British Journalism Review

I grew up wanting to emulate Neville Cardus, the legendary cricket correspondent of The Manchester Guardian. In my Jesuit school, in the city I shall always call Bombay, Cardus’s essay on the cricketer Ranji was part of our syllabus. And while I realised that it would be difficult for me to be exactly like my hero – he spent his summers writing about cricket and his winters being the paper’s music critic – I felt sure that once The Guardian realised how wonderful my cricket knowledge was, they would find plenty for me to do in the winter. If nothing else, I could go on those long cricket tours which meant you escaped the English cold.

I must confess I have not fulfilled that dream. But then there are many other dreams I have not fulfilled, which include scoring a century in a Lord’s Test and the winning Cup Final goal at Wembley. However, while I may not have become The Guardian’s cricket correspondent, I have no complaints about how my career has gone. What worries me is that the younger journalists cannot even dream like me.

Newspapers have decided that if you want to be their cricket correspondent then you must have played for England. Indeed this hunger to recruit sportsmen who have won honours is such that when it comes to authoritative voices on the sports pages, be it on cricket, football, rugby or almost any sport, the policy often seems: do not apply unless you can show me your sporting medals. Cardus, like me, never played the game at the representative level but his writing created modern sports journalism. It is unlikely that a modern day Cardus would get anything more than a one-line email rejection note should he seek to apply merely on the basis of how well he understood the game and could write about it. It is impossible to imagine today’s Guardian allowing CLR James, then a little-known writer from Trinidad, to write about cricket. And this is the man whose Beyond A Boundary is still the greatest of sports books.

Modern sports reporting at the top level seeks inside knowledge based on having experience of the field of play at the highest level. The hope is this will take the reader into the dressing room. This is a pursuit of a mirage. And it is in serious danger of debasing the sort of sports journalism Cardus introduced. True, there have been many wonderful successors to Cardus. Hugh McIlvanney is still with us. Simon Barnes, Patrick Collins, Paul Hayward and Martin Samuel carry the Cardus torch, but I fear they are the last of a vanishing breed.

For a start, this “show me your medal” mentality means sports pages are on a very different level to the other pages of a newspaper. You do not have to a playwright to be a theatre critic. Political reporters are not chosen on the basis that they have had ministerial experience, or even been members of the House of Commons. Indeed such experience may well count against them. I do not know of any defence correspondent who was appointed because of his armed service experience. They tend to be lecturers who teach military history as Sir John Keegan of The Daily Telegraphwas. Even in business, where like in sport you deal with specialised knowledge, previous experience of business is not a requirement to becoming a journalist. City reporters are not asked whether they have managed a company before they can be allowed to quiz the chief executive of a Footsie concern. Indeed most City reporters have little or no formal financial experience.

I speak with some experience here. Having qualified as a chartered accountant, I was for some years a City journalist and found I was one of the few who had studied balance sheets and accounts to get my qualification. Not that this automatically made me a better journalist. Indeed I learnt a lot from my fellow journalists who, despite having no formal financial qualification, brought sharp eyes of observation and a capacity for rigorous analysis and independent judgement. That must always be the essence of journalism.

Not that I have anything against former players becoming journalists. Indeed among my boyhood heroes, Cardus apart, was one Jack Fingleton. He played for Australia in the “Bodyline” series of the 1930s and later wrote extensively on cricket. His book, The Greatest Test Of All, describing the first ever tied Test, between Australia and West Indies on the game-changing 1960- 61 tour, remains a classic. I read it soon after I had read Cardus’s essay on Ranji and it made me even more determined to become a journalist.

But what set Fingleton apart is that he trained as a journalist, indeed was a noted political reporter in Australia, and he brought his reporting skills to his sports writing. That is also true of Richie Benaud who, amidst engineering Australian success on the field of play, honed his skills as a journalist by doing court reporting. There can be little doubt that he used this journalistic experience brilliantly and it explains why he is ranked as the best of all television cricket commentators.

But modern sports editors seem to believe that if you have played the game at the highest level, then the moment you decide to leave the dressing room you can move to the commentary or press box. No other qualification is required, let alone spending years acquiring reporting skills as Fingleton and Benaud did.

I can understand why newspapers have taken this route. Television has so changed modern sports reporting that the viewer at home, or in the pub, sees more of the game on the box than those in the stadium. A match report on the Cardusian principle of who did what has become redundant. What you need is analysis and explanation – and who better to give you that than an ex-player who has gone through a similar experience?

Ironically this has come just as space for sports reporting has grown. Back in the 1970s when I first started writing for The Sunday Times, there would be four pages devoted to sport. Different editions carried different football match reports and if I did not get what was called a north-south match, say, Manchester United v Arsenal, then I did not even see the match report in my London edition. My match report on a Nottingham Forest v Leeds game would only make it into the north and midlands editions. Now, with many papers having separate sports supplements, editors have decided to fill a lot of that space with the views of the ex-players.

Again, if the ex-player writes his own copy as some of them do – Michael Atherton being the outstanding example – I would have less complaint. But many of them, particularly when it comes to football, do not. They speak for a few minutes to one of the football reporters who then has to cobble together a piece. It appears under the ex-player’s byline, as if he has himself written it when he has not.

Until recently, the tabloid press, who are so often presented as the media villains, were more honest about this. At the end of the piece would be the name of the journalist whom the ex-player was talking to. The broadsheets, despite their superior moral values, did not – thus giving an entirely misleading impression. But even the tabloids have now joined in this wretched duping of the public.

Fortunately, I have only very rarely been asked to be such an unseen ghost. The only time it happened made me realise how unreal the whole thing was. This was back in 2003 when, with England having reached the rugby World Cup Final, The Daily Telegraph, who I then worked for, decided to have a column by Geoff Hurst. His achievements back in 1966 were in the round ball game but that was the last time England had won a world trophy in a team sport and Hurst remains special as the only man to have scored a hat-trick in a World Cup Final.

I knew him and was asked to talk to him about his experiences as England prepared for that 1966 final. I found he had very few memories of that event, which was not surprising. Indeed I had to go back to books and articles about 1966 to refresh his memory. Often during our chat I reminded him of what he and his fellow players had done and he would then nod assent. I got enough nods to put together a piece under his byline. Hurst was well paid for it too; in fact he earned more than most journalists would have got for such a piece. When I suggested that, in the interests of accuracy, it should mention that Hurst was talking to me, I was told that this would detract from the idea the paper wanted to create – that on the eve of a World Cup Final, it had secured the thoughts of the hero of England’s last World Cup win.

What makes all this even worse is that ex-players are often very reluctant to talk openly of the game, particularly if it involves their former club. Observe how rarely Alan Hansen will say anything critical of his beloved Liverpool. The result is that what is meant to be an insightful piece turns out to be full of platitudes. Editors believe this sells papers. It does not. It merely increases public cynicism.


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