November 27th 2014

 It has been quite a week for equestrianism with the Olympic and World dressage champion, Charlotte Dujardin, deservedly winning the prestigious Sportswoman of the Year Award. Then a film of a certain BBC radio commentator being thrown from a runaway horse went viral to the extent that it was even shown on the television news in New Zealand. (If you have not seen it yet, a YouTube search for Jonathan Agnew riding lesson will do the trick)

Happily the bruises have now subsided and I have, literally, got back on the horse again. It was a timely lesson in just how powerful these wonderful animals are, and having seen the footage there are definitely some aspects of my technique that can be improved. Frantically yelling: “Whoa! Paddy”, as we thundered through the field at breakneck speed is not enough.
It has been a while since I attempted sport; or a new sport, at any rate. And, yes, I am hooked. To learn something from scratch at the age of 54 is a healthy challenge and while I am not quite as keen on the mucking out as I might be, the thrill of rhythmically cantering along a hedgerow in the sunshine simply must be experienced.

But the most important reminder for me from this incident is how sport reflects life. I passionately believe, for example, that cricket is a brilliant education in resilience with just you and your mate batting against 11 of the opposition. Can you muster the character to stand up for yourself in that hostile environment, or will you crumple? And let’s be honest, there can be no more graphic example of dusting yourself down from one of life’s unexpected disappointments than the ruthless dumping I received last week. Are you up for the challenge or not? That is the question sport constantly asks and it is entirely relevant to life in the outside world.

There is a fine line. It is surprising how many of the celebrities I interview on Test Match Special were put off playing cricket as kids because they were hit and hurt by the hard ball. If I am honest, had I broken an arm in my fall last week I might not be quite so bullish now. But a successful sportsman learns from mistakes and misfortune, turning a negative experience into a positive. Just like life, sport was never supposed to be easy.

November 20th 2014

As a controversial Formula One season comes to an end in Abu Dhabi this weekend, fans and competitors alike must be praying that the final race does not produce a farce entirely of the sport’s own making. The decision to award double World Championship points in the last race this year has to be one of the most short sighted attempts to make a sport more exciting that there has ever been. It threatens to make a mockery of months of hard work and consistent performances, and damage the integrity of Formula One.
In case you have not been following this particular drama, Lewis Hamilton goes into the final race 17 points clear of his nearest rival and team mate, Nico Rosberg. Normally such a margin would be enough to secure the title, but not this year. Rosberg has won only five races to Hamilton’s ten, but should the German win on Sunday and take double points, Hamilton will have to finish second, rather than sixth, to claim the drivers’ championship. Confused? Of course we are.

This is what happens when the administrators meddle with a sport that for all their bluster and years at the top they understand only superficially. They profess a love for the sport but ultimately their only interest is only to make it as attractive as possible to the television companies who fund it. The reason they decided to introduce this crazy rule is because the brilliant Sebastian Vettel had won 4 titles in a row, including last season’s with races to spare. ‘How dare one individual dominate to that extent?’ they said. ‘He’s making it boring.’

Their solution is no different to giving Pete Sampras’ opponents bigger tennis racquets, or making the great West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970’s and 80’s release the ball from 25 yards rather than 22. Top level sport is often dominated either by an outstanding individual or a team and to think that there is something wrong with that is to fail to understand sport. For as much as we marvel at the excellence produced by the very best who keep pushing the boundaries and setting new standards, we also admire their tenacity when their powers are starting to fade and note the significance of the moment they are finally knocked from their perch for ever. If a professional sport needs to be sustained by artificiality and gimmickry, it cannot be taken seriously.

November 13th 2014

There is a busy weekend of international football to look forward to in which England entertain Slovenia and Wales travel to Belgium, giving us the first chance to reflect on the opening quarter of the Premier League season.

With the majority of teams having now played 11 fixtures, one quick glance at the table reveals a club that has beaten the odds and enjoyed a storming start to the campaign. Before a ball was kicked in anger, the odds on Southampton being relegated were 7-2. Several of their best players had been sold, their manager had moved to Tottenham Hotspur and Katharina Liebherr appeared to have little interest in the club she had inherited from her father, Markus. Her critics claimed she was merely cashing in the key assets at Southampton before flogging it to the highest bidder.

And yet Saints are currently second in the table, just four points behind the leaders, Chelsea. Remarkably they have conceded only 5 goals thus far, compared to Chelsea’s 11 and Manchester City’s 12 and recently they beat Sunderland by a record margin of 8 goals. Not only has Ronald Koeman just been awarded manager of the month, but their Italian striker and new signing Graziano Pellè is the player of the month.
There is still a long way to go until this season reaches its climax and who knows if Southampton can keep up this level of performance over such an extended period. But every sports lover knows that once a team gets on a roll, it can be surprisingly hard to stop as confidence soars and support grows. Opponents start to approach matches too cautiously because they are fearful of providing even the slightest opportunity to a team that is now enjoying a reputation for punishing mistakes.

It has been fun charting Southampton’s success this season and it makes such a pleasant contrast to the never-ending analysis of Manchester United’s struggle or the inflammatory comments made by the more outspoken managers who, to be fair, have probably already grown weary of the stream of banal questions they face in their compulsory press conferences.

Injuries will play a critical part in determining Southampton’s progress from here. Koeman simply must keep his players fit, and also with their feet firmly on the ground.  There is a fine line between confidence and complacency and although Southampton have started brilliantly, the Premier League is all about the long haul.

November 8th 2014

It is hardly surprising that a career as a professional sportsman is looked upon with such envy. What could be better than playing your favourite sport at the highest level every day, and being paid for it? It is true that many in that privileged position do not appreciate how lucky they are.

But increasingly we are becoming aware of a dark side to what should be the ideal life. Depression and stress related illness is taking its toll and while it would be an exaggeration to describe it as widespread within sport, the number of cricketers to be affected, in particular, is worrying.
Jonathan Trott became the latest example of an England player to have his career interrupted when he pulled out of last winter’s Ashes after just one Test match. It is a very difficult subject to report because there is no tangible sign of depression to an outsider. At least if Trott had broken his finger it would have been more straightforward particularly for some unsympathetic, some would say ignorant observers who decided that Trott had simply bottled out of a tough situation.

Marcus Trescothick, Graeme Fowler, Mike Yardy and Iain O’Brien have all suffered from depression with Trescothick’s international career ruined as a result. There have been examples from other sports like Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe and Ronnie O’Sullivan, but why is cricket so susceptible?
Cricket is a demanding sport. Months are spent away from families, often with very young children and it is a short, uncertain career with the matter of what to do afterwards a constant worry. There are clearly other factors, too, and to dismiss it with the usual comment about a ‘dream job’ is to be unrealistic.

Is it possible that the environment around cricketers is such that they feel more comfortable opening up in the first place? I remember when the Surrey and England batsman Steven Davies revealed that he is gay I questioned the interest from all the radio stations that contacted me for my reaction. ‘What’s the problem?’ I said. ‘Cricket is a grown up sport and this won’t shock anyone or change anything.’ I am not sure they believed me, but it is true.

Happily, Trott is returning to the top flight once more with an England tour this winter and we wish him well. Depression within sport is something most of us do not understand, but every high profile example increases our awareness.

October 30th 2014

The Autumn rugby internationals kick off next week with some outstanding fixtures ushering in the much anticipated World Cup. In fact this weekend marks exactly a year until the final is staged at Twickenham. England’s first opponents on Saturday week are New Zealand, and this will be considered the stand-out fixture but frankly Wales against Australia and Ireland vs South Africa are equally appealing.

With four big matches in as many weeks – Samoa being the fourth opponent – this will be an early indicator to assess where England stand with twelve Tests to go, and they will be particularly keen to beat Australia, who they will face in the World Cup. This run-in does allow some scope for experimentation and although critics have suggested that England have chosen a cautious squad, the inclusion of the 27 year old Fijian-born Semesa Rokoduguni not only adds flair to the wing, but also one of those background stories that helps to keep sport in its proper perspective.

Aged 19, Rokoduguni left his village close to the Fijian capital, Suva, to serve in the British Army. In his first week in Afghanistan, a marine on his patrol stepped on a mine and lost both legs. It was a defining moment for the youngster who vowed that he would make the best of any opportunity that came his way. Now a Lance Corporal with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Rokoduguni regularly visits the rehabilitation unit at Headley Court where injured servicemen are treated – an experience that would surely benefit any professional sportsman who believes that life is tough. “You miss a tackle, you can get it right next time”, he says. “Make a mistake in Afghanistan might mean someone loses their life.”

Rokoduguni’s rise has been meteoric, since he signed professionally for Bath only two seasons ago. Six feet tall, he has added three stones to weigh in at more than 16 stones to become another of the modern day units that can sprint as fast as ever, but shrug off tackles and bounce off opponents. Just how do you stop someone like that, for goodness sake?

One thing is for sure, the All Blacks can perform the most chilling and passionate haka of their lives at Twickenham on Saturday week but even on his international debut, it will not faze Rokoduguni who knows better than most that sport is hardly a matter of life and death.

October 23rd 2014

Heading to Newcastle last Saturday, it was impossible not be struck by the loyalty of football’s supporters, and the price they pay for that dedication. Newcastle United were entertaining Leicester City, so our train was packed with fans in either blue and white or black and white. Dads and young sons, groups of middle-aged men, wives and partners; we all rattled merrily north together.
It was not long before our conversation focussed on the BBC’s Price of Football survey, before moving on to next summer’s Ashes. Tickets have reached record levels with some seats for the first day of the Lord’s Test set at £110 each. To watch the first ball of the series in Cardiff could cost you £85. What chance of the Dad and his three young Newcastle-supporting boys chatting animatedly on our train, being able to go to the Ashes, even if they all desperately wanted to?
Common sense suggests that football and cricket are heading towards disaster. How much longer can the cost of supporting these sports continue to spiral before they are really beyond the means of the majority? That is not to suggest that the majority is not already priced out, but it seems that the dedicated fan will still find a way. However, the crunch must come soon considering that the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the cost of living since 2011.
The authorities will argue about supply and demand, and I am sure the Ashes will sell out. But the reason both sports are living so dangerously is that they are combining soaring ticket costs with cutting access for terrestrial television viewers. Next year, not a single live delivery will be shown on anything other than satellite TV, and Sky has just put its prices up.
I am not knocking Sky, which is always the easy target. They have done a brilliant job with cricket, transforming its coverage home and away. It is the authorities that sold our sport to the highest bidder rather than adopting the responsible long-term view of retaining at least part of it for those who cannot afford anything other than terrestrial TV. Worryingly, terrestrial broadcasters also appear to have become lost interest as a result. If it carries on like this, sport will not only be watched exclusively by the wealthy, but played by them, too.

October 16th 2014

It has been a bruising week for English cricket. Kevin Pietersen has ensured that if he really has reached the end of the road – and there must be a possibility that he will never play professionally in England again – he has done so with spectacular acrimony. The reputations of teammates and coaches have taken a battering with his allegations of bullying and incompetence. If you really believe him, it seems nothing short of miraculous that the England team achieved all it did in that time.
Now the game must haul itself to its feet and move on. The management will be more aware of the one area that I believe Pietersen properly hit a nerve, namely the aggression handed out by the bowlers to fielders who make mistakes. While that is hardly bullying, it can be unpleasant and causes resentment. It is the sort of behaviour that if left unchecked, can quickly deteriorate and, after all, is usually counter-productive.
The England team could improve the image of the game considerably by winning. This year they have a World Cup (a place in the semi-finals would be considered a good result) followed by the Ashes, in which English supporters will be expecting nothing less than victory. I view that series against Australia as being absolutely crucial in the battle that the ECB faces in winning back its many disenfranchised supporters. The board has had a rotten year in terms of its public relations, starting with the pompous statement that referred to the criticism of Pietersen’s departure as coming from people “outside cricket.” That observation rightly made a lot of cricket lovers very angry – and not just those in Pietersen’s camp. Fans who support England religiously and buy tickets every year suddenly found themselves wondering if they, too, were considered to be outside cricket. The various leaks along the way, particularly the dossier containing Pietersen’s alleged misdemeanours in Australia, made the ECB look petty and vindictive.
These scars will take a long time to heal. Not as long as it will take for Pietersen to feel welcome again, but he does not appear to be bothered about that. The relationship between England cricket and its supporters must be at the top of the agenda for its new chief executive, Tom Harrison. A shrug of the shoulders and a ‘they’ll be back’ approach will not do. The division runs far too deep for that.

October 9th 2014

It promises to be a busy week in the bookshops with two high profile and potentially explosive autobiographies hitting the shelves on the same day. Roy Keane, the former Republic of Ireland footballer, is expected to deliver some much awaited and typically combative insight to his stormy relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson in The Second Half while Kevin Pietersen will take aim at the England cricket management following the decision to drop him. Which to read first?
Both are outspoken characters with plenty of previous when it comes to falling out with authorities and coaches. Keane had a furious row with Mick McCarthy before the 2002 World Cup in which he told the Irish boss that he didn’t rate him as a player or manager. McCarthy sent him home. Pietersen attempted to have Peter Moores and Andy Flower removed from the coaching staff shortly after becoming England captain in 2008. Pietersen was sacked. Moores also lost his job as head coach and was replaced by Flower, who is expected to bear the brunt of Pietersen’s criticism in KP, The Autobiography.
To this theme we might add US golfer Phil Mickelson who launched a scathing attack on his Ryder Cup captain, Tom Watson, immediately following last week’s defeat to Europe. Nick Faldo commented: “He threw his captain right under the bus.”
It is fair to say that none of these fine sportsmen has much to lose from letting rip at their superiors. Mickelson will never have to play under Watson’s captaincy again, Keane is now in football management himself and although Flower is no longer coach, Pietersen and England appear to be well and truly divorced. I would be surprised, though, if KP burns his boats completely. Most important in his book will be his explanation for sending ‘provocative’ text messages to the South African team about England’s captain, Andrew Strauss, for regardless of events in Australia last winter, that incident two years ago is key. It was the moment that the England team lost its trust in its leading batsman. Ironically, it was Flower who subsequently brought him back into the fold but the players never really forgave KP for what they believed was a serious breach of loyalty.
But with Pietersen’s version of events finally aired, is it possible that such an unhappy and divisive episode in English cricket can now be laid to rest? Some hope.

October 2nd 2014

The Formula One season resumes this weekend with the Singapore Grand Prix and with team rivalry once again adding spice to the run-in. With six races to go, the title race could not be closer between the two Mercedes drivers who have dominated this year: Britain’s Lewis Hamilton and the German Nico Rosberg. Technically, they are teammates but following a series of incidents their relationship has been described as ‘poisonous’ as both drivers struggle to rein in their natural competitiveness in the interests of team success.
In Hungary, Mercedes asked Hamilton to pull over and allow Rosberg, employing a different tyre strategy, to pass. Hamilton, who was in second position, refused and Rosberg finished third. Then in Belgium, Rosberg punctured Hamilton’s tyre as he attempted to overtake, and effectively put him out of the race. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes motorsport director has since threatened to change the driver line up if the two combatants cannot be managed properly.
That is all very well, but Formula One thrives on such rivalry. You might even argue that the sport needs it and remembering the breathtaking battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the 1980’s, clashes between members of the same team are nothing new. Anyway, how can you expect an ambitious sportsman at the top of his game to yield to anybody – even someone in the same team?
The great Richard Meade became the first British rider to win an Olympic gold medal in equestrianism when he won both team and individual gold at Munich in 1972. But rather than complete the ‘safe’ cross-country round his team expected, Meade’s competitive instinct took over and he went for it. His flair and courage won through, but it was a risk. Even in sports that are built around a solid team framework, such as football, personal rivalry makes life awkward for those around them. Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole formed one of the most successful strike partnerships in football history at Manchester United, and yet Cole has subsequently written that he detested his teammate for 15 years. A quick trip to Google reveals many photographs of the pair embracing in celebration, and yet they never said a word to each other. Manchester United hardly suffered as a result and it is naïve to expect eleven individuals all to get along, just as it is unrealistic to expect F1 drivers to pull aside. Surely the sport would miss the added drama, too.

September 25th 2014

For those of us fortunate to travel on international cricket’s merry-go-round, either as players or commentators, this is a most unusual autumn. Under normal circumstances, September is spent preparing for an extended tour of three months or so, that often includes Christmas and New Year. Presents need to be bought in advance and after a busy summer, some family time spent before we go our separate ways once more.
But this year is very different. Apart from a brief flit to Sri Lanka for a one-day series in November, we are at home until well into the New Year which represents the longest break from the game I will have had in my 25 years on the road – and the first time, therefore, I can properly watch Strictly Come Dancing.
It is a phenomenon that has largely passed me by, but I was in the country long enough to watch from behind the sofa my colleague Michael Vaughan’s clumsy early steps two years ago. I gather he improved to be fair, and although he did not win he maintained cricket’s tradition for producing surprisingly talented dancers such as Mark Ramprakash and, most startling of all, the fast bowler Darren Gough.
My good friend, Phil Tufnell, had me in stitches in the commentary box as, first, he went through the tortuous process of deciding whether he would accept the invitation to take part or not, and then describing the extraordinary lengths the BBC went to in order to guarantee absolute secrecy. Picked up in the early hours Phil was driven in a blacked out car to Television Centre where, on arrival, the driver lowered his window just enough to whisper to the security guard: “It’s Mister Squirrel.” “Mr Squirrel?” wondered Phil, only to put two and two together later: Tufnell, Tuffers, Tufty, Tufty the Squirrel, Mr Squirrel.
It is no surprise that sports men and women have excelled at Strictly. After all, they are used to training regularly, are co-ordinated and light on their feet. They are fiercely competitive and, crucially, used to performing live under pressure. The Scottish rugby star, Thom Evans, is quoted as second favourite to walk off with the glitterball this year but I will be keeping my eye on Judy Murray, who I interviewed this summer and whose dancing partner, Anton Du Beke, was great fun during his appearance on the coveted View from the Boundary slot on TMS.

September 18th 2014

With a week to go until the eagerly anticipated Ryder Cup, the phoney war is well underway with American journalists apparently ‘misinterpreting’ an innocent observation by Rory McIlroy about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. McIlroy was forced to clarify his view that age and injuries to the American pair are reducing their effectiveness, but there was no need. The American media has McIlroy in its sights following his wonderful recent run of form in which he has won the last two majors, the Open and the US PGA. So with Europe favourites to win at Gleneagles with McIlroy their talisman, the American press – hardly renowned for neutrality – is clearly coming out on the offensive.
Every time the Ryder Cup comes round, much is made of the fact that the players are paid nothing to compete. These men are used to playing for hundreds of thousand of dollars a time – McIlroy picked up nearly £1 million for winning the Open – but the Ryder Cup is about loyalty to your team which, for a singular professional golfer, is a very odd concept. And as for the money? Well let’s be honest, these men can afford to play for nothing for a week every two years.
It is interesting how McIlroy’s attitude to the Ryder Cup has changed. From describing it as an exhibition, it took just one appearance in the great tournament for him to regret that remark. Being a member of a team, bonded by loyalty, ambition, success and disappointment is an inspiring and emotional experience that golfers rarely encounter. Ice cool under pressure when putting for a small fortune, we have seen in the past the same men unable to contain their collective joy, behaving in a way that would be unthinkable if they were playing on their own. A team environment is a great leveller in that everyone should be treated the same, but feeding off each other’s adrenalin and competitive impulses can make a golfer lose his self-restraint. It is just a part of what makes the Ryder Cup such a brilliant, unpredictable event.
In the meantime, McIlroy needs a breather. He missed out on a £7 million bonus last weekend and described his final round in the FedEx Cup as a week too far. He has played 8 tournaments in little over two months and needs a break before the passions rise at Gleneagles.

September 11th 2014

Manchester United play host to Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford this weekend with their new manager, Louis Van Gaal, still searching for his first win. With only two points in the bank so far, United are 14th in the Premier League table and were blown out of the Capital One Cup 4-0 by Milton Keynes Dons. While it is often the case that the arrival of a new manager brings new zest and an instant improvement, as far as Manchester United’s frustrated fans are concerned Van Gaal is proving equally disappointing as David Moyes.
I remember Phil Neville telling me this summer that Van Gaal would have a better chance than Moyes because he was not burdened by being Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, but not only is the Dutchman making heavy weather of it, but he is also gambling with a change in strategy.
Ferguson was renowned for his development of young players, which he preferred to attempting to buy instant success on the transfer market. His famous Class of ’92 included names such as Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and the Neville brothers. The Academy produced 23 year old Nicky Welbeck who was sold last week to Arsenal for £16 million to pave the way for the Colombia striker, Radamel Falcao who will earn £265,000 per week while on loan. In all, Van Gaal has splashed out £150 million on new talent, which is the highest gross spend by any Premier League Club in the summer transfer window.
This prompted Eric Harrison, the man responsible for coaching the Class of ’92, to say: “Losing players (like Welbeck) who have been part of the club since they were kids means you are losing the heart and soul of the club.”
There is another point here. Neville also told me that he is worried about England’s future with so few home grown players appearing in the Premier League. In fact, he more or less wrote off any prospect of England winning the World Cup while managers prefer to spend huge sums of money on proven overseas players.  The impact of the dreadful World Cup campaign was evident last week when the smallest crowd ever for an England fixture at the new Wembley turned up for the Norway match, and almost double the television audience of 5 million chose to watch The Great British Bake Off instead. Never has the club verses country argument been more relevant.

September 4th 2014

Every now and then, if you are very lucky, you witness a sporting feat that leaves you speechless. On my very first day of archery duty at London 2012, I watched an Italian called Michele Frangilli, prepare to shoot the last arrow of the men’s final. As the large digital clock clicked down towards zero Frangilli knew he had to score a perfect 10 – a bull’s eye in darts – to win the gold medal. Anything less would not do. Bang! Perfect! My jaw hit the floor.
Last week I watched another astonishing victory performed under the most intense pressure. This time it was my first foray into equestrianism proper, when I found myself in Caen for the World Equestrian Games. Charlotte Dujardin who with her horse, Valegro, stole our hearts in the dressage arena in London, trotted in knowing that only a top display in the freestyle would beat the German girl who had gone before. Not only did Charlotte and Valegro rise to the challenge and take gold, they set a new world record in the process.
Reporting on an entirely foreign sport is a nerve-wracking business. You have so many questions, and yet worry about asking them for fear of sounding stupid. Well meaning people present you to individuals you have never heard of, who turn out to be legends of their particular discipline. All the time it is a battle to establish enough understanding in order to broadcast confidently on the radio.
Happily, equestrianism is a most welcoming sport. I walked the cross country course with Ian Stark and Mike Tucker, who explained every nuance of every jump. We bumped into gold medallist Richard Meade and his son Harry who, tragically, introduced me to the harsh reality of working with horses. After wishing Harry good luck, and then celebrating his clear round came the news that his horse, Wild Lone, had collapsed and died. Such is the bond, I do not know how a rider ever gets over that.
Back to the dressage and my favourite moment came not from the competition itself, but as Charlotte and Valegro completed their lap of honour. Waving happily to the crowd, Charlotte suddenly let him go. It was like a Ferrari roaring away from a standing start and yet so fluid, effortless and joyful. So blown away was I by that spectacular exit that my first riding lesson is booked for next week.

August 22nd 2014

It has been a crazy twelve months to be the BBC cricket correspondent. We have celebrated an Ashes win followed by a massive Ashes defeat, then there was the Kevin Pietersen affair in which England controversially sacked its best player, and our first ever defeat to Sri Lanka. Little wonder when England then went 1-0 down to India, that many supporters and former captains lost faith in the captain, Alastair Cook, and urged the Board to sack him. But sport is all about luck and seizing an opportunity, and thanks to a huge slice of good fortune Cook got amongst the runs again and his team rebounded magnificently to trounce India 3-1.
Cook was a St Paul’s Cathedral chorister and is the most easy going of men. But he is also an immensely tough, stubborn individual so it was lovely to hear him pay tribute publicly to his wife, Alice, for helping him through the trials and tribulations of the summer. Not enough sportsmen speak so personally and with such warmth these days.
With the arduous Test series over, there was a good argument for giving Cook a rest for the 5 one-day matches that follow but such is the schedule of modern cricket that the next big challenge is just around the corner. The World Cup is staged in Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2015 and, for once, England have planned ideal preparation to take them into the tournament, which they have never won. With no test cricket to distract the build up between now and then, England can focus properly on the challenge for the first time. But to succeed, they need to be bold: an attribute that has spectacularly passed English cricket by in the past. One-day cricket needs big hitters up front, like Australia’s Aaron Finch and Chris Gayle of West Indies and finally England have chosen Nottinghamshire’s Alex Hales, who scored a brutal T20 hundred against Sri Lanka earlier this year, to get out there and take the attack to the opposition.
This is easier said than done because it is a risky policy to go out swinging your bat from the start, but just as England held their nerve and stuck with their Test match formula, they must give Hales a proper opportunity. To win the World Cup England need to be aggressive and imaginative, and the hard work starts now.

August 14th 2014

When the Premier League season kicks off this weekend, we can be sure that all eyes will be on Manchester United. They entertain Swansea and their new manager Louis van Gaal faces a massive challenge to restore the faith at Old Trafford.
Phil Neville, the former England and Manchester United defender joined me on Test Match Special last week to reflect on his passion for cricket (he was captain of England Under 15’s) and also on the nightmare of last season. Neville was first team coach, working in partnership with his friend David Moyes who was sacked less than ten months after taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson after what Neville described as a disaster and a complete failure.
With that brutal analysis came the acknowledgement that Moyes had an impossible task. United had won the League by the small matter of 12 points the previous season but change was needed and after 27 years of the same routines under one of the most successful managers of all time, this came at a heavy price which cost Moyes and Neville their jobs.
Neville believes that van Gaal will have an easier time this season because he is not Ferguson’s direct replacement so will not be under the same scrutiny. Rather than being weighed down by the burden of expectation that buried Moyes, the Dutchman’s is a lower starting point. With a striking similarity to the challenges facing the England cricket team, this season at Old Trafford is all about careful rebuilding and although Manchester United’s supporters will be hoping for immediate signs of improvement, they need to accept that this will probably take time. Also in van Gaal’s favour is the fact that his team will not be involved in any European football. Ironically, United’s failure to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1989 was high on Moyes’ charge sheet but it does now afford his successor some breathing space in a typically crammed schedule.
As for Neville, he is looking forward to picking up his cricket bat again, and replacing Alan Hansen on the Match of the Day sofa alongside another cricket-loving footballer, Gary Lineker. Neville’s early sorties at the microphone in the World Cup met with heavy criticism but I have little doubt that his candour and striking work ethic will make him an instant hit on football’s favourite television programme, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

August 7th 2014

Cricket’s commemoration last week of the outbreak of the First World War proved to be a stark and moving reminder of the impact the deadly conflict had on every aspect of life. A round of county championship matches was in full flow when war was declared on August 4th, 1914 and when a number of players chose to sign up immediately rather than complete the games, public opinion was quickly divided over the morality of staging cricket matches in wartime.  The most famous cricketer of the time, the legendary batsman Jack Hobbs, caused outcry in some quarters when he signed to play in the Bradford League in 1915. His war effort was a clerical job in a munitions factory, but it was successfully argued that were Hobbs sent to the Front and killed, it would have a massively damaging impact on British morale.
Four England cricketers died in the War, alongside 289 first class cricketers including Hampshire’s fast bowler, Arthur Jacks who was killed with his brother on the same day. Arthur Collins was an early casualty at Ypres. His 628 not out in a house match at Clifton College in 1899 remains the highest score ever recorded in a genuine match.
Probably the best known fatality was Percy Jeeves, a talented first class cricketer for Warwickshire, whose name caught the eye of a young writer, PG Wodehouse, at Cheltenham in 1913. Thus Jeeves, the unflappable valet was born that day while Jeeves, the soldier, died three years later in the Battle of the Somme.
Frank Chester scored a century for Worcestershire aged only 17 but lost an arm while fighting in Salonika. He found solace in umpiring and quickly became regarded as the finest in the world while Harry Lee lay in No Man’s Land for three days at Neuve Chapelle. A miraculous recovery left him with a pronounced limp despite which he returned to score double centuries for Middlesex – he was not allowed a runner – and he even won a Test cap.
The Australian wicketkeeper, Bert Oldfield, somehow survived an explosion that killed his three fellow stretcher-bearers and their patient. A metal plate was inserted at the front of his head, so when he was struck there by Harold Larwood in the Bodyline series of 1932/33 the incident almost sparked a riot.
Such bravery and such selfless sacrifice. How all of us in modern sport could learn from their example.

July 31st 2014

Am I alone in being left confused by a recent report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which claimed that not enough women are taking part in sport? Worryingly, the cross-party committee suggested there are now long-term implications for health and social care.

This report coincided with my first visit to the headquarters of the British Equestrian Federation in Kenilworth in my new guise as BBC Radio Equestrian commentator. To sporting bodies, participation numbers mean cash from Sport England, which is threatening to cut it’s funding of ‘lacklustre’ governing bodies in favour of those that actively boost female participation. No surprise then, that the BEF has launched a new social network campaign to raise awareness of riding, but also to make the point that riding is, in fact, a sport. What else can explain its survey that revealed one million horses in the UK but only 200,000 riders, other than the fact that 800,000 people – the majority of them women, I suspect – do not realise that when they are setting off for a hack, they are officially taking part in sport.

That’s one reason to wonder if this report really stacks up. Surely the profile of women’s sport has never been higher with the Commonwealth Games coming hard on the heels of London 2012. Joanna Rowsell, Francesca Jones, Jodie Stimpson and Zoe Smith are all young women at the top of their respective games and ideal role models for others to get into sport.

Furthermore, England’s Women Cricketers take on India in a series broadcast live on BBC Radio, with our women now fully paid professionals and having just announced a lucrative sponsorship deal that is entirely separate from their male counterparts. England’s Women football team have enjoyed a 100% start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, and the Women’s Rugby Union World Cup is underway in France, promising to be the biggest ever and broadcast on Sky TV.

And while the DCMS report suggests that girls and women are put off sport by, amongst other things, gratuitous derogatory remarks by TV commentators and a lack of respect shown to female coaches (Andy Murray is set to keep Amelie Mauresmo as his tennis coach) their own official figures show that 500,000 more women are participating now than in 2010. So doesn’t this all add up to a good news story, demonstrating just how far women’s sport has come? Or am I missing something?

July 24th 2014

Who would want to be the captain of the England cricket team? The scrutiny on one of the most prestigious roles within British sport has reached unprecedented levels this summer with, for the first time, social media adding greatly to the debate about the direction of English cricket, and the suitability of Alastair Cook to remain at the helm.

The role of the England cricket captain is more far reaching than in any other sport. The recent World Cup football campaign was nothing short of disastrous, but Steven Gerrard is not held responsible for that. It is the manager that carries the can. The England rugby captain is rather more hands on when it comes to tactical decisions on the field, and can be a truly inspirational figure such as Martin Johnson who led England to win the 2003 World Cup. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the man in whites who runs the game for up to six hours per day, is responsible for every bowling change and minute alteration to the field – and then has to go out to bat.

The best example of the relationship between the cricket captain and the team coach was provided by Bob Woolmer who, when coach of South Africa, attempted to communicate with his on-field captain, Hansie Cronje, via an earpiece. The moment the authorities got wind of this, it was condemned as unethical and banned immediately. The captain must do his job alone.
And how the pressure on him has grown. The debate surrounding Alastair Cook’s future has been played out much more vigorously than ever before. Gone are the days when such matters were the source of a good argument in the village pub; now it is played out all over social media where cricket fans express their opinions both freely and without reservation while high profile former players such as the Australian Shane Warne take to national newspapers to present their critical analysis.

All of this is worse when the captain is out of form. His team mates are able to focus entirely on their own games, free from the burden of decision making. But when England find themselves in a losing streak and the captain can’t buy a run for love nor money, he has nowhere to hide. Despite the honour and the prestige the position brings, being England cricket captain must sometimes make you feel like the loneliest man in the world.

July 17th 2014

We have enjoyed some spectacular summers of sport in recent years. The 2012 Olympics and Paralympics will take some beating. Last year, England retained the Ashes, Justin Rose won the US Open Golf and the highlight had to be Andy Murray making history at Wimbledon.

But, so far, 2014 has been a major let down for British Sport. The less said about England’s effort in the World Cup, the better, Murray was thrashed in the quarter final, Chris Froome crashed out of the Tour de France after such a stunningly choreographed Grand Depart in Yorkshire, and England’s cricketers were beaten by Sri Lanka for the first time at home.

We still have the Commonwealth Games to look forward to in Glasgow, but if British sport is looking for redemption, it might well come on the greens of Royal Liverpool in Hoylake where the 143rd Open Championship is taking place this week. The American Phil Mickelson is the defending champion, and this is the first Major that Tiger Woods will have played since major back surgery. He showed his intentions by arriving at Hoylake five days early, just as he did when he won there in 2006, but if it is not to be Mickelson or Woods, what are the prospects of one of our own golfers lifting the nation’s flagging spirits?

Many will consider that Justin Rose starts as our best hope, and he will be all too aware that is has been 22 years since an Englishman (Nick Faldo) won the Open Championship, and 45 years since Tony Jacklin did so on home soil. Since bursting onto the scene as a young amateur, Rose’s Open track record is disappointing, but he won on the PGA tour a fortnight ago, so his confidence is high. If not Rose, then what about Rory McIlroy who won the PGA Championship the week after calling off his engagement to the tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki? He is a power player, who hammered a 436-yard drive at the Scottish Open last week, but where his inconsistency was highlighted by his first round 64, and his second round 78.

I will be cheering on Lee Westwood, a cricket lover who I have interviewed on Test Match Special. Westwood missed the cut at the Scottish Open last week, but he did finish 2nd in the Open four years ago, while Ian Poulter could win if he could only reproduce his Ryder Cup form.

July 9th 2014

A Test series between England and India has become one of the most eagerly anticipated battles in international cricket. Long gone are the days when India’s cricketers were viewed with mild curiosity, and tended to succumb meekly to bowling that was even slightly hostile. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev changed all that, while Bishen Bedi’s beguiling left arm spin and bright turbans remains for me the best illustration of Indian cricket – disarming charisma masking magical skill.

The modern Indian cricketer is very different to Bishen. This is now the sport of superstars who are adored every bit as much as actors and pop icons. The rewards for the top players are immense, while despite allegations of corruption against him, the President of the Indian Board was recently elected as the first chairman of the International Cricket Council. Make no mistake; India is cricket’s powerhouse.

But like England, India are struggling. They have not won a Test match overseas for three years and last time they were in England an aloof, uninterested-looking team was despatched 4-0. Worse still, when England toured India 18 months ago they did the unthinkable by coming back from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1.

Duncan Fletcher, the coach widely credited for masterminding England’s long-awaited Ashes success in 2005, returns as India’s coach determined to make amends for his team’s disastrous showing four years ago. Only three of his players have appeared in Tests in England before, making this one of the least experienced squads to tour here. But this is the chance Fletcher has been waiting for. For years his hands were hopelessly tied by the presence of truly legendary figures such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag. The coach’s position was virtually ineffectual. But with their retirements that has all changed, and now surrounded by talented and ambitious young men such as Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and the dashing Shikhar Dhawan, Fletcher can finally mould the team in his own fashion.

Alastair Cook was the captain of the first England team to win in India for 26 years, and whose current crisis graphically reflects sport’s wheel of fortune. He faced a similar predicament in 2010 when he could not buy a run and was saved by a painstaking century in the last match of the summer. But he was not distracted by the captaincy then. Now England’s current run of 6 defeats in 7 Tests adds greatly to the pressure on his shoulders.

July 3rd 2014

I might have an unusual take on the World Cup biting incident by Luis Suarez, but I am going to share it with you anyway. Make no mistake, the Uruguay striker’s actions were absolutely disgraceful and his explanation that he simply lost his balance and fell onto his opponent is nothing short of risible. The worldwide condemnation was instant and deserved while, at the same time, FIFA was challenged to come up with a suitable punishment.

In banning Suarez from 9 Uruguay matches and from all football-related activity for four months, FIFA discharged its duty both admirably and fairly. All too often high profile sportsmen get away with poor behaviour and in biting an opponent – which is just about as bad as it gets – Suarez is a repeat offender.
So what possessed the victim, the Italian Giorgio Chiellini, to criticize FIFA for imposing a punishment that he described as “too excessive?” Surely all footballers need protection from such on-field thuggery, but especially those who make a living from the sport. In criticizing FIFA as he did, I believe Chiellini did football a disservice.
It would not be a World Cup without a measure of controversy and this tournament has been full of excitement, too. It is impossible ever to tire of the Argentinean genius, Lionel Messi while, for pressure, it is difficult to beat the Brazilian striker, Neymar, who carried the hopes of his football-crazy country on his shoulders when he had to score from the deciding fifth penalty in their shoot-out with Chile.

But to be regarded as a classic World Cup, there must romance, too. The goal of the World Cup so far probably goes to the lesser-known talent of Columbia’s James Rodriguez while Greece and Costa Rica have demonstrated that you do not need a domestic league bursting with stellar names in order to succeed at international level. It will be fascinating to see what impact America’s qualification for the last 16 has on the popularity of football in the States, while closer to home, the inquests into the failures by England, Spain, Italy and Portugal will already be underway.

The World Cup has also been a triumph for Brazil, and for Rio de Janeiro in particular. Faced in advance with the usual doubts about its preparedness, Rio has confounded its doubters and returning journalists I have spoken to are in no doubt that the 2016 Olympics there will be spectacular.


June 27th 2014

As if it is not enough that the administration of FIFA, the international governing body of football, is currently facing serious allegations of corruption and malpractice, the headlines this week are likely to be made by FIFA’s cricketing equivalent, the ICC.

At a meeting in Melbourne, the Test-playing countries will accept radical changes to the way that cricket is run, with India, England and Australia setting themselves up as the senior, all powerful members of a new Executive Committee that will govern the game, and make the most money from it. Most controversial of all is that the man who will be proposed as the first chairman, and who therefore will effectively run world cricket, is the President of the Indian Board (BCCI) Narayanaswami Srinivasan, who denies the allegations of corruption he faces, but who recently stepped down from his position at the BCCI under the instruction of the Indian Supreme Court.

It seems astonishing that Mr Srinivasan should have any involvement with the administration of the ICC under the current circumstances, or that its members should meekly accept his nomination this week. It illustrates the power that India, which generates 70% of the game’s income, holds over the others; all of whom need to play against India in order to benefit from the enormous sums generated by television.

Cricket’s administrators need only to look over their shoulders at the maelstrom of allegations against their football counterparts, including the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, to appreciate what dangerous territory they are dragging cricket into. Sponsors are becoming increasingly agitated about the manner in which Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup with one, Adidas, expressing its concern about the “negative tenor of the public debate, which is neither good for football, for FIFA or its partners.”

Blatter is set to stand for re-election next year and unless he resigns in the meantime, FIFA will continue to stave off the allegations that are damaging its reputation. But the ICC still has time to take a step back. The new structure allows only India, England and Australia to nominate one of their own as chairman, with the new Executive Committee responsible for dealing with corruption within the game. So why not put either the Englishman or the Australian in to bat first and allow Srinivasan time to clear his name? Because common sense rarely features in the often murky world of sports administration, that’s why.