting to do a live report for Radio 5. The item on the air before me was a harrowing interview on assisted suicide with a woman in America who had helped her daughter to die. After five or ten minutes of this tearful discussion, the presenter said cheerily, ‘Now let's catch up with the latest cricket news from Australia …'

Follow that.

Four years later I joined the tour for the game with Queensland at Cairns. The rebuilding of the Gabba ground in Brisbane had just completed its first phase, so the ramshackle position that I had been rather fond of on the pavilion roof had gone. I took the opportunity en route to check the new arrangements out.

I had originally had a fanciful idea to hire a car and drive on up to Cairns, but when I had got my map of Australia out, I had carried on unfolding it until I found Cairns – a little over a thousand miles to the north. Melbourne, two states away, seemed to be nearer Brisbane than Cairns was. So I took the two-hour flight north to the laid-back tropical holiday town instead.

A pitch that deteriorated sharply gave us an exciting one-wicket win for England there, while John Crawley being mugged in the street aroused the interest of news desks back home, particularly as the England management decided – for reasons best known to themselves – to say that his facial injuries had been caused by slipping in the shower. The clumsy lie made us all much more suspicious, even when the truth did emerge. With the match finishing early on the final day, we
retreated to our hotel and as London began to wake up to a new day, Aggers decided that Radio 5 Live's breakfast programme could be served from the jacuzzi. He sat there, broadcasting live with the water bubbling ferociously round him.

For England's next visit, in 2002, the match with Queensland, originally scheduled for the Gabba, was moved to the Allan Border Field near Breakfast Creek, just out of the Brisbane city centre. Queensland Cricket have since moved their headquarters there.

With anything at all out of the ordinary, Australian taxi drivers (very rarely these days actually Australian born) seem to struggle. The London cabbie's ‘knowledge' is not a concept that has been adopted in any Australian city. I recorded one exchange.

Monday 4 November 2002

My taxi driver had never heard of the Allan Border Field.

‘Just behind Albion racetrack,' I tried. No recognition. ‘Do you know Breakfast Creek?'

‘Yes.'

‘There's a racetrack just behind the hotel there.'

‘Oh, is that called Albion? I'm not very good with place names.'

‘Bit of a drawback in your line of work,' I suggested.

If itineraries permit it, Don Bradman's childhood home town of Bowral in the New South Wales countryside, about 80 miles from Sydney, is included in major tours of Australia for a game against
‘a Bradman XI'. I first went there in 1990 and encountered something that came as a bit of a surprise.

Tuesday 16 December 1990

I arrived over an hour before the start to find the neat little ground packed. The first enquiries from the press established the fact that we would not be permitted to sit anywhere where we could actually see the game. A tent had been provided for our use behind the catering marquee, which was itself behind the pavilion and that was where our telephones had been installed. Eventually we found one official who grudgingly acknowledged that we might find it difficult to report a game we could not see!

England played poorly – particularly in the field – and deservedly lost. They looked thoroughly petulant as Darren Lehmann, who was dropped three times, played an otherwise commanding innings.

After my second visit there, four years later, I drove on to the next fixture in the federal capital, Canberra, by way of the tiny village of Wingello. Having seen Don Bradman's home town it seemed only right to visit the place where his neighbour, Bill O'Reilly, came from, though the two men were never on friendly terms.

The match against the Prime Minister's XI in Canberra is something of a traditional fixture on most major tours. Many Australian prime ministers have taken a keen personal interest in the selection of the teams representing them.

I first went to Canberra in 1990, when elements of the playing side of the tour were unravelling. Gooch was still ruled out with that hand injury and Allan Lamb led the side, despite being
not fully fit himself. One could not avoid the feeling that the team management's main aim was to avoid David Gower, who by that stage appeared rather disaffected with the team set-up, taking over the captaincy for this one festival game. The locals and particularly the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, would have loved it, as Gower was always a popular figure in Australia. They, at least, loved the way he played.

In the event England suffered an embarrassing defeat in that game.

When I first saw it, I was delightfully surprised by the Victorian splendour of the North Sydney Oval, a short taxi ride across the Harbour Bridge from the city centre. The stands are all of the green-roofed nineteenth century colonial style. At the tail end of 1994, though, I saw England go down to two embarrassing defeats on successive days at the hands of the Australian Cricket Academy. Unfortunately, as I was reporting both matches for the ABC as well as the BBC, I found myself being asked questions about what a laughing stock the England team were.

That was the tour in which Australia A were brought into the one-day series to beef up what would otherwise have been a triangular tournament including England and Zimbabwe. Almost inevitably, the finals were played out between the two Australian teams, though the Australian board rendered that even more pointless by failing to appreciate the need for players to be ‘cup tied'. The selectors plundered the A side at will to bolster the first team and the bowler who had done most to get Australia A to the finals, Paul Reiffel, was picked for the senior squad for those matches and then left out.

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