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The 2018 Wisden Dinner speech: One more thing to worry about

Long Room dinner
by Miles Jupp 10 minute read

Actor, writer, and comedian Miles Jupp fell in love with cricket in 1991 “absolutely out of nowhere”. He shared his cricketing tales at the 2018 Wisden Dinner speech.

Thank you very much. It’s always a thrill to visit what I like to think of as London’s second-best Test venue. And it’s a pleasure to be invited to come out for the evening and talk at great length about cricket, given the frosty reception I tend to receive for it at home – my wife sadly and erroneously believing that discussing the difference between Graham Gooch’s batting average pre- and post-captaincy is less important than simply getting some sleep.

I fell in love with cricket in 1991, absolutely out of nowhere. I’d played it at school, played matches for my school. I even used to have nets here at the indoor school. But I didn’t love it; I just did it. Like all the other things you’re obliged to do at private school, from learning Latin verbs to cultivating a sense of unjustified superiority.

In 1991, as a result of some sort of alchemy, it happened. An interesting enough summer: Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I do) I do it for you” riding high in the charts and presumably blasting out of RA Smith’s dressing-room boom box throughout; a drawn series against a good West Indies side; the last Test of IVA Richards; the debuts of GA Hick and MR Ramprakash (“Strap in!” we thought); the return of IT Botham; the leg-over incident.

I was rewarded, that Christmas, with a series of cricket-related books – my parents no doubt delighted that I had suddenly, in my 12th year, actually taken an interest in something. They’d taken to poking me with a stick every few months just to see if I was sentient. It was a slightly unusual collection, mainly scoured from the second-hand bookshops of Lincolnshire. Certainly, no one else went back to school that term with their own hardback copy of the autobiography of the Bishop of Liverpool. Their loss – crikey, he knew how to dish the dirt. The best of the lot, though, was a brand new copy of the 1991 edition of Wisden, that fabulous yellow brick of hard facts. Imagine my disappointment, however, when I opened its covers and found that 1991 referred not to the year of the cricket it described, but to the year of its publication. I wanted to relive that glorious summer. What did I care or know of 1990? Who were these people? Who was JE Morris batting at No.3? Who was this EE Hemmings? I read it, of course, from cover to cover. And, actually, not a bad year. At least I now understood why some people at school had bats with 333 branded on them. I’d assumed that, like most things at private school, it was some sort of reference to their fathers’ Masonic connections.

England beat Australia by 161 runs in the 1993 Test at The Oval

England won the 1993 Test at The Oval, beating Australia by 161 runs

Cricket to me had a kind of magic. It seemed to be a game where grittiness and stubbornness had their place. It’s all very well people skipping up the wicket or heaving blockhole filth over cow corner. I like them to be rewarded for just about getting out of the way of a rising short ball, or thick-edging wide of fourth slip for a scampered single. I love that it can end in a draw. My dream day of Test cricket wouldn’t involve Sehwag or Gilchrist smashing people to all corners; it would be Atherton and the less-gifted Waugh blocking out Warne and Ambrose all day for a draw. I was at The Oval on September 12, 2005. Kevin Pietersen played the most amazing innings I have ever seen in the flesh – in just his fifth Test. But if I could have been anyone on the pitch that day, it would have been Ashley Giles gutsing it out at the other end, forcing it through the covers off the back foot and smiling drily at sledges. And yes, it ended in a draw. Perfect.

The 1990s was my period for cricket. A lot of people my age remember the 1990s for Britpop – Blur, Oasis, that crowd. I remember it too, of course, but to me they were the soundtrack to the on-field exploits of MA Atherton, AJ Stewart, D Gough, GA Gooch, GP Thorpe, ARC Fraser, DE Malcolm, CC Lewis, all too briefly DI Gower and – generally for one glorious Test at the tail end of each home summer in advance of a disastrous winter tour – Philip Clive Roderick Tufnell.

The first Test I ever went to was against Australia in 1993 at The Oval, England winning – Atherton’s first victory in his second Test as leader. Atherton became my hero that summer, making scores of 19, 25, 80, 99, 11, 9, 55, 63, 72, 28, 50 and – that’s right – 42. I know you all wanted to chant along with me.

It wasn’t just the fancy venues I went to, though, the bustling stadia of our metropolises. The first professional cricket I actually saw was at the Racecourse Ground in Derby. It looked less like a first-class sporting arena than the sort of place people exercise their dogs. I saw Kim Barnett reach a century against the touring Australians. Has anyone else ever seen Wayne Holdsworth take a hattrick at Derby? I didn’t realise that I had, until I read about it in the paper the next day. I was happy enough, though. I was now the proud owner of the autographs of both Peter Bowler and Ole Mortensen. Not a bad haul for my first day, I thought.

I loved collecting autographs. The end of a day’s play wasn’t the end of the day for me. It was the start of my autograph hunting. In 1995, I spent three days watching Middlesex play Northamptonshire at Uxbridge. I got every single player’s autograph – either when they were fielding at fine leg, or bustling between the pavilion and their sponsored cars with their names on the side, or round the back smoking B&H. When I got the last one, David Ripley I think it was, it was every bit as satisfying to me as having got Brian Lara’s three days earlier at The Oval.

I have here something that I retrieved from a box under my desk last night. It’s my autograph book from 1996 – all the signatures in it collected on one August evening on the Harleyford Road. Inside the front cover there are notes and advice on its use: “Record the name of the sports star in BLOCK CAPITALS in the space provided, so that you can still read it clearly years later,” etc. It also says: “Sometimes, you will ask for an autograph, but be refused. A special section is provided at the back of the book to record these disappointments.” I’d quite forgotten this feature, and so I eagerly looked at the back page and laughed for about ten minutes when I saw that the first two names on it were Cork and Boycott.

But never mind that. Listen to the names of the ones who did sign. I sometimes put extra details about them in brackets. “Robert Croft (debut), Ian Salisbury (also England A), John Crawley (smokes Marlboro Lights), Nick Knight, Alan Mullally, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton.” I remember two things most vividly about acquiring the autograph of Michael Atherton that day. [Atherton is sitting feet away, laughing, as Jupp speaks.] The first was his modesty. The second was the state of his car. Astonishing. At that time in my life I had never witnessed a car so messy. I now have five children under the age of nine, and I have still never seen a car that messy. If he didn’t sleep in it, something did. If the art department had borrowed his car when they were making the film version of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, you’d have thought: “Oh, they’ve overdone it a bit here.”

But there are other names that show just how much I loved cricket as a whole. It wasn’t just the players, it was anyone associated with the game: Jonathan Agnew, Mervyn Kitchen, Peter van der Merwe. When I got the autograph of Alan Lee of The Times, I could not have been happier. Everything I learned about cricket when I started following it, I learned from him.

You see, I have an envy for people who can make a living from this great game – perhaps because I’ve always been absolutely dreadful at it. Once, at the age of 12, I scored 52 for my prep school Second XI. That form has never returned. I’d never done anything like that before, either. I was in the bubble for just one afternoon of my life.

The strange thing is, I do still find myself playing. I support the Lord’s Taverners, which – as I hope many of you will know – is a charity that does a lot of work helping young people with disadvantages and disabilities. And one of the things they do is ask me to play in games in which you’re on a team made up of professional cricketers and people off the telly and radio. So you end up out there in your whites, and standing at slip are Devon Malcolm and Gus Fraser, only next to them is Chris Tarrant. Lulu’s keeping wicket. Bernie Clifton and his ostrich are patrolling the boundary. The whole thing’s a bit like a fever dream.

What’s interesting is that some of the ex-pros take it very seriously, whereas some of them don’t. Ashley Giles – up for a laugh, enjoying an excuse to get out into the middle and swing the bat about for old time’s sake. Andy Caddick – Christ, I faced an over from him, and he could not have put more into it if he thought there was one place left on the plane to Australia and he was still in contention. I even played in that TMS 60th-anniversary T20 game which was shown live on the BBC as a red-button extra, and has consequently given rise to the terrifying statistic that I have played more cricket on terrestrial television than Joe Root.

This envy for people who make a living from the game got the better of me in late 2005. I don’t know if any of you saw Jack and the Beanstalk at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, that Christmas, but professionally, I felt dissatisfied. This was when I decided to become a cricket journalist. I figured I had two options. Get a qualification in journalism, then gradually acquire sufficient experience over a number of years to be able to break into the extremely competitive sports-writing world. Or the quicker way – and the one I chose – which was to acquire a press pass, go on an England tour, get access to the press box, and then pretend.

So before England travelled to India in early 2006, I got hold of the number of a sports producer for BBC Radio Scotland. I thought, what I’ll do is, I’ll ring her up, and I’ll lie to her. “Hello, it’s Miles Jupp here, I’m going out to India for a job, and I can’t help noticing that while I’m out there, England are playing a Test series. Could I offer my services as your cricket correspondent?”

And she said, very politely: “Well, we don’t carry a lot of cricket coverage, but keep in touch while you’re out there and we’ll see what happens.” And I said: “Gosh, the thought occurs if I am going to do any work for you, I’d probably need some sort of press pass or something, wouldn’t I? Oh, here’s an idea: why don’t you write a quick letter on BBC Scotland notepaper, saying ‘to whom it may concern’, that sort of thing, ‘Miles Jupp is our cricket correspondent.’ And then, you know, if anything comes up, I could use that.”

And she did! So as soon as the letter on headed notepaper arrived, I rang the England and Wales Cricket Board, and I said: “Hi there, it’s Miles Jupp, the chief cricket correspondent for BBC Scotland. Would it be possible to sort out accreditation for the India tour?”

Ben Stokes was found not guilty of affray at Bristol Crown Court for his involvement in the 2017 Bristol nightclub incident

Ben Stokes was found not guilty of affray at Bristol Crown Court for his involvement in the 2017 Bristol nightclub incident

Yes it would! My mistake, though, was to think getting in would be the hard part. Unfortunately, that was the easy part. The hard part was actually looking like you knew what you were doing once you got in there. I hadn’t realised it was a real job. When I was in India, I knew fairly early on that I wasn’t cut out to be a cricket journalist. I didn’t fit in, I stuck out, I was unusual; Nasser Hussain even bought me a drink one night, and you don’t get much more unusual than that.

But this all seems so long ago, and the game so very different. I am only – an admittedly not-very-young-looking – 38. But the game I loved then and the game played today seem like distant cousins.

What a year we’ve had. The England team playing exciting cricket, not just in the one-day game but also in the Test arena, where they’ve pioneered a brand of cricket so dynamic and exhilarating that the outcome of matches can be decided in the first session, sometimes the first 15 minutes. I don’t know why it always seems so much more difficult to play Down Under. People talk about the pitches, the crowds, the Kookaburra ball. Personally, I would never rule out the sheer demoralising effect of simply being in Australia.

It’s good to have Jonny Bairstow with us tonight, representing the rest of the England team in their absence, much as he does so often at the crease. What’s remarkable is how quickly we all seem to have accepted it. I still remember the days when an Ashes thrashing would lead to a post-mortem, a formal review and the immediate jettisoning of the batsman with the highest average. But we seem to be much more relaxed about this latest Ashes defeat. As Trevor Bayliss says, we have to regard it as simply another staging post on the way to the 2021 Champions Trophy.

And we’ve welcomed Ben Stokes back with open arms. Which is frankly the best way to greet him. So that he can see you’re not a threat. I think we can all agree it was disgraceful behaviour from Stokes. And totally unnecessary. You’re in Bristol, you’ve won a game. Don’t go out drinking until 2am. You’re in Brunel country, go and see a viaduct! Young people have no idea how to enjoy themselves.

But 4–0 in the Ashes. (Of course, I’d like to talk about some of the highlights of the one-day international season too, but as usual within 15 minutes of any of the games finishing they’ve become impossible to remember.) I mean, yes, it was 4–0. On paper. But, knowing what we know now, that result should probably have an asterisk beside it. Subsequent events mean we have no idea whether the Australians were bowling at all times with something recently retrieved from an Alsatian’s mouth.

Really, the most extraordinary series of events. And what a turnaround. You look at footage of Smith and Bancroft in the headbutt press conference, and they’re giggling about like Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. Then you see them sitting there at Cape Town, and suddenly they look like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson the morning after the EU referendum: two men beginning to realise that their actions have had consequences, that at least one of them is going to actually have to do some thinking, and that their lies might not stand up to scrutiny for ever.

Still, at least Smith and Bancroft have apologised. And Warner. Tricky one, that. They say you can judge a man by his enemies. Well, given that so many Australians seem to hate him now, I find myself really warming to the man.

Steve Smith’s press conference was certainly very difficult to watch. Especially as a parent. As a rather tired father of five young children, I had briefly allowed myself to luxuriate in the thought that once they’ve all left home your job is pretty much done. Now it turns out I might have to pick up the pieces in their late twenties when they’re done for ball-tampering. It’s just one more thing to worry about, isn’t it?

And these bans. Not just from international cricket and from the Sheffield Shield, but from the IPL as well. Which to me seems like a missed opportunity – who, after all, cares about the spirit of cricket when there’s money to be made? This to me seemed like the perfect opportunity for the IPL to team up with a sandpaper manufacturer and every couple of overs pause the action for a “B&Q Moment of Tampering”.

Bancroft won’t even appear in the County Championship. Which is a relief. The County Championship simply doesn’t need that sort of hullabaloo. The County Championship is an important reminder, much needed in this day and age, that life isn’t always about things actually happening. Inevitably, nothing is held to be sacred. There’s been some excitable chat about reorganising the County Championship, an opportunity to boost its popularity back to where it used to be, before the Boer War came along and spoiled it all.

Steve Smith and David Warner were handed year-long bans by Cricket Australia for their involvement in the ball-tampering incident

Steve Smith and David Warner were handed year-long bans by Cricket Australia for their involvement in the ball-tampering incident

And I must say I find the prospect of the new competition extremely exciting, and I don’t just say that because the ECB have threatened to sue me otherwise. Although if I’m honest, that is most of the reason. The new franchises, I think, will make all the difference, especially in terms of getting youngsters into the game. You talk to any small child about cricket and ask them if there’s anything that puts them off about it, and they will always reply: “Its ongoing association with the historic administrative divisions of England. Bruv.”

I am – terrifyingly – probably one of the youngest people here. But even I cannot believe quite how much the game has changed since I’ve been following it, and the ructions that have occurred. When I was watching Pietersen’s 158 at The Oval back in 2005, there’s no way I could possibly have foreseen that his last game as a professional would not occur in England colours in front of a home crowd, but wearing bright golden pads playing for the Zappa Crackers in the Hula Hoops Whack Off, or whatever it is.

When I was lying to people in India, I was blown away not just by how knowledgable the journalists were about cricket, but by how much they cared about it. I don’t watch anything like as much cricket as I used to. Cricket is a big business, and I am no longer one of its big customers. I listen to quite a lot of cricket. But mainly I read about it. That’s always been how I have connected with the game most.

I think that those people who write honestly, critically and insightfully about this game have always really been its custodians. And that’s why I was as delighted to find Alan Lee’s signature in this book as any of them.

So thank you for inviting me, thank you for listening to me, and thank you for being my heroes, or for writing about them.

The Long Room, Lord’s
April 11, 2018

Miles Jupp is an actor, writer and comedian who would have given anything to have had just one summer turning out semi-regularly for Surrey Seconds.

But the 2019 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack here!

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