Writing on the wall: why players-turned-correspondents may become rare breed

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Mike Selvey’s final match report came from Lord’s, where Middlesex won the County Championship title with victory over Yorkshire. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

So long, Selve

If you didn’t know it to begin with, you might guess Mike Selvey was an old fast bowler. It’s a living that leaves its mark on a man. So if you look with the right kind of eyes you can see it in his loping strides and his broad backside, how he leans forward as he walks, as if perpetually set against a stiff wind. And in his thick fingers, too, and the way in which they wrap themselves around a pint like there was a seam on the glass.

These are only inklings. In conversation it’s obvious. There are the stories, of course, about, the way Graveney played, Botham behaved, and what it was like to be sledged by Fred. And the telling little things, expert gleanings acquired during a lifetime’s study of the subject. Like how to check the direction of the prevailing wind at Lord’s by looking at the aeroplanes making their approach to Heathrow overhead.

After 31 years, Selve has left the building. Last week he wrote his final match report for the Guardian. There wasn’t another journalist in the press box who had been with their employer for longer. It was, most appropriately, about Middlesex’s victory against Yorkshire at Lord’s, which won them the county championship for the 13th time, and the first since 1993. He had a hand in four of those 13 titles, in 76, 77, 80, and 82.

He wrote his first piece for the paper in October 1984, and his first match report the following year, on the day’s play between Essex and Cambridge University at Fenner’s. It ran alongside a lengthy preview of the British Open Squash Championships, and a long report on the progress made at the Crucible by a 20-year-old snooker player named John Parrott. All of which gives you an idea of how newspapers have changed since.

One of the many things I learned from him, along with a selection of his favourite spots for sundowners, was that you need to know when to watch. A knack he has, and which enables him to finish the Times’ cryptic without missing a wicket, but one I’m still trying to acquire, which is why I so often find myself snapped from my laptop by the match. I was practising last Friday morning, searching through the Guardian archives while the game meandered towards that famous final session.

Selve’s first article was a guide to India, just in time for England’s 84 tour. It includes the following advice: “It was Keith Fletcher who introduced me to the pleasures of drinking Scotch whisky by insisting I drank a tumblerful last thing at night, in an effort, he said, to kill any stomach bugs. My advice to this year’s tourists is: stock up well on the duty-frees, because while it may not be the elixir of life it might quell any rumbles on the sub-continent. And even if it doesn’t, it is one hell of a pleasant way to prove someone wrong.”

As I said, expert gleanings.

When I showed it to Selve, he revealed that it had been written on a commission from Matthew Engel, his immediate predecessor as correspondent. Engel hadn’t provided any instructions about how to call in copy over the phone, so instead Selve typed it up, tucked it into an envelope, and travelled up to the Guardian’s office in Farringdon Road, then spent two hours in the lobby waiting for the sports editor to come back from a long lunch so he could deliver it in person.

But these are Selve’s stories, and the store is reduced by expenditure. I should spare him my using more of them here and reflect, instead, on whether he may be one of the last of his type, a top player who turned to journalism. Cricket is unusual among sports in that so many of its players decide to start a second career in the press box when they’re done playing the game.

Oh, plenty still moonlight as columnists and analysts, but being a correspondent is a different kind of job. It’s a profession, one that requires the willingness to craft your own stories rather than have a ghost writer set them down for you, the ability to condense the detail of each day’s play, and deliver a report to a tight deadline. Selve is one of a band who made the switch in the last few decades, along with Vic Marks, Derek Pringle, Steve James, Mike Atherton, Gus Fraser, and, though he never played a full international, Peter Roebuck.

Seems to me there could be two reasons why there will likely be few others who do it. One would be that six of those seven men studied at Oxford or Cambridge. Whatever you think they might have got from it, whether it was the habit of writing, confidence, contacts, or an eye-catching CV, probably depends on your personal prejudices about those places. But it can’t just be coincidence. And far fewer cricketers come through by that route these days, even though the MCCU program means they can now play first-class cricket at six universities, rather than one of those original two.

The larger part of it may just be a question of money. Cricketers have become richer, as newspapers have grown poorer. And an international player now earns enough that, even if they did have the inclination to make the switch, most papers would struggle to offer them a wage that might make it seem worth their while. There’s a wealth of good writing about the game around right now, from authors across the world, and with all manner of backgrounds. The internet has opened this business up to all manner of amateurs, and cricket is better for it, but it may yet close it off to those dedicated professionals who made it their living.

Quote of the week

“It is wholly wrong and entirely false to suggest that any comments I have made concerning professional cricketers are anything other than my genuinely held, honest opinions.”

You may well have seen that Jonathan Trott makes some pretty serious accusations against Michael Vaughan in his new autobiography, Unguarded. Trott writes that as well as being a “high-profile summariser” Vaughan is also a “Business Development Manager” for management firm ISM, and argues that several of ISM’s clients stood to benefit from Trott being dropped from the England team. Trott asks whether this may have influenced Vaughan’s decision to publicly criticise him in 2013, and says that all his articles should come with a disclaimer attached.

Vaughan denies that he had a role with ISM at the time, and strongly rebuts Trott’s “attack on my honesty or my integrity”. A press release put out by the ECB in 2009 does state that Vaughan had taken a role with ISM, and he is still a client of the company today. Earlier this summer, he argued that James Vince should be picked for England ahead of Nick Compton. Vince is an ISM client. Compton is not. Those who know Vaughan will say he isn’t biased. But while he maintains both his relationship with ISM and his work in the media, there will always be some people who perceive a conflict of interests.

A lesson in how to make your way

Michael Clarke made his latest comeback last weekend, for Western Suburbs. This being Sydney Grade cricket, Clarke was welcomed to the wicket by what Cricket Australia describe as a “barrage of fierce words from a plucky group of Mosman supporters” who told him to “get ready for a broken fucken’ arm”. Mosman made 141 and Clarke then decided to open the batting for Wests himself. He utterly dominated the innings, made 79 out of his side’s first 100 runs, and then pressed on to 99. The next best score at this point was 11, made by Wests’ No3 Nick Cutler.

So the team now needed four to win, Clarke needed the single for his century, and there were still 12 overs to go. At the other end was Wests’ No6 Alec Baldwin. Mindful of the situation, Baldwin decided to studiously block the final four balls of the over to allow Clarke to complete his ton and score the winning runs. But the bowler over-stepped on the final delivery, which meant Baldwin had a free hit. And, well, he just couldn’t help himself. He clobbered it for six over cow corner, leaving his captain stranded, one shy of his comeback hundred.

Baldwin is only 17, and still making his way in the game. What an opportunity then, to learn a few lessons firsthand from a man who led Australia in 47 Tests. You just wonder if the first of them may turn out to be “don’t ever cross the skipper”. Clarke is due to play for Wests again this weekend, against Randwick Petersham. The team hasn’t been named yet, but enquiring minds wonder whether Baldwin may suddenly find himself bumped down to the second XI for a spell.

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