Test tickles

Sunday 24th July 2011

TEST Match Special is ingrained: gripped by the wireless, aged twelve, when Cowdrey came out with his wrist in plaster, ensuring a draw; by transistor when Botham, helmet-less, enraptured Headingley; on the kitchen radio when Brian Johnson’s uncontrollable giggles tickled the nation.

A decade or so ago, I persuaded Jonathan Agnew and Michael Atherton to appear together at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Both had books to sell.

In the pre-event hospitality room, I agreed to steer clear of their spat over ball tampering.

“We played a Sunday league game here once,” Agnew told me, “where it poured down all afternoon and everyone thought it would be abandoned, so we all trooped into one of the sponsors’ tents and had a few beers. Then, suddenly, the rain stopped, the sun came out and the umpires decided there was time for a ten overs per side thrash. Most of our lot went out on to the field pissed.”

Atherton asked how long there’d be for questions from the audience.

“Last ten minutes.”

He wanted twenty.

“The trouble with this audience,” I countered, “is that some of them don’t know when to stop. Give them a microphone and they won’t ask a question but make a speech.”

I had no wish to fall out with the former England captain. We compromised on fifteen.

On stage, my first delivery to Agnew was a gentle half-volley:

“Fond memories of the Cheltenham College ground, Jonathan?”

“We played a Sunday league game here once…” Word for word, except for a slight change to the ending: “…out on to the field drunk”.

With nineteen minutes to go, Atherton, pointedly, suggests we take questions from the audience. The first comes from the back.

“I was lucky to be one of those who saw the Test Match at Johannesburg in 1995, Mike, when you had a match-saving partnership with our very own Jack Russell. I was staying with my sister and brother-in-law, who live out there. He’d managed to get us a couple of tickets. Now, if I remember correctly, during the last session of the fourth day…”

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