Alastair Cook steps into his car and slides behind the wheel. During dinner at South Australia’s Government House he did have a couple, but he reckons he is fine to drive. In any case, he has to get back to the team hotel at Glenelg pronto: the Adelaide Test is in the balance, and he needs a proper night’s rest.
Mercifully, the collision with a concrete post looks worse than it is, but it still leaves the England captain with a bloody cockscomb and a bruised knee, and unable to take any further part in the match. His passenger, managing director Paul Downton, is shaken enough to require a night in hospital.
The only witness happens to be a member of the travelling press corps, working for one of the leading agencies. Alerted by the noise, he peers out of his hotel window, blinks once to make sure it really is Cook down there, and twice to make sure he really is as drunk as he appears. As no harm has been done to any other party, and once the journalist has established that neither the police nor the medical authorities think it necessary to make public the condition of the England captain prior to the accident, he files his report, which appears in next day’s Adelaide Advertiser:
MCC captain Freddie Brown, and a joint manager of the team, Brigadier M. A. Green, were injured in a car accident on North Terrace, city, last night. Brigadier Green was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a semi-conscious condition, suffering from a probable fractured nose, and Brown was treated for cuts to the head and left knee. Brown, who had four stitches inserted in his left knee and two in his head, is reported to have said soon after the accident that he would play today. Doctors at the hospital, however, think it is doubtful, because he will be suffering from stiffness. Brown told the police that he was riving along North Terrace when he swerved to avoid another car. In doing so he crashed head-on into a tram standard in the middle of the road.
The reporter of the actual event – rather than the fictional flight of fancy at the start of this piece – was my father, Reg Hayter. He was covering the 1950- 51 Ashes tour for Reuters, and was one of the old school of cricket scribes, able to enjoy close and lasting friendships with the players, even while writing about them. He later became a press agent for many of them, and his bulging contacts book allowed him to form his own agency and training academy for budding sportswriters, Hayters. Its many illustrious pupils were taught, among other things, the value of what Albert Sewell, his faithful lieutenant, called “a capacity for friendship”. But that was then.
Apart from the very few who knew the truth, my father’s account of Freddie Brown’s accident became the accepted version. The point of merging fact and fiction is that he and Brown could never have got away with it now. Today’s non-stop coverage, instant news access and social media have shrunk the world of cricket to the distance separating you from your smartphone, leaving precious little space for the once mutually beneficial relationships between players and press. John Woodcock, for 40 years the cricket correspondent of The Times, recalls: “When we went on tour we were a family. Not everyone got on, but we travelled together, stayed in the same hotels, drank and ate together. We were very lucky. It was such fun. The things the players got up to that we didn’t write about in those days… I’m not saying we were doing our job properly. It was another world.” And I was lucky enough to be part of it.
If anyone has bothered to buy all the newspapers after non-match days in recent summers, they would quickly have realised they were reading the same story, featuring the same quotes, in the same order.
There were countless magnificent nights with Ian Botham, including many belters also featuring Viv Richards, though a week-long session with them in the spring of 1993 might have cost me my job. I was covering the England tour of the West Indies, but had negotiated with my bosses at The Mail on Sunday to take a detour to meet Ian in Antigua for work on his first autobiography. I felt uneasy about ducking out, especially as England had been bowled out for 46 in Trinidad by Curtly Ambrose, and my sports editor would want a piece explaining why. But, as I was booked on a flight for Grenada, England’s next port of call, on the Friday, I would have plenty of time to catch up with events, gauge the mood, and find someone to interview before filing more breathless prose for the paper.
Despite the repeated assurances of Ian and Viv, I never did make the plane on Friday – but I did have a cracking view of it as it flew directly over the boat in which we were bobbing about at the time. Viv was making the waves shudder with a deep, dark rendition of “April Rain” that highlighted why he could easily have made a career in the opera, and Ian was joining in with a version that showed why he could not. I had already accepted my fate as victim of one of the easiest kidnappings in sporting history, so made a couple of phone calls – to England batsman and good friend Robin Smith, and my supposed deadly red-top rival David Norrie, of the News of the World – in an attempt to save my skin.
I gave David a list of questions for Robin, got up before I went to bed, tried to blag my way on to the first available flight the next day and, with moments remaining before my deadline, ran out of the taxi that had sped me from Grenada airport to St George’s cricket ground, and grabbed the piece of paper containing his answers. Without reading them, I phoned the office to tell them I had pulled off a world exclusive with Robin Smith about how England had been blown away by Hurricane Curtly, ad-libbed an intro, read out the quotes word for word, and collapsed in a heap. Minutes later, my sports editor rang back to congratulate me on a cracking piece and a job well done.
It is interesting to note how much more fun than the English the Australians are to interview, and how much better they come across in public, even while they were losing the 2013 Ashes 3–0.
Not that relationships were all plain sailing. Twelve months earlier, at the end of England’s calamitous 1992-93 tour of India and Sri Lanka, the same Smith had placed both hands around my throat at about 3am in the lift of Colombo’s Taj Samudra hotel, for reasons neither of us could remember later. I do recall, however, a harried-looking sponsor’s rep at the reception desk, as he dug out his American Express card to pay for the damage done when some likely local lads took on a few of our brave boys in the hotel nightclub. Somehow none of these incidents made the paper, nor did one concerning Phil Tufnell, with whom I had shared shandy and scrapes almost from the day he entered the Test arena. By the time he arrived in Australia for the 1994-95 tour, Tuffers had for some while been in a state about his domestic chaos, which would have made even Jeremy Kyle blush. His problems boiled over as he trashed his hotel room in Perth, and found himself in a local psychiatric unit. England wanted to replace him with Kent’s Min Patel, but a final plea from Tufnell had persuaded them otherwise.
Having just arrived from the UK, I opened the door of my Adelaide hotel room to hear the phone ringing. It was Phil. He wanted to see me immediately in the bar, where he poured out the whole story. I told him I would do what I could to make sure it never came to light, but suggested that, if it was about to break, we would have to go public, and I could make sure he had the chance to give his side of events first. Knowing that I would almost certainly be sacked if my bosses found out I was sitting on the news, I was relieved that the lid stayed on until the tour ended in January. When my paper then rang to tell me the News of the World were running a tale helpfully headlined “Docs Put Cricket Ace Tufnell In Madhouse”, I feigned ignorance. I don’t know if they believed my plea, but they accepted it, perhaps reasoning that they would benefit from my links with the England dressing-room.
Just as well: one of the great moments of my career happened in Tuffers’ company, on the 1997-98 tour of the West Indies, when I said “Not now, mate” to a shadowy figure who had approached us as we dined with Mark Ramprakash in Strawberry Hills, overlooking Kingston. Apparently he was a pop singer: Robbie Williams, or something.
On another Caribbean tour, my passable restaurant French enabled Adam Hollioake to make successful small talk with a gorgeous Gallic model towards the rear of a twin-engine island hopper. He repaid me with the jaw-dropping tale of how, as England’s one-day captain, he had been approached by – and immediately rebuffed – match-fixers offering to make him a millionaire at the 1997 Champions Trophy in Sharjah.
Perhaps the best example of turning friendships into newspaper inches was my story about Graham Thorpe making himself unavailable for the 1999-2000 tour of South Africa – information I was able to reveal, with his approval, even before the chairman of selectors knew. Thorpe and I had become close, sharing the emotions all tourists experience about the strains of being away from home.
But, as England struggled on the field, the mood in Fleet Street became darker. That led, maybe inevitably, to disaster. On the 2001-02 tour of India, Thorpe announced he was flying home to rescue his marriage. The night before he left, he came to my room and told me everything. After he got home we were in regular contact, and agreed he would speak to one of our reporters. I was asked to provide any notes I had, to bring the reporter up to speed. Foolishly, I obliged.
Next I knew, the deal was off, for reasons never explained. Two days later, just before deadline, the paper called to say they were running a three-page spread, using my notes as direct quotes. I objected furiously; they weren’t interested. I immediately rang Thorpe to explain what had happened. He didn’t seem overly concerned, but I threatened to resign – a threat that had limited success. The most personal elements in the piece were deleted, but it duly ran – under my name – and I spent the next week shut in my hotel in Bangalore, ashamed to have betrayed the trust of a friend, and feeling far from home.
Thorpe was good enough to accept my explanation and apologies, saying that at least the story had been based on fact. But the incident taught me never again to get so close to the players. And, from my more detached position, I have seen enough to think Michael Atherton was right when he observed – regarding my friendship with Tufnell – that “it would be almost impossible for a press man to get that close to any of the players these days”.
The most telling proof of this is the absence of the Christmas panto, staged by the press for the touring party’s benefit. On the eve of the 1994 Boxing Day Test at the team hotel in Melbourne we had sung “Amazing Ray” – to the tune of “Amazing Grace” – on behalf of captain Atherton. It was in the middle of the ill-tempered selection battle between him and David Graveney on one side, and Ray Illingworth, Brian Bolus and Fred Titmus on the other. “…How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” (Illingworth had claimed he had saved Atherton’s Test captaincy by fining him over the dirt-in-the-pocket incident at Lord’s earlier that year). “… I once was boss, but now I’ve found, I lose the vote 2–3.” The tradition stopped when England’s 1996-97 tourists to Zimbabwe objected to the press criticism they had received for failing to put away Test cricket’s newcomers.
The standard of reporting remains excellent, but the desire of the cricket authorities in general, and the ECB in particular, to manage the news, manipulate the media and, on occasions, be downright obstructive, is unhealthy and unhelpful. So is the complicity of those journalists who have allowed the daily news briefing to form the basis of their coverage.
Aiding individual requests for access is almost impossible. But if anyone has bothered to buy all the newspapers after non-match days in recent summers, they would quickly have realised they were reading the same story, featuring the same quotes, in the same order. The reader will also be told at the end of such a piece, and sometimes halfway through it, that so-and-so was speaking as a “brand ambassador” for whichever sponsor’s turn it was to have the use of an England player – information that will mean nothing to readers. Those who work in public relations call it churnalism. Journalism, it is not.
We have all dined at the same trough. But it did come as a shock to be told by an ECB media officer, soon after I had secured an interview for the first issue of The Cricket Paper with England captain Andrew Strauss (by ringing him up and asking him nicely), that in future I would not be allowed access to any England cricketer unless the piece was arranged in conjunction with a sponsor. I admit I have not always stuck rigidly to the rules. Players are now well versed in the art and science of media training, to which they are subjected as soon as they show the slightest sign of being good enough to represent England one day. This is conducted by professionals from newspapers, radio and other media, and is intended to teach the poor wee lambs how to talk to journalists – by opening and shutting their mouths without actually saying anything.
In my experience of talking to younger cricketers, media training is the last thing they need. Some may think their time could be better spent being trained to bat, bowl and field. It is interesting to note how much more fun than the English the Australians are to interview, and how much better they come across in public, even while they were losing the 2013 Ashes 3–0. Could this be because, in the main, they said what they actually thought, and not what they thought their media relations department told them to say?
If you are looking for answers, don’t bother: I haven’t really posed any questions. But, as well as feeling a profound gratitude for having had such a ball while doing this for a living, I am a little saddened that the next generation of journalists will spend more time glued to the internet than having a beer or two with friends who happen to be cricketers. And one thing I do know. A bored player talking to a bored reporter in controlled laboratory conditions, sometimes with a sponsor or ECB blazer on their shoulder ready to intervene, usually equals a boring interview for all concerned. The real victims are those who have to read it.