Test Match Sanctimony

Back in the day, when I was a mere 19 year old whipper snapper, I ended up getting a job at a garden centre during my university summer holidays. Naturally the pay back then was quite frankly pitiful and I normally responded by turning up half cut after a big night out the night before, especially at the weekends. It was a pretty uneventful and dull job, which tidied me over and gave me some money to throw at cheap booze during the next semester. The one and only perk (so to be speak) was that often on a Thursday and a Monday, I was often tasked with helping out the main delivery driver with his delivery runs throughout the whole of Sussex. This was ideal for me, I could basically sit in the van all day, occasionally getting out to deliver some garden furniture at some remote place in rural Sussex, whilst discovering every road side café within the boundaries of the A27 (my delivery man was not a small gentleman). The best thing for me however, was that the main man was a massive cricket fan himself and so whilst I got to discover some new quaint and wonderful places in Sussex from the comfort of my passenger seat, I was also able to enjoy a summer of listening to Test Match Special on the radio. The travel to rural locations alongside conversations about cricket with the dulcet tones of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Vic Marks, Simon Mann and Blowers made what was a pretty crappy job into a summer I actually look back with fondness on. I bet there are a number of us with similar stories, who remember traveling by road or listening on holiday to the TMS team cover the often travails of the English cricket team in good humoured fashion. This was long before the ECB turned into a despicable, money grabbing, old boys club; sure they were an old boys club back then, but back then they were far more interested in what Port was being served at lunch, rather than trying to squeeze every penny out of their dwindling fan base.

Test Match Special has it’s place as an institution of English cricket, something that has been cherished by the English cricketing public for a number of years and what the BBC would probably like to term ‘Auntie’s favourite’ in the fact it was highly inoffensive but much admired due to some of the quirky conversations between a number of the commentators. This so called institution though is beginning to fade and quickly, with the advent of Sky (for those that can afford it) as well as streaming sites and the advent of social media, which negates having to listen to long swathes of cricket should that not be your wish and can inform in a moment when a wicket has fallen or when England have collapsed in a heap again. There is also competition now, with TalkSport winning the rights to the winter tours for the next few years. Now I must admit that I haven’t actually listened to any commentary from TalkSport, but from the feedback from those who have, many have said it is a competent operation and compares favourably to TMS. One also has to look at the make up of Test Match special, especially around those who commentate for the show, and it soon becomes clear that ‘Houston, we have a problem’. Boycott is a casual hypocrite who has been banging on about the same stuff for years, Graeme Swann is a legend only in his lunch hour and makes Jay from the InBetweeners look modest, whilst Vaughan is too busy shamelessly promoting his own clients and jumping on any bandwagon that the ECB care to peddle out. It seems like an old boys club, with the emphasis on ‘In Jokes” and ‘banter’ rather than any serious attempt to describe what is going on with the game and so this leads us straight to the door of the ‘so-called face of the TMS’ Jonathan Agnew.

Agnew likes to paint himself as a whiter than white and a real patriarch of the game, but someone who is also approachable and jovial. He is a favourite of the ‘blue rinse brigade’ who can’t get enough of that lovable Mr. Agnew and the BBC paints a picture that TMS under Agnew’s watch harks back to a simpler and purer time. This is a lovely picture in an ideal world, but one that forgets that Agnew is a thin-skinned, foul-mouthed media luvvie, who is likely to snap the moment anyone dares to question his expertise or the way he goes about his business as ‘Chief Correspondent of the BBC’. The lovable Mr. Agnew that he likes to paint a picture around is actually an insecure, paranoid individual who is likely to lose his temper the moment the adoration stops and funnily enough, this doesn’t surprise me in the least. Agnew has kept being told during his time at the BBC that he is doing a great job, that the public love him, that he is right about all things cricket by the army of cricket fans who follow his social media feeds (well not Kicca) and anyone who dares criticize him will face the wrath of the pearl clutching brigade who will jump on anyone at the merest hint of insubordination. This clearly has inflated his ego somewhat, so much so that he saw it fit to criticize Gary Lineker on social media for expressing his political views:

So when a fellow journalist, a TV presenter or one of us ‘little bloggers’ dares to stick our head over the parapet and disagree with Agnew, the man himself is almost disbelieving that anyone on this planet could have the audacity to disagree with him. If was just Agnew’s thin skinned approach or pinch nosed approach to the public, then it really wouldn’t be a big deal as many in the media view the general public as the ‘great unwashed who are there to be preached at’; unfortunately for Agnew this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has always been fairly easy to be sceptical about Agnew, especially after the Pietersen affair, where he like many others in the media seemed to turn into ECB mouthpieces overnight. I remember the interview the Full Toss blog did with him not long after the infamous sacking of a certain individual from the ‘aplomb one’ and Agnew came across as incredibly dismissive of what were pretty fair questions (I’m sure Maxie can add some insight into this). It also became clear that the Chief Cricket Correspondent of the BBC had struck up a friendship with Alastair Cook, much like he has a friendship with Stuart Broad, whose father was a regular in a pub that Agnew used to visit regularly. Now I don’t have any problem whatsoever with commentators and media hacks having members of the England that they both admire and sometimes are friendly with, but there has to a be line somewhere when admiration has to be put aside in order to produce fair and concise judgements on any turn of events. This hasn’t seemed to bother Agnew one bit, who not only stoutly defended Cook at every turn, but also demanded an apology from the ‘hoi polloi’ on the back of an interview with guess who, Alastair Cook, who was hardly likely to take a ‘mea culpa’ approach to the situation

This is bad enough, but Agnew always seemed to ‘raise his game’ whenever Cook did well in a game and who revelled in the fact that Cook had ended his England career by scoring a century in his final Test. He subsequently used it as an opportunity to take pot-shots at those who might not have quite shared his delight:

Now I really am no Piers Morgan fan, but on this occasion Morgan had been gracious about the end of Cook’s international career, and yet Agnew decided to show everybody who would listen how he was right and how wrong Morgan had been. Except this wasn’t just a pot-shot at Morgan, it was far more than that; it was a pot-shot at any of us who had dared not to buy into the cult of Alastair Cook. It was an us vs. the rest moment, either your inside cricket and rightly bow down to the greatest player who has ever worn the England shirt or you are ‘outside cricket’, someone to be mocked and sneered at by those ‘who really know cricket’. It was all rather typical Jonathan Agnew really, a triumphalist ‘stuff you’ aimed at those who dared criticize him or dared to question ‘his wonderful friend’. This is not what we should expect from anyone who purports to report on the game, let alone from someone with a ‘Chief Correspondent’ job title as this is skewed journalism at best and a downright hagiography at its worst. The fact that Agnew either doesn’t realise how this looks or even worse, doesn’t really care, shows his complete lack of respect to the English cricketing public and that impartiality is something he is quite simply unable to deliver on. It is people like Agnew, Mike Selvey and Paul Newman, who were so quick to peddle the ECB line as Cook being the saviour of English cricket in the hope of garnering favour, which may have actually contributed to the intense dislike some English fans have for Cook himself. Writing or commentating about the game with a neutral outlook seems to be something this is a ‘nice to have’ for the 3 gentlemen above, but not one that necessarily pays in the long term, for that you have plug whatever propaganda the ECB is purporting at the time and Agnew through his loyal friendship with Cook was more than happy to do so.

This wouldn’t be the first time either, as who can ever forget the infamous picture of Agnew cosily dining with Giles Clarke (and surprise Mike Selvey). Now Agnew gets very hot and bothered when this is posted and strongly maintains that he had just given Clarke both barrels (though I doubt he called him a c*nt), but in reality does anyone really believe this? It is far more likely that Agnew was making sure that he got a slice of whatever pie was on offer (figuratively not the literally obviously), by leaving whatever morals he had at the door in favour of personal gain. Naturally this wouldn’t fit with the jovial, whiter than white image that Agnew has tried to cultivate for himself, so Agnew has done whatever he can to both distance and disavow himself from that situation.

Giles-Clarke-and-Jonathan-001

Up until this point though, Agnew in the main had managed to keep his public persona as “Auntie’s face of English cricket’ in tact with some success, this was until last week when the mask slipped and boy did it slip big time. It seems that Agnew and Jonathan Liew have been engaged in a war of words for sometime, but things have been at least civil in the public eye. Agnew was first angered by an article by Liew around Jofra Archer and his perceived integration into the English cricket team, which Agnew believes was accusing him of racism.

https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/cricket/england-cricket-world-cup-squad-jofra-archer-a8887246.html

Now I have read this article a few times, which is highly nuanced (other than that it’s a mightily good article) and I don’t believe Liew is accusing Agnew of racism in this piece as he is also critical of Michael Vaughan, though others are welcome to disagree. Then Liew wrote another piece Wisden, which seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, which says of Agnew:

‘Besides, he’s under the wing of Aggers now, who barely bothers to conceal his disdain for the great unwashed of the written press, like a French aristo pinching his nostrils as he strolls through a peasant market, lest he get an unwanted whiff of rotting chicken giblets.’

Now having never been invited into in any commentary box or media briefing, I have no idea whether this is true or not; however the response from Agnew was first one of outrage and then one of pure unabridged anger:

Boom, I certainly didn’t expect that top pop up on my timeline last Saturday, and what of the pearl clutching ‘Agnew luvvies,’ I bet one or two of them nearly went into cardiac arrest when they saw this. Now I understand that Agnew feels wronged and that alcohol consumption may have played a part, but this is completely out of order and can easily be classed as bullying, with Agnew throwing both his weight about and the toys out of his pram too. This ‘colourful language’ is the type I’d expect on a Friday night out in Croydon, not from the Chief Cricket Correspondent of the BBC, a 59 old year man who has made his living from being the squeaky clean face of the BBC’s cricket coverage.

Now I’m not saying that Liew is faultless here, not at all. Liew is a very marmite character and writer, with a number of this parish disagreeing about some of the content of his articles and he is known in certain circles as a ‘wind up merchant’. Liew for me is capable of writing some superb pieces, but also some total dross, where he decides to show everyone how clever he is, with an air of smugness to boot; a bit like Barney Ronay (who coincidentally was also called a ‘wanker’ by Jonathan Agnew). Liew knew very well what he was doing in both those articles and it is clear that there has been some kind of vendetta gathering pace under the carpet between the two of them, which feels rather undignified considering one is the Chief Sports Writer for the Independent and the other the Chief Cricket Reporter of the BBC. It all feels a bit like two 7 year olds fighting for the last bit of cake; however both clearly have enormous egos and are morally sure they are in the right. The main mistake Agnew made was by not being too bright and picking a slanging match against Liew, who is incredibly bright and cocksure and doesn’t mind burning a few bridges in the process. Once those direct messages were out in the open, there was always only going to be one winner, if indeed you would class that there is a winner out of this whole charade.

Agnew on the other hand, is quite lucky that the BBC took a fairly lenient approach despite the ‘bollocking’ that he may have received on the back of this. Memories often fade quickly when someone in the limelight who on the whole is incredibly popular with this English cricketing public and I’m sure Agnew will quickly be forgiven for his indiscretions here (though I’m very sure Liew won’t benefit from the same level of forgiveness). The interesting thing for me is whether Agnew actually learns anything from this event and decides to be a little more humble and to get off the high horse that he has perched himself on. Often it goes either way, so it will be interesting to see what happens when Agnew comes back online.

Either way it seems that irony had developed a sense of humour last weekend and a similar indiscretion from the now chastened Agnew, may result in a far harsher sentence. As one former newspaper Chief Cricket Correspondent once wrote ‘his card has been marked’. It now falls at the feet of Agnew to lay down the cronyism and to actually be a neutral, incisive correspondent for the BBC, which he once was. Whether he is still capable of that though, is most certainly a moot point.